(p. C6) The Prophet Muhammad might justly be described as the Jekyll and Hyde of historical biography. For centuries, he has been “alternately revered and reviled,” as Kecia Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University, notes in her excellent overview of the abundant literature. As a result, Muhammad presents two violently incompatible faces to the historian. For devout Muslims, relying both on the Quran and the vast corpus of sacred traditions, the hadith, he serves as the unimpeachable model for human behavior, not only in matters of faith and ritual but in the most humdrum aspects of daily life, from marital and business relations to personal hygiene, including even the proper use of the toothpick. For non-Muslims, drawing on the same sources, he has been viewed from the earliest times as lustful and barbarous, as a raving impostor aping the ancient prophets; nowadays he is further charged with misogyny and pedophilia. The contrast is so stark as to appear irreconcilable.
. . .
Two of the book’s best chapters deal with the most prominent of Muhammad’s 12 or so wives: the saintly Khadija, a Meccan businesswoman 15 years older than he; and the more spirited–and controversial–Aisha, the child-bride who became Muhammad’s “favorite wife” in later years. For both Muslim and non-Muslim biographers, Khadija represents a model wife. She is Muhammad’s comforter in moments of doubt or distress–an “angel of mercy,” according to the modern Egyptian biographer Muhammad Husayn Haykal–and their household is an abode of domestic felicity. Much is made of the fact that Muhammad took other wives only after Khadija’s death.
His marriage to Aisha is another matter altogether. She was only 6 years old when she became engaged to Muhammad, but he considerately postponed consummation of the marriage until she was 9. Though earlier critics said surprisingly little about this marriage–they seemed not even to note the anomaly of the couple’s ages–modern commentators have denounced it roundly, accusing Muhammad of pedophilia. Muslim biographers squirm to defend it, and some quibble over whether the bride was in fact only 9 when she was ushered into the marriage bed (to which she also brought her childhood toys, according to traditional accounts). A recent biography by one Abdul Hameed Siddiqui even goes so far as to praise the union with the fatuous remark that by marrying an older man, “the bride is immediately introduced and accustomed to moderate sexual intercourse.” For pious Muslims, the marriage raises a painful dilemma. For non-Muslim polemicists, Ms. Ali says, the marriage and its presumed consummation are reasons to vilify Islam generally–to believe that “all of Islam and every Muslim is tainted.”
For the full review, see:
ERIC ORMSBY. “Ways of Looking at the Prophet; Devout Muslims see him as the model for human behavior. Non-Muslims have seen him as lustful, barbarous or worse.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 10, 2015): C6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 9, 2015.)
The book under review, is:
Ali, Kecia. The Lives of Muhammad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.