Image of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in Recent Western Writings

Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003), a German scholar served as Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Marburg, Germany and Professor of the History of Religion at the University of Ankara, Turkey. Many of her more than fifty books on Sirah, Persian and Urdu literature and Muslim mysticism available also in English paved the…

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Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai

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[The first part of this article appeared in the last issue (dated 27 February-5 March 2022) of Radiance Viewsweekly]

Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003), a German scholar served as Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Marburg, Germany and Professor of the History of Religion at the University of Ankara, Turkey. Many of her more than fifty books on Sirah, Persian and Urdu literature and Muslim mysticism available also in English paved the way for a better understanding of Islam, the Prophet and Muslim culture in the West.

Special mention may be made of her And Muhammad is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (1985) which brings out the centrality of the Prophet in Islam and as the role model in both devotional and everyday life. It helps readers appreciate his importance, his impeccable character and conduct, and his greatness. So doing, she cites numerous pieces of evidence from the poetry, mystical tradition and socio-cultural life of Muslims down the ages, which are indicative of their devotion to the Prophet. Also, she discusses the popular Muslim beliefs about the Prophet’s light, his path and his role in intercession and salvation. Although it is not strictly speaking a biography of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, it enables readers to gain a clear, accurate picture of the Prophet in Islam.

In sum, Schimmel stands out among the contemporary Western scholars who have effectively and sincerely articulated through their writings the essence of Islam and the Prophet as a role model. Her representation of the Prophet is both comprehensive and sensitive. For example, she draws attention to the Prophet’s spirituality, an aspect often neglected in his biographies:

Whoever studies Islam in the West and becomes accustomed to the traditional image of Muhammad as it had developed in the Christian world over centuries of hatred and hostility, will be amazed to witness the powerful mystical qualities that are ascribed to this man in the Sufi tradition, a man whom the ordinary European is used to regarding as a sly and sensual politician and at best as the founder of a heresy derived from Christianity. Even the most recent studies of the Prophet, which show his honesty and profoundly religious attitude betray nothing of the mystical love that his followers feel for him. A Prophet who was so certain of being God’s instrument must indeed have been a great man of prayer; for precisely through prayer he could sense over and again the presence of the God who had sent him.

Fred M. Donner (1945  –)

Another recent, positive biography of the Prophet is Fred M. Donner’s Muhammad and Believers (2010). Divided into five chapters, Donner’s substantial, scholarly work first charts out the pre-Islamic Near Eastern background. His main thesis is that there were marked religious trends in the era, not only in Arabia but also in the entire region and hence the emergence of Islam, which he purposively and meaningfully labels as the “Believers Movement,” should be studied in that broader backdrop. It is so gratifying that he recounts at length the Muslim version of the Prophet.  In so doing, he shows respect for Muslim sensitivities and refutes some of the outlandish Orientalist notions, which amount to denying the Prophet’s historicity or which perniciously imply that the Sirah was invented centuries later, while resorting to back projection tactics by Muslims.

His recounting of the Sirah, derived from Muslim writings, is on the whole accurate and comprehensive. He accords much significance, and rightly so, to the “Umma Document,” concluded by the Prophet after his arrival in Madinah among the Muhajirun, the Ansar, the Madinan Jews and others. Appended to his work is the text of this important document.  Donner airs some of his reservations about Muslim sources on the Sirah. However, unlike most of Orientalists, especially of the “revisionist” and “late origins” breed, he does not dismiss the Muslim version outright.

The chief merit of Donner’s work resides in his refutation of the theories propounded by the French Orientalist, Ernest Renan (1832–1892) that “the Mussulman movement was produced almost without religious faith.”  Likewise, he rejects the views of other Orientalists who ascribe the emergence and rise of Islam to socio-cultural, nationalistic, and economic factors exploited adroitly by the Prophet for forging a new community and for assuming its leadership. His account of the early history of Islam, though interlaced with some disquieting doubts, at least, grants space and recognition to the Muslim version.

John Adair (1934 –)

The Leadership of Muhammad (2010) by John Adair, the world’s first Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Surrey, UK and later, Chair of Leadership Studies, United Nations System Staff College, Turin, adds a new dimension to Sirah studies, for he highlights and celebrates the Prophet’s exceptional leadership traits.

For Adair, a “generic quality of universal leaders is humility,” which the Prophet had in abundance. Moreover, the Prophet’s vocation as a youth, according to Adair’s analysis, prepared him better to take up later his role of being the leader of his own community. As a shepherd he learnt well “the three core and overlapping functions: to achieve the tasks, to hold a group together as a unity, and to meet individual needs.”  At a later date he accomplished all these tasks admirably, winning over people’s heart and minds. Then as a caravan leader he gained and perfected his leadership skills.

On the basis of his expertise in leadership studies, Adair makes this thought-provoking observation: “Leadership is a journey concept.”  As a caravan leader, one both literally and metaphorically leads the journey, holds the members together, exercises consistently his judgement or practical wisdom, and ensures their unity and well-being in an exceptionally responsible way. Adair draws attention to the instances where the Prophet served his Companions, though he was their leader.

Another important factor that helped the Prophet gain unprecedented success, in the opinion of Adair, was his impeccable integrity and truthfulness summed up in the “attractive sobriquet of al-Amin (the trustworthy one).”

Moreover, the Prophet “insisted upon integrity in those who were chosen to be leaders in the Umma, the growing Muslim community.” As a leader in the real sense of the term, he had “no place for any form of bribery or corruption.” His sharing in hardship of his Companions both reflected and reinforced his status as leader. Adair aptly cites this incident to substantiate the above point: “When they [early Muslims] set to work to build what was in effect the world’s first mosque, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) laboured with the Arab builders and craftsmen as he was one of them.”

Likewise, while digging up the defensive ditch in the wake of the battle of the Confederates, “he took up a spade or pickaxe and dug with the rest of them. . . . Muhammad seems to have been more than ready to share in any work in progress, even domestic chores.”

Another laudable trait of him as a leader was his “willingness to listen and to take advice from others. . . . to make wise strategic decision.”  On the basis of many episodes in the Prophet’s life, Adair concludes that he exemplified the universal principle of good leadership. While noting the Prophet’s genuine humility, Adair perceptively remarks, “The worst corruption of all for a leader is to believe and encourage others to believe – that one is more than a person, superhuman, semi-divine, even in the extreme cases God.”

In contrast, the Prophet always and publicly affirmed his humanness and humility. He was ever ready to take advice from his Companions and was quite flexible as a leader. In his personal interaction with people, he gave them full attention and listened attentively to their suggestions and observations. Never did he lose his temper or hit anyone in anger. All this endeared him to his Companions and they were ever ready to lay down their lives at his slightest gesture.


In breaking the Medieval stereotypes about the Prophet and in facilitating a better understanding of both his personality and mission some first-rate studies on history and cultural studies have contributed substantially. This does not, however, mean that the chorus of denunciation against Islam and the Prophet has stopped altogether in the West. Several writings of the day, including those by the Revisionist school and by Ibn Warraq and the recent Encyclopedia of the Quran  (Brill) and Tafsir Studies (Routledge) obdurately paint a black picture of things Islamic. Let us, however, turn attention to the works which, regretting past misrepresentation set out to state the truth. These post-1960 publications stand out for their objectivity and fairness in laying bare and refuting false, tendentious and baseless charges fabricated against the Prophet in the Medieval West.

Norman Daniel (1919-1992)

Norman Daniel, a leading historian, specialising in the Middle Ages and Christian-Muslim relations, wrote some highly valuable books on the cross-cultural encounter. His works, The Arabs and the Medieval EuropeHeroes and Saracens and Islam and the West: Making of an Image document the prejudices against Islam, the Qur’ān and the Prophet. His Islam and the West (1961), in particular, is a mine of authentic information about the history of Christian anti-Islamic polemic, the attacks upon the Prophet, especially the misperceptions about his being a pseudo-prophet, the motives of misrepresentation, particularly the imputation of idolatry to the Prophet, and the survival of Medieval biased concepts up to our times. In his “Foreword” Daniel identifies his objectives which he has achieved with verve:

. . . to see what is implied by this unpleasantness and ignorance in men’s attitudes towards those they supposed to be their enemies. Both these aims involve asking Europeans to recognize how many erroneous ideas their civilization has in the past accepted; My final chapter is concerned . . . to bring out particular aspects of post-medieval development which may help Europeans and Muslims alike to identify prejudices which, still, after so many centuries, affect European attitudes; and which do so, despite the great contemporary improvement in understanding.

Remarkably judicious are his concluding remarks about the Medieval image of the Prophet in the West, which has unfortunately survived to a large extent even today:

The background of Muhammad’s life, the Arabia into which he was born, his own early life, his call to prophecy, the circumstances of his death, were all used to illustrate his human fallibility; pejorative manner in which this was presented was unacceptable to Muslims and often a gross perversion of facts. . . . Even to have lived in paganism till the age of forty, an offence that would condemn Constantine, and make St. Augustine’s status ambiguous, was put forward as disgraceful [in the case of the Prophet]. Muhammad’s rules governing sexual relations were not the Christian rules; his rules for war were just like those of the Christians; in both cases he was seen as wrong. We must say bluntly that, in order to preserve a scandalous picture of him unblurred it was often necessary to prefer a false account to a true one; certainly it was normal to accept as many false but desirable elements as were believable. If those who should have known better were perversely malignant, the uninformed were more credulous than vicious.

Here it is only possible to say that later thinkers of all schools of thought owed a great debt to the men who first formed what we can call a European view. Themes recur, partly because of the nature of the subject; but both in the choice and in the treatment of themes it seems clear that writers have for centuries laboured in the shadow of their predecessors. What has been said about Islam before has so dominated the approach as to preclude thinking that might start again from the beginning.

More fair-minded and courageous is his following assertion:

It is essential for Christians to see Muhammad as a holy figure; to see him, that is, as Muslims see him. In that case they will share by empathy the prayers and devotion of others. This is a case of suspension of disbelief. If they do not do so, they must cut themselves off from comprehension of Islam, but cutting themselves off from Muslims.

James Kritzeck (1930  –)

The noble mission undertaken by Norman Daniel in his Islam and the West, of exposing the misrepresentation of Islam and the Prophet in the Medieval West was extended further by James Kritzeck’s Peter the Venerable and Islam (1964). For it evaluates the Toledan Collection sponsored by Peter the Venerable, the abbot of Cluny in 1142, which was published in 1543. Kritzeck’s analysis of Peter’s polemical Summa is marked by impeccable integrity and honesty:

There are four undoubted errors of fact in the Summa: the establishment of the time of Muhammad’s aspiration of kingship and use of the sword before his claim to prophethood; the relative dating of the conquests of Asia and Africa; the statement that Muhammad had once become a Nestorian; and finally, his alleged approval of gluttony. Six other subjects treated by Peter in the text could be singled out as weakly presented….

. . . Thus the idea that Islam as a religion was “founded” to realize Muhammad’s political ambitions must now be discarded. The same holds true for the interpretation of the spread of Islam by the sword. With a tendency not to believe all of the meager store of facts at hand, Peter sometimes drew hasty and faulty conclusions.

Albert Hourani (1915-1993)

Albert Hourani, a Lebanese Catholic scholar, taught for decades in both American and British universities. His writings mostly on Arab history, thought, and politics contributed to representing Arabs better in the West. More importantly, his cross-cultural studies, Islam in European Thought (1991) and Europe and the Middle East call for a better understanding and coexistence between Islam and the West. His works are largely free from negative stereotypes about Islam and Arabs. (to be continued)