The Lives of Muhammad by Dr. Kecia Ali, an associate professor at Boston University, begins with a touching dedication to her children, including her late daughter Shaira. Ali writes, “The standard biographies of Muhammad recount that seven of his eight children died during his lifetime. None of the miracles traditional sources ascribe to him impresses me more than his having survived such loss.”
This dedication also serves as a fitting introduction to this book because it’s much more than just another take on Prophet Muhammad. The scope of this volume is vast: the nature of miracles, revelation and prophethood in Islam; challenges to the “accepted” path of Muhammad’s life; an extensive analysis of all his marriages with particular attention paid to Khadija and Aisha; and an attempt to weave together competing and contrasting narratives of Muhammad’s life from many sources, some inimical and some sycophantic.
“In the twenty-first century, it makes no sense to speak of Muslim views of Muhammad in opposition to Western or Christian views,” writes Ali, “Instead, the images of Muhammad that contemporary Muslims hold fervently and defend passionately arose in tandem and in tension with western European and North American intellectuals’ accounts of his life. At the same time, Muslim sensibilities and beliefs have affected the way many non-Muslim authors write his life.”
The Lives of Muhammad, then, is not merely a biography, but a biography of biographies. It’s a book devoted to unraveling the story of the Muslim prophet over the last 1,500 years and a serious contribution to the debate over what is real, what is apocryphal and what is myth.
While some may claim that The Lives of Muhammad is a biased and subjective account by a famed Muslim scholar and expert, those decriers would be wrong. Ali does take the time to mention historical works that have attacked Muhammad – from Guillaume Postel’s 1583 work comparing Catholicism and Islam (“The spiritual sons of Luther are the little bastards of Mahom”) to William Bedwell’s 1615 work, Mohammedis imposturae; that is, A discovered of the manifold forgeries, falsehoods, and horrible impieties of the blasphemous seducer Mohammed, to Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion (2006) – but does so only in the historical context. Ali is, after all, an academic; her focus from the beginning is to bring together several centuries of scholarship to show how writers across the world were interpreting, reading and responding to each other’s work.
In fact, Ali’s greatest critics are likely to be those who might attack her scientific and scholarly approach as not being “religious enough”. Ali even suggests the same, arguing that failure to agree on a consensus perspective on Prophet Muhammad is one of the “litmus tests that raise the question of who is to be considered an insider and what is to count as tradition.” Ali probes current Muslim thoughts on Muhammad from the opening salvo of the book. “What can we really know about Muhammad, and how can we know it? Did Muhammad exist?” She certainly seems to think so, and yet, she also questions how Muslims have retold his story to the point where inaccuracies start to develop.
For example, she questions whether Muhammad’s name was really the one he was born with because it “sounds more like a title than a personal name”, and whether the names commonly accepted to be his parents’, “Abdullah” and “Amina”, have not been doctored over time. “One hypothesis, which requires only minor adjustments to the standard account, is that biographers whitewashed Muhammad’s life to remove any pagan stain,” she writes. She also wonders about early descriptions of Muhammad, including one from a Sufi perspective that he “suffused the cosmos with light.” According to Ali, “Early Muslims used biblical categories, proof texts, and miracle stories to affirm Muhammad’s prophethood and the superiority of Islam, just as Christian opponents of the growing Muslim tradition used the same texts to affirm the opposite.”
Towards the last third of the book, Ali pivots and refocuses her attention not merely on the companions and family of Prophet Muhammad, but in particular, his wife Khadija. With a deft legerdemain, The Lives of Muhammad becomes less on the namesake, and more of a discussion on history’s treatment of Muhammad, the Family Man. The discussion is totally fascinating, because it shows the length that Muslim apologists have gone to whitewash the biography of their prophet in reaction to pejorative and slanderous remarks about his personal life.
For example, Ali references “pre-modern polemicists” who frequently tell the tale that Khadija, 15 years elder to Muhammad, still had to obtain her father’s permission to marry Muhammad. In some narrations, she had to get him drunk to get his approval; in other versions, her father was dead so her uncle assumed this responsibility. According to Ali, “Modern Muslim authors often skim over the father’s or uncle’s involvement in the marriage because it sits ill with the images of Khadija as a self-assured and independent woman.”
Ali is a famed religious scholar in the United States and has written or edited six books in the last eight years alone. While that kind of output for a university professor is impressive, what is far more important is just how high the quality of scholarship has been. In work after work, Ali has tackled everything from Sunni thought (Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint, 2011) to Muslim ethics (Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, 2006) to the religion’s history of marriage (Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, 2010). Yet, The Lives of Muhammad has set the bar high and it is her best work to date. It is exhaustive, well-researched and an amazing contribution to the humanities.