The Life of Muhammad
In Search of the Historical Evidence

There has been no shortage of books on the Prophet Muhammad recently. Katajun Amirpur has been taking a closer look at two of them: one by Islamic Studies professor Tilman Nagel, the other by the great Islamic philosopher, Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid

​​Tilman Nagel, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Göttingen, believes that Islam originated in what he refers to as "the clear light of documented history." Nagel bases his recently published Muhammad biography, Muhammad: Life and Legend (published in German, see below), on numerous sources. By consulting many other sources rather than simply relying solely upon the over-used Ibn Ishaq biography, he succeeds in giving us a picture of the historical Muhammad and, at the same time, in separating the life of the Prophet from the legend which has grown up around it. Nagel comes up some convincingly robust arguments.

He is in no doubt that Muhammad really lived and finds evidence in the Koran. According to Nagel, the Koran is so authentically a product of its time, exhibiting forms and content typical of the period, that there is no doubt that what we have now is not a corpus of texts accrued over centuries. And Nagel uses this establishment of the Koran's authenticity to draw conclusions about the historicity of the Prophet Muhammad, who, by the way, does not thereby become any more likable to him.

For a humanistic interpretation of Islam

Whilst for students of the Koran such as Tilman Nagel the question of what exactly it is that now allows terror and murder to find their justification through the Koran is one that has taken on an even greater urgency, for thinkers such as the Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, it is a question whose answer demands a humanistic hermeneutics. He thus represents a completely different approach, one that he believes calls for new thinking on the Koran and for its prophet to be placed within the context of his own times.

Abu Zaid, regarded as one of the greatest of contemporary Arab philosophers, is responsible, along with journalist Hilal Sezgin, for the third book bearing the name of Muhammad in the title to appear in the past week or two.

Abu Zaid writes that it is the right of every able historian to be able to discuss each of Muhammad's decisions in detail. But, he adds, "if one draws upon modern perceptions, in particular upon the Christian image of what it is that makes a prophet, to provide criteria, then we do Muhammad an injustice. If we criticise him for displaying worldly passions, or for pursuing of material interests, or because he fought for the preservation of his community, then we are guilty of failing to take the historical context of this particular prophet into account."

Historical context

One must treat him as one does any other religious figure, within the context of the historical background, responding like others to the necessities of his times; such figures must be judged according to the standards of their own times, not by those of today.

Abu Zaid considers it incongruous, therefore, that, in order to determine what is appropriate behaviour for a prophet one should apply a concept derived from Christian theology to Muhammad. This is so important to him because he feels that the character of Muhammad has repeatedly been made the object of a very critical, often even abusive, discourse in the Christian West. The Prophet, he believes, is continually being judged according to Christian criteria.

The good thing about the Abu Zaid und Hilal Sezgin book is that it brings the reader closer to the Prophet Muhammad as he has been and is seen by Muslims. Nothing here is glossed over – Abu Zaid is too much the historian for that – but Zaid's subjective viewpoint succeeds in providing us with the kind of insight that a Western-based analysis would not have been able to give.

Katajun Amirpur

© 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Nagel, Tilman: Mohammed. Leben und Legende, published by R. Oldenbourg Verlag Munich 2008, 179 euros.

Abu Zaid, Nasr Hamid (with Hilal Sezgin): Mohammed und die Zeichen Gottes. Der Koran und die Zukunft des Islam, published by Herder Verlag Freiburg 2008. 19.95 euros

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