Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction Book Review

The author of this book, Dr. Jonathan Brown, has published research on pre-Islamic Arabic literature, Islamic law, and hadith collections. It was, in fact, his expertise in these areas that interested me in his perspective on the Prophet’s life. Given the plethora of research on the subject and the fact that it runs a wide gamut, Dr. Brown has done amazingly well to keep the introduction short, yet the reader will come out no less educated about the breadth of issues described in most other books on the subject. And that is why I feel this work is a class by itself and has the potential to become an introductory text for courses on the Prophet.

The book is organized in three chapters. Chapter 1 takes the reader into the Arabian milieu in which the Prophet lived, and acquaints the reader to the traditional account of his biography. Dr. Brown plays no games and walks through it with the caveat that we must study the “legend” (the word is repeated thrice in the first five pages). This is important because if you have Muslim neighbors, you might be reading such a book to get a handle on what they might believe in. Chapter 1 accomplishes this goal.

Chapter 2 addresses the problems with the traditional accounts. These vary, from the authenticity of the historical reports on which biographies are created, to the miraculous incidents, to the similarities with the accounts of other prophets. As the second chapter unfolds, Dr. Brown, relying on recent scholarship, starts introducing his readers to the holes within the traditional account, factors that could have contributed to these problems, and then suggests which parts of the biography ought to be “subtracted” from it. He goes into some detail about the earliest biography, that of Ibn Ishaq, and how it may have been redacted by a later scholar, Ibn Hisham, to produce a version favorable to the ruling elite of his time. At one point the author argues how several historical accounts are more favorable to the Sunnis than the Shiites, by, for instance, portraying the Prophet’s uncle Abbas as closer to him and more aware of his condition than Ali. I found this insightful, as I had not looked at the Prophet’s biography from this perspective.

In some cases, the author does not take the reader to a conclusion. He simply introduces the problem and moves on, instead of drawing a conclusion. He narrates, for instance, that the change of qiblah from Temple Mount in Jerusalem to Mecca by the Prophet is thought to be a political rather than a religious move by some modern historians.

For other controversial issues, such as the age of Aisha when she married the Prophet, he takes the reader into the social milieu of that era outside of the Arabian Peninsula and compares it with the practices of non-Arab regions (such as those of the Byzantine Empire) to set the context. However, he only takes Bukhari’s account and does not address other competing traditional accounts that suggest she was older at the time of her marriage. Given how multiple opinions were provided on other issues, I was disappointed to not read this discussion from him.

In Chapter 1, it was stated that Muslim accounts held that a sanctuary existed in Mecca. In Chapter 2, he cites Ptolemy, who had recorded centuries earlier that Arabs did, in fact, have a building which was the center of their religious life. Similarly, a synopsis of Hagarism, which challenged the traditional accounts of the existence of the Prophet in seventh-century Arabia, is also provided. Hagarism denied all the traditional Arabic accounts to build their argument, and Dr. Brown presents that research too. Some other scholars, such as Neal Robinson, in his book on the Quran, used these contemporary sources to negate Hagarism’s account as well.

Chapter 3 introduces the reader to current-day issues, such as the fatwa from Khomeini for Salman Rushdie’s execution. He provides the background on how Khomeini could arrive at it and indicates that many other clerics could reach the same conclusion. Some issues related to current Islamic culture and Muslim life are also discussed, such as images of the Prophet, small sections on seeing him in dreams, and modern biographies of the Prophet that depict him more as an historical figure than a sacred one (e.g., Husayn Haykal’s biography).

Much of what would take someone a few months of reading (if not years) of several scholars to get the breadth of the issues surrounding the biography of the Prophet is covered here. Of course, it is “short” and just an “introduction”, so it only covers the breadth without digging too deeply. For more in-depth research on specific topics, there are plenty of references at the end of the book, although many topics would eventually require specialized research (often using Arabic-source materials).