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
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
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Can the media focus on transgender politics reveal anything larger about identity?

Four new books offer insight into what it means to be a man or woman in a world increasingly accepting of moving between the two.

The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.

These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.

Lester insists that there is no right or wrong way to be trans. They are equally adamant that there is a right way to talk about trans issues, and that any deviation from this is a vicious wrong: “Use the right names, use the right pronouns, and don’t fall for the line that we’re too difficult for our own good.” It sounds simple enough but, in practice, trans people come from many backgrounds and have many different narratives of self-understanding.

Consequently there are trans people who fall short of Lester’s own standards. Chief among these disappointments is Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic champion decathlete and reality-TV star. To Lester, Jenner is guilty of sensationalising transition for a voyeuristic public, and has taken on the mantle of representing all trans people while holding the privileges of wealth and whiteness. “Despite not knowing Caitlyn Jenner, I can feel let down by her actions,” Lester grumbles, like a head teacher speaking of a frequent truant.

Lester’s argument displays a reluctance to engage with criticism. For instance, they wave away concerns that desegregating public spaces in the interests of trans inclusion will intrude on women’s access to services with the statement: “As far as I am aware – and at the time of writing this – there has not been a single reported case of a trans person attacking a cis person in a public bathroom. Ever.” (“Cis” denotes a person whose gender corresponds to their sex at birth; the gloss Lester offers for it is “the antonym of trans”.) There are, however, several cases of male sex offenders who have claimed to be trans; more banally, when the Barbican recently redesignated its male and female toilets as “gender-neutral”, women were forced to queue longer for a cubicle and men retained de facto sole use of the urinals. It would be good if Lester at least acknowledged such conflicts of interest, even if they do not have the solutions.

As for what gender actually is – or what Lester’s experience of gender is – they collapse into ellipses when they attempt to define this: “. . . the knowledge of how my mind knows my body to be is so . . . I don’t even know how to put it. How do you describe the mind and body describing the mind and body?” I don’t know, either, but I suspect that more clarity might be in order before readers embrace Lester’s pursuit of a “less binary world”.

In any case, isn’t the cis/trans terminology that Lester pushes a binary opposition in its own right? Lester defines as trans anyone “who has had to challenge or change the sexed and gendered labels placed upon them at birth to honour their true selves”, which implies that, conversely, the “true selves” of non-trans people do fit the labels given them. By this reasoning, any woman who challenges the restraints of gender (say, Mary Wollstonecraft arguing in 1792 for female education, or suffragettes pushing for the vote in 1905) is arguably not a woman at all. Her demands tell us only that she has been mislabelled, rather than reflecting the dues of women as a class. There is a heavy imposition packaged in the word “cis” that Lester does not explore.

Amy Ellis Nutt is the only writer here to approach the subject as an outsider. Though not trans, she spent several years reporting on the Maines family, which adopted twin boys at birth in 1997 and subsequently supported one of them through the process – as the title of her book has it – of becoming Nicole. Nutt is a science writer for the Washington Post and describes her beat as being “the brain”. Nicole’s self-assertion is recounted with detail and compassion, but for Nutt the real interest is in such light as may be shone on the nature/nurture dispute. Was Nicole born a girl despite her male body, or did something in her upbringing propel her towards cross-sex identification?

Nutt is confident that it is the former. In the opening chapters of Becoming Nicole, she emphasises that the Maineses are a couple who could never be said to have encouraged femininity in a son. Two plain people from hardscrabble backgrounds, they share a conservative politics and the husband, Wayne, looks forward to teaching his boys to hunt. (His dismay is palpable when faced with a son who wants to be the Little Mermaid.) Nutt even titles one chapter “The Transgender Brain”; in it, she marshals neuroscience to support her position.

But the evidence she supplies is a couple of small-scale studies (one of which involved just six subjects). Even if they conclusively proved a relationship between brain structure and gender identity (and they don’t), they would not prove that the brain structure causes the gender identity. At one point she explains that animal studies are a poor proxy for gender identity in human beings (animals have a physical sex but not the human cultural understanding of gender), yet later on she recruits an experiment on rats to validate her hypothesis of innate gender.

More interesting is the story that emerges between the lines of the Maineses’ narrative. “That’s how the conversations – if you could call them that – went,” Nutt writes, as she describes Wayne’s confrontations with Nicole the toddler (she was then called Wyatt). “Wyatt wearing a dress; Wayne wanting Wyatt to act more like a boy.” On the one hand, it is true that Nicole received nothing but encouragement to behave like a stereotypical boy. On the other, it reads as if her parents presented her with an ultimatum from the earliest age: if you wear a dress and if you like mermaids, you cannot be a boy. Most children might change their behaviour to “match” their sex, but surely some would make the opposite deduction and claim the other sex, rather than change their interests and personality.

Nutt’s casual sexism suggests that she has little interest in deconstructing stereotypes. She tells us that Wyatt “wasn’t gay, he wasn’t a boy attracted to other boys. He was a girl. He was a girl who wanted to be pretty and feel loved and one day marry a boy – just like other girls did.” As a teenager, Nicole “looked like a girl, she felt like a girl, and she yearned to be kissed like the girl she really was”. Is this what being a girl consists of? Can lesbians even be considered female, in Nutt’s understanding? When Wyatt wants to wear a skirt to a school concert, Nutt tells it as though the injustice is for one child to be denied access to their preferred sex stereotype, ignoring the greater injustice of all children being forced to “do gender” as part of their uniform.

Perhaps it would be better if trans people were left to tell their own stories. Then again, what if they have as little interest in the rules of activism as Caitlyn Jenner does? Contemporary etiquette holds that “deadnaming” (using a person’s pre-transition name) and “misgendering” (referring to them by the pronoun of their sex at birth rather than their chosen gender) are acts of grave rhetorical violence. Jenner is having none of it, as she makes clear in her introductory note to The Secrets of My Life: “I will refer to the name Bruce when I think it appropriate, and the name Caitlyn when I think it appropriate. Bruce existed for 65 years, and Caitlyn is just going on her second birthday. That’s the reality.”

Jenner has teamed up with an excellent ghostwriter for this book – the Friday Night Lights author “Buzz” Bissinger, who, like Nutt, is a Pulitzer Prizewinner. There is also the advantage of a good story. Jenner starts off as an awkward, accordion-playing child, becoming a national hero after his triumph at the 1976 Olympics salvaged the Cold War pride of an underperforming US team. Knowing this makes it easier to understand what Jenner and her transition signified in her home country. It does not necessarily make Jenner more likeable. Separating from one’s wife, getting a second woman pregnant, and then getting your wife pregnant to boot is not appealing behaviour.

Nevertheless, her refusal of bullshit is ­refreshing and sometimes eye-popping. C N Lester would probably not approve of Jenner musing that “a trans woman who looks like a man in a dress makes people ­uncomfortable”, nor the avowal that “I am not a woman. Nor will I ever be. I am a trans woman. There is a difference.” Jenner also alludes frankly to the possible sexual motives for transition, including autogynaephilia: the theory, proposed by some sexologists, that certain trans women are aroused by the idea of themselves as women. In Trans Like Me, Lester dismisses the idea as “discredited”. Yet as Jenner writes: “Sometimes I wonder if dressing up like this is the equivalent of having sex with myself, male and female at the same time.” Lester might well feel let down.

Lester believes that trans politics and feminism progress hand in hand but Jenner shows how awkward the fit can be in practice. As an athletic man, Jenner writes, “my legs are made to go, not show”; but ­after transition, “my legs are there to show, not go”. These descriptions equate femaleness with passive, objectified femininity; maleness with active, high-achieving masculinity. There is no reason to believe that accepting the doctrine of gender identity should automatically lead to female liberation. Indeed, both Ireland and Malta have exceptionally liberal laws on gender recognition and yet outlaw abortion.

Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, is the only author here to approach seriously the question of how gender hurts female bodies. His memoir Man Alive is, in its own way, as resistant to pat conclusions and sloganeering as Jenner’s. It is also literate and witty, a kind of informal companion to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, published in 2015. Where Nelson watched her partner Harry Dodge’s transition through testosterone therapy and “top surgery” (elective mastectomy), McBee describes it from the inside. He is willing to leave uncomfortable truths out for scrutiny.

McBee is sexually abused as a young girl. The violence causes depersonalisation, a feeling of being removed from one’s own skin: McBee’s experience is the story of “how I lost a body, or how I conflated the two ways that my body was lost to me”. Perhaps the abuse contributes to McBee’s masculine identification – or perhaps, he muses, “my manhood was always there, blueprinted in my torn-knee jeans, my ­He-Man castle, my short hair”. McBee’s openness to negative capability, his refusal to fix on an answer for everything, make his book more valuable and more engaging than much of its cohort.

Yet McBee’s account of gender still feels lacking. His girlfriend Parker tells him (and the author seems to agree) that gender is “not something that’s done to you, it’s who you are”. But if gender is who you are and not how you’re treated, how come McBee’s book was originally co-published by Sister Spit, the feminist imprint of the San Francisco-based City Lights? Why, if C N Lester is not a woman, has their book appeared under the banner of Virago, a women’s press? And why do natal females occupy such a small part of trans culture overall, while natal males dominate?

Regardless of how McBee and Lester identify, the publishing industry and the world at large appear to have little difficulty treating them as female. Later this year, new books by the journalist Will Storr and the historian Rachel Hewitt will appear, asking questions about what we mean by a “self” and whether it makes sense to think of ourselves as individual essences, rather than products of complex social relationships. Identity has been fertile ground for publishers lately; but when it comes to understanding who we are, perhaps it is a dead end. l

Trans Like Me: a Journey for All of Us 
C N Lester
Virago, 240pp, £13.99

Becoming Nicole: the Extraordinary Transformation of an Ordinary Family 
Amy Ellis Nutt
Atlantic Books, 304pp, £12.99

The Secrets of My Life 
Caitlyn Jenner
Trapeze, 336pp, £18.99

Man Alive: a True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man 
Thomas Page McBee
Canongate, 172pp, £8.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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