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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Jeremy Corbyn is not standing down - 172 people cannot drown out democracy

The Labour Party could right now be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest, writes shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

The shadow chancellor writes exclusively for The New Statesman amid one of the most turbulent weeks in politics this century.

The “coup” taking place in the Labour Party

The instability from Brexit has extended into the Parliamentary Labour Party with members of the shadow cabinet standing down. I would like to thank all of those who have participated with me for their work.

Frustratingly, this has come at the worst possible time for our country. And at a time in which we our party could have used to reset the economic narrative that the Tories planted in the public during the summer of 2010 when our party was in the midst of a leadership contest.

Our party right now could be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest that’ll probably lead to electing a Tory leader who will be responsible for any economic fallout from Brexit. The Tories have peddled lies over the past six years over the management of our economy and the state of the public finance, which the decision last Thursday is sadly exposing.

I strongly believe that if some colleagues are not careful then they may cause irreparable damage to our party and the country. 

The Labour Party changed last September. Jeremy was elected with the largest mandate of any political leader in the history of our country. Our party’s values of democracy and solidarity seem to be asked of the membership and always met. Sadly not by some members of the PLP. 

There are those in our party who could not come to terms with the fact that a quarter of a million members could clearly see that the our party’s broken election model has lead to two back to back defeats and needed replacing. Like the wisdom of crowds, our membership understands that we cant keep going on doing the same thing electorally and getting the same results.

I believe that we can all still work together, but I feel some MPs need to get off their chest what they have been holding back since last Autumn. Maybe then they will hear the message that our membership sent them.

The truth is that Jeremy is not standing down. In the Labour Party our members are sovereign. There was an election held and a decision made, and 172 people cannot outweigh a quarter of a million others. 

It would risk sending the worst possible message we could send as a party to the electorate - that Labour does not respect the democratic process.

The economics of Brexit

The Leave vote delivered an immense shock to the political system creating great instability. Of immediate concern is the deteriorating economic situation. Credible economic forecasters virtually unanimously warned that leaving the European Union would be an enormous shock to the economy. 

The disagreements centred on the severity of the shock, and the long-term damage done. To that initial shock must be added the realisation that there was no plan made for a post-Brexit Britain. 

George Osborne has not secured the foundations of our economy and the market volatility reflects that missed opportunity. With turmoil continuing, and major employers already threatening redundancies, the immediate task is to stabilise markets and reassure investors and savers that financial institutions remain rock solid. 

The measures announced by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney early on Friday morning, and the later statement from the Chancellor, are to be welcomed and we have requested a briefing under Privy Council rules on the financial authorities’ contingency plans. It is also reassuring that George Osborne has now moved a threatened, post-Brexit austerity Budget until at least the Autumn. 

Nonetheless, with a recession now forecast, any attempt to push further austerity measures in response to the crisis would be an act of exceptional economic folly. The Chancellor’s own fiscal targets have long since been missed and simply redoubling the misery of spending cuts and tax rises will not bring them any closer to achievement. 

What is needed in a crisis like this is urgent government action to shore up investment, already falling before the vote. Shovel-ready projects should be brought forward, creating jobs and focused on beginning to rebuild those parts of the country currently most deprived – and where the vote to Leave was strongest. As a country we will get through this crisis, and we will do so when we no longer tolerate a situation in which too many of our people are excluded from even the chance of prosperity.

The referendum result

I have been in consultation with many economist, trade union and business leaders since the early hours of the morning when we learnt the result. I hope to give a speech this Friday going into further details of Labour’s economic response, but the result last Thursday came as a blow to many of us in the Labour Party.

All wings of the Labour movement fought hard, and two-thirds of our voters swung to Remain – the same as the SNP, and far more than the Tories, who split 60:40 for Leave. 

Labour will now be fighting to ensure whatever negotiations now take place, and whatever proposals the government chooses to bring forward, will maintain hard-won protections for working people in this country.

The new Labour leadership inherited the Labour In campaign last year. Obviously as with any campaign we will now have to reassess, but the hard work of the staff who worked on the campaign cannot be questioned. They did a fantastic job. 

Jeremy Corbyn also managed to help get out a larger number of our voters than the other main Westminster leaders across the country. 

But the sad truth is that we lost regardless. We need to learn lessons of the referendum and the General Election campaigns, and question whether the way we campaign as a party needs to be changed. 

It is clear that we cannot fight the next election using the same outdated practises and policies that were in place at the last two general elections, and the recent referendum. 

We cannot continue to do the same things in the same ways and get the same results. Those people who need a Labour government the most cannot afford it.


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015.