In the following piece, Joseph Preville, an American author living in Oman, interviews Jonathan A.C. Brown, an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Brown is the author of Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction and discusses the book, his inspiration for writing it, and his personal faith.
Preville: Was this a challenging project for you?
Jonathan Brown (JB): Yes it was very challenging indeed. It’s very difficult to write about something that is at the heart of your own faith, crucial to the faith of over a billion people worldwide, and yet so hotly contested from both a scholarly and political angle. I tried to write a book that would help Muslims learn about the Prophet by understanding his [historical] context and legacy while also answering all the questions that non-Muslims might have in an accurate way. It’s also challenging because the [volume of the] body of literature, popular practice and scholarly work on the Prophet…One has to make tough choices about what one can address and at what depth.
Preville: What problems do historians encounter in writing about Muhammad and the origins of Islam?
JB: Well, basically, Western historians face the challenge of to what extent the Muslim narrative of the Prophet’s life is historically reliable. How do you tell the story of a figure like the Prophet while simultaneously questioning the reliability of the story? Do you simply give a secularized, materialist account of his life? Do you tell the Muslim perspective and then offer a separate analysis? Sadly, the extent to which Western historians have been sucked into these questions has led them to neglect the most important aspect of the Prophet’s legacy: what he has meant to Muslims. You could sit and obsess over whether or not Ibn Ishaq’s Sira is historically reliable, but you’d still miss out on telling people about the story of the spider weaving its web over the cave during the Hijra – it’s not in that source or most of the other early Sira accounts. But it’s one of the most salient and identifiable stories that Muslims all know about the Prophet. You’d never talk about the Burda poem or Mawlid celebrations or the role of prayer upon the Prophet in Muslim prayer and juma sermons.
Preville: Do you agree with Fred M. Donner (Muhammad and the Believers, Harvard University Press, 2010) that Muhammad established an ecumenical “community of Believers” in Madinah?
JB: This is hard question to answer for me because Professor Donner was one of my teachers, and I respect him a great deal as a scholar and a person. I told him when I was his student, and I still maintain today, that I think his thesis is wrong. The Quran clearly states over and over again that the followers of the Prophet have to follow his religious edicts. Think of the verse that says “wa man yushaqiq al-rasul min ba’da ma tabayyana lahu al-huda wa yattabi’ ghayr sabil al-mu’minin nuwallihi ma tawalla wa nuslihi jahannama…” (4:115). If the early Muslim community was an open community of “the believers (mu’minun)”, you still had to follow the Prophet’s religious teachings to a T. Sure, to the extent that Islam was a religion revealed over 23 years, you could be a Jew or Christian and also Muslim, but that would gradually end as the Muslim identity was completely revealed. So before Friday became the Muslim day of communal prayer, a formerly-Jewish Muslim might still honor Saturday as the Sabbath. But once Juma was announced, he’d have to stop. There is no example that I know of someone who was a follower of the Prophet but said, “You know, I know you’re a Prophet, but I’d really like to still eat pork. Is that ok?” If you disagreed with the Prophet on religious matters you were expelled from the Muslim community.
Also, just because a Bedouin unit of the Muslim army conquering Iran didn’t have a clear idea of what the Muslim identity was doesn’t mean that that identity had not been fully formed. Ask U.S. military officers if every grunt on the ground knows exactly why they are there fighting or exactly what the Constitution says. Professor Donner is a wonderful person, and he longs for a world of ecumenical peace and understanding. I think his good intentions have led him to read that vision into the past. Allahu A’lam.
Preville: How will your book encourage readers to seek a deeper understanding and appreciation of Muhammad and Islam?
JB:I hope that my book will de-exoticize the Prophet for Western readers. I also hope it will make them realize that, for non-Muslims, it’s not really about the Prophet but about what he means to Muslims. That’s what they have to appreciate, and doing so will improve their ability to understand and empathize with Muslims.
Preville: How did writing this book touch your own life and spirituality?
JB: I would not phrase it in that way. I would say that this book came out of me trying to answer questions that I have always had as both an American and a Muslim and trying to build a better bridge between those two parts of my identity. It was more exorcizing the demons of unclarity than an exercise (riyadha) in my spirituality. That’s probably too dramatic, but what I mean is that all my books and speeches come out of questions and anxieties that I have and that I want to answer. I’ve found that there are others with the same questions or concerns, and that my work can be of use to them as well.
Jonathan A. C. Brown is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He was educated at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic Law and the author of several books, including, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).
Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Oman. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Saudi Gazette, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, emel, and Tikkun.