- Epic and Exile:Comparative Reflections on the Biography of the Prophet Muhammad, Virgil's Aeneid, and Valmiki's Ramayana
The biography of the prophet Muhammad, or "Sira" as it will henceforth be called, was first recorded by the eighth-century scholar Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) and subsequently reedited by Ibn Hisham (d. 828 or 833). The text does not provide the reader with a seamless narrative, nor does it aim to be specifically literary or poetic. Rather, it amounts to a compilation of orally transmitted accounts and occasional poems selected from a large amount of available material and arranged in chronological order so as to cover the events of the Prophet's life. Brief, oral accounts of this type also provide the substance of a large number of other works that center on the life and sayings of the Prophet. Not least among these are the canonical collections of prophetic traditions known as hadith, which constitute one of the sources of Islamic law. Ibn Ishaq's work therefore forms indivisibly part of a very extensive body of scholarly and historical writings that provide, along with the Koran, the foundation of the creed of Islam and have to this day remained of vital significance to the Muslim world.
As recently pointed out by the Arab historian Tarif al-Khalidi, it is precisely because of its foundation function that the vision of the past developed by the scholars and historians of Sira and hadith can, in the sense defined by Mikhail Bakhtin, be said of epic character.1 While Khalidi did not develop the idea further, I aim to investigate here in some more detail to what extent the Sira exhibits features that in other traditions are recognized as epic. To this effect I wish to compare it to two narratives generally known as epics that have, in a manner not unlike the Sira, contributed decisively to the identity of entire cultures. One is Virgil's Aeneid, which has been selected because it gives expression, perhaps for the first time, to two contradictory ideals that in their combination have for long been seen as characteristically European: humanism and imperialism. The former is manifest in Virgil's profound empathy with the human plight of friend and foe as well as his emphasis on compassion and humility, which have, among other factors, earned him the reputation of being a true precursor of Christianity.2 Imperialism, in contrast, is apparent in the Aeneid's vision of Rome's righteous (though blood-stained) sovereignty, a vision that may be deemed to be at the origin of the [End Page 96] rhetoric of empire adopted by all subsequent European, and indeed, American, attempts at imposing and justifying imperial rule.3
Righteousness in a very different garb is at the heart of the other text chosen for comparison. It is the Sanskrit Ramayana by Valmiki, whose portrayal of this notion as an "integrating force" capable of restoring "the perfectly harmonious existence of man with nature and man with man"4 has had an indelible impact on Indian culture and whose abiding relevance is thus not unlike the Aeneid and the Sira. This is all the more the case if one takes into account the numerous subsequent retellings of the story of Rama to which Valmiki's work has given rise, in particular the medieval Hindi Ramcaritmanas by Tulsidas, which Mohandas Gandhi considered the greatest book of all devotional literature. Of special interest here is also that Kamba's Tamil version of the story was used by the seventeenth-century author Umaru Palovar as a "literary model for a Tamil biography of the Prophet Muhammad,"5 a fact that provides the association between the two narratives with a welcome precedent.
Origin and Literary Form
The observation that foundation stories are habitually composed not during but after the time of the event that they narrate applies to the three texts in a particularly interesting way. For both the Aeneid and the Sira were committed to writing when the political entities to which their authors belonged were reemerging from a period of civil war in order to attain what has ever since been considered the apogee of their...