Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Karen Armstrong's Muhammad, part 1

There seemed to be quite a lot of interest in my recent series of posts on Islam. I don't want to dwell on the subject unduly, but I have decided to review and recommend a biography of Muhammad by Karen Armstrong. (Armstrong is the author I quoted on mythos in Sunday's post.)

Armstrong offers a very sympathetic portrait of Muhammad and Islam. I think it is fair to describe her as an apologist for the faith, though she is not a Muslim herself. She describes herself as a "freelance monotheist". I would call her a syncretist:  someone who attempts to combine teachings and doctrines from different and apparently divergent traditions.

Personally, I prefer historical studies which view their subjects sympathetically. It is easy to be dismissive of worldviews that are alien to us, and an author should attempt to view things from the perspective of her subject.

Despite the apologetic orientation of the book, Armstrong is generally even-handed in her presentation of the data. (Sometimes she takes unnecessary pot-shots at Christianity in her zeal to defend Islam against its accusers.) A critical reader will likely have reservations about Islam at the end of the book, based on material provided by Armstrong herself.

In one of the earlier posts, I discussed Islam's ambivalence about Judaism and Christianity (Fuel for antisemitism in the Qur'an). On that topic, I have picked up one significant piece of information from Armstrong:  Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs were later accepted as People of the Book, in addition to Christians and Jews.

This post will build on the earlier material by discussing the nature of the revelation to Muhammad, Islam's prescripts with respect to women, and Muhammad's integration of religion and politics.

1. The revelation of the Qur'an

I'd like to begin my review with a subject I found particularly interesting:  the agonies Muhammad experienced when the Qur'an was revealed to him. Armstrong writes:
Revelations continued to come down while he was in the midst of ordinary activities. He used to swoon and perspire heavily, even on a cold day. Other authorities say that he felt a great heaviness, an emotion like grief and that while listening to the divine words, he would lower his head between his knees. …

Muhammad once said:  'Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me.' It was a process of creation that was agonizing. Sometimes, he said, the verbal content was clear enough:  he seemed to see the angel in the form of a man and heard his words. But at other times it was more painful and incoherent:  'Sometimes it comes unto me like the reverberations of a bell, and that is the hardest upon me; the reverberations abate when I am aware of their message.'
I'm not sure how to interpret this remark about the reverberating bell. I think it means that Muhammad's own body (or psyche?) reverberated with the impact of the spiritual encounter.

In any event, the image is interesting because it shows that the revelations came partly from outside Muhammad and partly from within him. He had some kind of encounter with a power outside his own psyche which often seized him suddenly and unexpectedly. But the message was not always verbal and linear; sometimes Muhammad had to interpret the experience, almost like decoding a secret message, and put it into words:
We shall see him turning inwards and searching his own soul for a solution to the problem, rather as a poet listens to the poem that he is gradually hauling to light. The Qu'ran warns him to listen to the inarticulate meaning carefully and with what Wordsworth would call a 'wise passiveness'. He must not rush to put it into words before these had emerged in their own good time.
In my view, this description illuminates the process of revelation in other religions as well. The specifics of Muhammad's experience may be unique to him. But, at its very best, scripture is still a product of divine and human initiative jumbled together.

2. Prescripts with respect to women

Armstrong persuasively argues that Muhammad held women in high esteem. Muhammad's first wife was much older than he was and, in times of crisis, he relied heavily on her guidance and support.

The first time Muhammad received a revelation, he had no idea what to make of it. He "came to himself in a state of terror and revulsion":
Unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, Muhammad had none of the consolations of an established religion to support him and help him to interpret his experience. … In his isolation and terror, he turned instinctively to his wife.

Crawling on his hands and knees, the whole upper part of his body shaking convulsively, Muhammad flung himself into her lap. 'Cover me! cover me!' he cried, begging her to shield him from this terrifying presence. … Trembling, he waited for the terror to abate, and Khadija held him in her arms, soothing him and trying to take his fear away. All the sources emphasise Muhammad's profound dependence upon Khadija during this crisis.

Later he would have other visions on the mountainside and each time he would go straight to Khadija and beg her to cradle him and wrap him in his cloak. But Khadija was not just a consoling mother figure; she was also Muhammad's spiritual adviser. It was she who was able to provide the support that other seers and prophets have found in an established religion.
The Qur'an's prescripts with respect to women must be viewed in historical context. Armstrong writes, "We must remember what life had been like for women in the pre-Islamic period when female infanticide was the norm and when women had no rights at all." For example, Armstrong explains the Qur'an's prescripts on polygamy and divorce:
There was probably a shortage of men in Arabia, which left a surplus of unmarried women who were often badly exploited. The Qu'ran is most concerned about this problem and resorted to polygamy as a way of dealing with it. This would enable all the girls who had been orphaned to be married, but it insisted that a man could take more than one wife only if he promised to administer their property equitably. It also stipulates that no orphan girl should be married to her guardian against her will, as though she were simply a moveable property.

The Qu'ran also makes provision for divorce. … In Arabia, it was customary for a man to give a mahl, a dowry, to his bride. This had usually been absorbed by the woman's male relatives, but in Islam the dowry was to be given directly to the woman herself. To this day, women are allowed to do whatever they choose with this money:  give it to charity, build a swimming pool or start a business. But in the event of divorce, a man is not allowed to reclaim the mahl, so a woman's security is assured.
Westerners are also offended by the veiling of Muslim women. Armstrong explains that veils are not required in the Qur'an itself:
Muslim women are required, like men, to dress modestly, but women are not told to veil themselves from view, nor to seclude themselves from men in a separate part of the house. These were later developments and did not become widespread in the Islamic empire until three or four generations after the death of Muhammad.
The veil was originally instituted only for Muhammad's wives:
Some Muslims liked to approach [Muhammad] through his wives, in the hope of getting his ear. … The hijab was designed to prevent a scandalous situation developing which Muhammad's enemies could use to discredit him. …

In fact the veil or curtain was not designed to degrade Muhammad's wives but was a symbol of their superior status. … It seems that later other women became jealous of the status of Muhammad's wives and demanded that they should be allowed to wear the veil too. Islamic culture was strongly egalitarian and it seemed incongruous that the Prophet's wives should be distinguished and honoured in this way. Thus many of the Muslim women who first took the veil saw it as a symbol of power and influence, not as a badge of male oppression.
On the face of it, this is a persuasive argument. However, I do note Armstrong's use of the phrase, "it seems". Do we know that other women were jealous of Muhammad's wives' veils, or is this apologetic speculation?

I also note Armstrong's comment that the veiling of women was a widespread practice within three or four generations of Muhammad's death. In other words, use of the hijab has been an entrenched practice essentially from the beginning of Islam's history. As such, the practice will not easily be changed, despite the silence of the Qur'an on the subject.

3. Integration of religion and politics

By the end of Armstrong's book, it was this subject which troubled me most. But this post is already long enough, so I will address the integration of religion and politics in part 2.


At 1:01 AM, August 17, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Without expressing support or criticism of Ms. Armstrong's views, IMO at the end of the day it isn't going to be what the west thinks is said by the Qu'ran, but rather what the muslim family down the block thinks it means.

Are they likely to read Armstrong and adjust their world view based on her writings? I think not likely.

I salute you for trying to grasp such an illusive object. It is a subject I will watch and ponder, but my ultimate POV will depend on the corporate actions of our muslim neighbors. Unfortunately, they have the power to run it all aground should they choose poorly.

I think to take a laisser faire approach is to give up having any responsibility and say-so in the future of democracy and freedom in our societies. Such a result would be sad.

At 8:04 AM, August 17, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

49er, I should note that I've made some editorial changes to the post since you read it. I haven't made any significant changes to the content, I've just tidied up my presentation a bit.

I agree that Muslims aren't going to learn about Islam from Karen Armstrong. Their knowledge of the faith is directly personal. Armstrong is writing for non-Muslim readers, particularly in the West.

I can tell you that Armstrong is highly regarded among Muslims, and somewhat disparaged by Jews. I'm sure this is partly due to the apologetic nature of her writings on Islam. It may also come from her political views on the Middle East, though I don't know what statements (if any) she has made on that subject.

I also agree that ultimately what counts is how "the muslim family down the block" understands Islam. I was at pains to make this point in a previous post:

The Qur'an is dangerously open to misinterpretation and abuse. Some Muslim scholars support an antisemitic reading. Others offer a conciliatory interpretation. The international Muslim community will determine which interpretation prevails.

Some people say that a war is being waged for the soul of Islam, and I believe it is true. Islamic extremists … are precipitating a crisis within their own faith.

I want to be in a position where I can evaluate the statements coming from the Muslim community. Some Muslim leaders are whitewashing real flaws in their religion, and I want to be aware of it. Other Muslim leaders are taking a hard line position (e.g. with respect to the hijab) and I want to know whether that is justified.

I want to know what the Qur'an actually says, and what Muhammad actually taught. Then I'll be in a position to evaluate how the war for the soul of Islam is progressing.

At 9:37 PM, August 17, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Well said, and I support you. The "Islamic Question" is - and will be - "curiouser and curiouser" before it shakes itself out. It is good to prepare oneself to participate in evaluating that fluid process.


At 4:14 AM, July 15, 2009, Blogger Hatikvah said...

I'm just about to start this book. The post was endearing...

At 11:02 AM, March 27, 2011, Blogger Amir Ali Tayyab said...

Your blog's slogan reminded me of a Verse in Quran: "I have made this book easy to understand. So is there anyone to read it and understand it?"


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