Image of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in Recent Western Writings

Notwithstanding the highly regrettable and detestable portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ down the centuries, which makes a sad, depressing reading, it is gratifying that since early twentieth century there has been some fairness in the West’s treatment of the Prophet – in literary texts, academic publications particularly in the broad field of Islamic studies,…

Written by

Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai

Published on

Notwithstanding the highly regrettable and detestable portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ  down the centuries, which makes a sad, depressing reading, it is gratifying that since early twentieth century there has been some fairness in the West’s treatment of the Prophet – in literary texts, academic publications particularly in the broad field of Islamic studies, and more importantly in a spate of historical and cultural studies, acknowledging the gross injustice and hostility in the West’s representation. Equally welcome is the appearance of several biographies of the Prophet by Western scholars, which do justice, to a large extent, to the Prophet’s genius and his life-ennobling message.

Let us turn first to literary texts. Signalling a marked departure from the centuries-old hate-inspired representation, the Prague-born Austrian-German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s (1875–1926) poem “Mohammed’s Berufung” (Muhammad’s calling) published in 1907 strikes as a sincere attempt to represent the Prophet faithfully. For in his poem, quoted below, about the Prophet receiving divine revelation from the archangel, Gabriel, there is not even a trace of absurd stories about the role of the dove or epilepsy or Sergius or imposture in concocting revelation.

In contrast, Rilke succeeds in conveying a note of solemnity, humility and truthfulness in describing the Prophet’s extraordinary encounter with Gabriel. Needless to add, Rilke’s whole description, including his pointed reference to the first word of revelation “read” (iqra’) is remarkably cognate with the Muslim belief. Such faithful representation of the Muslim creed or empathy was unimaginable only a century earlier:

Poem (please do not use indent)

The Instantly Recognisable, the Angel,

Upright, pure and gleaming with light

He renounced his every demand and begged

That he might remain, a mere merchant as he was,

Bewildered within from his travels:

He had never read – and now

Such a word, too even for a wise man.

But the mighty imperious Angel pointed and pointed,

Showed him, what was written upon his sheet,

And would not give way and said again: Read!

Thereupon he read, read so that the Angel bowed.

And now he was a man who had read

And could read and obeyed and carried out the command.

Far from expressing the usual zeal to convert Muslims or to demolish mosques, Rilke’s response represents the other end of the scale – his regret over and disapproval of the conversion of mosques in Spain, as evident from his letter to Furstin Taxis:

This mosque; it is a concern, a worry, a disgrace what has become of it, churches twisted into the luminous inner space, I would like to comb them out like combing knots out of lovely hair… Christianity I could not help thinking is constantly slicing God up like some beautiful cake, but Allah is one, Allah is whole.

His another letter is reflective of his growing admiration for the Quran  and the Prophet:

Incidentally I should tell you, Princess, that since Cordoba, I have been overcome by an almost fanatical anti-Christian feeling. I am  reading the Quran, it is taking on, in places, a voice of its own, in which I am inside with all my powers like the wind in an organ. You really should not hand out these decaying rinds that are lying around as food. The juice has been sucked out, so, putting it crudely, you should spit out the rind… In any case, Muhammad was immediate, like a river bursting through a mountain range, he breaks through to the one God with whom you can talk so wonderfully, every morning, without the telephone called “Christ” into which people constantly shout “Hallo, is anyone there?” and no one replies.

Rilke’s other works, The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge and Duino Elegies also show his sympathetic, nuanced understanding of Islam and Muslims.

Not only Rilke, such eminent twentieth century English literary figures as W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), E.M. Forster (1879-1970), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and Doris Lessing (1919-2013), in their own respective ways, are found projecting Islam and Muslims in a positive light. Although they have not written specifically on the Prophet, their stance on Islam and Muslims is characterised by empathy. Moreover, their works evidence their appreciation for Sufism (the Muslim mystical tradition). For example, T.S. Eliot acknowledges his fascination with the Persian polymath, Omar Khayyam’s [‘Umar Khayyam] (1048–1131) mystical poetry read by him in its English translation by Edward Fitzgerald (1868):

I happened to pick up a copy of Fitzgerald’s Omar which was lying about, and the almost overwhelming introduction to a new world of feeling which this poem was the occasion of giving me. It was like a sudden conversion, the world appeared anew painted with bright, delicious and painful colours.

Some critics have pointed out the affinity between the Sufi thought and certain passages in Eliot’s Ash WednesdayFour Quartets and Choruses from the Rock. According to Georges Cattaui, Eliot may have drawn upon the Sufi tradition for his depiction of the Rose Garden in his Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets.  W.G. Archer too, identifies the similarity between the Persian poet, Sadi’s [Sa‘di] (1210–1291) and Eliot’s conception of the Rose Garden.

For Eliot, the Rose is the Virgin Mary and the Garden the catholic church. Yet the objective is ultimately the same as Sadi’s: peace of mind achieved by transcending or extinguishing desires.

The Irish/British poet, W.B. Yeats’s (1865–1939) following poems, “The Gift of Harun Alrashid, Mosada, Ego Dominus Tuus, Street Dances, Solomon to Sheba, Solomon and the Witch, Calvary, and The Cat and the Moon” stand out for their Islamic content and context. More importantly, these depict things Islamic in a positive vein. His treatment of Muslim mysticism is marked by depth and insights, as is pointed out in the critical studies by Salah Salim Ali,  Suheil Badi Bushrui,  Shamsul Islam  and Adnan M. Wazzan.

A Passage to India (1921), a remarkable novel by E.M. Forster (1879–1970), notwithstanding its Hindu majority British India locale, accords the pride of place to a Muslim character, Dr. Aziz. Islam and Muslims are depicted favourably throughout the novel.

Another distinguished literary figure of our time favourably inclined towards Islam, especially its mystical tradition, is Doris Lessing (1919–2013). Her deep and perceptive engagement with Sufism (Muslim mystical tradition) is documented in the critical writings on her by Muge Galin, Masoodul Hasan  and Joe Martin.  They have identified Sufi elements in her Four Gated City, Learning How to Live, Briefing for Descent into Hell, Shikasta and The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five.

Some recent works on Sirah in English reflect a sea-change in the representation of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). These indicate the welcome trend of acknowledging the Prophet’s greatness and glory. A brief account of such select works follows.

R. V. C. Bodley (1892-1970)

The British military commander and journalist, Colonel R. V. C. Bodley’s The Messenger: The Life of Muhammad (1946) is, according to Minou Reeves, “written from a perspective close to that of Muslims themselves.”  Based on his seven years long stay in Arabia and friendship with Arabs, Bodley’s presentation of the Prophet touches upon several illuminating facets of the Prophet’s exemplary character and conduct:

My attempt, therefore has been to present Muhammad as he really was—an Arab like many I knew in the desert, a man of simple tastes, but of great personality, with the good of his people at heart; Muhammad’s tastes were simple and aesthetic, but he was also a man of the world. Neither was it a world of a remote past. . . . Muhammad would not have felt ill at ease in society. He married and had children. He was a fine horseman, he could make his own shoes and mend his own clothes. He had a good sense of humour. He knew himself to be a leader, but he was never boastful and never tried to create anything resembling a court. He never led anyone to believe that he had supernatural gifts.

The Muslims follow the example of the founder of their faith who ruled Arabia but had no compunction about dining with a slave or sharing his dates with a slave or a beggar.

Could a man who was not inspired have brought such an international brotherhood into being? Does not the scoffing of the anti-Muslims rather reflect on themselves? Why should an impostor have left a creed which has grown ever since he died?

The same charge of impostor is strongly rejected by Rudi Paret, the German translator of the Quran, and author of Muhammad und der Koran [Muhammad and the Quran] published in 1957:

Muhammad was in the very essence of his being a religious man. The key to understanding his personality lies in his religiosity. The accusation of dishonesty which has been laid against the Prophet time and again over the centuries up to the most recent times with varying degrees of vehemence is relatively easy to refute. Muhammad was not a deceptor. . . . Muhammad was in no way driven by the thrust of power. On the contrary, as we were able to show, he gave God credit for even the greatest military and political successes, in deep humility.

Michael Hart (1932  –)

The most glowing tribute imaginable to the Prophet in a fairly recent and highly popular Western publication is the NASA scientist, American scholar, Michael M. Hart’s The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History (published first in 1978). More than 500,000 copies of this book have been sold and it has been translated into fifteen languages. After critically and rigorously examining varied contributions of the world’s greatest religious and political leaders, inventors, writers, philosophers, explorers, artists and innovators of all times, he attempts to evaluate their enduring influence, which is reflected in his ranking. What strikes as a most pleasant surprise is that it is neither Jesus nor Plato nor any other Western intellectual giant on whom Hart bestows the top rank among the 100 most influential figures. Rather, he accords this coveted position to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). What impelled him to do so is explained by him thus:

A striking example of this [individual personal influence] is my ranking Muhammad higher than Jesus, in large part because of my belief that Muhammad had a much greater personal influence on the formulation of the Moslem religion than Jesus had on the formulation of the Christian religion.

His recognition of the Prophet’s greatness stems from the following criteria:

My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.

. . . It may initially seem strange that Muhammad has been ranked higher than Jesus. There are two principal reasons for that decision. First, Muhammad played a far more important role in the development of Islam than Jesus did in the development of Christianity. . . .

Muhammad was responsible for both the theology of Islam and its main ethical and moral principles. In addition, he played the key role in proselytizing the new faith, and in establishing the religious practices of Islam. . . .

Furthermore, Muhammad (unlike Jesus) was a secular as well as a religious leader. In fact as the driving force behind the Arab conquests, he may well rank as the most influential political leader of all time.

. . . Nothing similar [to the Arab conquests] had occurred before Muhammad, and there is no reason to believe that the conquests would have been achieved without him. . . .

. . . It is thus the unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence which I feel entitles Muhammad to be considered the most influential single figure in human history.

Karen Armstrong (1944  –)

Karen Armstrong, a distinguished scholar of comparative religion, deserves credit for her tolerant perspective on Islam and the Prophet. Her two influential books Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991) and Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2006) have contributed much to breaking the negative stereotypes about the Prophet. As part of her valiant attempt to refute the Prophet’s false image, in her books she explains accurately the Islamic concepts of Prophethood and jihad. More importantly, she describes cogently that far from being a man of violence, the Prophet professed and practised love and mercy for all, believers and unbelievers alike. Also, she rues the demonization of Islam and the Prophet in the West. For her, Islam presents a theology characterized by peace and tolerance. In the post-9/11 world, her other equally admirable work Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2006) served well to douse the flames of hostility and vituperation against the Prophet. It sincerely seeks to correct the Western perception, asserting that the Prophet should be better approached as a role model in our time. For he was the true harbinger of pluralism, world peace and cordial interfaith relations. Moreover, she brings into sharper light the Prophet’s accomplishments as a social reformer and moral guide and more significantly, the relevance of his teachings for our time. (to be continued)