World history provides us with an unbounded chronicle of conflict, atrocities, struggle, and death. Interspersed within these narratives are emancipatory sociopolitical and religious movements driven forward by populations enduring the lash of oppression. Many of these movements are crushed permanently while others regenerate and persist, enlivened by the examples of courageous men and women. Karen Armstrong’s masterful biographical sketch of Islam’s messenger Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time is an indispensable source in understanding how such a struggle develops. At the center of Armstrong’s study is the Prophet Muhammad, a 7th century merchant born in Mecca who grew up to become a political and spiritual revolutionary who devoted his life’s work to challenging the prevailing socioeconomic and cultural orthodoxies of the Quraysh power structure
The dominant political/intellectual culture in Mecca was encapsulated in the term jahiliyah which Armstrong defines as “a state of mind that caused violence and terror in seventh-century Arabia.” To the culture of jahiliyah could be attributed a range of societal ills, many of which afflict current societies in the so-called third and “developed” world. For example, 6th and 7th century Arabia was characterized by deep economic inequality or as Armstrong writes “[the Quraysh] managed to secure a monopoly of the north-south trade, so that they alone were allowed to service caravans.” Armstrong adds “they were also able to control the mercantile activity within Arabia that had been stimulated by the influx of international commerce.” Essentially, the Quraysh constituted a capitalist class who acquired a “capital surplus” to make a “settled lifestyle possible.” Under Quraysh rule “the old communal spirit had been torn apart by the market economy, which depended upon ruthless competition, greed, and individual enterprise.”
Muhammad did not directly challenge this system of power until he received a vision while on Mt. ‘Hira. After receiving this vision he “stumbled down the mountain to [his wife] Khadijah,” and “flung himself into her lap.” At Mt. ‘Hira Muhammad perceived ruh or the “spirit of revelation” embodied in the angel Gabriel, an angel that “defied ordinary human and spatial categories.” “As for the orphan–do not oppress him and one who asks for help–do not turn him away,” read the message in this revelation. In secular terms, this encounter could be said to have represented a change in Muhammad’s mindset, a raising of social consciousness. After the visit from Gabriel Muhammad began applying the principles of this new religion called Islam which means “surrender” or “submission.” One can argue that Muhammad’s struggle against the capitalist norms of 7th century Arabia is consonant with the struggles of socialists, communists, and anti-capitalists in general in 21st century society. Islamic teachings, according to Armstrong, encouraged Muslims to “look after the weak and disadvantaged,” and “feed the destitute, even when they were hungry themselves”. These ethics clashed with those of the Quraysh who had “abandoned the badawah virtue of generosity and become niggardly, except that they called this shrewd business sense.”
Many of the earliest followers of Islam were women, a repressed population in the Quraysh male-dominated society. Muhammad’s treatment of women was the source of much resentment in establishment circles with many men complaining that Muhammad’s rise signaled God working to “take away their privileges,” in particular patriarchal privileges. The magnitude of this threat to patriarchy can be sensed in what Armstrong calls Muhammad’s “revolutionary surah” where he proclaims “men and women who remember God oft,” will receive “a mighty wage.” Among the major changes Muhammad endorsed was the liberation of orphan girls from the control of their guardians so they could no longer be treated as “moveable property.” He also devised what Armstrong called a “shocking innovation” in challenging pre-Islamic traditions concerning dower rights. Under Muhammad’s innovation “the dowry was to be given directly to the woman as her inalienable property , and in the event of divorce, a man could not reclaim it.” This was a sharp departure from custom where the groom would present a dowry to his bride but “in practice this gift had belonged to her family.” Also notable is Armstrong’s assertion that Muhammad did not make a separation between his public and private life which meant his wives were not insulated from public events, a significant social advance in undermining norms of male supremacy. The Muslim women of Medina were the topic of much discussion in the Arabian peninsula as they were far more self-assertive than the women in Mecca who lived under a more authoritarian government. One of Muhammad’s rivals, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, is recorded to have rebuked his wife for arguing with him only to have her respond that “the Prophet allowed his wives to argue with him.” Not surprisingly, Prophet’s revolutionary worldview did not endear him to the Quraysh elite. In fact, he was widely reviled among the powerful. Shortly before his exile from Mecca to Medina, Khadijah’s cousin, Waraqah, solemnly informed him that “a prophet was always without honor in his own country.” This sentiment has a special relevance today as American dissident Edward Snowden lives in forced exile for the threat he posed to American elites influenced by the same “state of mind,” that encourages “violence and terror.”
Along with Muhammad’s challenge to male-dominance was a more forceful attack on the reigning economic order, Mecca’s “aggressive capitalism”. This was done through a combination of armed raids and egalitarian ethics. Armstrong notes that Muhammad “could not help noticing that many of his followers came from the lower classes. A significant number were women, others freedman, servants, and slaves.” This collective formed the ranks of Muhammad’s military campaign. During these military raids various alliances were formed with Muhammad’s faction and the Quraysh elite trading victories and defeats. It’s worth mentioning that Islamic teachings forbid aggressive war. The concept of hilm–patience, mercy, tranquility–were, and remain, guiding principles of Islamic praxis. It is for this reason that the Qu’ran maintains that “the true servants of the Most Gracious are they who walk gently on the earth, and who, whenever the jahilun address them, reply ‘Peace’ (salam!)” The conflict between Muhammad and the Quraysh elite culminated with the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah where Muhammad agreed to return all Meccan converts to Islam to the Quraysh. Though Muhammad’s contemporaries interpreted the treaty as a humiliating capitulation to Quraysh power, Muhammad embraced the resolution as emblematic of the Islamic teaching that “it was not violence and self-assertion, but the spirit of mercy, courtesy and tranquility that would cause the ummah to grow.” Years later Muhammad died in the arms of his wife ‘Aisha and his successors, known as the “rightly guided” (rashidun) caliphs, “led wars of conquest outside of Arabia,” that had “no religious significance.”
Perhaps the most enduring intellectual contribution of Armstrong’s scholarship is its ability to subvert orientalist clichés about Arabs and Islam, challenging the hegemonic influence of media personalities, politicians, and a propaganda industry perfectly willing to market falsehoods under the banner of “national security”, “the war on terror”, and other State-backed doctrines. Her sober analysis of Islamic history dispels the myth of “terrorist enterprises” (the NYPD’s name for mosques) and exposes how necessary an understanding of Islamic history and the Prophet’s revolutionary example is to subvert actual terrorists who, like the Quraysh, embrace the worst elements of humanity for the sake of profit. Quite apart from a path to “metaphysical certainty”, Armstrong recognizes that the Qur’an “wanted people to develop a different kind of awareness.” Muhammad is an essential read for anyone willing to cultivate this “kind of awareness” and an illuminating snapshot of how this awareness fundamentally transformed countless others.