The Guardian today reports that the former PM Tony Blair has chosen Martin Lings’ wonderful biography of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.S.) as one of the nine books he would want to have with him if he was stranded on a desert island.
You can see the full list of nine books that Blair selected here. The reason Blair gives for selecting Lings’ biography is that it shows how the Prophet “was disowned by his home city, fought constant battles against the interests and ideas aligned against him but finally triumphed by the simple, direct but profound force of ideas.” Do you think that Blair perhaps thinks of himself as some kind of prophet?
Anyway, Lings’ book is a good choice. I have bought a number of biographies of the Prophet Muhammad over the years including those by Shibli Numani, W. Montgomery Watt (whom I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing back in 1997 for Trends), Karen Armstrong, Maxime Rodinson, Tariq Ramadan, M. Husayn Haykal, Tahia al-Ismail, Abdul Hameed Siddiqui etc but none of them really come close to Lings’ masterpiece.
I was appalled when I saw that an edition of Lings’ book which I had bought in Saudi Arabia some years ago had a couple of short passages removed – presumably because they clashed with the official Saudi state religious doctrine. Yet another black mark against giving religious scholars any sort of veto over what we can and cannot be allowed to read.
As it happens, earlier this week I ordered the updated paperback edition of Blair’s own autobiography The Journey from Amazon. I have come to regard Blair as basically a warmongering neo-con maniac but still decided it was necessary to read about someone who was arguably the most dominant political influence on UK politics for the past fifteen years.
Anyway, Blair’s choice of Desert Island books comes in the same week as the BBC announced that it was to broadcast a three part documentary ‘The Life of Muhammad’ to be presented by Rageh Omaar.
I have over the years read the Old Testament (well the first five ‘books of Moses’ anyway), the New Testament as well as the Qur’an (many times by a number of different English translators).
The Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible – were historically very interesting reading but I found the text to be very worldly and not very spiritual at all. There is almost no mention of the Hereafter which can come as a bit of a shock to Muslim sensibilities, accustomed by the Qur’an to remind ourselves constantly of the effect of our every word and action on our ultimate fate in the Hereafter.
I read the four gospels of Jesus at the age of fifteen as I lay in hospital recovering from an operation to remove my appendix. On my hospital bedside table was a New Testament provided by the Gideons. The first four books of the NT are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They all provide an overview of the life of Jesus from varying perspectives. The Jesus that emerges is a very impressive and inspiring figure who is shocked and disgusted by the corruption of the official Jewish religious leadership and their focus on tiny little points of law while ignoring the actual spirit that is behind the law. Even so, Jesus’s mission only lasted between one and three years (Christian accounts vary on how long his mission lasted), and there is very little guidance in the Gospels about day to day life, politics and how to challenge injustice.
This is where biographies of the Prophet Muhammad come into their own. His prophetic mission lasted twenty-three years and we have a wealth of detail about him and his teachings. He seemed to perfectly balance worldly matters with spiritual considerations. He was a Prophet and a statesman. A husband and a father. Also, his outlook and teachings were universal. Just compare the OT’s repeated invocations of the ‘God of the Hebrews’ with the teachings in the Qur’an. The very first surah of the Qur’an speaks of the ‘Lord of the Worlds’ and the final surah refers to the ‘Lord of mankind’. Not a hint of tribalism.
The BBC documentary should be interesting viewing, insha’ Allah.