Making Mohammed real for 21st century

By  Fr. Tom Dowd, Catholic Register Special
  • May 18, 2007
{mosimage}In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Mohammed by Tariq Ramadan (Oxford University Press, hardcover, 256 pages, $28.95).

Many years ago, well before I ever became a priest, I found myself living a crisis of faith. In my searching I decided to make a detailed examination of other religions along with my own. In the end I concluded that only the Catholic faith could have a claim to being the truth, but I also came away with a healthy respect for the other world religions.
I therefore read Tariq Ramadan’s new book with great interest. I will admit, though, that I did so with some trepidation, because I knew this book was going to be (in part) an argument for the validity of Islam. If this book communicated well the genuine spiritual power of Islam, would my spiritual foundations be rocked once again?

{sa 0195308808}To put it simply, this book is excellent. Islam holds Mohammed to be a perfect model of a believer, someone who is fully human and yet fully responsive to God’s will. To properly imitate Mohammed, therefore, is a sure means of being a proper Muslim in the world.

Of course, the world has changed since seventh-century Arabia. Ramadan’s goal is to re-present the life of Mohammed for Muslims now living in the modern world, in order to find a way to be genuinely faithful to Muslim belief and practice while at the same time seeing how it may be faithfully applied in the 21st century. In Catholic terms, he is trying to accomplish an Islamic aggiornamento, meeting the needs of the present while staying true to the past.

Anyone who reads this book will discover Mohammed as a true human being, much more than the two-dimensional portrayals that are often found in Western writing. Readers will taste some of the depth of Muslim devotion for their prophet, seeing him (and the Islamic faith) from the inside. On a purely literary level, this is already quite an accomplishment, but given our need today for genuine dialogue between Islam and the West, Ramadan’s book is a major contribution for both partners in that dialogue.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet does have flaws, however. There are things it does not mention. It is understandable that Ramadan has made a selection of episodes from Mohammed’s life, as otherwise the book would likely have become unwieldy. Still, Ramadan has left out what I believe are some key elements. For example, Mohammed is said to have given a lengthy farewell speech before he died, in which he remarked, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‛There is no God but Allah.’ ” Osama bin Laden made the same remark in 2001, indicating that this is an element of Mohammed’s personal example that he considers worthy of emulation. Given our context today, it strikes me that this statement is badly in need of aggiornamento, yet Ramadan gives it no mention.

In the end, I greatly appreciated Ramadan’s frankness and honesty as he presented his subject, which I found genuinely fascinating. But at the same time that presentation confirmed me even more in my Catholic faith. Ramadan presents episodes which show some of the difference in world-view between Islam and Christianity. For example, Mohammed married Aishah, his friend Abu Bakr’s daughter, when she was only nine years old — a marriage absolutely impermissible within Catholicism, both because of her age and because it was polygamous. Mohammed also permitted the execution of 700 prisoners of the Banu Qurayzah tribe, who had actually surrendered to Mohammed without a fight, and after an earlier battle with the Quraysh was reproached by God for having spared his captives. Mohammed instructed his follower Ammar that it was acceptable to deny the Islamic faith with his lips as long as he kept it in his heart — in effect, giving Ammar permission to deny God if the situation called for it.

Mohammed also kept slaves, even sexual slaves, such as the exceptionally beautiful Mariyah, who later bore him a son. According to Ramadan’s telling of the story, Mohammed’s wives bitterly complained about his visiting Mariyah, and Mohammed intended to part from her, until a revelation from God instructed him that his wives were actually at fault for their jealousy and that they were the ones who had to decide to either live in peace or divorce. All these details are presented with great frankness in the pages of Ramadan’s book.

In the footsteps of the Prophet is an important book for our time. It is written by a Muslim for Muslims, but is accessible to non-Muslims in such a way that it gives a fascinating glimpse into the Islamic mindset, both past and present. Catholics with a desire to get beyond polemics and see some of Islam from the inside will find in this book an excellent introduction.

(Dowd is a priest of the diocese of Montreal.)

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