In his autobiography, Fredrick Max Muller, the controversial nineteenth-century icon of British Orientalism, speaks of “quiet scholars,” and, judging by the book under review, it would not be wrong to place Akhter in this category. Classical works on Prophet Muhammad’s sirah-for example those of Tabari, Masu’udi, and Ya’qubi-mostly contain linear prose narratives that present no systematic analytical classification of the reports that make up the sirah. To offer such classification is precisely the objective of Akhter’s work. John O. Voll’s foreword makes it clear that many of the paradigms previously employed to sustain negative judgments about Muhammad’s person and mission have since given way to an objective acknowledgment of his position as a role model whose life holds special schematic value.
By devoting each of the book’s seven chapters to a particular phase of the missionary continuum of the Prophet’s life, the author has eschewed the historical niceties and details that are of little interest to the lay reader, for whom the work is intended in the first place (the writer is a practicing physician and a self taught Islamicist). The parallel drawn in, chapter 1, between the decadent pre-Islamic period and the perverse modern Western society shows Muhammad’s mission to have as much corrective value today as in the Arabia of fourteen centuries ago. This is a significant angle introduced by Akhter to sirah scholarship. In Akhter’s portrayal of Muhammad as one who went from being an obscure seeker of truth to a proclaimer of the Divine message, the Prophet comes across as a remarkable endurer of unprovoked assaults on person, honor and belief. Moreover, Muhammad’s qualities of perseverance, broadmindedness, and aplomb are reflected in his relations with votaries of other belief systems, especially Jews and Christians. The establishment, in Medina under Muhammad, of a prosperous community governed by Divine law after the tribulations and persecutions experienced by the Prophet and his followers provides a teleological explanation of the concept of hijrah in Islam: a propitious environment is a sine qua non for the realization of lofty plans and goals, and this is well illustrated by Akhter in reference to contemporary life. But the one significant aspect of the Medinan phase of the Prophet’s life is the “Covenant of Medina,” which represents the most viable constitution the world can have in a pluralistic setting. Akhter shows how pluralism differs from particularism (65-66): the former promotes a sense of equality rather toleration. The significance of the distinction is brought out in today’s world, especially in societies where Muslims are victims of institutional oppression and negative stereotypes.
The true meaning of jihad as struggle against personal or societal injustice is admirably explained by Akhter (chapter7), who refutes, through the explanation, the exclusivist-and often mischievous-statement concept in purely aggressive and military terms. On the whole, the image of the Prophet given in the book is-rightly-that of the Perfect Man: a persevering caller to truth, a stoic optimist, a pluralistic leader who is humble in victory, courageous in defeat, firm in dispensation of justice, respectful of friend, sympathetic to opponent, and, above all a spiritual leader of substance. One aspect that is all but neglected in Akhter’s work is that of the Prophet’s family regime. The low regard for family values in the contemporary world would certainly find an effective antidote in the Prophet’s model.
The author not only succeeds in achieving his declared objective-namely, to present, in a holistic rather than in an anecdotal manner, the dynamics of the Prophet’s life (123)-but also states eloquently the current epistemic shift in the sirah scholarship now highlighting the liminal aspects of the anecdotal discourse as they relate to contemporary realities and problems. The book, which was published in 2001 (Acknowledgments suggest that, as no date of publication is indicated), represents a fascinating document in personality analysis by someone other than a Fachmann, a specialist, in Islamic history.
Amidu Olalekan Sanni
Lagos State University, Nigeria.
Published in the Journal “Studies in Contemporary Islam” (Volume 4, Number 1 spring 2002, Center for Islamic studies, Youngstown State University).