*Professor John V. Tolan (historian)
**Professor Mohammad Iqbal Asaria, (academic, economist)
***Jumana Moon (storyteller)
Muhammed (PBUH), the last prophet sent by the divine to humanity, has remained the most
mis-understood and under-valued man this planet has seen. To his followers he symbolises
human perfection, mercy and compassion. To many outside the sphere of Islam, Muhammed
has remained controversial and a subject of vilification. How relevant is Muhammed to
today’s world? How do Muslims view the man they consider “the seal of prophets”? What is
the essence of his message and religion of Islam? What has formed the European view of
him, past and present? Finally, how to reconcile these views in order to create a world with
less hate and more tolerance, and respect for multiculturalism and pluralism?
Tuesday 3rd November 2020
Professor John V. Tolan : Thank you very much. It is a great pleasure to be with you today. I would of course prefer to be with you in London. I hope we can do this another time. I would like to talk about my recent book called Faces of Mohammed : Western perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages Until Today, which I published last year with Princeton University Press. It has also been published in French and a Spanish translation is being prepared.
Last week was the birthday of Prophet Mohammed an occasion for Muslims to honour the Prophet and for non Muslims like myself to reflect on the importance of the Prophet not only for Muslims but to see Muhammed as a key figure in universal history. Today we are at the cross roads of crisis. COVID prevents us from coming together in London and the country France I live in has been struck by a series of terrorist murders because of the continuing controversy of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. So it is a lot more timely to put these issues in perspective as I have attempted to do in my recent book which traces the European portrayals of Islam’s prophet from the Middle Ages until the 20th century.
The book is 300 pages long and I will not be able to do more in my brief talk than give a few examples. I would like to start with some examples from the 19th century and from Jewish intellectuals in 19th century central Europe. We can start with Ignac Goldziher who revolutionised the study of Islam by non Muslim Europeans in two essays written in Hungarian in 1872 – 1873. He portrays Mohammed as the bearer of a universal message of monotheism who struggled to over come tribal divisions among Arabs.
Goldziher at the age of 23 travelled to Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus and Cairo where he became the first non Muslim European enrolled in Al Azhar. He sought out Muslim thinkers especially those interested in reform. In Damascus he met Taher Jazari the 22 year old partisan of Islamic reform in the Arabic cultural renewal. Goldziher enthusiastically joined a group of young reformers round Al Jazari. Their deep friendship and mutual admiration is seen in the many letters that were exchanged between the two.
He developed a similar relationship in Cairo with Jamal El Din Al Afghani whose attempts to reform Islamic doctrine and practise to unite Muslims and resist British imperialism provoked Goldziher’s enthusiasm. He thought it could serve as a model for Jewish reform. He was inspired by Islam during his studies in Al Azhar living in Muslim Egypt.
He says: “In those weeks in Al Azhar I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim and judicially discovered that in this religion even in its official doctrinal formulations satisfied philosophic minds. My idea was to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level. My experience of Islam taught me that it is the only religion in which superstitious and hedian ingredients are not frowned upon by rationalism.” He goes on to say that he believed in Muhammad’s prophecies and diligently read his Quran.
He sees Christianity as an abonomible religion largely because of the anti Semitic legends invented by Christian authors which he says engendered the worst forms of fanaticism. So he saw Islam and the reform Islam represented by Al Afghani and others as a possible model for the reform of Judaism.
When he returned to Budapest he wrote against the thesis of El Nest who in the French Orientalist pool wrote in 1869 that I am the first person to recognise that the Semitic race compared to the Indo European race really represents an inferior mix of human nature. For him the Semitic race included both Jews and Arabs and he based this on this idea on the fact that Indo Europeans who were polytheist were open to multiple possibilities and rationalism because they could imagine different possibilities where the mono theistic Semites would be inferior because they did not possess mythology.
Goldziher had no trouble showing how false that was in his 1876 book on myth among Jews then in his 1893 book he had friendly exchanges with Renoir but he strongly disagreed with him. He at the same time acknowledged his contributions.
Edward Said thinks Renoir was the most important orientalist of this period when in fact Goldziher had refuted him decisively and orientalists from Goldziher onwards saw Goldziher as a much more important figure than Renoir. Goldziher does not pay much attention to the German orientalists.
He returned to Hungary and worked in the synagogue and then eventually became a professor of Arabic in Budapest. This was one of a number of synagogues built in the 19th century in a Moorish style with towers that could be minarets and architectural details inspired by Arab architecture. We see a number of these. The synagogue of Leipzig was in similar neo-Moorish style or the synagogue in Vienna or the Neue Synagogue in Berlin.
Now most of these synagogues were subsequently destroyed by the Nazis but one can still visit the one in Budapest. There were synagogues in Moorish style and formed part of what has been called the allure of the Sephadic by John Efren or what I have called the Andalusia of the mind. These European Jews were now free legally. They were equal to their Christian counterparts. They were free to buy land and to build impressive synagogues which they had not been before. Some of these synagogues were built in the Moorish style because they saw Islam as a civilisation that had been friendly to Judaism and had allowed Judaism to flourish. Whereas in the 19th century Europe they had new found freedoms but they also strong anti-Semitism. So this idealisation of Islam within Jewish intellectual circles.
Another Jewish intellectual who was particularly interested in Islam and the Prophet Mohammed was Gustav Vile who had studied in Heidelburg. His grandfather was a rabbi in the reform movement and his parents wanted him to become a rabbi as well. He studied Arabic and went to Algeria where the French troops were conquering Algeria. He accompanied the French army as a reporter for German publications and then travelled to Cairo and Istanbul, learned Arabic and became interested in Islam. He translated the Thousand and One Nights into German. He wrote a number of books on the Quran and a biography of the Prophet where he presents Mohammed as a great reformer and a pure monotheist.
He says that Mohamed was probably indebted for his religious education to a man Warka his wife’s cousin who abandoning the religion of Arabia his native country had sought refuge first in Judaism then in Christianity though in the later years he had not found perfect satisfaction. This man was urged forward after an irresistible desire for the knowledge of truth but as repeated postures were to show he has a sceptical nature and may have discovered the errors that crept into all religious systems having extracted that which is purely divine and freed it from the inventions of man.
Waraka is presented by the Muslims as a monotheist but neither a Jew nor a Christian. He is presented as someone who as sought spiritual truth in Judaism and Christianity but was not satisfied with either of those religions. He then found Mohammed and Islam. So this account is very much in tune with his spirituality as a European Jew who is unsatisfied with both Judaism and Christianity in Europe and sees his own imagination of early Islam as a much purer form of monotheism.
He says in another book: “Islam is the Judaism without the many rituals and ceremonial laws which according to Mohammed or Christianity without the cruxfication and resurrection. In other words for him Islam preached by Mohammed was a much purer form of monotheism.
So I have looked at a few examples of what German Jewish intellectuals said about Mohammed and the Quran in the 19th century because they for me give a good example of how to portray the confrontation between Christian Europe and the Muslim east and what we need to do is to try and show the richness and complexity of these things.
Now let me in the time that is left to me go through chronologically some of the other subjects that I have looked at in my book. One of them is the portrayal of Mohammed as a founder of a heretical branch of Christianity. This is how many Christian authors portray him starting in the Middle Ages in the 12th century in various works in Latin including Gibel. He wrote a history of the first Crusade justifying the crusade in which gave a very brief biography of Mohammed in which he said Mohammed created false miracles to trick the Arabs into following him and we see a 5th century painting of two of these miracles.
He is supposed to have trained a dove to eat grains out of his ear and then said this was the angel Gabriel giving him revelations. He then wrote his book the Quran and tied in to the horns of a bull which appeared as if miracously in the crowd. And all these fake miracles were meant to ridicule Islam and its prophet and also to explain the tremendous success of Islam to a Christian European audience. These legends were forged in the Middle Ages but they had a long life ahead of them.
These polemical images of Muhammad’s fake miracles continued and took new life and new forms in the modern period in 1687. There is an almanac in which we see a caricature of Calvin and Mohammed from a Catholic perspective. Mohammed the imposter, Calvin the seducer. Both of these from the Catholic point of view are believed to be heretics and they both end up in hell with their followers attacking them for having misled them. Attacking Calvin and Mohammed together was a way for this French chiaroscurist to attack Calvinism in particular as the threat for French Catholics was Protestantism rather than Catholicism. The twining of the two made sense from this point to denigrate Calvin and Protestantism.
A contemporary author Henry Stubb an English author had a very different view. In 1671 he wrote the Origin and Progress of Mohammadism and presents the prophet as a pure monotheist who led the Arabs out of idolatry and understood that Christianity had been corrupted by the doctrine of the trinity and the cult of saints, the worship of the virgin Mary and above all the source of this problem for him was the power of the clergy. Christianity had this powerful clergy which tried to trick people into accepting these irrational doctrines so they could exploit people for their own power and wealth.
And what Mohammed did according to Henry Stubb argued was to abolish the power of the clergy and establish a pure relationships between God and man. He had an extremely positive view of Mohammed. He does it in a very polemical way because what he is trying to do is to criticise Christianity and the Anglican Church and its privileged relationship with the English crown.
And we see the same strategy used in the following century by a number of French writers. They attacked the Catholic church and its relationship with the French crown by presenting Mohammed as a destroyer or idols. They say that Muhammad saw the bishops, priests and secular clergy as a real problem and what had corrupted Christianity. This is an indirect way to criticise the catholic church and the power that they had in 18th century France.
In 1734 there was a new translation of the Quran in English published in London by George Sale which was a remarkable translation. It was far better than anything else that was available in English but it was the first time a European author published a translation of the Quran. Previous translations had stated be careful this is a heretical book and Mohammed was a false prophet. In the introduction George Sale presents Mohammed in much the same way that Stubb had as a man who had been admired and loved by those around him and who had brought them to monotheism and how he had established a pure form of monotheism far better than the Christianity and the Judaism that he found around him.
And this Quran had a tremendous influence in European intellectual circles. Voltaire bought it and read it. Goethe read it. Thomas Jefferson bought a copy. He left it the Library of Congress. And when Keith Alison became the first Muslim member of the American Congress he decided he wanted to be sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.
Napoleon was also an admirer of Mohammed and saw him as a great conqueror and as a great law giver. In the US Supreme Court there is a phrase of all world 18 law givers and here we see Mohammed as one of the world’s great law givers. This was an image that was prevalent in 19th century Europe. So there is much ambivalence in Europeans view of Mohammed, much of it is negative but not all far from it. There are many positive images of Mohammed but they were always see through European eyes and brought to bear on cultural conflicts. So these are a few of the texts and images I have looked at in my book.
Chairman: This book is very interesting. We could have a whole session devoted to it. Muslims themselves have varying perspectives on the Prophet Mohammed, the different theological schools and madhabs. For me one of the most intriguing quotes I have come across was from Imam Jaffar Sadiq. This was a very mystical connection and link. “When the Messenger of Allah was taken for the ascension angel Gabriel took him to a place and left him there alone. He asked why do you leave me in such a condition. Gabriel said go on by Allah you have stepped in a place where no other human has stepped and no human has ever walked before you.” There is the worldly dimension to the Prophet Mohammed but there is also a metaphysical dimension which is intriguing.
Mohamed Iqbal Asaria: In a sense the Prophet is a competitor to all the other prophets who had gone before. Then somebody has come and upstaged them. Some of the people you referred to have been very honest and realised his character and his message. What I want to do today very briefly is to say that what is the message we can get from the life of the beloved Prophet? There are a number of characteristics of the Prophet which are often challenged.
One of them is that he became through his character before announcing Islam as one of integrity who was truthful. That is why his enemies, including to this day, could not say that he is lying because his character was such that he did not lie. So most people resorted to saying that either he has gone mad or something like that. This is very important to bear in mind because when his followers who were around him were so absorbed in his spirit they were very much willing to take ownership of what he was saying.
That is the first point. The second is that Allah describes the Prophet in the Quran as the mercy to the whole of creation not only mankind. This is a very important attribute. When we look at the history of most Prophets we find one very strange characteristic. We find that towards the end of their lives they become quite disappointed with their followers. Prophets like Nabi Noah and Issa who said Oh God I have done my job. Please destroy these people or relieve me of them. I have not got any more energy to do much more.
But here is a prophet who after a life-long struggle, denegation, abuse – his only prayer at the end of it is O Allah please redeem my ummah. My love for the ummah is such that anybody who ever came close to me needs redeeming. The character of the Prophet is quite strong and very impressive.
One of the other characteristics that I want to emphasise is that he is mentioned as the noblest of examples. He is the noble example of mankind. What was his character? What kind of impact does it have on the Muslims of the time?
And here we see a number of quite interesting episodes. Because I am an economist I have quite a deep interest in the study of trade and finance and so on. Those of you who have studied his life will know that for most of his life he was a trader. Essentially he used to work in selling goods taking them from one place to another. And if he said that he had been robbed there was complete confidence and people would believe him.
That is the character that he was building and when he said that I have now brought a new religion, I am Allah’s Prophet, people could just not say ‘no’ because they knew this man never lies. He has integrity in everything. There is a saying that if you want to know somebody well, enter into a trade relationship with them. See how they behave, especially if there is a loss.
So this translates to his followers. And we find one incident which is really amazing. When the Muslim migrate from Mecca to Medina the Prophet takes the hand of one of the immigrants and puts in into the hand of one of the residents. He says you are brothers share everything you have.
Can you imagine somebody saying today you are brothers. I have got the money and you have only yourself. Somebody says share everything you have with them. And they do it. Those people did it. That is the character of the people that he could even transform people to the extent that they were willing to share everything they had just because the prophet said.
Obviously there is a greater purpose in sharing. Today with this COVID pandemic climate change and other issues we see that sharing is going to be instrumental if we are going to pull out of it.
The next thing I want to say is that there is something which is brought out by the Maghrebi sociologist/historian Ibn Khaldun. His speciality was the study of history seeing how history advanced. In his book which is called the Mukadama (The introduction to the history of world) we are only looking at the introduction. That are three volumes for the introduction and the book comes after that.
He outlines a theory of history. He says that either people are very traditional farmers or whatever and they do their own thing and they live their own lives. Sometimes they come together in a place and then they specialise. Some people do farming and some do other things and then they exchange. And through this exchange slowly life builds up and it becomes more complex and interesting. You build urban centres and so on. And these people are young and stronger than others. And then we they become too rich they start to hire mercenaries to do their fighting and protection for them. And then eventually these mercenaries take over because they say there guys are not contributing anything.
He identifies a number of forces in the historical process and the key thing he sees is asabia which means blood relations. We know from our study of early Muslim history and the Prophet’s life and what we call jahalia. The key thing about jahalia was that it was based on a tribal system. In that system if somebody from your tribe did something it was deemed to be correct no matter what it was. So if the other tribe was complaining it had to be punished. You did not question the integrity of your own tribe.
Now this became a challenge for the Prophet. Most of his initial companions were not from his tribe, they were not from the Quraish. They were from the peripheries of society. So if you look at Amar or Bilal they were not from the key core tribes of that region. They were from the peripheries. They were not noble in our sense. They have become the key supporters of the Prophet. His religion is no good for us. But he was able to slowly explain to them that tribe was not the basis of organisation. His moral presence was such that he was able to change the tribe into an ummah – a community of believers. So we see that there is no difference between an Arab and an ajam. He removed all of these barriers.
Ibn Khaldun says that this goes against the flow of history. I have studied history of thousands of years and nobody has been able to remove that kind of barrier. It is this spark which the Prophet brought which led to the rapid growth of Islam. The tribal sentiments re-emerged and tried to reassert themselves. The Ben Umayyad tried to unseat the other Muslims and the imam and so on.
But what the Prophet left was that there was always a corrective mechanism. The people
could say that this is not the Prophet’s way. The Prophet said that you cannot do this on the basis of tribe or caste. This is what I call the moral compass and that is what I think is the most relevant for us today. The moral compass the Prophet has left always provides us with the corrective mechanism for integrity from trust worthiness.
Today there are 40 or 50 people watching. If Sayed Mushin Abbas comes and says look guys we are on the right track and we are going to defeat the whole world. What do we all say? We would say the guy has gone totally crazy. Now imagine that you have a handful of Bedouins, I am the messenger, we are on the right path, I brought this message and he starts sending letters to the Persian Emperor and the Roman Emperor saying look guys I am the messenger, you better believe in Allah or you will perish. They said he was crazy.
But you see that within 100 years of his coming Islam has spread from Spain to China. Can you see the power? Can you see us 50 people finishing the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans and spreading the message to the whole world. That is the power that we need to imagine. That is the power of truth, of the righteous path which he brought. A lot of people think that Islam was spread by conquest. How can 300 people defeat big empires like the Roman or the Persian.
Peter Jay has written a book on trade and commerce. He says Islam is a religion that was predominantly spread by commerce. Commerce has been at the heart. We saw that the whole of the Silk Route at some stage was monopolised by Muslims until the sea route was discovered. Then you had colonialism and everything else.
So I just want to be put forward the thesis that the moral compass brought by the Prophet stands us in good stead even today. In fact more and more the challenges which we are facing now require a belief in corporation and the common good. That if we contribute we are only contributing to the common good.
It is like the ansar and the muhajareen. You have to be ready to share with the belief that greater good will come from this sharing and that is the moral compass which it brings. There are people who want to denigrate the Prophet and take the law in their own hands by engaging in atrocities which are unacceptable. This is not the way the Prophet deals with things. In fact after one battle there is a treaty. The agreement is that if somebody strays into Muslim territory they will just free him again. And it is such a one sided treaty that some of the companions said we have actually won. Why do we give them such kinds of concessions. He says from this treatment you will see a greater good. So the Prophet’s message and his moral compass is in corporation, in understanding, in tolerance greater good will come out. I think this is my small submission. Salam Aleikum.
Chairman: it is very interesting that you brought in commerce. There is a quote I am going to give from Le Faust De Matier (1790 – 1869). A French historian. If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammed: philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of rational beliefs a founder of 20 terrestrial empires and one spiritual empire. That is Muhammed as regards all standards by which human greatness can be measured we may well ask is there any man greater than he. That is a fantastic response from a Frenchman.
Jumana Moon: This has been such a busy month, the month of the Prophet’s birthday. We have had so many different events and for me this is a time when I tell so many stories from the life of the Prophet and it is such a great honour and pleasure to do this. I spent some time thinking about what story to tell tonight and I kept coming back to a story which is a very previous story at the heart of Islamic tradition. It feels really special to share it tonight.
In the name of God the beneficent and merciful, praise be to the cherisher and sustainer of the world and prayers and blessings on the noblest of messengers. A little to the north of Mecca is a place where there lie many rugged low hills. The rock is craggy and barren and nothing grows there. The rock is furrowed and grooved by the sun and the wind and the sand. The rock has subtle shades of ochre light yellow and when the setting sun falls on the rock it seems to glow a little more orange.
Dotted throughout those rocky craggy hills are caves and we pick up this thread during the days of Prophet Muhammed in his 40th year. Now during this time there was a tradition of many people going during the month of Ramadan to seek hilwa, to seek solitary retreat in those caves.
And Nabi Mohammed had a practise of doing the same thing and the place where he sought solitary seclusion was the cave of Herat. It was up a narrow winding path a good hours climb. The entrance to the cave did not look out on the rest of the hills. You had to climb up and down into it. The entrance was a little hidden, a little concealed.
And Mohammed upon him be peace would stay in this cave for many hours emersed in contemplation. When we pick up this thread in his 40th year he had been in seclusion in the cave of Herat for many days during the month of Ramadan. And now we are reaching the end of the month around the 27th day and Mohammed is as usual in seclusion in the cave deeply emersed in contemplation surrounded by rock and stone outside of the cave or Herat surrounded by silence and sky.
And suddenly the cave is filled with the most beautiful light. It is dazzling almost too dazzling to look at the beauty is so exquisite. And Nabi Mohammed he knows he is in the presence of an angel. And angel Gibril stands before him glorious. And he says one word to him ‘read’. And Mohammed says I am not one who reads, I am not one who proclaims and now the angel catches hold of Mohammed and holds him so tight until he is almost the end of his endurance and then he says to him once more read, proclaim. And Mohammed he replies I am not one who reads. I am not one who proclaims. Three times in total the angel commands him and three times Mohammed declines. And the third time the angel Gibril holds him so tight it is as if his heart breaks open and he is finally able to utter the words the angel has come to give him. Proclaim, read in the name of your cherisher and sustainer who created humans from a mere cloth of congealed blood, read and proclaim and your cherisher and sustainer is the most generous who has taught thee the use of the pen and who has taught human kind that which they did not know.
As soon as Prophet Mohammed had uttered those words the angel disappeared. That dazzling light, that exquisite light all the glory gone. The cave was once more dark and still and Nabi Mohammed was once more alone in that cave surrounded by rock and stone and silence. Everything was as it had been before but now everything was completely different and changed forever.
Mohammed left the cave of Herat shaken and he went straight home to Khadija his wife. He shook with awe of what had happened in the cave and he said envelop me wrap me comfort me. Khadija clear sighted, steadfast and strong she took his cloak and she wrapped it around him and she listened to him as he began to speak.
He told her that he feared for his life. He told her he had not understood what had happened. She said Allah would never disgrace you and at this moment she believed in him and she trusted him and she became the first Muslim. Soon the rest of the household joined her. And Muhammed became the one who is wrapped up in that cloak given by Khadija. Wrapped up in the awe of revelation and the care and protection of his blessed wife.
So from that day in the cave of Herat the Angel returned over the next 23 years of the Prophet’s life to bring the rest of the revelations of the Quran and Mohammed became the seal of the Prophets, the beloved of God.
*John Victor Tolan John Tolan works on the history of religious and cultural relations between the Arab and Latin worlds in the Middle Ages and on the history of religious interaction and conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He studied at Yale (BA classics), University of Chicago (MA & PhD history) and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (HDR). He has taught in various universities in North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; he is currently professor of History at the University of Nantes and member of the Academia Europæa and the Reial Acadèmia de Bones Lletres de Barcelona. He has received several prizes and distinctions, including two major grants from the European Research Council and the Prix Diane Potier-Boès from the Académie Française (2008). He is author of numerous articles and books, including Petrus Alfonsi and his Medieval Readers (1993) Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (2002), Sons of Ishmael (2008), Saint Francis and the Sultan (2009), and Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (2019). He is one of the four coordinators of the European Research Council program “The European Qur’an” (2019-2025; euqu.eu).
**Mohamed Iqbal Asaria, was a member of the working party set up by the Governor of The Bank of England to look into issues relating to the introduction of Islamic financial products in the UK. He was previously a resource person on International Financial Institutions and GATT/WTO for the Third World Network. He provided specialist advice on International financial flows, multi-lateral lending and international trade (1985 – 1995); and served as Chairman of the influential World Bank – NGO Committee (1985 – 1990). He was awarded the CBE in the 2005 Queen’s honours list for services to international development. Since 2005, he has been Special Advisor on Business & Economic Affairs to the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain. Iqbal teaches post graduate courses in Islamic Finance, Banking and Insurance at several leading UK universities.
*** Jumana Moon is a storyteller particularly inspired by stories from Muslim folk & sacred tradition as well as stories, myths & legends from Briton & beyond. Jumana grew up between Bruxelles, Lome and rural Buckinghamshire, her imagination fed by a good, rich diet of story, mythology, folktales and the changing landscapes she lived in. She lost neither the love of traveling or stories and now is a storyteller with a particular love of stories from Islamic tradition and heritage – as well as folk tales from Muslim countries and communities and stories from the rich canon of devotional poetry. For the last 5 years she has worked with Jewish Storyteller Adele Moss developing an interfaith partnership. Jumana has an enduring love of stories from the British and European folk traditions and Greek mythology. Last autumn Jumana and another Walthamstow based storyteller, Mike Forbes, set up ‘Stowtellers – the Walthamstow Storytelling Club’. Jumana works as a psychotherapist for a women’s counselling service in east London.