On the Prophet’s birthday

Who was Muhammad? A review of a new biography.

As today is the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, it seems a propitious time to bring to your attention a new book, Jesus and Muhammad: Parallel Tracks, Parallel Lives, by the American academic F E Peters and published by Oxford University Press this month.

Peters's purpose is not to examine the theological issues frequently aired in connection to the religions founded by his subjects, but to look at what we know about the two men: an enterprise sometimes undertaken with wariness. For, as he writes:

The Jesus quest has become not a path but a crowded highway, while the search for the historical Muhammad has been transformed for some into a dangerous passage, not because it is crowded but by reason of certain outraged bystanders who resent any traffic along this particular road.

He starts with an openly declared scepticism, describing the siras, or early biographies of Muhammad, as being "as openly tendentious as the Gospels". But his target is not faith, more to discover what kind of "demonstrated knowledge" can be discerned, a venture that he argues both flocks could benefit from, given that mutual misinformation has been a difficulty from the moment of their first interaction, when what the two religions had in common, not their differences, caused the problem. As Peters puts it: "At first appearance Islam appeared to Christians too similar to their own faith to be a species of the familiar paganism. Islam looked and sounded like a Christian heresy."

From a historian's point of view, much is absent. "We have no baptismal records from 1st-century Judaea or the 7th-century Hijaz, no marriage registers or tax receipts." The literary accounts are plentiful, but frequently contradictory, disputed or displaying evidence of changes that sit uneasily with claims to immutability. Peters runs through what will be by now, to many, the familiar tales of the Apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels – of Thomas, Judas, etc – and of the mysterious source material "Q" that supposedly informs both the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

With Muhammad, he faces a different task. Though he says "there is an almost universal consensus that the Quran is authentic", he notes that "of Mecca and the Meccans, even of Muhammad, we are told very little. It is not what the Quran is about." And Peters is not all that impressed with what has for centuries been presented as truth. If Jesus was about 30 when he began his ministry, he writes, Muhammad was "likely about the same age, though the Muslim tradition makes him, without good reason, 40". He adds later, exasperated with the dates ascribed to the Prophet's birth and career, "we throw up our hands at the chronology".

Throughout the study, Peters casts doubt on many of the stories accepted by believers about both Jesus and Muhammad, such as those in which they are recognised in childhood as showing early signs of their exceptional roles. "Both may have been good young men; it is unlikely that either had a light over his head."

What he does not do, however, is engage in the type of debunking that some might hope to find. Here it is relevant to turn more to Muhammad than to Jesus, for while many non-believers are content to accept Jesus as a teacher with an attractively pacific and redistributive message, Muhammad has often been the object of far more malign judgements. Peters, however, dismisses them in turn. "The question of Muhammad's illiteracy is irrelevant," he writes in connection with the language of the Quran (bear in mind that he does not regard its divine provenance as "demonstrated knowledge"). "Most oral poets, and certainly the best, have been illiterate."

The issue that is most often seized upon, however, and done so in a manner that its proponents must know is gratuitously offensive, concerns the youthfulness of the Prophet's wife, Aisha. As Peters deals with this in such an admirably matter-of-fact way (and brings in the parallel with Jesus's mother, Mary, which critics of Islam neglect to get so worked up about), I am going to quote the passage in full.

They were betrothed at Mecca when she was six and the union was consummated at Medina when she was nine. Modern critics are here more bothered by the girl's age than were their medieval predecessors and far more than the Muslim reporters, who were not bothered at all. In many societies marriages can be contracted – for that is what they are, contracts – at any time by the principals' agents, and desirable spouses of either gender are spoken for early, sometimes, with royalty, in the womb. And in many societies, too, the age of puberty is the de facto age of consent. Aisha we assume reached puberty, not altogether unusually, at nine, just as we assume that Jesus' mother Mary was perhaps about twelve – betrothed at ten? – when her pregnancy was announced.

In this and in general, Peters is clear-eyed about the need to see both his subjects in the context of their time. With Jesus, this, on the surface, may appear less of a point of contention – but it is necessary all the same; otherwise his declaration "Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God" could seem merely to be a crafty and rather cowardly get-out rather than a foundational statement for the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

With Muhammad, it is more urgent lest he be seen as what Peters calls "the devil of Christian polemic", a successor version of which has been enthusiastically propagated by Islam's critics today. Peters's assessment is quite different, though it will come as no surprise to those who have read objective biographies before. "Politically Muhammad was relentless, even ruthless: pragmatic rather than an ideologue . . . possessed of piety but the very antithesis of pious; famously uxorious yet married, monogamously, to the same woman for 24 years . . . excessive in little besides energy and profound conviction; and generous, always generous."

This is not quite the picture some have in mind. It may be too much to hope for, but those of violent words on both sides of the argument when it comes to Islam could benefit from reading this thorough, concise and often amusingly wry book. After all, there is precious little pragmatism, still less generosity, in that debate.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder