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Mar 24, 2021

A New History of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ

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Juan Cole

University of Michigan

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

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Hamza Yusuf

Zaytuna College

Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam and president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.

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A New History of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ


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Depiction of the Battle of Nineva, Piero della Francesca, c. 1452

Can those working in the field of modern academic historical method contribute to new ways of viewing an ancient tradition? We certainly think so. In this engaging conversation between world-renowned author and historian Dr. Juan Cole and President Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College, President Yusuf describes his eye-opening experience reading Dr. Cole’s recent work, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, as an unveiling that contextualized the prophetic biography amid an unfolding battle between two regional superpowers, the Eastern Roman and Sassanid empires. Their conversation elucidates not only the implications for the prophetic biography (sīrah) by viewing the historical accounts of it through the lens of what Dr. Cole refers to as “a world war” but also represents a hopeful encounter between two (at times adversarial) traditions of scholarship—one that limits evidence to confirmed written records and the other that also finds it in revelation, authenticated oral transmission, and unbroken chains of authority. Their conversation has been edited for clarity.

Hamza Yusuf: Well, let’s start off. I read your book, and I’ve spent a lot of time in sīrah literature, which I love; there’s a vast amount of it. Much of it, actually, is quite problematic, as you well know. The sīrah was the least rigorous of all the Islamic sciences, and so a lot of things crept into sīrah that people with an animus towards Islam have mined very well to present the religion with a darker side. But there is a normative sīrah that I have loved and taught. And when I read your book, it really was like an unveiling. I had looked at sīrah in a certain way, but when I read your book, I felt like you brought a fascinating scope to it that I hadn’t really thought about before. And I think the most significant part of your book was how you contextualize the prophetic biography in the extraordinary global scene that was unfolding at that time. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

Juan Cole: Sure. Well, the sīrah literature, the literature of the biography of the Prophet, was produced in extenso in the Abbasid period a long time after the Prophet’s death—the classic works were produced 132 to 300 years after his death. But they are unanimous that the Prophet Muĥammad made trade journeys, especially as a younger man, up into the Eastern Roman Empire. And we know from history that the Iranian Empire (the Sassanid Empire) occupied Yemen starting probably in the early 570s, when Muĥammad was a toddler. Mecca and Medina, the Hejaz, where he grew up and had his prophetic career, was surrounded by these two empires, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and the Iranian.

And the big thing that happened was that in 603, when the Prophet would have been probably in his thirties, the two went to war. It was a brutal war that lasted for twenty-six years; I call it a “world war.” It took place in central Asia, in the Balkans, in the Near East, and in Syria and Palestine. And Egypt was swept up in it. And the Iranians, for much of that period, won victory after victory against the Eastern Romans, whose capital was in Constantinople but who had much of what we now call the Middle East under their rule. They had Syria, Palestine, Transjordan, Egypt, Tunisia, but much of that was taken away from them by the Iranians.

All that was happening while the Qur’an was being recited by the Prophet to his contemporaries. And Surah al-Rūm, the chapter of Rome, is explicit in mentioning these events, saying that Rome has been vanquished in a nearby province, but that after a few years, it will come back, and it predicts a victory ultimately of the Roman emperor against the Iranians, which it characterizes as “God’s victory.” So, I think of this a little like the verse in the Old Testament where the Iranian king Cyrus has saved the Jews from their exile, and so the God of the Bible approves of Cyrus. And I think of this verse in the Qur’an as a little bit similar, that God will be happy and the believers will rejoice at the victory of the Roman king.

HY: Right. Cyrus was a man who did not know God, according to the Bible, but God used him. One of the things that fascinated me about that contextualization and the war was the fact that the Prophet ﷺ was deeply affected by the war in the same way that the whole world was affected when World War I and World War II happened, despite the fact that most of it occurred in the European theater: the Middle East was affected by it, India was affected by it, as was North Africa. I don’t think our tradition has taken that as seriously as it should, as becomes very clear in reading your book.

One of the fascinating things to me was the idea of Heraclius, Hercules, who’s brought in from Libya to kind of “clean up.” He’s like a General Grant who comes in after several incompetent Byzantine generals, one after another, were unable to stop this assault. But he’s brought in with Libyan mercenaries, and it’s fascinating how he then becomes such an important figure in the Levantine area, or Sham.

JC: Yes. Heraclius’s family may have been originally Armenian, but they rose high in the late Roman bureaucracy. His father was sent to be consul of Carthage, today’s Tunisia. Heraclius was there with his father.

And things weren’t going well in the Empire at all. An adventurous general, Phocas, had made a coup and taken over. His coup was one of the reasons that the Iranians invaded, because they had been friendly with the old emperor that Phocas killed—and he killed his family, too—and the Iranians posed as defenders of the old Roman dynasty.

I think it was one of Phocas’s relatives who became disgusted with him and wrote to Heraclius’s father in Carthage saying, “Would you please come and make a coup and take over?” And the old man didn’t want to do it, so he sent his thirty-five-year-old son with ships. And since they were in North Africa, they did have Amazigh soldiers, and so he took Constantinople. It’s one of the few times that Constantinople was taken after it became a major city under the Romans— the next time would be probably the Ottoman conquest in 1453. But he took it and established himself as the new emperor. However, he didn’t have any more luck against the Iranians, for about fifteen years, than his predecessor had.

And so, as you say, if you were in Mecca and Medina in this era, what would you see? As the Iranians were in Yemen, they could come north at any time. The Iranians were also in Transjordan and Syria, so they could come south at any time. And people in the Hejaz, from all accounts, valued their independence. They said they were acephalous: they didn’t have a king or a central government. So they were probably pretty afraid that the “King of Kings,” the Iranian emperor, would take their territory. And of course, trade was disrupted during this war. If you used to travel up to Damascus for trade, well, all of a sudden Damascus is in Iranian hands; it’s not the same people you’d be dealing with. Are they still going to let you come in for trade?

So I think that things were very much up in the air. I believe some of the more apocalyptic chapters of the Qur’an were from this period. When it was talking about how the stars will fall and the seas will rise and the wild animals will congregate, I think these are all ways of speaking about how the world was in such turbulence.

HY: Yes. And the other thing you brought out that I found really fascinating, and which, again, put something into a light that I really hadn’t considered before, was the fact that the Jews were very supportive of the Persians. Because the Byzantines had desecrated their synagogues, had prevented them from visiting what they considered their sanctuary, and had not been very kind to them as coreligionists within the Abrahamic fold, but rather saw them as Christ-killers, which was a common trope in European history. There was a lot of Jewish persecution. So the Jews saw the Iranians, despite the fact they were pagans, as a Cyrus who was going to come in and once again save them from these brutal tyrants.

I think the Prophet ﷺ saw the Jews as people of the book and monotheists. (If I ever translated the Qur’an, I would translate ahl al-kitāb as “the people of the biblios” because, as you know, Bible is “book” in Greek—biblios—and they were the people of “the Bible.”) I think he saw them very much as natural allies against the pagans in Mecca who had been persecuting him. So, I found it really fascinating that the animus that some of the Jews in Medina had against him had to do with this war, and I’d never considered that.

JC: Yes. I think the relationship of the Prophet and the early community to the Jews was very complex. On the one hand, it seems clear to me, from the Qur’an and the Constitution of Medina, that the Prophet hoped to establish an Abrahamic ummah, a nation of monotheists, an alliance of Christians, Jews, and early Muslims, against the pagans in Mecca who were quite aggressive and would—if they could—have taken Medina and killed the Muslims. He had hoped that he could establish such an alliance of the monotheistic faiths. And for a while, it seems that he did succeed, or succeeded partially, in this hope. But as time goes on, through the later chapters of the Qur’an, it becomes clear that some proportion of the Jewish community sided with the pagans.

And I think you’re absolutely right that, given what we know about the geopolitics of it, the pagans were probably being put up to these attacks on the early Muslims by the Iranian generals in Yemen. And some of the Jews were aligned with them. I don’t think it was everybody, because there are still late Qur’anic verses that speak very highly of Jews. But it does say in the Surah al-Mā’idah, the chapter of the Table, that the closest in love to the early Muslims were the Christians. And that makes sense—it was kind of a geopolitical tilt toward the Empire. The biggest enemies were Jews…

HY: And the polytheists.

JC: Both of whom presumably were allied with Iran.

HY: With one another, yes. I found that very illuminating. As we know, according to Ibn Isĥāq anyway, the Prophet ﷺ would actually go to the midrash and meet with the rabbis for discussions. He also met with Christians from different delegations, Najrān being the most famous occasion, when he actually entertained them inside the masjid, the mosque in Medina. We know that the Jews were in Medina, or at least around Medina, probably well into the eighth century.

There’s a certain Muslim narrative that ¢Umar expelled all of the Jews, and that’s actually in a sound collection. But during the time of ¢Uthmān, Sophia, the Jewish wife of the Prophet, was accused of being a crypto-Jew. The accusation was based on the fact that she visited her Jewish relatives on the Sabbath. ¢Uthmān wanted to dispel the accusation, so he went directly to her and asked her about it, and she said, “They’re my relatives, and that’s the best day for me to visit them because they’re in their homes on that day.” So that means that there were still Jewish people, at least around Medina, in ¢Uthmān’s time. And some say that the jalā’ [expulsion] of ¢Umar is actually just from the Ĥaramayn, because there’s a difference of opinion about al-Jazīrah al-¢Arabyiyah. Because of the hadith that says, “Two religions cannot coexist on the Arabian Peninsula,” there is a very strong opinion that ¢Umar’s expulsion of the Jews refers just to the Ĥaramayn, that is, Mecca and Medina, and that’s how ¢Umar would have understood it. So, he wouldn’t have been expelling them from the Peninsula.

JC: Yes, that would make sense.

HY: And there are so many things in the sīrah and in the history of Islam that need revisiting. For instance, when I read Barakat Ahmad’s book, The Jews and Muhammad, I had a kind of epiphany, similar to the one I had reading your book, about the exaggerations about the “massacre.” Unfortunately, many years ago before I read Ahmad’s book, I was interviewed for a PBS series on the Prophet Muĥammad’s life. And I was asked that question about Khaybar and I gave a kind of standard normative response, which I would not do now, knowing what I know. After I read Barakat’s book, I read M. J. Kister’s refutationM. J. Kister, “The Massacre of the Banu Qurayza: A Re-examination of a Tradition,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 8 (1986):61–96. of the book, which was also very enlightening because I saw some of its shortcomings. I found him an extraordinary resource, a brilliant researcher.

JC: Very, very learned man, yes.

HY: And I wrote to his student, Michael Lecker, who also wrote some interesting books. I disagree with Kister on some of his arguments, but overall, I think it’s quite tragic how these things have gotten into the sīrah and into tafsīr literature and have been replicated. And when you actually go back to check the account of the massacre, it says that all the Jews were held in the house of Umm Ĥarām. And I thought, “How big was that house?”

So I asked my friend, Shaykh Abdullah Alkadi, who’s probably the most learned person I’ve ever met, about the sīrah of the Prophet ﷺ. I asked, “How many people could Umm Ĥaram’s house hold?” He said, “A maximum of ten.” And yet the literature says that three hundred to nine hundred Jewish men were executed. That’s a huge disparity! And it states that they were all killed in the marketplace on one day by two men. That sounded more and more far-fetched, the more I thought about it. What are your ideas about that?

Why is the Qur’an full of these stories about the past, both the Arabian past and the biblical past? It’s because these are stories that are meaningful to the Prophet’s audience. And I think the Qur’an is trying to make a point by using these figures in a symbolic way.

JC: Well, I am kind of a believer in the rah Qur’āniyyah. I think if something was really important, the Qur’an would probably have mentioned it. I can’t prove that certain things didn’t happen, but it seems to me that the Qur’an does mention quite a few important events. It mentions the Hijrah and them hiding in the cave. There’s some people who say there’s not much history in the Qur’an, but I believe there’s actually quite a lot. So I find it very hard to believe that a major incident like that would occur and there would be no verse about it. And the verses that do exist…

HY: There’s one, in Surah al-Aĥzāb.

JC: Yes. But what it says is that they fought and then prisoners were taken. It’s the other way around.

HY: And some were killed; it does say that.

JC: It does say it, but it says they were killed in the fighting. It doesn’t say that they were taken prisoner and then killed.

HY: It could definitely be understood in that way.

JC: Yes. So, I don’t find a Qur’anic basis for this. And then there’s another verse in the Qur’an which talks about what you do with a prisoner of war, because they took a lot of prisoners of war, and that’s a logistical problem. How do you feed them? How do you keep them tied up? So, the Qur’an says, “Let them go, or ransom them.” One or the other. But it says, even during the war, “Let them go, or ransom them.” That’s how you deal with a prisoner of war.

HY: Yes, but there’s an argument for the other interpretation—because the Prophet ﷺ, according to the dominant opinion, did not actually judge them. It was Sa¢d Ibn Mu¢ādh who judged them, and he judged them according to the Torah, according to which they had committed a kind of treason. But then again, the ones judged would have been the leadership and the people directly involved, not other people. So, this incident definitely needs to be profoundly revisited and reassessed.

The other really important thing you’ve done, I think, is to take verses that appear to be about Pharaoh and Moses and to see them as parables, really, that are meant to be applied to current crises. And this reaffirms my own assessment of the Qur’an, that it’s archetypal; it’s constantly working with archetypes, so that it has a perennial power that always can be adapted to whatever time and place you’re in. And so I really appreciated looking at some of these verses in a completely new light.

JC: Well, thank you. And yes, I think there’s been a tendency to read the Qur’an in a very simplistic, positivist way. I think it’s an enormously rich text. Why is the Qur’an full of these stories about the past, both the Arabian past and the biblical past? It’s because these are stories that are meaningful to the Prophet’s audience. And I think the Qur’an is trying to make a point by using these figures in a symbolic way. For instance, there’s a verse where God instructs Moses to address Pharaoh gently, layyinan. Is that really just about Moses and Pharaoh? Or is it about the opposition that the early Muslim community received in Mecca and the right way to respond to being taunted and harassed and so forth?

So, I think a lot of these stories are symbolic. They’re deep, and as you say, they have resonances for the contemporary situation. So, there’s one Christian text which complains bitterly that when the Iranians took Palestine, they killed a lot of the men and enslaved the women and tried to divide the local community against each other. And there’s a verse in the Qur’an that says exactly that about Pharaoh, and I thought, “Well, isn’t Khosrow II, the aggressive Iranian emperor who launched this horrible war, a kind of pharaoh of his age, and might not that be a little bit of a reference to him?”

HY: I want to ask you about your colleague Dr. John Tolan’s book Faces of Mohammad, which I found fascinating. One of the things he points out is the extraordinarily checkered view the West has had of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ. There were times when he was seen as a Christian heretic, times when horrible things were said about him, when the idea was that Islam was an anti-Christic force.

Then there were other times when he was seen as a reformer and as somebody whom we should learn from. That shows up a little later, when the Europeans saw him as doing away with superstition in religion. To a lot of Enlightenment thinkers, Christianity had been so inundated with superstitious practices and beliefs that they found they could use Islam as a counterexample, and some said, like Henry Stubbe, Henry Stubbe (d. 1676) was an English physician and man of letters. that maybe instead of denigrating or attacking this religion, we should learn from it. As a historian, could you comment on that?

JC: Sure. Well, as you say, images of the Prophet Muĥammad changed over time a great deal. When Europe was deeply religious, he was seen as a heretic and condemned. But then in the Enlightenment, some thinkers began to admire him. I think Bonaparte did, for instance.

HY: Right. Apparently, when Bonaparte met with the poet Goethe, he was very upset with Goethe for translating Voltaire’s play about the Prophet and began to praise the Prophet to Goethe.

JC: Yes, that’s right. And Goethe himself produced, of course, the East-West Divan, a collection of German poetry in imitation of Hafez, which says nice things about Islam. And so, as you were mentioning earlier, Goethe may have translated Voltaire as a way of attacking Christian obscurantism, but when he came to talk about Islam itself, he was full of praise.

There was an abolitionist woman in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, Lydia Maria Child, who was enormously famous in her own period. She wrote novels, and she had an educational magazine to teach children. She was like the Sesame Street of her age. She wrote a world history in the 1850s with some sections on Islam. And as an antebellum abolitionist woman, sort of a transcendentalist, she says very nice things about Islam. She says the Prophet urged manumission of slaves as a good deed, and that he improved the condition of women. It’s just a small paragraph, but it’s full of praise for the Islamic teachings. Well, you don’t expect to find that in largely evangelical 1850s America, but she was willing to do that. She actually was attacked—though not over this: the whole South canceled their subscription to her magazine and ruined her career over her stand against slavery! So yes, there were these different images of Muĥammad.

And then there was the famous Thomas Carlyle, who thought it was stupid to allege that Muĥammad was somehow a false man. He said a false man couldn’t even build a house—it would fall down—much less a civilization! And as time went on and the West came to know more about Muĥammad and Islam—the British were in India for two hundred years and knew a lot about Indian Islam and so forth—there were a lot of people, especially those who didn’t like the idea of the Trinity, who said, “Well, Muĥammad preached about one God.” It’s not necessarily that they wanted to convert to Islam, but they could admire some of what Muĥammad stood for.

HY: Well, I republished Edwin Arnold’s poetic commentary on the ninety-nine names, The Pearls of Faith—you probably know it. I found it by chance in a bookstore. It was an old book, from 1882, and I just pulled it out to look at it. And oddly enough, it was Arnold’s signed copy to his mother, with an inscription “To the author’s mother with fondest admiration”—a very Victorian way of talking to your mother! But I was so struck by the book that I started to read about him. He’s in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, because he was one of the great notables of late nineteenth-century England. His first book, The Light of Asia, was a poetic history of the Buddha.

JC: Yes, yes. I know that book too.

HY: And then he wrote The Pearls of Faith. But in the introduction, he said, “We have denigrated this great man for far too long, and he along with his sister religions must play their role in preparing mankind for that distant event,” meaning the Day of Judgment. So, quite fascinating.

Juan Cole’s book can be purchased from the Zaytuna College Bookstore.

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