The Messenger, by Tariq Ramadan

A reformer in tradition's grip
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The Independent Culture

The dawn was Prophet Muhammad's favourite time. Most of his life, he got up well before sunrise to pray and contemplate. The first verses of the Qur'an, which exhorted him to "Read", were also revealed at dawn. As a devout Muslim, Tariq Ramadan naturally follows the example of the Prophet. Most of this book, he tells us, was written "in the hours of dawn". Given that Ramadan goes under the rubric of a "Muslim Martin Luther", we are led to expect a deeply contemplative work, full of revelatory thought.

That Ramadan is aware of the challenge he faces is clear from the introduction. There are numerous biographies of the Prophet, from classical to modern times. But all follow the established form in which the biography has always been written. They approach their subject chronologically, starting with the description of life in Arabia before the birth of the Prophet, and continue with his birth, childhood, first marriage, first revelation, the migration from Makkah to Medina, his various battles, and ending with his death.

The final product is not so much biography but chronological history, full of facts but short on personal detail. The problem with this approach is that it does not make the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Seerah, meaningful or significant to contemporary Muslim individuals and societies.

Ramadan's goal is to make Prophet's life relevant to the 21st century. The Prophet is the ideal Muslim, the human example all Muslims strive to follow. The love and affection for the Prophet is what binds the Muslim community. But how are Muslims to express this love? Is it enough simply to pray, eat, drink and sleep or dress and even try to look like him? Or is there something more to Muhammad's life?

Ramadan's answer is that Muslims should concentrate not so much on the outward forms but the inner virtues of the Prophet. Facts of a biography cannot be imitated; but virtues can be assimilated. It is through the appreciation of the virtues the Prophet's life demonstrates that Muslims can make sense of his biography in contemporary times.

Ramadan concentrates on the Prophet's emphasis on truth and knowledge, his humility and gentleness, his emphasis on doubt and silence, his loving nature. He shows how his teachings enable us to fight racism and bigotry. He demonstrates how social justice informs all his actions; and discusses why the Prophet insisted on treating the poor with so much love. He draws telling parallels between what the Prophet emphasised and how some Muslims behave in the age of terror.

The Prophet, who abhorred violence, forbade the killing of civilians and insisted that people of all faith, and no faith, should be treated with respect, that their sacred places should be safeguarded and they should be allowed to conduct their own affairs according to their customs. He believed in freedom, human dignity and respect for the law. He stood up for women's rights and urged women to play a full part in public life. He valued loyalty, steadfastness, sincerity, patience, perseverance, self-control, unselfishness and forgiveness - and demonstrated them in his life.

The Messenger does succeed in highlighting a few of these virtues. But, alas, it is not a particularly original work. We get some glimpses of the Prophet, but do not get very close to Muhammad the man. Ramadan is not enough of an innovator to create a new, contemporary model of Seerah. Rather, he is far too much of a traditionalist. He is aware of the limitations of the conventional model, yet he insists on following it. The result is a linear, pedestrian text that tells a chronological story and ends up emphasising mostly those aspects of Muhammad's biography that have already been overdone.

In his account of "Birth and Education", for example, he even includes the traditional split chest anecdote, whose authenticity is questionable. This suggests that, at the age of four, "two white-clad men grasped him [Muhammad] and laid him on the ground; then they opened up his chest and plunged their hands in it".

The prose also lacks the grace and power needed for a biography of this kind. Regretfully, I am forced to conclude Ramadan has some distance to travel before he can claim his place "in the annals of Islamic thought". But what I see as the shortcomings of The Messenger, traditionalist youth - who dominate the landscape of British Islam - may see as its strength. I would much rather they were reading Ramadan than all those self-proclaimed, semi-literate sheikhs whose horrendous pamphlets crowd the shelves of Islamic bookshops.

Ziauddin Sardar's memoir 'Desperately Seeking Paradise' is published by Granta