In the present climate of fear and suspicion, Barnaby Rogerson's elegant biography of the Prophet of Islam is like a burst of sunshine. Most such biographies are marred by either excessive piety or condescending prejudice. Rogerson tells an enthralling story with tact, eloquence and enthusiasm, purveying the sense of awe required by his subject.
Rogerson surveys the Middle East at the time of the Prophet's birth in 570: the battleground of serial war between Persia and Byzantium. Arabia was a vast desert dotted with oases, a world of ancient cities, tribal life and trading caravans. Abraham's monotheism had thrived among Jewish tribes, but degenerated into idolatry among Arabs. The advent of a new prophet was longed for by the spiritually inclined.
Muhammad was born in Mecca into a noble family of the ruling Qoraysh tribe. His father died before his birth and his mother not long after. He was raised by a wet-nurse and later adopted by an uncle. Legends surround his early life: how a patch of cloud protected the boy shepherd from the desert sun; how he accompanied caravans to Syria and learnt the Bible from rabbis and monks; how the Christian monk Bahira recognised in him "the comforter" promised in the Gospel of St John.
At 25, his beauty, intelligence and honesty attracted the rich widow Khadijah, 15 years his senior, who sent him a marriage proposal. Their union combined perfect love with spiritual companionship, and she became his first convert.
Muhammad was 40 when he received his first revelation, an angel saying: "Thou art the Messenger of God and I am Gabriel". From then on the archangel became his companion and instructor, and revealed to him the whole of the Koran. His early converts were slaves and freed slaves, who were attracted to Islam's message of equality before God and Law: that a man was judged by piety and good works, not status.
Persecution increased, and in 622 the Prophet and his companions fled to Medina, where he built his first mosque and established his "government". The visionary and statesman merged. He made covenants with Jews and Christians as equals; and after the death of Khadijah, through dynastic marriages and campaigns, he converted the whole of Arabia.
Perhaps the most important event in this period was Me'raj, Muhammad's nocturnal journey from Jerusalem to Heaven when he was "granted a sublime vision of the Creator". This journey of the soul laid the foundation of Islamic mysticism – Sufism – that has inspired generations of poets and thinkers. "Without it Islam would have been a different religion," lost in arid legalism. Instead, its aim was to attain the Golden Mean between the unattainable ideal of Christianity and the rigours of Judaic realism.
Yet some incidents can shock modern sensibilities: Aisha, Muhammad's favourite wife, was 11 when they married, although consummation was left until after puberty. But temporal events pale before the sublimity of a vision that has inspired saints, poets and builders across the world. This admirable book is a timely reminder that the essential message of Islam is Mercy, the first attribute of God expressed in the first verses of the Koran.