Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters

Memories_of_muhammad_coverIn a society permeated with stereotypical portraits of Muslim communities intellectually honest narratives are regularly subordinated to sensational fairy tales replete with fear, xenophobia, and dehumanizing tropes purporting to explain violent behavior. Examples of this are too plentiful to enumerate. Dr. Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad chronicles the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the historical developments that characterized his time, and the various scholarly and theological interpretations that followed to provide an incredibly detailed description of Islamic teachings and the enormous influence they continue to exert today. In doing this Safi offers a much needed refutation to the monolithic conceptions of Islam that pervade US discourse. As Safi puts it, “If we are to understand the Islamic civilization that rightly sees itself as being shaped by the revelation given to Muhammad, it behooves us to engage the multiple ways in which Muslims have come to cultivate the memory of Muhammad.” Several realities must be factored into this analysis. Among these realities is the fact that “perhaps over 600,000 hadith reports came into circulation in the centuries after Muhammad’s passing” (“classical hadith scholars … accepted only 1 to 2 percent of the hadith in circulation as reliable”), that there is a rich tradition of devotional poetry uplifting the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and Muslim communities, from Sunni to Shia and Sufi, have brought their own unique interpretations to this body of work.

The sharply conflicting responses to the Burda, a devotional poem authored by Sufi Egyptian poet Busiri, is a paradigmatic example of just how radically disparate certain interpretations are within Muslim majority societies. While the poem is hugely influential in many parts of the world (“the Burda was translated … into Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Punjabi, Pashto, Swahili, English, Malay, and Shila-Berber”), it has been met with hostility in other quarters. Saudi Arabia, the center of Wahhabism, has been the principal opponent of this devotional strand of Islam.

“Under the influence of Wahhabi clerics,” Dr. Safi writes “Saudi authorities have … erased all but the last line of the Burda poem in praise of the Prophet that had been inscribed on the walls of the Mosque of the Prophet during the Ottoman reign.” Safi went on to add “had the Wahhabis had their way in 1812, it would not have been merely the Burda that was effaced but the entire Mosque of the Prophet.” More than a mere disagreement over the “devotional practices of Islam”, this event was likely reflective of a much deeper tension between Islamic orthopraxy as understood by Wahhabi clerics and dominant understandings within the Sufi tradition where the “connection to the Prophet is more existential,” with “knowledge [coming] from a less mediated source.”

Beyond these points of friction, it’s also worth acknowledging the role of certain Islamic teachings as a unifying force critical not only of intellectual divisions within Islam but, more broadly, parochial elements within the older Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Christianity). “The Qur’an,” Dr. Safi argues, “makes no move to negate the earlier revelations. In fact, the Qur’an criticizes the Jewish and Christian communities around Muhammad for having become too exclusivist and for denying the truth of other revelations.” Safi highlights this thoroughly Abrahamic ethos in the following passage:

“They say: ‘Become Jews or Christians if you wish to be guided.’
Say You: ‘No! I would rather be part of the tradition of Abraham, the true one, who did not associate partners with God.’” (Qur’an 2:135)

Examples this kind greatly complicate if not eviscerate completely jingoistic ideologies that promote a “clash of civilizations” where “our” “Judeo-Christian heritage” is perpetually threatened by the rise of the “Islamic menace.” Here we realize the dangers of reading religious texts divorced from the historical context and geopolitical disputes that constantly shape the world we live in. Much of the bigotry that today’s “intellectuals” direct at Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are merely parroting others who, despite their reputations as great thinkers, were just as steeped in ignorance. “Some classics of Western literature, such as Dante’s Inferno, depict Muhammad as being cut open right down through his torso and cast into the ninth circle of Hell.” Meanwhile, the celebrated figurehead of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, wrote the following in a preface to a 1543 Latin translation of the Qur’an (note the seething anti-Semitism as well):

“For just as the folly, or rather madness, of the Jews is more easily observed once their hidden secrets have been brought out into the open, so once the book of Muhammad has been made public and thoroughly examined in all its parts, all pious person will more easily comprehend the insanity and wiles of the devil and will be more easily able to refute them.”

Quite apart from an innocent investigation of “ideas”, as contemporary bigots love to contend, Luther was acutely aware that he was “living in the aftermath of the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.” Furthermore, he was “mindful and aware—even fearful—of the presence of Muslims (‘Turks’ to him) and was keenly interested in the study of Islam. Yet he was not interested in understanding Islam per se, or getting to know Muslims as human beings.” This brand of “study”–selectively quoting text entirely divorced from the complex lived experience of actual human beings who have devoted their lives to honoring the Prophet’s example–lies at the core of all ahistorical commentaries on Islam. The fact that so little has changed from the bigotry of Dante and Martin Luther to less influential, but just as intellectually feeble, denunciations of Bill Maher and Sam Harris is a screaming testament to this.

This is why Safi’s Memories of Muhammad is such an invaluable contribution to our troubled times. Safi’s scholarship is aggressive in its rejection of easy explanations and careful in navigating the spiritual paths that each community has charted to bridge their experiences in this world with the divine. “This is the goal of the community of Muhammad: to be led to Muhammad, and from Muhammad to God.” Many of the biographical insights Safi provides with regard to the world the Prophet inhabited mirror those of Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, primarily his observation that the Prophet’s followers “saw their society as one in which the strong oppressed the weak and ‘the ways of the forefathers’ had become more sacrosanct than the ways of God.” In both biographies the Prophet resonates as a revolutionary messenger struggling on behalf of the marginalized.

“Islamic life is not usually black-and-white but rather takes on a full spectrum of color,” notes Safi. “People’s lives, cultures, ideas, and sensitivities are more fluid and water-like than rock-like: they are in constant motion.” This “fluid and water-like” character of Islamic life is embodied in the poetry of Rumi, Medieval Muslim miniatures, the thousands of hadiths, in the “well known artistic tradition called the Hilya,” where “it became customary to depict in a richly illuminated manuscript an edified description of Muhammad”, in the Dalia’il al-Khayrat—“a series of litanies” devoted to the Prophet—and in several physical sites imbued with historical significance from the al-Asqa Mosque in Jerusalem to the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. Unless this more inclusive, historically literate, and thoroughly humanizing method of analysis is embraced more widely many will be left to rely on the reductionist explanations of today’s political and intellectual elites. Reasons for avoiding this outcome are obvious, as are the destructive consequences of inaction.


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