Glimpses of Western (Non-Muslim) Scholarship on the Seerah of the Prophet (SAAS)

Glimpses of Western (Non-Muslim) Scholarship on the Seerah of the Prophet (SAAS)
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By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

The Noble Quran is the Book of Allah, and Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is the person through whom that Book came to humanity, and his words and deeds are the first and most important commentary and explanation on it. From classical to contemporary eras, numerous works have been written on the life (Seerah) of the last Prophet (SAW), which is one of the most prominent genres in the Islamic literary tradition. A plethora of literature, on this specific genre, exists in all Islamic languages in prose, poetry, and more recently even on films. Also, interest has been recently increased, in the West, about the popular as well as scholarly Seerah works as well. Among the recent scholarship on this theme, a good number have been written by Western (Muslim & non-Muslims alike) scholars. Most of the Western non-Muslim scholarship on Prophet’s(SAW) Seerah has been presented in a highly ‘distorted’, ‘biased’, ‘bigoted’, ‘negative’, and ‘offensive’ form. However, this is just one side of the coin; the other side shows that there have been many instances and examples which show the positive perception of some westerners—i.e. the perception of the image of Prophet (SAW) in an unbiased, positive, and balanced way. Here, in this write-up, views of some of these scholars/ writers, falling in the latter category, are presented (on the eve of 12th Rabi-ul-Awal) to show the developments as well as perception of Prophet (SAW) in the ‘West’.
Alphonse Lamartine, a French historian, in his Historie de la Turquie, pays tribute to Prophet (SAW) in these words: “On the basis of a Book [Noble Qur’an], every letter of which has become law, he [Prophet (SAW)] created a spiritual nationality which has blended together peoples of every tongue and of every race. He has left to us the indelible characteristic of this Muslim nationality, the hatred of false gods, and the passion for the One and immaterial Allah”. It was the Prophet’s (SAW) conviction, he continues, which gave him “the power to restore a creed”, a two-fold creed: Allah’s Unity and the immateriality of Allah. “Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of rational dogmas;… founder of one spiritual state, that is Muhammad [(SAW)]. As regards all standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may well ask: ‘Is there any man greater than he?’”
Calling the Prophet (SAW) “the Savior of Humanity”, George Bernard Shaw (in ‘The Genuine Islam’) put forth that the present world needs leaders like Prophet Muhammad (SAW) for general peace and comfort. “I have always held”, Shaw states, “the religion of Muhammad [SAW] in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion, which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence, which can make itself appeal to every age”. Shaw also believes that “if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness”.
Prophet (SAW), as a leader and as the political head of the City-State of Medina, never led the life of a king: he was a “King without kingly pretension”. He had no arms, no standing army, no body guard, and no palace. Bosworth Smith, in his well-known book ‘Mohammad and Mohammadanism’, describes this in these words: “Head of the State as well as of the Church, he was Caesar and Pope in one; but he was Pope without Pope’s pretensions, Caesar without the legion of Caesar: without a standing army, without a body-guard, without a palace, without a fixed revenue; if ever any man had the right to say that he ruled by the right divine, it was Mohammad [SAW], for he had all the power without its instructions and without its supports”.
Professor Carl W. Ernst (Professor of north Carolina Chappell Hill, USA), in his Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World, writes: “While the Qur’an as divine revelation may be the most important resource of the Islamic tradition, we would not have it in its present form without the Prophet Muhammad [SAW]… . He [SAW] has served as an ongoing model for ethics, law, family life, politics, and spirituality in ways that were not anticipated 1,400 years ago. There are few people in history who have had a greater impact on humanity, and it is through the historical elaboration of tradition that we must seek to understand that impact”.
Professor Gerhard Bowering (Yale University, USA) in an article entitled “Muhammad (570-632)”, in his Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, is of this opinion when he presents Prophet (SAW) as a ‘political leader’: “That one man could achieve so much in such a short time is astounding. … [He (SAW)] made a global impact over more than a millennium and whose cause continues to exert a worldwide attraction today. His message has stood the test of time for more than a thousand years, and his community has grown steadily over the centuries”.
Professor Tamara Sonn (professor in the History of Islam at Georgetown University, USA) in her ‘Islam: A Brief History’, also admits that Prophet’s [SAW] role “extends beyond the task of delivering revelation”, for his life is “a model for humanity of how to live every moment, and make every choice, in accordance with God’s will. The way he lived his life is described by the Quran as the best example of Islam” (Q. 33: 21); and together with the Quran, his example (Sunnah) “comprise the guidance [and direction] Muslims need in their collective responsibility to establish justice”.
Professor John L. Esposito (professor of Religion & International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, USA) in his ‘What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam’ writes: “In contrast to the often spiritualized Christian view of Jesus [Prophet ‘Isa (AS)], Muslims look upon Muhammad [(SAW)] as both a prophet and a very human figure, one who had great political as well as spiritual insights. Thus Muslims look to Muhammad’s [(SAW)] example for guidance in all aspects of life: how to treat friends as well as enemies, what to eat and drink, how to mourn and celebrate. … [Prophet] Muhammad’s [(SAW)] life translated the guidance revealed in the Quran into action; he lived the revelation, giving concrete form to the laws that God revealed for the various conditions of ordinary human life. For Islam, no aspect of life is outside the realm of religion”. In his The Future of Islam, Esposito writes as: “Muhammad [SAW] is one of the great figures of world history. Few have had more of a global religious and political impact; yet no prophet has been more vilified throughout history. … In his lifetime, throughout Muslim history, and today, the Prophet Muhammad [SAW] is seen as the ‘living Quran’, the embodiment of God’s will in his behavior and words”.
Karen Armstrong, British author and a commentator of Irish Catholic descent (who is well known for her books on comparative religions as well as Islam), in her Islam: A Short History writes about Prophet (SAW) in these words: “Muhammad [SAW] did not think that he was founding a new religion, but that he was merely bringing the old faith in the One God to the Arabs, who had never had a prophet before. … Single-handedly, Muhammad [SAW; in a brief period of 23 years] had brought peace to war-torn Arabia. … Muhammad [SAW] became the archetypal example of that perfect submission to the divine, and Muslims … would attempt to conform to this standard in their spiritual and social lives. Muhammad(SAW) was never venerated as a divine figure, but he was held to be the Perfect Man. His surrender to God had been so complete that he had transformed society and enabled the Arabs to live together in harmony”.
These are some of the glimpses of the unbiased, positive, and balanced approach(es) adopted by western scholars on Prophet’s Seerah. However, this is just one side of the coin; the other side shows that there have been many attempts when the image of Prophet (SAW) was presented in a highly ‘distorted’ form. An extensively researched and remarkable work, refuting the orientalist attacks, was authored by Muhammad Mohar Ali, ‘Sirat al-Nabi and the Orientalists’ (from Madina in 1997).
In 2010, Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi (a Sudanese Islamic political scientist based in UK’s University of Westminster) published, as an anthological collection of “Western Writings on the Prophet Muhammad [SAW]: From the 18th Century to the Present”, ‘About Muhammad: The Other Western Perspective on the Prophet of Islam’ (Legacy Publishing, UK, 2010). It is “a vital compilation of extracts, each by Western writers, which provides a well informed and beautiful insight into the mission, heritage and legacy of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam”, and contains essays/ extracts from the works of the Western scholars like George Sale, Thomas Carlyle, Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine, Tor Andrae, W. Montgomery Watt, John L. Esposito, Annemarie Schimmel, Clinton Bennett, Barnaby Rogerson, Karen Armstrong, & Bayard Taylor, on varied aspects of Prophet’s (SAW) life and mission. This Western legacy on Prophet’s Seerah—of both positive & negative perceptions—is a continuous and unceasing effort.

—The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama. He can be reached at: