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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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.