Understanding Muhammad: we need a more informed approach

The majority of Muslims have developed a humanitarian image of their prophet over a long period in their local cultures. Darulfatwa Australia/Author

In any terrorist attack by Muslim extremists perpetrated in the name of Islam – such as the recent Charlie Hebdo atrocity – discussions about the Prophet Muhammad, his life and his teachings come to the fore in Western societies. From the “prophet of peace” to a kind of terrorist antichrist, ideas about who Muhammad was and what he means vary among both Muslims and non-Muslims.

But how much of this discussion is relevant to understanding the motivations behind Islamic extremism? How can the West understand Muhammad impartially, and what is Muslims’ relationship with Muhammad?

How to understand Muhammad

Muhammad is the most influential figure in the history of Islam. However, his life and teachings have remained controversial among Muslims over the centuries. This is due to a lack of sufficient evidence from the period of his life, including his writings and any archaeological remains.

Sources are virtually limited to the Qu'ran and verbal traditions. The Qu'ran offers merely a general view, which is detached from the context, due to the non-chronological order of the verses in the Islamic scripture. Verbal traditions were turned to writing around 150 years after the events.

Muhammad Ibn Ishaq (died 761–770) wrote the first biography of Muhammad (Sirah). He was accused by his contemporaries of lying and expelled from the city of Madinah.

Imam Malik Ibn Anas (711–795), the founder of an Islamic jurisprudential school, along with other scholars of Madinah, believe that Ibn Ishaq’s book is based on false reports fabricated by him, most notably the story of Muhammad commanding an army that killed hundreds of Jewish people of Banu Qurayza.

Contemporary scholars such as Walid N. Arafat and Barakat Ahmad also challenge the story of the massacre of Banu Qurayza due to lack of any other reliable evidence even in Jewish traditions.

The Western understanding of Muhammad remained highly negative until the 18th century. But between Henri de Boulainvilliers, who wrote the first fairly positive view of Muhammad (published in 1730), to An Apology for Mohammed and the Koran by John Davenport (published in 1869), a long journey began.

Alongside Western scholars, Muslim writers opened the critical study of Muhammad’s life, far removed from the ideological approach that was common in the medieval age in both the Muslim and Christian worlds. Some successfully published their works without any fear, such as Iraqi writer Ma’rouf Rasafi and, more recently, Tunisian academic Hichem Djaït. Some others have stopped their projects, such as Egyptian writer Sayyid Al-Qemany, after receiving threats from al-Qaeda and other jihadi movements.

But despite some remarkable works about Muhammad, such as Muhammad at Mecca and Muhammad at Medina by Scottish historian William Montgomery Watt, academic research on many aspects of his life is still lacking.

What the wider public need to know is that the understanding of Muhammad’s life – as in any other studies of ancient history – requires precise research using a variety of expertise such as historical linguistics and critiques of literature and historical anthropology. There is also a need to enrich this field with archaeological excavations and other modern research methods.

By ignoring this academic principle, one may fall into the trap of cherry-picking some interpretations of Muhammad’s life. Often these are taken out of the historical context from not necessarily reliable sources to support biased presuppositions influenced by current political issues.

Muslims’ view of Muhammad

The other approach to understanding Muhammad is the phenomenological study of his presence in “the consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness” of Muslims. In this approach, a variety of Muhammads exist among Muslims.

There is no similarity between al-Qaeda’s interpretation of Muhammad and the Muhammad of a Sufi Muslim. The latter feels Muhammad in a part of the soul where “life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be” in the “condition of peace or wholeness”.

Muhammad for Muslims is “the most perfect of God’s creatures … like a ruby among ordinary stones” and, in the same vein as Christianity, “all virtues are associated with the Prophet”.

Not just in writing, but also in plenty of depictions, artworks and even various dances, Muslims express their devotion to Muhammad in celebration of his birthday and other religious occasions. In many Muslims’ houses, different kinds of depictions of Muhammad exist, which connect them to the spiritual world.

The prohibition of pictures of Muhammad is not a common belief among Muslims. Rather, it existed in early Islamic societies as part of the opposition to idolatrous images. Now, it is promoted by fundamentalists in the opposition of cultural traditional Islam.

In Sydney over the weekend, about 1500 Muslims gathered at Olympic Park to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday. The ceremony started with expressions of pride at being Australian. Attendees called for gender equality, better education and peace, and rejected all kinds of extremism and terrorism.

Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists share an image of Muhammad that they want to impose on the majority of Muslims, who have developed a humanitarian image of their prophet over a long period in their local cultures.

Editor’s note: Ali will be answering questions between 2:30–3:30pm AEDT on Thursday January 15. You can ask your questions about Muhammad in the comments below.