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In Search of Muhammad (sws)
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand

 

Title: In Search of Muhamamd

Author: Clinton Bennett

Publishers: Cassell, London, 1998

Pages: 276

 

How have both Muslims and non-Muslims historically approached Muhammad (sws) as a central figure in their understanding of Islam? How have the two perceived and portrayed Muhammad (sws) from their readings of the Qur’ān, the voluminous Tafsīr, literature as well as the books of H~adīth? Have non-Muslims always viewed Muhammad (sws) in a fundamentally different manner than Muslims, based on their understanding of the same textual material? At a time when inter-religious dialogue has become an existential necessity, and no longer simply a luxury for ivory-tower theologians, is it at all possible for non-Muslims to come to share at least a critical minimum of understanding and agreement with the Muslim position on Muhammad (sws)? These are some of the crucial questions with which this book seeks to grapple.

At the very outset, Bennett defines his own position: he is a confirmed Trinitarian Christian. Drawing from Max Weber’s approach of verstehen, he seeks to gain as much of an insider’s view of Islam as is possible, given that he is an ‘outsider’ himself. He describes his method as that of ‘anthropological theology’, rooted in the phenomenology of religion. From that starting point he launches into a critical discussion of writings about Muhammad (sws) by both Muslims as well as others [almost entirely Christian and Western] to see if any meeting ground between the two is possible.

This book is divided into three broad parts. In the first section the author locates the importance of the figure of Muhammad (sws) in Islam and looks critically at the available Islamic sources. In particular, the Hadīth literature is analysed in depth, for it is in the book of Hadīth, rather than from the Qur’ān itself, that he bulk of what is known about Muhammad (sws) is to be found. Here, Bennett raises crucial questions about the validity of much of the Hadīth literature, questions that not just non-Muslim writers but also many Muslim scholars themselves have raised. He highlights the fact that Muslims recognise that many Hadīth reports were actually fabricated long after the death of the Prophet (sws) to suit the personal and class interests of groups such as the nobility and the ‘ulamā.

The second section of the book is devoted to non-Muslim [Christian and Western] writings about Muhammad (sws), from the seventh century CE down to the present day. An interesting picture emerges from this analysis: early writings on Muhammad (sws) written by Middle Eastern Christians tended to be more sympathetic than those written by Western Christians; Christian writings on Muhammad (sws) and Islam dating from the Middle Ages to the turn of the present century, by and large, have presented Muhammad (sws) as simply an impostor and even as an agent of the anti-Christ. From the late 18th century onwards, however, many European writers began to take a more sympathetic view of Muhammad (sws), some seeing him as a successful social reformer, and others going so far as to see him as a genuine prophet of God.

Muhammad’s significance in the lives of Muslims forms the third section of the book. Here the author presents a broad range of Muslim opinion, showing the centrality of Muhammad (sws) in different strands of Islam. The concluding part of the book revolves around the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in which the Prophet (sws) is portrayed in terms that Muslims, as well as many others, would find deeply offensive. Here the author reflects on what he calls ‘post-modern theology’, raising questions about the understanding of religion and religious identities in a post-modern age in which all meta-narratives are, or so it is said, being increasingly questioned.

Bennett concludes that it is indeed possible for non-Muslims and Muslims to reach at least a minimum consensus regarding Muhammad (sws) and Muslim belief about him being divinely inspired. The entire debate that Bennett raises, however, centres around ‘Christology’ and its Muslim countpart, ‘Muhammadology’. In the opinion of this reviewer, as long as the debate centres around the historical personages of Jesus (sws) and Muhammad (sws), the dialogue and reconciliation between Muslim and Christians that is today being much talked about is doomed to be a non-starter. A shift in our focus from the person of Jesus (sws) and Muhammad (sws) to be the spirit of Jesus (sws) and Muhammad (sws), or, more broadly the spirit of Christianity and Islam, is perhaps the only way that the whole dialogue project can move forward.

 

 

Courtesy: Journal of the Henry Martin Institute, Jan-Jun 2001

 

   
 
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