Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet

by Karen Armstrong, reviewed by Ray Berthiaume

"In the West we have a long history of hostility towards Islam that seems as entrenched as our anti-Semitism,” but now “for the first time in Islamic history, Muslims have begun to cultivate a passionate hatred of the West. In part this is due to European and American behaviour in the Islamic world" (p.11). "It is as impossible to generalize about Islam as about Christianity; there is a whole range of ideas and ideals in both" (p.13). "We shall see that Muhammad's spiritual experience bears an arresting similarity to that of the prophets of Israel, St. Teresa of Avila and Dame Julian of Norwich" (p.15).           

Muhammad is in the tradition of the Old Testament heroes like Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah and Isaiah—flawed and passionate and complex. We see him sometimes laughing, playing with his children, trying to placate his wives, weeping over a friend's death.

He had almost no contact with Judaism or Christianity. His monotheism was a challenge to the tribal Arabs who had little reason to give up their gods.

In 610, on Mount Hira, Muhammad had a mystical experience in which he began speaking the Qu'ran. He was very afraid and resistant to the idea he was called to be a prophet. Only after interior struggles did he accept his mission from God. He began openly teaching that all men and women should strive to create a just society where the vulnerable were treated decently. And all blessings come from al'Llah whose House was the Ka'aba. So each must "surrender" ("islam”) to the will of this God.

Karen Armstrong details much of the struggles and political conflict Muhammad had to endure for his mission. He comes across as a passionate, convicted holy man, trusting in al'Lah to see him through it. This is a valuable book to help dissipate the pervasive ignorance of Christians and Jews regarding the largest religion in the world.

—Ray Berthiaume lives in Memphis, Tennessee.