"Say what you like about God - but be careful with Mohamed." So goes an old maxim among Western missionaries in Islamic lands, who found that Muslims might sometimes endure insulting references to the Almighty but would rarely tolerate insults to Mohamed or his family. The missionaries couldn't fathom it. Nor, ever since, it seems, has the rest of Western society.
There have been attempts to explain. Shabbir Akhtar took the phrase Be Careful With Mohamed! as the title for his book on the Salman Rushdie affair, after the acclaimed novelist in 1988 wrote a book, The Satanic Verses, which lampooned Mohamed and angered Muslims across the globe - sending Rushdie into hiding under sentence of death. Akhtar dedicated his book " To those on the other side - in the hope that they may understand our pain". The furore this week over the publication across Europe of the Danish cartoons of Mohamed suggests that the message did not make it across the English Channel.
Who was Mohamed? In answering the question we should not make the mistake of beginning with historical facts. Rather we should turn to verse 21 of Chapter 33 of the Koran, which describes the life of Mohamed as "a beautiful exemplar". Elsewhere in the Muslim holy book he is extolled as the model of righteousness, the perfect individual, the one whose wives are seen as the mothers of the faithful. He is a man whose actions and ambitions are held to be worthy of the closest scrutiny and imitation by his followers. And across the world every day 1.3 billion Muslims - almost a quarter of the population of the world - seek to do just that.
Beggars in the slums of India, wealthy oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, scholars in Egypt, shopkeepers in Bradford, landless women in Indonesia, convert intellectuals in the University of Cambridge all seek daily to emulate Mohamed in every aspect of their lives. Christians may purport to act in imitation of Christ in their spiritual lives. But, because we know more about Mohamed than about the founder of any other major faith, many Muslims seek a physical pattern too. Which is why so many Muslims wear beards, as their Prophet did, and the women veils, as Mohamed's wives did. And much more.
So what are the facts we know about Mohamed? A historian might put it thus. He was born, and given the name of Ahmad or Amin, in Mecca around AD570. Orphaned early in life he was adopted by an uncle who took him, while in his teens, on trading journeys to Syria. At the age of 25 he married a wealthy widow, named Khadijah, and became a merchant. He was a member of the Bedouin tribe known as the Quraysh which dominated the city and were the protectors of a pagan shrine there known as the Kaaba.
A man of contemplative bent he would, every year, retire with his wife and family to a cave outside the city to spend a month in prayer. It was in that cave, at the age of 40, that he reported he had been visited by the Angel Gabriel who commanded him to memorise and recite verses sent by God. "I do not know how to read," Mohamed replied. But the angel pressed him. He recited and learned the verses which others later wrote down as the Recitation or Koran. He changed his name to Mohamed, which means "the praised one". The year was 610. The month was henceforth known as Ramadan.
Mohamed went out to the pagan shrine and began to preach a creed of strict monotheism which bore similarities to Judaism and Christianity, two other faiths known to the Arabs, whose teachings, he said, he had been sent by God to complete and perfect. He spoke of a Day of Judgement where all people would be held responsible for their actions and called for all men and women to submit to God's will. Islam means submission.
All of this did not go down very well with his own people, who depended economically on the trade from pilgrims from other tribes to the Kaaba. Mohamed's new faith was challenging the authority of the tribe's leaders. He and his followers were persecuted and forced to flee to nearby Medina where he set up the first avowedly Muslim community. The Islamic calendar dates from the year of the flight, AD622.
Mohamed and his followers made their living in the traditional Bedouin way - raiding the caravans of other tribes. Eventually the authorities in Mecca lost patience and sent an army to march on Medina. Despite being outnumbered three to one, Mohamed's followers were victorious at the Battle of Badr in 624. Mohamed then proceeded to use his army to conquer the other tribes of Arabia and by the time of his death in 632 the greater part of the Arabian peninsula was under his authority.
Islam then spread with the speed and ferocity of a desert storm north, towards Syria and Palestine and then through province after province of the Greco-Roman empire. To the east, Islam extended beyond Persia into India. To the west, its warriors moved through Egypt and across the Maghreb and into the greater part of Spain. Within 100 years the empire of Islam stretched from Gibraltar to the Himalayas in a unified enterprise of faith and power. Everywhere non-Muslims were tolerated and taxed rather than expelled.
But the facts are only part of the story. By the ninth century Mohamed had his own Muslim biographers. They eschewed hagiography - they included a less than flattering portrait of the Prophet's second wife, the outspoken Aisha, and recorded controversial details such as those on the "satanic verses", where Shaitan tempted Mohamed to add thoughts of his own to what the angel dictated, and later had to withdraw them. But much of the detail is historically unverifiable.
Yet where Christians had to make do with gospel portraits of an idealised numinous Christ, more concerned with meaning than biography, Muslims inherited something very different. Mohamed's four main biographers gave accounts of a man with normal fears, hopes and anxieties - who laughed, played with his children, had trouble with his wives, was bereft when a friend died and besotted when his baby son arrived. It offers detail which Muslims even today try to make the pattern of their lives and makes Mohamed a particularly vivid presence to believers.
If some of that detail is mythic, so too is the fear-ridden fantasy which has imbued Western culture. From the ninth century on, Mohamed has been seen in Europe as a charlatan and an impostor who had set himself up as a prophet to deceive the world. He was seen, according to Karen Armstrong, author of Muhammad: Western Attempt to Understand Islam, "a lecher who wallowed in disgusting debauchery and inspired his followers to do the same". Under the derogatory name Mahound he was depicted in medieval Christendom as an evil figure who joins forces with the Devil and King Herod. He was a magician who had concocted false miracles, training a dove to peck peas from his ears so it looked as though the Holy Spirit were whispering to him.
Most lurid of all were the accounts of his sexuality. Mohamed did have 14 wives (not all at the same time) but this is not so much a mark of lasciviousness as the product of political alliances and a responsibility to wed the widows of warriors who died in battle, according to John Esposito, editor of the magisterial four-volume Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World.
Yet on it went. In the 14th century Dante in his Inferno placed the great Muslim philosophers Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (known in Europe as Avicenna and Averroes) in limbo with the philosophers of Ancient Greece, but Mohamed he placed in the Eighth Circle of Hell to suffer a particularly horrible punishment:
From the chin down to the fart-hole
split as by a cleaver,
his tripes hung by his heels.
The image reveals the disgust that Islam inspired in the Christian breast. Mohamed had become, says Armstrong, "the great enemy of the emerging Western identity, standing for everything that 'we' hoped we were not". To make matters worse, Mohamed had given too much power to menials like slaves and women.
So it went on till the Enlightenment. Then the deists, seeing Islam as a stick with which to beat Christianity, began to say more positive things. Mohamed was a profound political thinker, said Voltaire. Islam was a rational rather than a revealed religion, said Gibbon, bizarrely, in Decline and Fall. Yet even in the Age of Reason the praise was backhanded. Mohamed was "a very subtle and crafty man, who put on the appearance only of those good qualities, while the principles of his soul were ambition and lust ", said another contemporary of Gibbon. And though Thomas Carlyle undermined the medieval fantasy of Mahound, he dismissed the Koran as " full of insupportable stupidity".
It was in this tradition that Muslims saw Salman Rushdie's rewrite of the early history of Islam in The Satanic Verses. There Mohamed is portrayed as "a smart bastard", unscrupulous politician and a debauched sensualist with "God's permission to fuck as many women as he pleased". And it is the context too for the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet which stalwarts of "free speech" across Europe are now insisting on printing and reprinting.
Small wonder that Muslims do not recognise in it the man they call: Al Mahi, the one who removes disbelief; Al Hashir, the one who is first resurrected; Al Aqib, the last prophet; Al Dahuk, the one who smiles; Al Mutawkkil, the one who entrusts Allah with his affairs; Al Sadiq, the truthful; Al Amin, the trustworthy; Al Khatim, the seal; Al Mustafa, the distinguished one; Al Rasul, the Messenger; Al Nabi, the Prophet. Mohamed has at least 1,548 such titles. In none of them do Muslims recognise the man they see caricatured in the West still today.
A Life in Brief
BORN: Ahmad or Amin Ibn Abdullah. Mecca AD 570 or 571. Member of the Quraysh Bedouin tribe.
FAMILY: Father, Abdulla, died before he was born. Mother, Aminah, died when he was six. Adopted by his uncle, Abu Talib. Aged 25, married well-to-do widow named Khadijah. Four daughters, who survived, and one son, who died aged two. Had 14 wives, in total, after Khadijah died.
CAREER: Merchant for 15 years, warrior thereafter. After a vision of the Angel Gabriel in 610 he changed his name, aged 40, to Mohamed and founded the Muslim religion, which now has 1.3 billion adherents. In the early years he and his followers were persecuted in Mecca. Fled to city of Medina in AD622, which became year one in the Islamic calendar. Caravan raider. Defeated the army of Mecca at Battle of Badr in 624. Conquered other tribes of Arabia. Died AD632.
HE SAYS: "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr."
THEY SAY: "Mohamed is easily the most maligned religious personality in the whole of history."
- Shabbir Akhtar, authorReuse content