Understanding Islam
Gayatri Rajwade

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Times
by Karen Armstrong. Harper Press. Pages 249.

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our TimesReligion needs introduction primarily because it can easily raise hackles today. The gentler and rational followers of Islam probably understand this better than any other people. Karen Armstrongís biography of Prophet Muhammad is an excellent and simply written Ďsourceí on a religion that preaches compassion above all else.

Armstrong recounts in an interview posted on the Internet, how at the end of a lecture on ĎUnderstanding Islamí at Oxford Universityís Institute for American Studies in England, an Englishman had asked, "What more concessions should the West make to Muslims? When should we draw the line and stop sacrificing our ideals?"

Her answer was quick, "Muslims did not ask us to give up our ideals and values. On the contrary, it is the West which does not honour these very ideals when dealing with Muslims and Islam."

Is Armstrong sympathetic to Islam? Perhaps, but the question of sympathy does not really arise. It is evident in her dispassionate and accurate account of Prophet Muhammadís life and teachings that no faith has a transitory relevance. It is still as significant today as it was in the seventh century. Armstong writes, "The Muslim and Western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another."

While the West is concerned, and their assumptions of the teachings of the faith get wilder, the book helps to introduce some element of rationality and perspective in the reader.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks have only increased the anti-Islamic mood but, ironically, history over the ages has witnessed several 9/11s and these sometimes even go unnoticed. This "accessible account" of the life of the Prophet is not meant to challenge a deeply entrenched negative view of the faith, instead in a style that is undemanding, communicative and following a neat chronological order of relating events, Armstrong takes the reader through the 7th-century Arabia delving not only into the Prophetís life but also the political, cultural and social milieu in which the faith rose.

"This new religion was not about achieving metaphysical certainty: the Quran wanted people to develop a different kind of awareness," writes Armstrong. Indeed, the movement was a symptom of the spiritual restiveness in Arabia, something most faiths have in common. The book referring to earlier sources talks of reactions of people before Prophet Muhammadís revelations from God turned into faith. A man, who was to later become a disciple of Prophet Muhammad, standing before the Kabah in Mecca, inveighing against the corrupt religion of the Haram, had cried out, ĎOh Allah! If I knew how you wished to be worshipped, I would so worship you, but I do not know.í (Guillaume, Life of Muhammad).

From the beginning, Prophet Muhammadís religion was diametrically opposite to the existing beliefs in the region. For one, there was a strong female presence which was remarkable in the aggressive patriarchy of Mecca and that may explain why women were among the first to respond to the message of the Quran, explains Armstrong. While the faith compelled the believer to face up to his or her actions in the present day, Godís word to Muhammad in the beginning is an urging to be a "reminder" of His grace and benevolence, provided men "cloak themselves in the virtue of compassion`85gradually acquiring a responsible, caring spirit, which imitated the generosity of Allah himself. If they persevered, they would purge their hearts of pride and selfishness and achieve a spiritual refinement," writes Armstrong.

Even in the Prophetís later life, when the revelations from God turned to war, polygamy and diminishing rights of women, the author makes the reader see it in the context of his time.

Prophet Muhammad lived in troubled times. Therefore, social reform was the faith, but one that had to be achieved through "interior transformation."

What is more, the book, quoting sources liberally, casts light on the fact that Islam, above all, preached religious toleration and acceptance of anotherís faith since Prophet Muhammad lived in times where Jews and Christians cohabited.

While the sources quoted (and apparently Armstrong went through four major biographies of the Prophet, eighth century and ninth century and even scholarly tomes about conditions in pre-Islamic Arabia) are extensive, the book is not complex. Prophet Muhammad comes across as a man passionate about the faith and uncertain of the path. This fine balance between Prophet and the man is what keeps the reader interested in the biography, which brings together Muhammadís life, his times and faith.

The book does not pontificate and nor does it serve up any readymade solutions. But there is this faith, still standing strong on its centuries old philosophy of binding everyone in surrender and submission (Islam) to "peace and reconciliation."