Can contemporary Muslims reconcile history with a model of revelation that claims to be ahistorical?

If you are bored to distraction by the continuing scandal engulfing News International and its dominance of all media outlets everywhere, you might consider watching Rageh Omaar’s The Life of Muhammad. The first part is here and the second part is here.

Congratulations to the BBC for broadcasting a programme that tackles a serious subject and that is genuinely informative. Omaar is lots of people’s favourite presenter, and a few of the talking heads may represent the usual suspects, but the programme, perhaps in the interests of balance, does feature some surprising contributors: good to see Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali there, and also Robert Spencer. The bishop’s book Islam: A Christian Perspective (1983) is an excellent guide to what we, as Christians, are to make of the Islamic religion. As for Robert Spencer, he is someone who is pretty tough on Islam and Islamic issues, and must be heartily disliked by most Muslims. Also present is Karen Armstrong, who has written about Islamic history, and who, as the entire world knows, was once a nun.

The series describes itself as groundbreaking, and perhaps in a sense it is. It faces up to the issue of historicity. The question of historicity greatly troubled Christians in the 19th and 20th centuries. It all feels a bit dated now, and no one really cares much about whether the prophecy of Isaiah was the work of one person, or two (or indeed three, as contemporary scholarship claims).

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But historicity is still a very sensitive subject for Muslims, and as far as I can see, largely untouched territory. There is, the first episode told us, an Armenian non-Muslim source for Muhammad, dating from about 30 years after his death: so he was a real person, about that there can be no doubt. The programme also raised the surely peripheral question of how important a place Mecca was in the time of Muhammad; far more central is the question of Muhammad’s supposed illiteracy – the programme acknowledged this, without coming down on one side or the other. Again, with the Night Journey – we were left free to choose whether Muhammad’s trip to Jerusalem and then up to heaven was in fact, as Rageh put it, “metaphysical” or not.

All of this was quite fair, but I remain convinced that Islamic claims rest on some startling incoherencies. The person who came nearest to exposing this was Karen Armstrong who (31 minutes into the first episode) compared Muhammad’s experience of divine revelation to that of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah. I think she wished to point to similarities, but the truth of the matter is that there are startling differences. Jeremiah and Isaiah were not aiming to found a new religion; they were working inside a received tradition and they were producing words that were their own, and not supposed uncreated words from God. Muslims today claim that the era before Muhammad was “the Age of Ignorance”: I may not understand this correctly, but this surely indicates that they must believe that there is no revelation apart from the Koran. Now that is not the case with Isaiah and Jeremiah: their prophecies do not start from a tabula rasa.

This means that Islam has a different model of revelation and a different idea of prophecy to Christianity and Judaism; it makes more sense to us, surely, to think of Muhammad as the messenger of God rather than the prophet: the word nabi can be translated either way, I believe.

One thing that Rageh Omaar did say was that almost all physical traces of Muhammad’s era have been obliterated, in case they lead to idolatry. At the end of the first episode we saw a picture of Khadijah’s tomb as it had been in 1925, and then a picture of it today. The demolition of the tomb has upset and angered many Muslims – this is certainly conveyed by Ed Husain in his excellent book The Islamist. In fact the pictures in these programmes spoke louder than any words could do.

Modern Mecca and Medina, which no Catholic can visit, are hideous and drab, despite the millions the Saudi royal family have lavished on them. Their desert surroundings look like the surface of Mars. All the architectural gems we saw – the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Dome of the Rock, and the Hagia Sofia were the work of Byzantine builders.

Modern Mecca and Medina reveal a conflicted and paradoxical approach to history on the part of some contemporary Muslims, and that is something that we should watch: how can contemporary Muslims reconcile history with a model of revelation that claims to be ahistorical? Put another way: is the Koran direct from heaven, or is it a product of its time and its geographical setting?

So far the series on the life of Muhammad leaves this an open question – but is it? In the long run it is a question that may well divide Muslims themselves.

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