- Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters
Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad identifies two main purposes for itself, these being an investigation of the historical Muhammad and an investigation of the Muhammad of Muslim memory, that is, the Muhammad of grace.
The investigation of the historical Muhammad concentrates specifically on three issues related to the Prophet’s life and teachings, which the author bemoans, have been the subject of misleading and acerbic writings by a tripartite group. This group comprises some theologically challenged Christians, racially prejudiced Jews, and champions of Western hegemony. As Safi puts it, this group suffers from a ‘Muhammad Problem’, a problem which encompasses the Prophet’s battles, his multiple marriages, and the position of Islam towards those faiths that claim an Abrahamic descent. A purposely distorted portrayal of these three issues in the past and at present has had the effect of depicting the Prophet as a war mongering, lustful person who coveted power and was intolerant to other faiths, especially when he had the upper hand politically. In the introduction therefore, Safi expresses his intent to deal with the biography of the Prophet and especially these three contentious issues with ‘scholarly rigour and accuracy’. He claims to have consulted the widest range of sources in order to do this while privileging the earliest and most historically reliable, these being: the Qur’an, the earliest hadith material and the earliest sirah literature. The Qur’an, which Safi claims to be an ‘unmistakably 7th century Arabic document’, is utilised in this study in order to exploit its historical potential because it so well reflects aspects of not only the Prophet’s life but also the customs and way of life of the people of that time and therefore becomes an important documentary source for the study of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods. This is in contrast to the other extant sources used for this study, which [End Page 89] though early are nevertheless literary sources such as the hadith material and the sirah literature. Regarding the latter genre of literature, Safi makes particular use of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirah, Tabari’s Tarikh, and the secondary source of Martin Ling’s biography of the Prophet, which despite being a contemporary work, is nevertheless one that draws from the earliest historical and hadith works.
The investigation on the Muhammad of grace explores the various ways in which Muslims across the centuries have understood, followed, and paid homage to the Prophet in devotional literature of diverse types, especially in the three languages of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Safi specifically focuses on this theme in the sixth (and last) chapter where he discusses poetry, hadiths, litanies, and treatises written on richly illustrated manuscripts, which describe the Prophet’s physique, ethics, and spirituality. In the context of this theme, Safi also explores the different ways in which Muslims have drawn inspiration from the Prophet’s life and teachings, as well as how his memory has been contested by his followers.
In order to better explain the three contentious issues identified above, Safi begins by devoting the first chapter to describing the specific tribal and religious context in which the Prophet lived and preached. With respect to the tribal context, he demonstrates that there existed in that particular age and region several core negative and positive social and cultural practices, thus emphasising that the Arabia of the pre-Islamic period was not entirely devoid of positive ethical and cultural mores. This is in line with the idea that no group of people is completely good or bad contrary to what is so popularly depicted in pious historical works written of that period, which singularly insist on the cultural and social poverty of that period. In the same context the author discusses how the Islamic message interacted with, and sought to reform the prevailing situation by utilising diverse strategies such as outright rejection of particular negative practices, adoption of some positive practices, and modification and adaptation of...