Image of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in Recent Western Writings

[This is the third part of this article. The first and second parts appeared in the issue Nos. 47 and 48 of Radiance Viewsweekly]

Written by

Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai

Published on

[This is the third part of this article. The first and second parts appeared in the issue Nos. 47 and 48 of Radiance Viewsweekly]

William Montgomery Watt (1909-2006): The two volumes Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and Muhammad at Medina (1956) and other writings by William Montgomery Watt, a priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK, went a long way in presenting a balanced image of the Prophet in the West. In the spirit of peaceful coexistence he points to the regrettable vilification of the Prophet and calls for a better understanding of the Prophet’s message in the West:

To spend some time looking at the various ways in which through the centuries our Western world has thought of Muhammad and conceived his significance is not simply to take a leisurely stroll through some of the by ways of history. The topic raised profound questions about the nature of objectivity in the fields of history and religion, and matters of contemporary relevance are also involved. There are in the world about a thousand million Christians and half that number of Muslims, and some of the world’s urgent political problems might be easier to solve if these two great religious communities had a deeper respect for each other’s religion. Yet for Westerners none of the world’s religious leaders is so difficult to appreciate as Muhammad since the West has a deep seated prejudice against him.

Of an identical thrust is the French scholar and biographer of the Prophet, Maxime Rodinson’s assertion, urging for a careful, unbiased study of the Prophet’s mission. Rodinson’s Mahomet, originally published in French in 1969 came out in English in 1971. He argues:

Muhammad was a religious genius, a great political thinker—and a man like you or me. He was not these things on three separate levels; they are three aspects of a total personality, and can only be seen in distinction by a careful analysis.

. . . Those who see him primarily as a historical force should think carefully about the importance of the ideology which made him that kind of force, and indeed of the ideology itself.

The Cambridge History of Islam (1978), a monumental tome of Western scholarship, identifies the age-old misconceptions about the Prophet which should be allayed:

Some Occidental readers are still not completely free from the prejudices inherited from their medieval ancestors. In the bitterness of the Crusades and other wars against the Saracens, they came to regard the Muslims, and in particular Muhammad, as the incarnation of all that was evil, and the continuing effect of the propaganda of that period has not yet been completely removed from Occidental thinking about Islam.

Let us now revert to Watt’s contribution to promoting a better cross-cultural understanding. In his Muhammad at Medina (1956), Watt pays a glowing tribute to the Prophet’s greatness while focusing on these “three great gifts of his”:

First there is what may be called his gift as a seer. Through him—or, on the orthodox Muslim view, through the revelations made to him—the Arab world was given an ideological framework within which the resolution of its social tensions became possible. The provision of such a framework involved both insight into the fundamental causes of the social malaise of the time, and the genius to express this insight in a form which would stir the hearer to the depths of his being. The European reader may be “put off” by the Quran, but it was admirably suited to the needs and conditions of the day.

Secondly, there is Muhammad’s wisdom as a statesman. The conceptual structure found in the Quran  was merely a framework. The framework had to support a building of concrete policies and concrete institutions. In the course of this book much has been said about Muhammad’s far-sighted political strategy and his social reforms. His wisdom in these matters is shown by the rapid expansion of his small state to a world-empire and by the adaptation of his social institutions to many different environments and their continuance for thirteen centuries.

Thirdly, there is his skill and tact as an administrator and his wisdom in the choice of men to whom to delegate administrative details. Sound institutions and a sound policy will not go far if the execution of affairs is faulty and fumbling. When Muhammad died, the state he had founded was a “going concern,” able to withstand the shock of his removal and, once it had recovered from this shock, to expand at prodigious speed.

The more one reflects on the history of Muhammad and of early Islam, the more one is amazed at the vastness of his achievement. Circumstances presented him with an opportunity such as few men have had, but the man was fully matched with the hour. Had it not been for his gifts as seer, statesman, and administrator and, behind these, his trust in God and firm belief that God had sent him, a notable chapter in the history of mankind would have remained unwritten. It is my hope that this study of his life may contribute to a fresh appraisal and appreciation of one of the greatest of the “sons of Adam.”

Watt’s following observation about the Prophet’s genuineness marks the pleasant sea change in the perception about the Prophet in the West. Such assertions are bound to contribute much to better interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue and peaceful coexistence all over the world:

I have always taken the view that Muhammad genuinely believed that the messages he received (and which constitute the Quran) came to him from God. I hesitated for a time to speak of Muhammad as a prophet, because this would have been misunderstood by Muslims who took the traditional Islamic view of prophethood, according to which the Quran, as the speech of God Himself, is infallible. Now, however, I think it important to state publicly that I believe Muhammad to have been a prophet on a similar level to the Old Testament prophets. When earlier Christian scholars looked at the Quran they found many Old Testament stories, and because of this and their belief that Islam was a false religion, they took the view that the Quran was a mere hotchpotch of biblical material pieced together by Muhammad himself.

A more mature scholarship shows that this view is ridiculous. If we look carefully at the Quran, what strikes us is not how much knowledge it shows of the Bible, but how little. . . .

When it is realized how little was known by Muhammad and the Meccan Arabs of the Jewish and Christian religions, the remarkable achievement of the Quran  can be recognized. It may be said that it presents in its own way all the main truths of the religion of Abraham, which is followed also by Jews and Christians. I maintain that the only reasonable explanation of this fact is that Muhammad was as truly inspired by God as were the Old Testament prophets. Moreover, while the latter were for the most part critics of an existing religion as it was being practised, Muhammad had the mission of bringing belief in God to people with virtually no religion.

John L. Esposito (1940–)

One of the outstanding Western scholars of our time who has depicted an objective, refreshingly positive image of Islam, the Prophet and Muslims, particularly in the post 9/11 Islamophobic American academia is John L. Esposito. Take as illustrative his noble attempt to remove the misconceptions and misperceptions about the Prophet in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (1995):

Muhammad is often criticized by modern writers; the two accusations most often made against him involve his Medinan militarism and his alleged lasciviousness.

Regarding the first, it must be remembered that Muhammad was a man of his time. The razzia or raiding party was a characteristic feature of life in Arabia in Muhammad’s time, so that his attempt to stop the Meccan caravan that resulted in the battle of Badr was accepted by all as customary and within his rights. Most other major battles in which he fought were initiated by the enemy, and the majority of the other expeditions he led did not make contact with any enemy tribe but were largely demonstrations of his growing power to the neighboring Bedouin tribes. It is best to see Muhammad as using the customs of his day to mold a new social community. The idea of founding a new religion or being solely a religious leader would have been foreign to him. He was administrator, legislator, judge, and commander in chief as well as teacher, preacher, and prayer leader.

   As for the second criticism, it must be remembered that Muhammad had only one wife, Khadijah, until her death when he was about fifty years old. Shortly thereafter he married Sawdah, the widow of a Muslim who died in Abyssinia. It was only natural that he remarry after Khadijah’s death, since he had a large household, with children, servants, and many duties that were usually assumed by the wife. These two were his only wives in Mecca before the Hijrah. In Medina most of his marriages fall into two categories; those with political significance, as when they established bonds between the Prophet and important tribes and clans; and those that resulted from his responsibilities as head of the Muslim community, as when he married widows of Muslim men who died in battle. (to be concluded)