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.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003