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
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.