In the Fall 2010 issue of Middle East Quarterly, our great old friend Raymond Ibrahim reviews a new book, Images of Muhammad: Narratives of the Prophet in Islam across the Centuries by Tarif Khalidi, and finds, entirely unsurprisingly for a product of today’s academic establishment, that Khalidi “omits the more troubling images” of Muhammad — that is, the ones echoed in the behaviors of today’s more troubling Muslims.”
One other thing is also noteworthy about Raymond’s review: that the biographical material about Muhammad in the Hadith is so voluminous and self-contradictory that Muslims can use it to justify virtually anything. Yes, Muhammad teaches peace, but he also teaches war. Yes, he says do not kill innocents, but then he kills people for the crime of making fun of him. And so nowadays we have Islamic spokesmen invoking Muhammad as justification for vastly dissimilar and even contradictory modes of behavior.
Here, by the way, is an alternative. And here is an excerpt from Raymond’s review:
[…] It is not that Khalidi does not acknowledge that negative images exist; he just shies from recounting the most notorious. Thus, while the reader will encounter Muhammad the commander, the lawgiver, the ethicist, even the Sufi mystic, images of Muhammad as war-monger, highway-bandit, misogynist, and assassin are lacking.
For example, the worst image Khalidi presents of Muhammad involves his killing an enemy combatant even though the latter begged for clemency. One would have thought Muhammad’s assassination of poets by deceit and other means–including one old woman, Umm Qirfa, whose body was rent in half–calls for equal mention. Objectively speaking, such less than inspiring images deserve more prominence. After all, when pious believers pass down anecdotes that may reflect negatively on their prophet, it seems only reasonable to treat these, especially in comparison to the numerous praiseworthy images, as important factors of the Muhammad persona.
Ultimately, however, the book is useful in that it implicitly demonstrates how the concept of sunna (a model of Muslim behavior based on the sayings, customs, and actions of Muhammad) is impractical. For when one compares the many pictures of the prophet, discrepancies abound: Muhammad loves peace, except when he wages war; he hates poetry, but also enjoys it; he bans the killing of women and children, except when they get in the way; he condemns foul speech, but tells his enemies to “bite their father’s penis.”
Sunna, then, becomes a divine sanction for any given Muslim to follow his proclivities–provided an applicable image of Muhammad can be found. And, as Khalidi’s book shows, images of the prophet appear endless.