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?

Prideaux’s book became a bestseller, and remained the standard biography of Muhammad in English and in French translation for more than a hundred years. It even took on a strange second life in the United States. After Matthew Lyon, a Congressman with a printing press, was sent to prison under President John Adams’s controversial Sedition Act of 1798, which prohibited citizens from criticising the government, his son James Lyon reprinted the biography, omitting the bits about the Deists and Socinians to let the prophet’s life story stand as a critique of the abuse of power and the suppression of dissent – with Adams as the latest in the long line of Muhammads.

‘We have chosen Mahomet not as the most eminent Prophet; but as the one we are freest to speak of,’ Thomas Carlyle said in his 1840 lecture ‘Hero as Prophet’, for ‘there is no danger of our becoming, any of us, Mahometans.’ Overturning the image of the impostor, Carlyle instead used Muhammad’s sincerity and genius – ‘a fiery mass of Life cast up from the great bosom of Nature herself’ – to support his theory that the Great Man is the prime mover of history. A few years later, the German-Jewish Orientalist Gustav Weil published a scholarly life of Muhammad in part to put across his brand of reformed, rationalistic Judaism. Books and articles, meanwhile, attacked Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, as the ‘American Mahomet’, picturing him with harem wives, riding camels in the Utah desert.


The most recent European version of Muhammad is the target of cartoonists whose work is seen as symbolising the value of free speech and the right to offend. Much has been made of the prohibitions surrounding Muhammad’s image, but the history of the manipulation of that image, and of Muhammad’s life itself, has remained largely untold. Kecia Ali’s The Lives of Muhammad surveys this long genealogy and examines how it was absorbed, recycled and reworked into biographies of the prophet written by Muslims from the 19th century onwards. She investigates why modern Muslim biographers, while refuting the virulent texts of the past, draw on them nonetheless, allowing them to shape their own vision of the prophet.

The European chroniclers probably didn’t imagine that their writings would end up in the hands of ‘Mohammedans’. But as vast regions of the Islamic world came under European rule, Muslims turned to these versions of Muhammad to see how they were seen. At the same time, colonialists studied the prophet’s life in order to understand their subjects better. How else to explain why Muslims were still seemingly living in the seventh century, while Christians had moved into the modernity of the 19th? Missionaries wrote new biographies of Muhammad with Muslim audiences in mind.

In 1858, the first volumes began to appear of the mammoth Life of Mahomet from Original Sources by the Scottish Orientalist Sir William Muir, a colonial administrator in India’s Northwest Provinces. Muir drew on the eighth-century hagiographer Ibn Ishaq, the Persian scholar al-Tabari, and the ninth-century biographers Ibn al-Waqidi and Ibn Sa‘d, pre-eminent authors of the sira, the classical tradition of narrating Muhammad’s life. Despite Muir’s attention to primary sources, the Muhammad that emerged six hundred pages later looked much like the old, villainous figure. ‘Radical evils flow from the faith,’ Muir concluded, listing polygamy, slavery and divorce. Two of his four volumes were printed soon after the Great Mutiny, which sent him into hiding in the Agra Fort. Though ignited by a complex set of causes, in the British press the Mutiny was firmly blamed on ‘Mohammedan’ fanaticism. India’s rulers found proof in the life of the prophet – violent, intolerant, misogynistic – that Muslims were incapable of self-rule.

‘These days, I am a little disturbed,’ the Mughal aristocrat Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote in his diary in the summer of 1869. ‘I am reading Muir sahib’s book … It has burned my heart.’ A founding father of Islamic modernism, which attempted to reconcile Islam with European notions of science, secularism and progress, Ahmad Khan set out to write his own Life of Mohammed. Determined to identify the stories that were genuine and authoritative, and to debunk the rest, he tackled everything from the prophet’s treatment of women to his supposed epilepsy, which he traced to a mistranslated phrase in Prideaux. The book sparked further Indian defences of the prophet, most notably Syed Ameer Ali’s The Spirit of Islam (1873). Ameer Ali’s Muhammad was a devoted husband and hero who set himself ‘the task of reclaiming and reforming a nation’, an ideologue who spread a doctrine of liberty and equality.

The earliest Muslim biographers of Muhammad were transmitters, not critics; any scrap about the prophet they could find was treated as relevant and sacred. As a result conflicting anecdotes exist side by side. From Ibn Ishaq we learn that when Muhammad was a boy, two men in white robes held him down, cut open his chest, removed a black spot from his heart and washed it with snow from a golden bowl before sewing him back up; elsewhere in the text, however, they are not men but cranes, who emptied beakfuls of ice water into his chest. On occasion, negative stories slipped in, such as the notorious ‘Satanic Verses’ in al-Waqidi and al-Tabari: Muhammad made a pronouncement recognising the powers of three Meccan goddesses (and may have even sacrificed a lamb to one of them), an error he soon corrected after being chastised by the angel Gabriel. To determine what was reliable, Ali writes, Muir decided that if a story appeared in the classical sources and was unflattering, it must be true: why else would it be included? Insult indicated accuracy. ‘Neatly reversing Muir’s practice’, Ali goes on, Ahmad Khan thought if Christians wrote anything nice about Muhammad, it must be true: why else would they say it? Flattery had to mean accuracy.

Ahmad Khan drew on Carlyle and Edward Gibbon (ambivalent at best about the prophet) in his counter to Muir. As Ali describes it, it wasn’t unusual for Indian biographies of this generation to lend European authors surprising afterlives. Preserved in quotation in works such as Ameer Ali’s, non-Muslim ideas ‘survive to be used two centuries later by Muslim apologists in works read by Muslims, though ostensibly directed towards refuting Western critics’, she writes. Did such recycling undermine the messages the Muslim biographers hoped to convey? Although Ameer Ali was ‘among the most prominent Indian Muslims who sought to talk back to their British colonisers’, Kecia Ali points out that he defended Muhammad’s military actions by appealing to what was thought legitimate in European thought at the time. ‘Indeed,’ she writes, ‘accepting the use of force for social amelioration, and viewing its success as proof of the greatness of those who wield it, might seem to tacitly justify British rule over India.’ Another biographer, Syed M.H. Zaidi, wrote a defence of the prophet’s treatment of his wives that relied on ideas from Prideaux: that, for example, the hot climate of Arabia ‘ripens’ women earlier, which helped explain why Muhammad allegedly married Aisha when she was six. For Ali, this is astonishing in a work that was ‘explicitly framed as a refutation of non-Muslim criticisms of Muhammad’s marriages’.

Egypt had its own cottage industry of prophetic biography. In 1911 Muhammad al-Siba‘i translated Carlyle’s On Heroes, and Carlyle quickly became a favourite with Egyptian nationalists. Since the start of its occupation in 1882, Britain had restricted the formation of political parties, but religion was seen as an irrational realm not to be meddled with. This made it possible for Egyptians to conduct an occult politics under the guise of religion, and as in Europe, the prophet’s biography became a vehicle for speaking freely about the powers that be. In the first half of the 20th century, seemingly every major Egyptian intellectual wrote his own version of the prophet’s life. The most significant, first published in Arabic in 1933, was by Muhammad Husayn Haykal, a novelist and politician educated at the Sorbonne. His Life of Muhammad portrayed the prophet as a great statesman, a progressive politician, a humanist and a family man. A staple in schools, Haykal’s Life was the means by which generations of Egyptians learned ‘the facts’ of the prophet’s life. The book was an attempt to apply the ‘scientific method’ to Islamic tradition, to create a historically accurate, rational portrait of Muhammad that would rebut the imperialists’ defamations. Ali sees it as representing ‘the point at which Western and Muslim writings have become so intertwined that one can no longer speak of influence or reaction but interaction and fusion … Haykal borrows structure, plot and theme – and sometimes entire sentences – from his sources.’ Although his aim was to discredit the Orientalists, he ‘takes his early Islamic texts through the mediation of Orientalist biographies’, particularly Muir, who serves as ‘foil and resource’, and Prideaux, who ‘bleeds through the background’.

While Ali pays close attention to their contradictions and shortcomings, she gives less thought to the more interesting question of what made these texts so compelling to their many readers. But perhaps what appears as a weakness can be a source of strength. Ahmad Khan made some adventurous arguments, unmentioned by Ali, that would one day become commonplace among Muslims but were radical at the time. In his Essays, he digs up the Catholic tradition of Luther-as-Muhammad to argue that it was indeed the prophet who sparked the Protestant Reformation. Elsewhere, as the historian Faisal Devji observed, he wrote that modernity came twice: it came first with Muhammad in the seventh century, but was then forgotten by Muslims until its rediscovery 1300 years later in Europe (the long middle period is known as ‘tradition’). The idea seems anachronistic, even desperate, but as Devji writes, by conceiving of modernity as arising out of Islam, and contemporaneous with it, Ahmad Khan refuses the terms of a European debate that constantly opposes or seeks to reconcile the two.

A similar alchemy can be found in al-Siba‘i’s translation of Carlyle’s On Heroes. In Arabic, Sheikh Carlyle became quite different from his old self. As Shaden Tageldin described in Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt, al-Siba‘i left out anything he didn’t like – remarks about the ‘insupportable stupidity’ of the Quran, for example, or that it was ‘the confused ferment of a great rude human soul’ – and instead had Carlyle hail Muhammad as a ‘life-giving lamp’. Europe might one day, al-Siba‘i’s Carlyle suggests, become modern by recognising Muhammad’s prophethood. And although in the original, Carlyle had predicted that Shakespeare would one day replace Muhammad, that literature would supplant religion, in al-Siba‘i’s translation Shakespeare becomes ‘the Kaaba towards which their [British] necks will stretch’. To readers the Arabic Carlyle was no less ‘authentic’ than the original. (Those anxieties about authenticity are our own.) So too Haykal’s Life of Muhammad was celebrated as a return to authenticity; one poet called it ‘an echo of the Divine Revelation in a new mode’.


In Chicago on 11 September 1893, at ten in the morning, a bell rang ten times, once for each of the ten ‘world religions’, marking the opening of the World’s Parliament of Religions. In the 19th century scholars had come up with more than one novel taxonomy of humankind’s celestial beliefs. Religions differed in content but conformed to a template: they had a bible, an extraordinary historical founder, and houses of worship, among other elements. The word ‘Islam’, which appears only infrequently in the Quran and premodern texts, was born as a new category, subsuming many sects, tenets and practices under the standard of a single ecumenical faith. It was this new sense that Ameer Ali had in mind when he called his biography of the prophet The Spirit of Islam. Anyone could speak for the new Islam: an American convert represented Muslims at the Chicago parliament. Islam was unmoored from the powers – caliphs and clerics, mystics and kings – that had embodied it for centuries. As the authority of local leaders was displaced, greater emphasis fell on the prophet himself. Father to no men (his three sons, it is said, died in infancy), Muhammad became the father of a global religion.

In modern narratives, as Kecia Ali notes, many of the actors in the story of the birth of Islam fade from view. The prophet’s earliest biographers related the lives of Muhammad’s companions, of the first caliphs, and a lineage of prophets stretching all the way back to Adam. They also wrote that a light beamed from his father Abdullah’s forehead until the night he was conceived, then it radiated from his mother, Amina. These days, however, Muhammad’s parents are in the shadows of the story. Other characters have disappeared altogether: the prophet’s stepson, for instance, or the enormous fish called Zalmusa, said to support the earth on his back. On the night Muhammad was born, Zalmusa shook so uncontrollably with joy that the world nearly toppled over.

Muhammad has had many guises since 9/11. Ali’s book captures an array of them: terrorist (according to Jerry Falwell), spiritual self-help guru (Deepak Chopra), Super Leader Super Manager, as the title of a recent Indonesian biography has it. Everyone who tells his story has the version of Muhammad they want to see, and Ali is no exception. She devotes nearly fifty pages to the matter of Aisha’s age at the time of her marriage to Muhammad, carefully dissecting the image of the prophet as a ‘paedophile’, and enters into a long discussion of polygamy and Muhammad’s relationships with women. It’s clear she wishes to portray a prophet whose views can be reconciled with her own feminist politics. These chapters read a little like the apologist texts they synthesise. Ali takes a genealogical approach – searching for the origins of ideas, sifting language, highlighting what’s ‘Western’ and what’s Muslim – that is sometimes stultifying. As she says, by the 20th century these traditions have become so fused that it’s meaningless to try and separate them.

‘A large swathe of Muslim thinking has been profoundly desacralised,’ Ali writes. Under pressure to reconcile Islam with modern science and rationality, Muslim modernists stripped Muhammad’s story of the supernatural. It’s unclear whether she mourns this loss. ‘Modern Islam is a profoundly Protestant tradition,’ she says, meaning that it embodies a particular relationship between authority and textual practice. But the texts Ali chooses to read have determined the Islam she finds. Though she frames her book as a wide-roving inquiry, she writes that in order to keep her study manageable she had to make ‘authorial choices’ to ignore ‘whole swathes of the globe’. She has presented Muhammad’s lives largely through the voices of modern Islam’s most canonical figures: the Sunni reformers who self-consciously rationalised their faith against its multiple mystical impulses.

But beyond the limits of Ali’s map, the lives of Muhammad have taken quite different directions. There is a story of a Christian monk, Bahira, watching from the window of his cell as a caravan approached from afar. The sky was clear, but a small cloud followed the convoy. As it came closer, Bahira noticed that the cloud was faithfully shading a small boy from the desert sun. He demanded to meet the child, and – depending who you read – he saw the seal of prophecy between the boy’s shoulders, or he let fly at the boy Muhammad the vilest heresies he knew. In the early 1990s, a devotional portrait of the prophet as a child began to circulate in Iran on posters and key rings. The image depicted a handsome, smiling boy in a turban, one shoulder bared, with flowers peeking out from behind his ear. The caption stated that it was painted by Bahira himself, and that the original was housed in a museum. A common sight in the bazaars of Tehran, the Bahira portrait travelled to Dakar, where it was spotted among the Mourides, the major Sufi brotherhood in Senegal. It resurfaced among Senegalese immigrants in Harlem, for sale as a lenticular image: the portrait of Muhammad as a boy morphed, with a flick of the wrist, into a picture of Amadou Bamba, the anti-colonial activist and founder of the Mouride brotherhood, as if to say the Arabian child had grown up to be the West African leader.

The image, it turns out, was actually from a series of homoerotic photographs of Berber boys, taken by the Orientalist Rudolf Franz Lehnert in Tunisia around 1904. It appeared in National Geographic in 1914 in an article about North African daily life, alongside discussions of the early maturity of Arab women (pictured topless). That 20th-century sexploitation can become sixth-century religious art is a modern sort of miracle, which has no place in Ali’s story. But it suggests a way out of the canon, a passage beyond the language of apology and prohibition and into realms of the unforeseen, the accidental, the still holy but new. And if the son of a Qurayshi woman can be spun into profanity, it is reassuring to know that the process can work the other way around, demonstrating, at least, the resilience of the sacred.