Book Review: Misquoting Mohammad

Misquoting Mohammad: The Challenge And Choices Of Interpreting The Prophet’s Legacy, by Jonathan A.C. Brown

In reading a book like this, which spends about 300 pages, including some very thoughtful and brief appendices, discussing the various matters of interpretation and textual transmission within the world of Islam [1], one has to be careful regarding a variety of matters. For one, this book views Islam in a far better light than many outsiders would tend to view it. It is clear that this book represents the picture of Islam’s face to the Western world in several respects. For one, the book cites but explains many religious terms from Arabic and discusses the behavior of Islam in ways that are analogous to those of us who are religious scholars or familiar with religious scholarship ourselves in the Jewish and Christian world, especially those of us who take our faith seriously. For the most part, the author presents the behavior of the Muslim ulama (religious leadership) in a similar manner to that of the Jews working with the Talmud and its multifarious tradition, or those Christians who place a strong reliance upon patristic studies and the citation of the writings of authoritative leaders like Church Fathers or those supposed to be apostles in more recent times. The aim of this presentation is so that a well-learned reader who is not implacably hostile to Islam would see the Muslim faith at least potentially as being acceptable within the general rubric of civilized and cultured faiths.

In terms of its organization and structure, the book begins by examining the problem of Islam in terms of its absence of centralized structure and its reliance upon a body of tradition known as the hadiths (sayings) to guide thought and practice. The author then goes on a lengthy tour through the many and disparate schools and influences within Muslim thought, discusses the fragility of scripture when it is not viewed charitably, dealing with the tension between faith and respect in a modern world that does not view any canon of scripture charitably, the necessary aspect that tradition holds in helping to interpret any text, wrestling with the problem of lying and what is considered the noble lie, and closing with difficult Quran scriptures. There follows four appendices that deal with some of the matters the book addresses in greater detail, including questions on exactly how young Aisha was when she married Mohammed (a matter of considerable delicacy, as some sources have stated the marriage was consummated when she was possibly nine years of age, and there is some evidence that her father thought she was too young for him, considering he was almost sixty at the time), the reliability of hadiths allowing a father to kill his son, a discussion of the unreliability of sayings comparing the charging of interest to incest, and a discussion of various unreliable traditions about the seventy-two heavenly maidens given to martyrs.

In reading this book, one notices a strong sense of ambivalence when one compares the approach towards Islam in this text with the reality of Islam in the world today. The humorous anecdotes about eating schwarma and bland salad at Muslim Student Associations in college and the careful and moderate tone of the author seek to convey an understanding of Muslims, even very conservative Muslims, as being well within the pale of civilized conduct, and indeed as being very similar to many of us who are serious believers with a strong hermeneutic of charity when it comes to dealing those scripture that we follow and which model our practice. Yet this strenuous and consistent desire to express a moderate and pluralistic view of Islam is strongly at odds with the reality of the geopolitical state of the world. Most people, myself included, would not have any trouble with Muslims if they acted like good dhimmi, if they paid taxes and kept the peace and obeyed the law. It is the fact that so many violent deeds are done by Muslims who claim to be justified in their behavior by their Scriptures and by the teachings of their imams, and the Muslim world, rather than policing itself, tries to pretend to be moderate on the one hand while appearing to turn a blind eye to the violence committed in its name. Although the words of this book are gentle and mild, it is action, specifically the policing of Muslim minorities in the West and the proper protection of Westerners abroad in Muslim countries, that is necessary in order to improve the reputation that Islam has. Words lie, especially in an atmosphere of worldview conflict where one of the main issues is precisely the reliability of Muslim texts and transmitters in the first place. Where there is no trust, words cannot be believed. But how is one to build trust without communication? To live at peace is no easy thing.

[1] See, for exmaple:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/today-in-history-on-july-16-622-the-hijra-occurred-starting-the-islamic-calendar/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/if-i-forget-you-o-jerusalem-a-critical-analysis-of-the-observance-of-international-qums-day/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/book-review-arab-spring-christian-winter/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/christmas-and-mawlid-al-nabi-some-strange-parallels/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/the-most-awkward-missionary-of-all-time/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Book Review: Misquoting Mohammad

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