Oneworld, £25. Order at the discounted price of £22.50 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy by Jonathan A C Brown, book review

A study of interpretations over the ages illuminates modern ethical dilemmas

There aren't many books on Islam where the Prophet Muhammad and Martin Scorsese appear together. But Jonathan Brown's book is about recounting history, multiple interpretations and making sense of legacies; religious traditions and Hollywood films have these tensions in common. Both want to convey particular stories to a diverse range of audiences, and to convince them of certain metaphysical truths.

Brown's inspiration for the book comes from the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman's bestselling Misquoting Jesus, a work which looks at the accidental or intentional textual variations of the Bible. Brown explains that his own focus is more on the challenges of interpreting the Prophet's legacy rather than "unveiling Islamic origins". He explores the rich interpretative history of Islam and how the faithful continue to be challenged.

Much of what Brown is really exploring is the status of the sayings or traditions of the Prophet – hadiths. These were compiled in their thousands and form the basis of much of Islamic dogmatic, legal and theological thinking from the earliest times. They are second only to the Koran as a source of authority. But how many of them are reliable, and why do Muslims continue to be guided by them when so many are disputed even rejected by scholars? The book tries to get to the bottom of these debates.

At a time when Islam or the cultural practices of Muslim societies are under a constant spotlight, many scholars of Islam, especially American scholars, are engaged in placing sensitive matters in context. They want to say something credible to their academic peers but also appeal to a more general audience. The book is helpful for the lay reader who wants to understand why what the Prophet said matters in Islam and how his words and actions have been interpreted.

The reader may be surprised to see that, in a similar way to the mutable biblical canon, the Prophet's words form a corpus which has always been subject to scrutiny and controversy. This is partly because there are many opinions of the Prophet's companions which have been deliberately or erroneously attributed to the Prophet himself. While the Koran is regarded as God's revealed word, the vast corpus of the sayings of the prophets is far more controversial and amorphous. This corpus may have canonical status and have been passed down through generations, but there are variations within the hadith collections and many have been declared to be unreliable, even forgeries by Muslim scholars themselves. The scholar of Islam will find a potted history of hadith science and a useful summary of major names and developments including current fatwas (opinions) by notable muftis.

Muhammad's status in Islam is not that of Jesus in Christianity but his standing, words and actions are fundamental to how millions of Sunni Muslims understand their own history and ethical dilemmas. This is not Brown's first book on prophetic traditions so he is very much at home in discussing the science of hadith interpretation as well as its controversial legacies. But the language is not arcane. It tries to weave multiple narratives together including Western approaches to scriptural interpretation as well as aspects of Brown's own more personal journey.

The constant references to past and present thinkers are a major stylistic feature of this book, allowing the reader to appreciate the long history of ethical debates. The content is largely rooted in Islamic thought but it also includes comparisons with Western and Christian thinkers such as St Augustine, Martin Luther and Immanuel Kant. For Brown, it is the 18th-century Mughal modernist Muslim scholar Shah Wali Ullah who epitomises the struggle to reconcile reason with revelation and who has a particular and persistent presence in this book.

Readers who are turned off by this kind of drier historical mapping may find Brown's analysis of contentious scriptural verses more intriguing. These are the debates which have proved difficult for Muslim thinkers but also often comically captured the Western imagination. He takes the reader back and forth in time with a plethora of Islamic references to show how the scholars balanced their desire to maintain the authenticity of Islamic scriptures with the realities of people's lives. Brown encapsulates these tensions under pithy chapter titles, for example: "When scripture can't be true" or "Lying about the Prophet of God". These are then followed by case-like analyses of subjects such as "The Koran and domestic violence" or "Who decides what God means?"

Perhaps the most controversial title is "Sex with little girls" referring to Muhammad's own age of 50 when he married Aisha, who is reported to have been around 10 at the time. Issues of gender injustice such as honour killings, the wife-beating verse and patriarchal attitudes to women's leadership are all present.

Much of what Brown does is to set forth competing interpretations on these themes, often with surprising conclusions. What he doesn't do is position himself on these difficult issues. This is because Western Muslim scholars should have more courage to say what they think is morally right. The book is not just about methodologies; it is also about ethics.

Scripture is lived though the actions of the faithful, which requires wrestling with established opinions and one's own conscience. It demands having a clear voice and not hiding behind others. Muslim scholars in the Islamic world do not have a monopoly on interpreting Islam's rich legacies.

The book is clever in balancing multiple stories but it sits slightly awkwardly between theory and practice. Brown misses an opportunity to stress that sometimes no amount of artful interpretation of scripture will reflect the kind of justice and equalities people want today. In other words, how would he say "no" to the Koran on certain matters? True, he himself is sceptical of how the believer can ever know the true teachings of God, but this particular question has no answers.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum