Mohamed: Flesh and blood
By Paul Vallely
Published: 04 February 2006
"Say what you like about God - but be careful with
Mohamed." So goes an old maxim among Western
missionaries in Islamic lands, who found that Muslims
might sometimes endure insulting references to the
Almighty but would rarely tolerate insults to Mohamed
or his family. The missionaries couldn't fathom it.
Nor, ever since, it seems, has the rest of Western
There have been attempts to explain. Shabbir Akhtar
took the phrase Be Careful With Mohamed! as the title
for his book on the Salman Rushdie affair, after the
acclaimed novelist in 1988 wrote a book, The Satanic
Verses, which lampooned Mohamed and angered Muslims
across the globe - sending Rushdie into hiding under
sentence of death. Akhtar dedicated his book " To
those on the other side - in the hope that they may
understand our pain". The furore this week over the
publication across Europe of the Danish cartoons of
Mohamed suggests that the message did not make it
across the English Channel.
Who was Mohamed? In answering the question we should
not make the mistake of beginning with historical
facts. Rather we should turn to verse 21 of Chapter 33
of the Koran, which describes the life of Mohamed as
"a beautiful exemplar". Elsewhere in the Muslim holy
book he is extolled as the model of righteousness, the
perfect individual, the one whose wives are seen as
the mothers of the faithful. He is a man whose actions
and ambitions are held to be worthy of the closest
scrutiny and imitation by his followers. And across
the world every day 1.3 billion Muslims - almost a
quarter of the population of the world - seek to do
Beggars in the slums of India, wealthy oil sheiks in
Saudi Arabia, scholars in Egypt, shopkeepers in
Bradford, landless women in Indonesia, convert
intellectuals in the University of Cambridge all seek
daily to emulate Mohamed in every aspect of their
lives. Christians may purport to act in imitation of
Christ in their spiritual lives. But, because we know
more about Mohamed than about the founder of any other
major faith, many Muslims seek a physical pattern too.
Which is why so many Muslims wear beards, as their
Prophet did, and the women veils, as Mohamed's wives
did. And much more.
So what are the facts we know about Mohamed? A
historian might put it thus. He was born, and given
the name of Ahmad or Amin, in Mecca around AD570.
Orphaned early in life he was adopted by an uncle who
took him, while in his teens, on trading journeys to
Syria. At the age of 25 he married a wealthy widow,
named Khadijah, and became a merchant. He was a member
of the Bedouin tribe known as the Quraysh which
dominated the city and were the protectors of a pagan
shrine there known as the Kaaba.
A man of contemplative bent he would, every year,
retire with his wife and family to a cave outside the
city to spend a month in prayer. It was in that cave,
at the age of 40, that he reported he had been visited
by the Angel Gabriel who commanded him to memorise and
recite verses sent by God. "I do not know how to
read," Mohamed replied. But the angel pressed him. He
recited and learned the verses which others later
wrote down as the Recitation or Koran. He changed his
name to Mohamed, which means "the praised one". The
year was 610. The month was henceforth known as
Mohamed went out to the pagan shrine and began to
preach a creed of strict monotheism which bore
similarities to Judaism and Christianity, two other
faiths known to the Arabs, whose teachings, he said,
he had been sent by God to complete and perfect. He
spoke of a Day of Judgement where all people would be
held responsible for their actions and called for all
men and women to submit to God's will. Islam means
All of this did not go down very well with his own
people, who depended economically on the trade from
pilgrims from other tribes to the Kaaba. Mohamed's new
faith was challenging the authority of the tribe's
leaders. He and his followers were persecuted and
forced to flee to nearby Medina where he set up the
first avowedly Muslim community. The Islamic calendar
dates from the year of the flight, AD622.
Mohamed and his followers made their living in the
traditional Bedouin way - raiding the caravans of
other tribes. Eventually the authorities in Mecca lost
patience and sent an army to march on Medina. Despite
being outnumbered three to one, Mohamed's followers
were victorious at the Battle of Badr in 624. Mohamed
then proceeded to use his army to conquer the other
tribes of Arabia and by the time of his death in 632
the greater part of the Arabian peninsula was under
Islam then spread with the speed and ferocity of a
desert storm north, towards Syria and Palestine and
then through province after province of the
Greco-Roman empire. To the east, Islam extended beyond
Persia into India. To the west, its warriors moved
through Egypt and across the Maghreb and into the
greater part of Spain. Within 100 years the empire of
Islam stretched from Gibraltar to the Himalayas in a
unified enterprise of faith and power. Everywhere
non-Muslims were tolerated and taxed rather than
But the facts are only part of the story. By the ninth
century Mohamed had his own Muslim biographers. They
eschewed hagiography - they included a less than
flattering portrait of the Prophet's second wife, the
outspoken Aisha, and recorded controversial details
such as those on the "satanic verses" , where Shaitan
tempted Mohamed to add thoughts of his own to what the
angel dictated, and later had to withdraw them. But
much of the detail is historically unverifiable.
Yet where Christians had to make do with gospel
portraits of an idealised numinous Christ, more
concerned with meaning than biography, Muslims
inherited something very different. Mohamed's four
main biographers gave accounts of a man with normal
fears, hopes and anxieties - who laughed, played with
his children, had trouble with his wives, was bereft
when a friend died and besotted when his baby son
arrived. It offers detail which Muslims even today try
to make the pattern of their lives and makes Mohamed a
particularly vivid presence to believers.
If some of that detail is mythic, so too is the
fear-ridden fantasy which has imbued Western culture.
From the ninth century on, Mohamed has been seen in
Europe as a charlatan and an impostor who had set
himself up as a prophet to deceive the world. He was
seen, according to Karen Armstrong, author of
Muhammad: Western Attempt to Understand Islam, "a
lecher who wallowed in disgusting debauchery and
inspired his followers to do the same". Under the
derogatory name Mahound he was depicted in medieval
Christendom as an evil figure who joins forces with
the Devil and King Herod. He was a magician who had
concocted false miracles, training a dove to peck peas
from his ears so it looked as though the Holy Spirit
were whispering to him.
Most lurid of all were the accounts of his sexuality.
Mohamed did have 14 wives (not all at the same time)
but this is not so much a mark of lasciviousness as
the product of political alliances and a
responsibility to wed the widows of warriors who died
in battle, according to John Esposito, editor of the
magisterial four-volume Oxford Encyclopaedia of the
Modern Islamic World.
Yet on it went. In the 14th century Dante in his
Inferno placed the great Muslim philosophers Ibn Sina
and Ibn Rushd (known in Europe as Avicenna and
Averroes) in limbo with the philosophers of Ancient
Greece, but Mohamed he placed in the Eighth Circle of
Hell to suffer a particularly horrible punishment:
From the chin down to the fart-hole
split as by a cleaver,
his tripes hung by his heels.
The image reveals the disgust that Islam inspired in
the Christian breast. Mohamed had become, says
Armstrong, "the great enemy of the emerging Western
identity, standing for everything that 'we' hoped we
were not". To make matters worse, Mohamed had given
too much power to menials like slaves and women.
So it went on till the Enlightenment. Then the deists,
seeing Islam as a stick with which to beat
Christianity, began to say more positive things.
Mohamed was a profound political thinker, said
Voltaire. Islam was a rational rather than a revealed
religion, said Gibbon, bizarrely, in Decline and Fall.
Yet even in the Age of Reason the praise was
backhanded. Mohamed was "a very subtle and crafty man,
who put on the appearance only of those good
qualities, while the principles of his soul were
ambition and lust ", said another contemporary of
Gibbon. And though Thomas Carlyle undermined the
medieval fantasy of Mahound, he dismissed the Koran as
" full of insupportable stupidity".
It was in this tradition that Muslims saw Salman
Rushdie's rewrite of the early history of Islam in The
Satanic Verses. There Mohamed is portrayed as " a
smart bastard", unscrupulous politician and a
debauched sensualist with "God's permission to fuck as
many women as he pleased". And it is the context too
for the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet which
stalwarts of "free speech" across Europe are now
insisting on printing and reprinting.
Small wonder that Muslims do not recognise in it the
man they call: Al Mahi, the one who removes disbelief;
Al Hashir, the one who is first resurrected; Al Aqib,
the last prophet; Al Dahuk, the one who smiles; Al
Mutawkkil, the one who entrusts Allah with his
affairs; Al Sadiq, the truthful; Al Amin, the
trustworthy; Al Khatim, the seal; Al Mustafa, the
distinguished one; Al Rasul, the Messenger; Al Nabi,
the Prophet. Mohamed has at least 1,548 such titles.
In none of them do Muslims recognise the man they see
caricatured in the West still today.
A Life in Brief
BORN: Ahmad or Amin Ibn Abdullah. Mecca AD 570 or 571.
Member of the Quraysh Bedouin tribe.
FAMILY: Father, Abdulla, died before he was born.
Mother, Aminah, died when he was six. Adopted by his
uncle, Abu Talib. Aged 25, married well-to-do widow
named Khadijah. Four daughters, who survived, and one
son, who died aged two. Had 14 wives, in total, after
CAREER: Merchant for 15 years, warrior thereafter.
After a vision of the Angel Gabriel in 610 he changed
his name, aged 40, to Mohamed and founded the Muslim
religion, which now has 1.3 billion adherents. In the
early years he and his followers were persecuted in
Mecca. Fled to city of Medina in AD622, which became
year one in the Islamic calendar. Caravan raider.
Defeated the army of Mecca at Battle of Badr in 624.
Conquered other tribes of Arabia. Died AD632.
HE SAYS: "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than
the blood of the martyr."
THEY SAY: "Mohamed is easily the most maligned
religious personality in the whole of history."
- Shabbir Akhtar, author
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