Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: Images of Muhammad

If it wasn't already widely known in the Western world that Muslims were vehemently iconoclastic, it certainly must be by now, given the violent reaction in many majority-Muslim countries to, among other flare-ups, the Danish cartoons affair. The iconoclasm, both literal and figurative, that is taken as part and parcel of Islam does not, however, mean that Muslims do not create images of their prophets. We just don't create visual depictions of them. As Palestinian scholar Tarif Khalidi shows in a well-researched, 303-page volume, textual depictions of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) have been in constant development in the Muslim world ever since the first known biographies of the Prophet were penned in the latter 8th century.

Khalidi, being first and foremost a historian, seeks to catalogue all of the sources from which Muhammad's life can be viewed, including nearly 14 centuries of Sira (prophetic biography) literature through the course of the book, noting along the way the cultural and geopolitical forces that shaped the portrayal of the life of the last Prophet. Throughout this book, Khalidi's own views on the Prophet himself are kept at a generous distance - only occasionally do we get a sense of which of biographers he was more or less sympathetic towards.

While the book is panoramic and spans over a millenium of literature, two Khalidi does a particularly excellent job with two topics: 1) Controversial reports in the Sira and 2) The diversity of opinion on Muhammad's life, prophethood, and message that has existed within Muslim societies.

Thanks to Salman Rushdie (or perhaps, more approriately, the Islamic Republic of Iran's reaction to Salman Rushdie), a famous example of the first is the episode of the so-called Satanic verses, a report found in the Sira in which Muhammad ostensibly recited a verse negating the Islamic teaching of tawheed (unadulterated monotheism) for the Meccan leaders, and then recanted it, saying was from Satan. Examining the writings of the earliest scholars of the Sira, Khalidi explores the mindset and sense of purpose that let them to adopt an inclusive approach to reports - even reports that were unflattering to a subject whome they revered. Unlike the scholars of Hadith (prophetic narrations), the early Sira was written by men more concerned with completeness than with accuracy, more occupied with preservation than with filtering.

The diversity of thought on Muhammad is highlighted throughout the book. We see Muhammad taken up in the cause of traditionalists, rationalists, poets, and lawyers. We see the evolution of the Sunni view of Muhammad as the Perfect Man, and the Shi'a view of Muhammad as the progenitor of a holy family. Refreshingly, the view of Muhammad in Islamic apologetics, a subject that seems to consume so many Muslim intellectuals to the point of paralysis, is put into perspective, and treated with a calm clarity of thought not seen elsewhere.

Anyone interested in the intellectual history of the Muslim world should read this book.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The wisdom of old men

Rabbi Steinman, 96

. . . A source that was present at the scene said, "As soon as Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu introduced himself, Rabbi Steinman, who knew why he was being approached, said 'I won't sign,' and immediately left the room.". . .

One of Steinman's confidants related the rabbi's words to Haaretz: "They are making a fierce nationalistic statement. We will not irritate others, that is not the Haredi way. There are things that should not be done; what if there would be a similar call in Berlin against renting properties to Jews? Where is the public conscience? What will this do to Jews around the world? We must act responsibly.". . .

Emphasis mine.

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