The Face of Muhammad

by Raymond Ibrahim

Middle East Quarterly

Review of Images of Muhammad: Narratives of the Prophet in Islam across the Centuries by Tarif Khalidi (New York: Doubleday, 2009. Pp. 327).

True to its title, this study by a professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut chronicles the myriad images of Muhammad throughout the ages, from the eighth-century biography by Ibn Ishaq to twentieth-century polemics and apologetics. Unfortunately, the book omits the more troubling images, the ones echoed in the behaviors of today’s more troubling Muslims. Such an approach has an ancient pedigree: Writing some 1,200 years ago, Ibn Hisham, editor of the earliest biography of Muhammad, admitted honestly that he omitted “things which it is disgraceful to discuss; matters which would distress certain people.” Khalidi follows the same pattern — though without Hisham’s candid disclaimer.

It is not that Khalidi does not acknowledge that negative images exist; he just shies from recounting the most notorious. Thus, while the reader will encounter Muhammad the commander, the lawgiver, the ethicist, even the Sufi mystic, images of Muhammad as war-monger, highway-bandit, misogynist, and assassin are lacking.

For example, the worst image Khalidi presents of Muhammad involves his killing an enemy combatant even though the latter begged for clemency. One would have thought Muhammad’s assassination of poets by deceit and other means — including one old woman, Umm Qirfa, whose body was rent in half[1] — calls for equal mention. Objectively speaking, such less than inspiring images deserve more prominence. After all, when pious believers pass down anecdotes that may reflect negatively on their prophet, it seems only reasonable to treat these, especially in comparison to the numerous praiseworthy images, as important factors of the Muhammad persona.

Ultimately, however, the book is useful in that it implicitly demonstrates how the concept of sunna (a model of Muslim behavior based on the sayings, customs, and actions of Muhammad) is impractical. For when one compares the many pictures of the prophet, discrepancies abound: Muhammad loves peace, except when he wages war; he hates poetry, but also enjoys it; he bans the killing of women and children, except when they get in the way; he condemns foul speech, but tells his enemies to “bite their father’s penis.”

Sunna, then, becomes a divine sanction for any given Muslim to follow his proclivities—provided an applicable image of Muhammad can be found. And, as Khalidi’s book shows, images of the prophet appear endless.

[1] I. Ishaq and A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 665.

Raymond Ibrahim
 is associate director of the Middle East Forum, author of The Al Qaeda Reader, and guest lecturer at the National Defense Intelligence College.

©2010 Raymond Ibrahim

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