A cask by losing centre-piece or cant
Was never shattered so, as I saw one
Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.
Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;
His heart was visible, and the dismal sack
That maketh excrement of what is eaten.
Who is this poor man who has just been chopped in half and is literally wearing his guts for garters? And what precisely has he done to deserve such a gruesome fate?
Well, this is not a scene out of the latest slasher film but describes the eternal punishment dreamt up for Muhammad by Dante in his Divine Comedy. The Muslim prophet was condemned by this Italian poet to the ninth bolgia (ditch) of the eighth circle of hell, reserved for “disseminators of scandal and of schism”.
Compare Dante’s words with those of the Sufi scholar Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai:
Oh Moon, never mind if
I tell you the truth
Sometimes you are dim
Sometimes you are bright
Still, your brightness is not equal
To an atom of the dust
From the foot of Muhammad
Traditionally, Muhammad has represented two polar extremes. Even today, for bigoted Christians, the Islamic prophet is a symbol of unadulterated evil, as reflected in the crass, vulgar and lurid way in which Muhammad was depicted in a low-budget, low-brow film The Innocence of Muslims. Meanwhile, for too many Muslims, despite Islam’s prohibition of deification, he is the embodiment of unimpeachable good for devout Muslims, which partly explains the rage sparked across the Arab and Muslim world – though it’s also about distrust of the West and its aggressive hegemony, poor education and poverty, the rise of bullying religious extremism and fundamentalism, the need to deflect domestic discontent towards an external targets, and other complex factors.
Nearly a millennium and a half after Muhammad’s death, so many Muslims find it hard to step back and take a clearer-eyed and more critical view of him. After all, even if you do believe in the divinity of Islam, one of its main messages was that Muhammad was a messenger and it was the message, not the man, that counted. He was fond of saying: “I am a man like you. I eat food like you and I also sit down when I am tired like you.”
So, between this demonisation and exaltation, where exactly does the historical Muhammad lie? Who precisely was he? What made him tick and how exactly did he rise to global and timeless prominence?
Muhammad, whose name means “Praiseworthy”, was born in Mecca, the financial and spiritual centre of Arabia, in 570 AD. Although times were booming for Mecca and other Arabian city-states, Muhammad was born in volatile circumstances. In addition to incessant warfare between the Arab tribes, Arabia was surrounded by three mighty empires – Persia, Byzantium and Abyssinia – who, unable to dominate the vast expanses of Arabia directly, tended to prop up local client rulers. In Mecca, the mighty Quraysh tribe, of whom Muhammad was a member, brought peace and stability to the city but at the price of stark socio-economic inequalities.
Despite the wealth of the Quraysh, Muhammad grew up in relative want and loneliness after being orphaned at a very young age. He was to suffer further heartbreak when his beautiful cousin, Fakhita, with whom he was passionately in love, married another man before the shy and sensitive prophet-to-be could pluck up the courage to ask for her hand.
Realising how important wealth was in Mecca, his broken heart prompted him to begin a career as a merchant and he became a caravan agent. His business dealings earned him the epithets al-Sadiq (honest) and al-Amin (trustworthy). Travel is said to broaden the mind and what Muhammad saw on his trade missions heightened his awareness of both the breadth and commonality of humanity.
His growing reputation brought him to the attention of Khadijah, “Ameerit Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca’s wealthiest and most powerful woman, who hired him as her agent on trade caravans. Muhammad turned her a handsome profit and repaid Khadijah’s trust by doubling her earnings, but she gradually grew more interested in the handsome future prophet himself.
There was more to Muhammad than his money-spinning acumen and Khadijah was so impressed by his honesty, humility and modesty that she bucked convention and her own determination not to remarry a third time and proposed marriage to the 25-year-old who was 14 years her junior.
Bucking convention himself, Muhammad agreed to the match. His undying love for Khadija, his refusal to marry any other woman until her death despite the conventions of the age, his willingness all his life to carry out domestic chores (conveniently ignored by generations of scholars!) and her pivotal role in the early development of Islam (she was the world’s first Muslim) are used by Muslim feminists to argue that Islam is woman-friendly and that, if Muhammad were here today, he would be an advocate of women’s rights.
However, detractors compare the status of women and slaves in Islam with modern standards, forgetting that Islam seriously improved their situation, and made men and women equal in many respects. Also, such comparisons are unfair, since it would also, for example, compel us to condemn America’s founding fathers, despite their visions of equality. A millennium after Muhammad, Thomas Jefferson was opposed to slavery but was a slave owner and declared that “all men are created equal”, effectively brushing over half of humanity.
Life is said to begin at 40, and it certainly did for Muhammad. But rather than invest in a Porsche or even a 16-cylinder camel, Muhammad set about to found a new world religion. Disaffected by the socio-economic injustices and conflict around him and the hollowness of Mecca’s materialistic cults, Muhammad began to meditate but was so distressed by his first “revelation” that it required the rock of Khadija, who believed implicitly in her man and became the world’s first Muslim, for him to build up the confidence to begin preaching the new faith.
In retrospect, there were early signs in his behaviour of what was to come. For instance, in his 20s, Muhammad was instrumental in forming a short-lived chivalric association called the “Lovers of Justice” which was established to help a foreign merchant cheated out of his money by a dishonest member of the Quraysh. This pan-clan brotherhood demonstrated to the young Muhammad the benefits of moving beyond tribal loyalties and focusing on common humanity.
I personally don’t believe Muhammad’s revelations were divine, nor those of any other prophet or religion for that matter. But that’s not to say he didn’t believe it himself, seized as he was by mysterious fits. There is a case to be made for the idea that successful prophets could only make it through the unwavering conviction that their unconscious is actually a channel to God. To my mind, this lack of divine intervention makes his achievements all the more remarkable, but also makes him open to the same critical approach applied to any other historical figure.
Modern western historians largely agree that Muhammad “was absolutely sincere and acted in complete good faith“. Would someone who did not truly believe in his message expose himself to the total ridicule and mortal danger which his mission attracted in its early years?
With the odds stacked against his nascent community of believers, Muhammad was dealt a near-mortal blow by the loss of his beloved Khadija in what became known as the Year of Sorrow. Some historians have suggested this may have partly motivated his decision to flee Mecca and set up base in Yathrib (later Medina), where his fortunes as a prophet took a major turn for the better.
And I wonder whether the status of Muslim women might not have been very different if Khadija had outlived her husband? Perhaps if he’d lived to a ripe old monogamous age, he would have exerted more effort to end male-only polygyny rather than limiting it or, at the very least, future generations might have followed his example as they do on other issues.
After a quarter century of faithful monogamy, he embraced polygamy with passion, mainly as a political tool but perhaps also in a futile quest to find another Khadija or to find solace for his lonely heart. Interestingly, the Quran conveniently gave him licence to take as many wives and concubines as he liked.
Some of Muhammad’s post-Khadija relationships have elicited the greatest controversy among non-Muslims, such as his marriage to underage Aisha, and been the most difficult to rationalise by Muslims who prefer to ignore those aspects of his behaviour which conflict with their modern standards. This is one of the biggest issues facing Muslims today, since so much of Islamic jurisprudence is based on Muhammad’s sayings and actions. The question is which of those actions should be interpreted as guidance for all time, and which relate specifically to circumstances in Arabia during his lifetime.
Muhammad’s time in Medina started well and he was selected as an impartial arbiter between the oasis’s warring factions. In a demonstration of his preference for diplomacy over war, he drafted the Constitution of Medina to resolve the century-old tribal conflict and, in its place, he established an alliance among Yathrib’s eight tribes.
However, it is also in this post-Khadija, post-Mecca era that much of the controversy surrounding his life is focused. It is in Medina that the philosopher, poet, rebel and social reformer also became a warrior and a statesman. Under attack from the mighty Quraysh of Medina and their allies and with his followers suffering from poverty, he became less tolerant of dissent and came down heavily on the city’s Jewish tribes for their opposition to him.
Accused of outright treachery by Muhammad, the Banu Qurayza were to suffer the most of all the Jewish tribes. One of the prophet’s biographers states that Muhammad approved the beheading of up to 900 members of the tribe, while the women and children were sold into slavery. In the contemporary West, this has elicited some accusations of anti-Semitism.
John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Gerogetown University, argues that Muhammad’s motivation was political – the Jewish tribes were rich, influential and well-armed – rather than racial, since they were all Arabic-speaking Semites, or theological. In addition, Norman Stillman, chair of Judaic History at Oklahoma University, argues that the slaughter of adult males and the enslavement of women and children cannot be judged, in this context, by modern standards, since it was common practice throughout the ancient world.
Moreover, in his treatment of the Jews of Medina, Muhammad broke his own principles and brought himself into conflict with the Quran’s exaltation of the “People of the Book”. And thanks to this high regard, the treatment of Jews and Christians in the Muslim world was generally better than Europe’s treatment of Jews (not to mention Iberian Muslims) until recent times.
Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, Muhammad went back to being a diplomat and philosopher, and pardoned all his enemies. He even pardoned Abdullah Ibn Saad, who had been so trusted by the prophet that he was assigned the important task of copying down some of the verses of the Quran. This man abandoned the Muslims in Medina and returned to Mecca to denounce Muhammad’s entire revelation as a hoax.
Muhammad died after unifying Arabia and his lifelong declared love of learning protected and added to classical knowledge and carried on the tradition of Persian scholarship during the dark ages of Christendom.
For centuries, Muhammad inspired the Muslim world to thrive economically, scientifically, culturally and artistically. However, nearly 1,400 years on, the presumed divine providence of his philosophy, among myriad other socio-economic and political factors, is acting as an anchor slowing the development of many Muslim countries.
A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 13 March 2008.