It has burned my heart

Anna Della Subin

  • The Lives of Muhammad by Kecia Ali
    Harvard, 342 pp, £22.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 05060 0

What do the fish call Muhammad? One of his earliest disciples said that different creatures called him by different names. He was known as Abd al-Quddus under the sea and Abd al-Ghaffar among the birds, Abd al-Mughis in the insect kingdom and Abd al-Rahim to the jinn.‘His name is Ahmad,’ Jesus said of the one who would come after him, according to the Quran. Scholars searching for the historical Muhammad question whether that was his birth name at all. In Delhi, the theologian Abdul-Haqq Dehlavi listed more than four hundred names for him. ‘I am only the son of a woman from the Quraysh,’ the prophet is reported to have said, ‘who used to eat dried meat.’

In the Vita Mahumeti, from around 1100, Embrico of Mainz recounted the life of Mammutius, a magician who preached a dangerous new law and tricked disciples into thinking his epileptic fits were visits to God. Embrico placed him not in Arabia but in Libya, and two centuries too early, but no matter: Muhammad was a foil for the Christian preoccupations of the day, heresy foremost among them. Muhammad, in the European imagination, was a repository of heresies: like Arius or Eunomius he thought Christ wasn’t as great as God; like Sabellius, he rejected the trinity; he was polygamous like the Nicolaitans, sensuous like Cerinthus, and believed, as Origen was accused of believing, in salvation for demons. He had supposedly learned all these things as a boy, under the tutelage of a renegade monk. It was said that Muhammad had sworn he would come back from the dead; when the resurrection failed to happen, his followers laid his body in an iron coffin surrounded by magnets above and below, so it appeared to float.

During the Reformation, he was a weapon in Europe’s war against itself, used to help identify the Christian infidel. For Protestant polemicists, the pope was Muhammad, a Gog to the prophet’s Magog. Both had appeared around 600 ce – twin antichrists, or a single gargantuan one. ‘From whence came the religion of the Pope & Mahomet,’ Jean Calvin asked, lambasting the pair for filling the Gospel with ‘wicked additions’. Martin Luther thought that the papists hoped to conceal knowledge about Muhammad because they knew how similar his Alcoran was to their own adulterated brand of Christianity. He pushed for a printed edition of the Quran in Latin, and wrote the preface when it appeared. But for Catholics like Thomas More, it was Luther who was Muhammad, in his iconoclasm and his lust, a priest who took a wife and bid Protestant clergymen to do the same. Or it was Calvin: a Catholic almanac depicted Satan with one claw on the turbaned prophet’s shoulder, the other sunk into the pastor’s.

The Christians’ version of Muhammad was violent and debauched. Fuelled by new reports from travellers to the East, an exaggerated vision of Muslim sectarianism reflected Christianity’s own schisms after England’s break with Rome. For George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, and his chaplain Samuel Purchas, Catholicism had a parallel in ‘Persian’ or Shia Islam, and Protestantism in ‘Turk’ or Sunni Islam. An arch-nemesis was invented for Muhammad called ‘Mortus Ali’, a mutation of the prophet’s son-in-law Ali, venerated by Shiites as the first imam. In 1649, not long after the execution of Charles I, the first English translation of the Quran appeared. Its Royalist translator had intended to dedicate the book to the king, as Matthew Dimmock noted in Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture; after the regicide, he added a preface in which he used the figure of a bloodthirsty, power-hungry Muhammad to convey his condemnation of Charles’s beheading. For the Royalists, Muhammad was Cromwell; John Milton and other Parliamentarians responded by equating Charles with the prophet. Those who idolised the king as a martyr had ‘stolen the pattern from Mecha’, Milton wrote.

Muhammad had been an all-purpose heresiarch, but now he devolved in the European mind into something worse, an impostor: a heretic might be convinced of his own righteousness, but an impostor deceives deliberately. In 1697, the Norwich clergyman Humphrey Prideaux published The True Nature of Imposture, Fully Display’d in the Life of Mahomet, with a Discourse Annex’d for the Vindication of Christianity from the Charge of Imposture. Prideaux’s ‘Mahomet’ was a scheming opportunist who faked conversations with angels, collected wives to strengthen alliances and used his sword to spread the Alcoran, ‘wherein lay the main of the cheat’. The true targets of Prideaux’s Life were the Deists, the Socinians, the Quakers and any other Christians who denied the doctrine of the trinity. Prideaux believed that Muhammad and the pope had been put on earth as a punishment during a period of infighting in the church, and feared that a new Muhammad was rising. He recounted the prophet’s ‘extravagant fiction’: didn’t Muhammad, on a midnight journey to heaven, claim to have encountered a giant chicken decked out in pearls and an angel of death so huge his eyes were seventy thousand days’ journey apart?

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