Muhammad is remembered in a multitude of ways, by both Muslims and non-Muslims. And through each retelling we learn a great deal not only about Muhammad but about the social milieu of the authors. In The Lives of Muhammad (Harvard University Press, 2014), Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University, explores how several central components of the Muhammad biographical narrative are reframed by various authors within modern accounts.
We find that biographers’ notions of historicity changed over time, emphasis on the miraculous and supernatural events in Muhammad’s life are interpreted differently, and Muhammad’s network of relationships, including successors, companions, and family members gain wider interest during this period. We also find that from the nineteenth century onwards, Muhammad is often framed within the history of ‘great men,’ alongside figures like Jesus, Buddha, or Plato. Descriptions of Muhammad’s life cross a range of genres, such as hagiographical, polemical, political, or seeking to facilitate inter-religious dialogue. In our conversation we just begin to scratch the service of this rich book, including Ibn Ishaq, sexual ethics, revisionism, Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, and young wife, Aisha, Orientalist William Muir, polygamy, attempts to counter perceived Western misinterpretations, marital ideals, and contemporary anti-Muslim animus.
by IMAN SULTAN for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on AUGUST 24, 2015:
Granada is renowned as the last stronghold of Andalusian Muslims before the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition descended on the entire peninsula and drove them out. It is the inspiration of teary poets reminiscing of the bygone Golden Age of the Muslim ummah, and the site of political nostalgia among Muslim nationalists. Recently, it has also become a center of epistemic resistance among people from around the world and across different faith groups, nationalities and academic disciplines.
A program called Critical Muslim Studies (CMS), an intensive two-week summer school, convened there in early June with activists, intellectuals and professors who specialize in liberation theology and believe in utilizing religion and spirituality to achieve political justice. Roberto Hernandez — a Latino professor and activist, who had been involved in the Berkeley student strike of 1999 when students took to the streets because the university was disbanding the Ethnic Studies department — was the director of this program.
The location proved key. Ramon Grosfoguel, an ethnic studies professor and critical scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, explained why we were in Granada. The historical city was not only the last outpost of Muslim civilization in Spain, it was the first victim of colonial modernity that was about to sweep the world, and which the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella were forging. The same tactics used in the Inquisition, he explained, were used in the conquest of the Americas and and in the genocide of indigenous and African peoples. Current-day Granada is fraught with this history and divisive consciousness. Near Plaza Nueva, a public square filled with restaurants and shops, a gigantic statue of Columbus kneeling at Isabella’s feet and giving her his plans for conquest rises into the sky with the beacon of the Alhambra gleaming on the horizon.
Grosfoguel postulated that the Muslim conquest of Iberia was in fact not a conquest, but a liberation. In the 8th century, Spain did not exist as we know it today, but constituted different languages and peoples. The Iberian people were primarily Unitarian Christians and Jews, suffering under the boot of foreign Visigothic rule. An army of 8,000 Muslims (at the most) defeated an army of 150,000 Visigoths in only three years, a seemingly impossible feat. What enabled the Muslims to triumph? The answer lay in the people. The inhabitants of Iberia had not only joined the incoming Muslim armies in liberating themselves, they had also appealed to Morocco several times for help. What resulted? Interfaith relations flourished and there was unity amongst these Mediterranean peoples. The invisible line in the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa, West and East, did not exist at the time, but only appeared with The Inquisition and the advent of colonialism.
In his lyrical and brilliant new book Who is Allah? (UNC Press, 2015), the legendary scholar of Islam Bruce B. Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University, wrestles with the question of Who is Allah? through a dazzling range of textual, aesthetic, and performative registers.
Who is Allah? treats readers to a delectable buffet of the breadth and depth of Muslim spirituality. How do Muslims invoke, remember, define, and debate Allah, while seeking to live a life that accords with His norms and template of piety? That is the central question addressed in this book as Lawrence introduces readers to major facets of Muslim ritual life and intellectual traditions-both past and present. In our conversation, we talked about the idea of “performing Allah,” the intellectual history of the idea of Allah, Allah in the thought of the Muslim mystics Ibn ‘Arabi and Bawa Muhaiyuddin, the mobilization of Allah by Sayyid Qutb and Usama bin Laden, Allah online, and the Indian artist M.F Husain. Who is Allah? is a fascinating page turner that will make a great gift to family, friends, acquaintances and indeed strangers, and that should work splendidly in the context of classroom discussions on Muslim theology, Sufism, ritual practice, performance studies, and the fine arts.
In the historiography on South Asian Islam, the creation of Pakistan is often approached as the manifestation of a vague loosely formulated idea that accidentally emerged as a nation-state in 1947.
In his magisterial new book Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Venkat Dhulipala, Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, thoroughly and convincingly debunks such a narrative. Creating a New Medina is an encyclopedic masterpiece. Through a careful reading of a range of sources, including the religious writings of important 20th-century Muslim scholars, Dhulipala shows ways in which Pakistan was crafted and imagined as “The New Medina” that was to represent the leader and protector of the global Muslim community. What emerges from this thorough examination is a nuanced and complicated picture of the interaction of nationalism, religion, and politics in modern South Asian Islam. In our conversation, we talked about a range of issues including the rise of Muslim nationalism in late colonial India, the contribution of B.R. Ambedkar to the public discussions and debates on Pakistan, ‘Ulama’ discourses and debates on Pakistan, and the partition and its afterlives. This wonderfully written and painstakingly researched book will be of tremendous interest to students and scholars of Muslim politics, nationalism and religion, and South Asian Islam.
The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions (Routledge, 2013) written by Emran El-Badawi, professor and director of the Arab Studies program at the University of Houston, is a recent addition to the field of research on the Qur’an and Aramaic and Syriac biblical texts. Professor El-Badawi asserts that the Qur’an is a product of an environment steeped in the Aramaic gospel traditions. Not a “borrowing” from the Aramaic gospel tradition, but rather the Qur’an contains a “dogmatic re-articulation” of elements from that tradition for an Arab audience.
He introduces and examines this context in the second chapter, and then proceeds to compare passages of the Qur’an and passages of the Aramaic gospel in the subsequent four chapters. These comparisons are organized according to four primary themes: prophets, clergy, the divine, and the apocalypse. Each chapter contains numerous images constituting the larger theme at work. For example in the chapter “Divine Judgment and the Apocalypse,” images of paradise and hell taken from gospel traditions are compared to the Qur’anic casting of these images. Moreover, Professor El-Badawi includes three indices following his concluding chapter that provide a great deal of raw data and textual parallels between the Qur’an and the wide range of sources he has employed.
The value of his work is evidenced by the fact it was nominated for the 2014 British-Kuwait Friendship Society’s Book Prize in Middle Eastern Studies.
In September 2014 the Duke Islamic Studies Center (which manages the Transcultural Islam Project of which TIRN and ISLAMiCommentary is a part), announced its official institutional affiliation with New Books in Islamic Studies — a bi-weekly audio podcast featuring hour long conversations with authors of exciting new research. For an archive see HERE.