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Modern Trends in Sirah Writings

Modern Trends in Sirah Writings

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Published by Waqas Ahmed
A comparative analysis of several modern books in English language on the life of the Noble Prophet Muhammad
A comparative analysis of several modern books in English language on the life of the Noble Prophet Muhammad

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Published by: Waqas Ahmed on Jun 02, 2011
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Living in the Time of Prophecy: Internalized Sirah TextsMuzaffar Iqbal
Modern Sirah texts are deeply affected by the formidable historical currents thathave shaped the post-colonial Muslim world. The intellectual rigor of some of these texts notwithstanding, the trend that dominates most nineteenth and earlytwentieth century Sirah works is one that works to justify and apologize. Muslimintellectuals of this period were generally reacting against two centuries of colonial dominance; with few exceptions, their characterizations of the life of theProphet were attempts to rationalize the miracles mentioned in classical works of Sirah, omit events which would be considered
in the politicalclimate of their times, and more generally introduce an
modeof so-called scientific objectivity borrowed from the intellectual apparatus of Orientalism.During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Sirah texts started to move awayfrom these political, social, and intellectual burdens. This relief made it possiblefor a few writers to produce remarkably vivid accounts of the entire Propheticera, recapturing the intimacy that was the hallmark of classical Sirah texts. A necessary step in writing such Sirah was the personal internalization of thatunique period in human history when the last of Allah
s prophets lived on earth.The present paper examines this process of internalization, which allowed these writers to produce works that read as if the writers
and their responsivereaders
living in the time of prophecy
. The paper explores characteristicfeatures of the process of internalization as
read back
in the works produced bythis process.
 A defining feature of modern
Sirah texts
indeed of all branches of Islamic studies
is the emergence of 
lay scholars
There are numerous historical, social, and political reasons for this, but one over-archingfactor is Muslim encounter with the West. The French occupation of Egypt and the south of Syria (1798-18O1), and the long British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, which formerly came under theBritish crown in 1857, and colonization of other parts of the Muslim world all have had decisive influenceon the field of Islamic studies in general and Sirah studies in particular. For the first time in Muslimhistory, Europe had direct contact with a very large number of Muslims and Western civilization began todirectly influence Muslim daily life in a manner that had not been experienced before. Sirah texts of thenineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflect various facets of this impact.Most of these lay scholars were actually appalled by the state of their people and, for the most part,they uncritically accepted the European verdict
even condemnation
of their own history, culture,civilization, and intellectual tradition. To be sure, most of them retained a firm faith, but intellectualfoundation of faith was severely damaged. Many of these lay scholars also became aware of the Europeanattacks on the life of the Noble Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and this painful recognition
Muzaffar Iqbal, President, Center for Islam and Science. Email: muzaffar5O@gmail.com.
is used in this paper to denote the period beginning with the nineteenth century.
here means those who are not fully-trained in Islamic studies through traditionalchannels b
ut who entered the field from “outside”, that is, their primarily training was in a
field other than Islamic subjects, or those who had a rudimentary madrasa education beforeentering modern educational system.
prompted them to write
defensive works
In addition to
defensive texts
, these trends yielded (i)motivational and inspirational works, which attempted to awaken Muslims and prompted them to action;(ii) apologetic and polemical works using a rational approach which flattened
and in many casesdiscarded
anything that did not fit the scientific rationalism then reigning supreme in Europe; and (iii)Sirah texts which reflect strong impact of modern Western political and social theories.Many authors of these Sirah works were literary critics, writers, poets, intellectuals, and scholarstrained in humanities through a Western-style education. They read the works of European writers on thelife of the Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, and in order to respond, adopted their methodologiesand frameworks. More often than not, they found faults with traditional understanding of Sirah works,criticized the
aspects of these accounts and explained away the miraculous in order to fittheir conception of the life of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, within a rational framework.Many simply claimed that the only mira
cle of the Prophet was the Qurʾān.
They used logical argumentsto discard a good part of traditional understanding of Sirah texts.This is not to deny the existence of Sirah works during this era which continued to use the traditionalunderstanding,
but to underscore the dominant trend which gained force with the passage of time somuch so that one can genuinely speak of a flowering of modern Sirah texts during the first three decadesof the twentieth century. No doubt, these writers were personally filled with the love of the Prophet, asevery Muslim is, but their education and more importantly their obsession of the so-called
deeply influenced their understanding of prophethood and consequently their attempts to studythe life of the Prophet
led to reductionism and distortions.This trend is most apparent in the works of Egyptian Sirah writers of the first half of the twentiethcentury many of whom had gone to Europe for education, although it is not limited to them. Others wereliterary figures who ventured into the domain of Sirah either to
the Prophet,
or to find somenew facet in his personality (e.g. socialism and heroism).
 During this same time period, non-Muslim, mostly Western, tradition of Sirah went through its owntransformation: The expansion of European knowledge of other cultures through travel and trade duringthe eighteenth century and European understanding of the Muslim world through colonization in thenineteenth century, coupled with the forces of rationalization and Enlightenment served to transform
“Muslim discovery of the West,” W. C. Smith once commented, “was in large part a paineddiscovery of Western antipathy to Islam”. W. C. Smith,
 Islam in Modern History
. p. 77. A good
example of such a work is Sayyid Ahmad Khan‖s
 A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed andSubjects Subsidiary Thereto
, London. 1870.
For example, in the last story of the third volume of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn‖s
ăAlā hāmish al
, it is denied
that the Prophet performed miracles. See Ṭāhā Ḥusayn‖s
ăAlā hāmish al
Sīra, part III,
 p. 238.
These include, for instance,
Sīra al
-Nabawiyya wa al-
 Āthār al
(1875) by AḥmadZainī; al
 Mawāhib al
; Muḥammad al
 Nūr al
For instance, the motivation for Tawf 
q al-
s 1936 play,
, came from his
encounter with Voltair‖s play
 Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète
. ʿAbbās Maḥmūd al
 wrote his
ăAbqariyyat Muḥammad
The Genius of Muḥammad)
because he was motivated to do so
after reading Carlyle‖s “The Hero as Prophet”; for references
to original works and comments,see Antonie Wessels,
 A Modern Arabic Biography of Muḥammad: A Critical Study of Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal’s Ḥayāt Muḥmmad
hereinafter Wessels,
 A Modern Biography
Leiden: E. J. Brill,1972, p. 10-15.
For instance, Maḥmūd Shalabī,
 Ishtirākiyyat Muḥammad
The Socialism of Muḥammad
), which was
“inspired” by a speech of the Egyptian president Jamāl ʿAbd al
Nāṣir, “who commented onthe lack of a study of the socialism of Muḥammad”; or ʿAbd al
Raḥmān ʿAzzām‖s
 Baṭal al
 abṭāl aw abrāz ḧifāt al
 nabī Muḥammad
The Hero of Heroes or the Most Prominent Attributes of Prophet
); Wessels,
 A Modern Biography
, pp. 27-34.
open missionary hostility
toward Islam and Muslims into Orientalism proper, which claimed to studyIslam and its Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, scientifically. Major works which redefined theparameters of discourse include works by Simon Ockley (
 History of the Saracens
, 1708
18), Edward Gibbon(
 History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
, 1776
87) and Thomas Carlyle (
The Hero as Prophet, Mahomed
, 1840). These were the so-called
sympathetic works
which approached the Prophet, upon himpeace and blessings a historical figure who had played a part in world events and not as a diabolicdeceiver driven by depravity and greed. The emergence of Orientalism was fostered by the establishmentof chairs of Arabic (Leiden, 1613; Cambridge, 1632; Oxford, 1634), the compilation of Arabicdictionaries and grammars (especially that of Silvestre de Sacy, 1810), and the acquisition and study of numerous manuscripts from the Middle East. The material resources available to the Western scholarsincreased considerably. This increase led Ernest Renan to state confidently that
one can say withoutexaggeration that the problem of the origins of Islam has definitely
now been completely resolved…
Thelife of its founder is as well known to us as that of any sixteenth-century reformer. We can follow year by year the fluctuations of his thoughts, his contradictions, his weaknesses . . .
This understanding of the Western scholars of the Prophet being in the
full light of history
was tobe replaced within the course of the twentieth century to its opposite: the Western scholarship was to goon the
quest for historical Muhammad
this took place through a number of important shifts whichincluded an assault on the sources of Prophetic biography by men like Ignaz Goldziher, who passed the
 verdict that Ḥadīth cannot be trusted as a historical document
; Joseph Schacht, who emphasized that
toa much higher degree than hitherto suspected, seemingly historical information on the Prophet is onlythe background for legal doctrines and therefore devoid of independent value
and Henri Lammens who argued that all we know about the Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, consists of a few allusionstaken fro
m the Qurʾān and elaborated into stories
. Others who had impact on the Westernunderstanding of Sirah include Regis Blachere, Montgomery Watt, Rudolf Sellheim, F. E. Peters, PatriciaCrone and Michael Cook. Against this background and dominant trend, a remarkable development in Sirah writing emergedduring the last quarter of the twentieth century, which attempted to recapture the intimacy andtraditional understanding of the original source-texts which had been shadowed by the modernistictrends. This development was further helped by the overall political, social, and intellectual revivalism of the Muslim world toward at the beginning of the fifteenth Islamic century
a time which heralded theemergence of the contemporary Muslim world and closed the period of three centuries of siesta. In fact,one can call the turn of the fourteenth Islamic century a watershed, marking the closure of the lowestintellectual and political mark in Muslim history and heralding a period of awakening which like all suchchanges is currently characterized by a great of confusion, chaos, violence, and intellectual anarchy, but which, nevertheless, has all the ingredients and signs of a turning point in world history, which might as well be a decisive event for the whole humanity.
These works, called
Internalized Sirah Texts
in this
Displayed by men like Bede (), who considered Muslims a “plague of Saracens”; Charlemagne‖s
son Louis
, who called Muslims detestable followers of the commandments of the demons”.
E. Renan, “Mahomet et les origins de l‖Islamisme‖,
 Revue des deux mondes
, 12 (1851):1065, quoted
by Robert Hoyland, “Writing the Biography of the Prophet Muhamm
ad: Problems and
Solutions” in
 History Compass
5/2 (2007) 581-602.
F. E. Peters, “
The Q
uest of the Historical Muhammad,”
 International Journal of Middle East Studies
, Vol. 23, No. 3. (August, 1991), pp. 291-315.
It might well be a prelude to the
unfolding of the “greater signs” as Mustafa Badawi has pointed
out in his insightful
 Man and his Universe
, for most of the “minor signs have alreadymanifested”. See, Mustafa Badawi,
 Man and his Universe
(Amman: Iqra publishers, 2006).

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