Since the events of September 11th 2001, members of the Christian rights in the United States and some sectors of the Western media continued claiming that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was irredeemably addicted to war. This falsified image has become a stereotype acceptable to the Westerns.
This situation has pushed the religious thinker, Karen Armstrong, to announce that Muhammad (peace be upon him) had never been a man of violence, but he had been a model of guide for the world in our time. To advocate this idea, Karen Armstrong treated the following subjects: Mecca, Jahiliyyah, Hijrah, Jihad, and Salam. How did she treat these issues? These questions are the object of this article.
Who is Karen Armstrong ?
She is one of the most famous researchers today in comparative religions. She has written many books in which she studies what the principal faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have in common and how our faiths shaped world history and current events. She has written two books about our Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him:
- Muhammad a Biography of the Prophet (1991), also known, in the first time, by Muhammad a Western Attempt to Understand Islam.
- Muhammad Prophet for Our Time (2006)
The Meaning of Jahilliyah
Karen Armstrong defines "jahilliyah" (ignorance), as Muhammad (peace be upon him) called, the prevailing spirit of his time. It doesn't mean the pre-Islamic period in Arabia. But, as recent research shows, Muhammad (peace be upon him) used the term jahilliyah to refer not to a historical era but to a state of mind that caused violence and terror in seventh century Arabia. She would argue that jahilliyah is also much in evidence in the West today as in the Muslim world.
I agree with Karen about the notion of jahilliyah. It's not limited to pre-Islamic period in Arabia. Jahilliyah exists whenever there are four aspects as the Qur'an determined: suspicion of the Ignorant, judgment of the Ignorant, adornment of the Ignorant, fanaticism of the Ignorant.
Judging by jahiliyyah is the quick way to accuse people of unbelief, extremism and violence. By this way, everyone is straying from the right path if he doesn't adopt what I believe.
The Meaning of Jihad
Armstrong explains to readers the real meaning of jihad by saying: "But the primary meaning of that word, which we hear so often today, is not "holy war" but the "effort" or "struggle" necessary to put the will of God into practice. Muslims are exhorted to strive in this endeavour on all fronts: intellectual, social, economic, and domestic.
I agree with Armstrong on developing the meaning of jihad. Surely the war is not the only aspect of jihad. This aspect of jihad has its circumstances and its reasons. I can add what could realize the unity of the ummah and its glory in different fields: economy (jihad al-mal), education (jihad at-taalim), development (jihad at-tanmia), and media (jihad al-ialam)...
The researcher returns from time to time to the Qur'an to confirm her proofs and ideas. She considers it "the holly word of God, and its authority remains absolute" , on the contrary of the majority of the orientalists.
Karen also relied on the Prophet's biography of Ibn Ishaaq and some Islamic tradition' books. She affirms that the Muslim writers of the Prophet's biography were not simply relying on their own memories, but were attempting a serious historical reconstruction... In spite of this appreciation the researcher gives the readers some weird and flawed stories which are opposites of the method adopted by those writers. I can quote as example: the story of the Prophet's marriage to Zaynab and the erasing of the pictures found inside the Kabah except the picture of Mariam as we stated.
We also find in Armstrong's bibliography some secular Muslims, as Fatima Mernissi. I think the idea of limiting the imposition of the hijab in its situations and that directives applied only to Muhammad's wives... is based on the thinker's books.
The Concept of Prophethood
The concept of the prophethood is difficult to be understood by the thinker Armstrong and the western thinkers. I have already mentioned this point when the researcher considered the Prophet peace be upon him as a man who was "convinced that social reform must be based on a new spiritual solution... he probably realized, at some deep level, that he had exceptional talent..." She also thought that Muhammad (peace be upon him) "rarely responded to a crisis immediately but took time to reflect until finally -sometimes pale and sweating with the effort - he would bring forth what seemed an inspired solution" .
These expressions render the Prophet (peace be upon him) as a man isolated from the heaven, relies in his movement on his intellectual endeavor. This conception deprives the prophethood of its meaning and its spirit.
The prophethood is a divine choice and providence of God. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is a human being whom Allah chooses among His people and teaches him through the Angel Gabriel peace be upon him. Muhammad (peace be upon him), or other prophets, had no intervention in what he is telling about and no right to add or to cut something from what was revealed. Otherwise, what would be the function of the revelation? What would be the function of the prophethood at first?
Muhammad Prophet of Mercy
The main objective for all Karen Armstrong's books is to deny that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a terrorist or a man of violence. The Westerns forced themselves to attribute this accusation to him, especially after the events of September 11th 2001. So, she exploits all her capacities to this work. She also stops with some Muslim thinkers whom, in her point of view, misunderstood the Prophet's jihad and they ascribed to him what he is innocent from. They falsified his life and Islam as she thinks.
The attention of the researcher Karen to confirm the quality of Prophet's Mercy pushes her to understand all Prophet's conducts in this perspective. This is why Karen makes some interpretation's mistakes. She said that the prisoners of war must either be released or ransomed, and Muhammad (peace be upon him) was caught in a tragic moral dilemma. She compared the Muslims' exclusion from their native city to the Qaynuqa's expulsion.
On the whole, Karen Armstrong's writing, despite its missteps, remains a western model to support our beloved peace be upon him, and show his life over the world. This model must be spread and developed. The researcher in comparative religions gains large readers in the West, and the clear example is her book Muhammad Prophet for our time.
Finally, I hope the scholars, the thinkers and the researchers spread the concept of prophetic mercy, and they are able to, in different languages. I wish they could change the classical manner of teaching the Prophet's biography to a new and modern method based on treating problems and issues which could not be well understood.
Ahmed Bouaoud is professor of philosophy in Morocco.