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Book Review: Misquoting Mohammed – The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy

February 6, 2015
First Surah Koran

First Sura of the Quran (Wikipedia)


“Am I allowed to brush my teeth during fasting hours of Ramadan?” “Does breaking wind after my ablutions invalidate my prayers?”

When I first came to Saudi Arabia thirty-five years ago I was fascinated with questions like these that appeared in the Friday edition of the Arab News, the Kingdom’s leading English-language newspaper. They are still asked today, and answered by learned scholars, rather in the manner of an agony aunt column.

I quickly learned that the answers to most obscure and incredibly minute questions were based mainly on the Hadith – the reported deeds and words of the Prophet Mohammed. Some could be answered directly from the Holy Quran – Islam’s sacred book – but most answers were derived from the example and statements of the Prophet, and from interpretations thereof.

I have read enough books about Islam, to know the basics – the religious edifice: the revealed text of the Quran and the body of Hadiths known in the Muslim world as the Sunna. I’m broadly familiar with the four schools of law within Sunni Islam, with the Sufi movement and with the two main Shia sects.

But having just finished one of the most fascinating books I’ve encountered in a long while, I’m reminded of how little I really know about Islam.

Misquoting Mohammed is 300-odd pages of history, philosophy, lexicography and forensic analysis. It was written by Jonathan A C Brown, an American Muslim convert who is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, and published last year.

In the book Professor Brown focuses primarily on the derivation of the Hadiths, and particularly on some of the troublesome Quranic verses and hadiths that are most frequently seized upon by ancient and modern critics of Islam: the Sword Hadiths used by apostles of violent jihad to justify their actions; the right of a man to beat his wife; the right of a man to kill his son; the seventy virgins awaiting martyrs in paradise; the prohibition on women leading men at prayer.

What I failed to grasp before reading Misquoting Mohammed was the vast body of scholarship in the Islamic world that has been devoted since the 9th century CE to sorting, evaluating, categorising, interpreting and codifying the Hadiths into bodies of law. There are thousands of Hadiths. Over a period of two hundred years countless scholars attempted to establish a clear and uninterrupted oral transmission route for each Hadith from the Prophet to the scholar who codified them. Those that came from multiple impeccable sources and passed on face to face were incorporated into canonical scriptures second in precedence only to the Quran. Others were considered weaker – perhaps because the transmission was not direct. Yet more were condemned as forgeries.

These reported words and deeds have been used over the centuries by Islamic scholars to form the basis of a body of law known as the Sharia. Except that there is no such thing as a single Sharia that is accepted and adopted throughout the Muslim world. Each of the Sunni schools of jurisprudence, as well as their Shia equivalents has its own version. Governments that have enacted secular codes to sit alongside the Shariah have always used taken the opinions of scholars to tailor their versions of the Shariah to the needs of the state and the mores of the age.

The whole body of Hadiths and learned commentaries on the meaning of the Quran is known to Sunni Muslims as the tradition. Most Sunni scholars claim that it is impossible for ordinary Muslims to understand the Quran and the Hadiths without the commentaries complied by generations of their own. The Shia have their own Hadiths and commentaries.

Thus while Sunnis have always claimed that unlike the established Churches of Christianity, there is no structural hierarchy in Islam, there most definitely is an intellectual establishment that mediates, interprets, explains and issues fatwas governing many of the most minute facets of a believer’s life. For example, there are several books of opinion over where the hands should be placed during prayer.

There have always been Muslims who have rejected the Hadiths as a source of Islamic law, and who argue – like Martin Luther in his battle with the Catholic Church – that the faithful should be able to take the unadorned verses of the Quran as their inspiration. Others see the Quran as metaphor that can be adapted according to the times, rather than the literal unvarnished truth.

Professor Brown does an admirable job in helping the reader – whether Muslim or not – to understand how the Islamic tradition grew, and how different scholars have viewed and interpreted some of the more controversial Quranic commands and Hadiths.

For him, as a Muslim, the central unchallengeable precept is the status of the Quran as the word of God transmitted to his Prophet. But for the non-believer, who may or may not accept the central premise of one God, the message of the Quran and the great edifice of anecdote, opinion, interpretation and ordinance that sits around it like an intellectual suit of armour poses questions that cannot be answered by logic and reason alone.

Why, for example, did God choose to send his revelations to more than one prophet, only for that message to be corrupted by human mediation?

Would it not have been better for the definitive word to have been sent to Moses, and for God to have made sure, as we are told he did with Mohammed, that there was no corruption and loss of meaning?

Then if the Quran was intended to be a message for eternity, why does it contain so many contradictions? Why so many references anchored in the cultural and political realities of Mohammed’s time?

And given that Mohammed was a human being, why do his successors and all Muslims consider him to be infallible?

Why did the scholars use examples of what he did not do to create a legal precedent? Where the Quran apparently permits a man to beat his wife, the Prophet never did so. Was that then a reason to override or qualify the Quranic statement?

And finally there is the question of the derivation of the Hadiths. Imagine an exercise in which you assemble twelve people in a room. Form them into a line. Take a twenty-word statement. Ask each person to whisper the statement to the next person in such a manner as nobody else can hear what is being said. Write down what the twelfth person says and compare it with the original statement.

Next repeat the exercise, but with twenty minute intervals between each transmission. After that, repeat the exercise with the same time interval, but use as your transmission team people from different countries, different mother tongues and different cultures.

And finally (though you would obviously not be able to do this!), transmit the same message through a similarly diverse series of people with an interval of fifteen years between each transmission.

Unless I’ve completely misunderstood Professor Brown, the last scenario is a simplified version of the process through which the deeds and statements of the Prophet finally reached the scholars who wrote them down.

At that point the scholars examined the transmission paths, and the more times the same message came through from different sources, the more reliable they considered the Hadith to be. Very logical. But what if the chain of transmission was short-circuited by someone in the line hearing what was said two or three people earlier? And what if three out of four transmitters were known to be unreliable witnesses? What if part of the message was lost in transmission in several of the paths?

Imagine then the effort of documenting all of the various transmission paths of thousands of these sayings. And given that the weak and forged Hadiths were widely published alongside those that were widely authenticated, what was there to stop an imam from preaching to an illiterate congregation of the faithful messages that were of dubious veracity, and possibly even forged?

If even the sacred verses of the Quran can be interpreted in different ways, is it any wonder that sometimes Muslims – inspired by these messages – use them to behave in ways that other Muslims, let alone non-believers, would unequivocally condemn?

In this they are no different from the followers of other monotheistic religions, each of which encompasses a wide variety of thought and practice. Would any Christian today fail to react with horror to the atrocities of the Crusaders? Would any non-believer fail to find some of the more extreme rituals of Orthodox Jews somewhat odd, if not downright bizarre?

In the end, for Muslims, it all seems to come down to the fundamental state of faith – submission to God’s will. If you believe, you will accept that there are some things that are beyond understanding. Just as Christians use in their rituals the words of St Paul – “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” – Muslims have been able to debate and question aspects of the tradition without abandoning their faith on the basis that the answers to some thorny questions are known only by God.

Misquoting Mohammed is not a dry treatise of interest only to students of religion. It offers an explanation to anyone who is interested in history, politics and human nature as to why humane and enlightened Muslims might accept and worship the same God as violent bigots bent on the destruction of all who refuse believe as they do. Islam is not – contrary to widely held opinion among non-believers – a monolithic edifice in which one version of the truth prevails.

If the book has a flaw, it is that Professor Brown introduces Arabic words for fundamental concepts and then uses them frequently without providing a lexicon that would enable the reader to access an easy reminder of their meaning. I found myself often having to go back to the passage in which each concept first appears, which took unnecessary time and effort.

But all in all it’s a fine and worthy work by someone who is able to explain his subject through a Western lens while avoiding any possible taint of orientalism.

Given that the author teaches at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, one would hope that the next generation of American diplomats will have a deeper understanding of the Muslim world than that of their predecessors. I say that with no disrespect to some of the fine minds who have served in the State Department. But the same observation applies to US and British politicians, soldiers, intelligence agencies and mainstream news broadcasters (Fox News for example), all of whom could benefit from reading this intriguing book.

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