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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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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