Thursday, January 1, 2009

Muhammad And His Heirs

Books: The Heirs to the Prophet Muhammad and The Creation
(PA Book Round Up #19 Reviews of Reviews)

By Thomas Riggins

THE HEIRS OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD: THE TWO PATHS TO ISLAM by Barnaby Rogerson (Time Warner, 432pp.) reviewed by Anthony Sattin in the Times Literary Supplement, July 7, 2006.

Progressives have a lot to keep up with these days. Besides having to keep tabs on the new and refurbished old theories of the right and left plus keep track of the aggressive misuse of Christian doctrine for right-wing partisan advantage, Imperialism’s assault on the Muslim world now requires us to monitor “political Islam” as well. I am assuming most Americans are more familiar with Christian and Jewish religious thought and can easily, hopefully) see through the hypocritical uses of religion by the ultra-right (waging war and claiming to follow “the Prince of Peace”, or denouncing “terrorism” and turning a blind eye to the genocidal pogrom unleashed against the Palestinian people) than they are with the understanding of Islam and its misuses.

Rogerson”s book, therefore, looks like a good introduction to the history of Islam. The reviewer calls it a “fascinating narrative.” It deals with two important aspects in the rise of Islam. The first deals with the struggle for leadership of the new Muslim community after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD (excuse the Western dating system.) The second deals with the rise of the Islamic empire “one of history’s great epic tales.” The reviewer points out that coming out of Arabia, the Muslims, within 50 years of Muhammad’s death, ruled from the Atlantic Ocean through the Middle East up into Central Asia. Quite a feat. “Yet,” Sattin writes, “rather than attest to the glory of God as revealed by the latest messenger, [the book] shows how the Arab Empire proved to be the rack on which the Prophet’s followers were broken.”

How is this conclusion reached? It is shown that as a young man engaged in the world of trade Muhammad was not so different from his fellow humans. He engaged in trade, as did many others, and “was not adverse to wealth.” But all that changed for him “once he had begun his mission.” As he succeeded in his religious endeavors and his influence grew tribute and wealth began to flow to him. Did he use it to aggrandize himself? No! He used the new wealth to help and benefit the poor and weak members of the new Islamic society.

He also preferred the simple life like “the biblical prophets” before him.

But what did his followers do after his death? Not so much the early followers who knew him personally, but the second and third generation and beyond, what did they do? This is where this second aspect (the rise of empire) is intermingled with the first one-- the leadership struggle right after the Prophet’s death. In brief, two factions began to develop: one formed around people associated with Aisha (Muhammad’s second wife) and the other around his son-in-law Ali. This is the origin of the split between the Sunni and the Shia (the Ali faction).

This split might never have happened but for the immense wealth that began to accumulate as a result of the expansion of Islam. This led to disputes about who should be leading the community as the successor of the Prophet. The wealth now led to “temptation and conflict.”

Finally these tensions led to “a civil war in which Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law, confidant and champion, was assassinated.”

This was a disaster. As has happened too many times before in history, the money and power trumped the true meaning of the message of the religious teacher. With the murder of Ali, Rogerson writes, “ the era of holiness within the Islamic community is over, the scheming politicians, the police chiefs and the old clan chiefs are once again back in power.” Welcome to the club.

No comments: