A Prophet Versus Islamists? What Would Muhammad Say? (1/2)

Disclaimer: This is less “humorous” than my usual work (apart from some cheeky memes!), but is not intended as “po-faced” or “solemn.”

I’m not suggesting a program or plan for Muslims or non-Muslims, satirists or non-satirists.

I’m mainly trying to clarify my own thoughts to myself, posing some very current questions; hoping some individuals, (whoever you may be), may find these ideas intriguing, and worth reflecting upon.

When any historical figure becomes larger than life, they risk undergoing the fate of this guy:

kant meme

This is true; and doesn’t just apply to philosophers.

And it seems perfectly possible that the historical Muhammad has been treated by some of his followers in a manner as insulting as anything his enemies have said.

History or Fact?

In fact, when one reads some of the stories about Muhammad’s enemies in his own lifetime, it’s interesting that at times, Muhammad appears to show mercy and tolerance/toleration; at other times, he is shown as vengeful and humourless.

So this raises difficult questions; especially, perhaps, for those such as myself who are not experts on Islam.

So what is going on here? Is it, as some might suggest, that Muhammad was behaving strategically, in a Realpolitik manner, and hence his virtues were actually political vices clothed in tactical benevolence?

Or was Muhammad mentally unstable, and given to radically erratic behaviour? Some have also claimed this.

But what about a third possibility: could it be that some of the historians and other authorities who have compiled the traditions of Muhammad have been the worst enemies of the man they themselves consider to be the final prophet?

carlyle meme

Yes: if you look at the various hadith (oral sayings) about Muhammad, it’s kind of contradictory. Right?

(And as for the matter of the “Meccan versus Medinah suras/chapter in the Quran” theories?…)

Some hadiths are suggestive of a man who, in the context of his time, made wise and hopeful comments. Comments which are open to a variety of interpretations… whether fairly literal, or more subtle.

Some of these interpretations, arguably, can be used to engage very seriously with ethics today in a broad sense…

As well as deeper questions, such as how power and language are related.

On the other hand, some hadith seem irredeemable; unless perhaps one reads them as ironic or parodic…

And hence as somehow challenging deeply entrenched norms about gender, religious dialogue and other issues.

If such is the case, then one might have to question the value of asking “Who is the real Muhammad?” It might not be that there is a single, fully authentic, “historical” Muhammad behind the various levels of interpretation.

quill meme

Spirit and Letter?

So if we entertain the possibility that there “exists” a “God” in some sense, and that Muhammad could have had a special communication with/from this God, could it be that the revelation from God was an open one and not a closed one?

So: did God give human beings (if also Muslims, in particular), an open book; and a Muhammad who was not intended to be subjected to the whims and nonsense of “mischief-makers” (both pro- and anti-); nor was he intended to be a person of, and bearer of, a dead letter?

And, of course, Muhammad is not considered a god in Islam, but rather, as a very great (and humble) human.

So, perhaps a beautiful and noble reading of Muhammad could transcend (and, at times, has already succeeded in transcending) the unnecessary false dilemma.

One term of such an unnecessary choice is a wild and uninhibited Dionysius (Accept-God-Or-Die!)…

The other one is of a sober and complacent Apollo (You exist for One-Purpose-Alone, all else and all others must be sacrificed for this).

Some Muslims such as Muhammad Iqbal have appealed to Friedrich Nietzsche, who is known for such a distinction between the dead letter and the wild spirit.

nietzsche meme

The distinction in question is found in Christianity; but not in Christianity alone.

And I would be interested in knowing how Muslims have reflected on this question…

A question which seems capable of appearing at any point in historical time, and any cultural space.

For, before and since Nietzsche, everywhere in the world, other philosophers have been troubled by similar distinctions…

From Zhu Xi in China (a philosopher some have called a Chinese “Plato” or “Aristotle”), to Ibn Khaldun in Tunisia (with his two kinds of societies…)

And I have no desire to “set an agenda” for individuals in Islam, which is a religion not my own; but I do, at least, wonder how future generations of Muslims will respond to the call of working between the spirit and the letter.

I also wonder the same for every religion (including Christianity).

For, I believe that this is not a mere “Pauline deviation,” but a rather intuitive distinction that can be found in many forms, across different cultural contexts.

More next time.


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