As the month of Rabi al Awwal come to an end, so does my reading of Adil Salahi’s Muhammad: Man and Prophet. This final reflection is a short review on Salahi’s Seerah (biography of the Prophet). Its part of my Mawlid tradition since I celebrate it by reading a different Seerah every year, throughout the month. This year I have shared reflections on torture of early Muslims, the Psychology of Taif, the preposterous Iramah Exchange, and a list of three Seerah books I recommend.
It is hard to write a review in a vacuum, given the recent unfortunate events with France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. For me the Seerah is a personal spiritual journey, and each time I read a new Seerah, I experience a love story unfolding. Not just love for the man that is the Prophet but a love story in which I, in all my inperfections, find myself returning to Allah, loving him for sending some one as principled as the Prophet. Its because as I get closer to the Prophet, I am able to connect events in my life and my surroundings to the events occurring throughout his life and his mission.
The fact that there is a caricture of what the Hebdo folks say is a man named Muhammad, does not mean that it captures the essence of the Prophet. It in fact is far off the mark, and is a failed human endeavor to portray a multifaceted personality. Poets wrote all sorts of nonesense about the Prophet during his life. In fact, Umar the companion of the Prophet heard one such poet proclaim himself in the presence of the Prophet and immediately Umar asked if he could kill that poet. The Prophet forbade it and instead engaged in a conversation with the poet.
This poet later would seek forgiveness and go on to praise the Prophet in a lengthy poem proclaiming his conversion to Islam. This image of the Prophet cant be captured in any one dimensional cartoon published in a trash newspaper that lacks human decency and common courtesy. They can publish what they want, in fact, this isnt the last time it will happen (and God knows I’ve already dealt with this at UCSD with the Koala).
Thats why I focus on the psychology of Taif; the reason I am stunned by the preposterous exchange; and, why the torture report resonate through my posts. I am a creature of my time, and its why certain aspects of the Seerah speak to me more then others, they are relevant to helping me make sense of my life and the things happening in it. Also, while the facts might remain the same, the analysis changes based on what my experiences are, therefore the Seerah is a “living story” and not stuck in a certain time and place.
The Bottom Line
The book is fertile ground for rich stories that are not often found in other English Seerahs. However, this attention to detail often times leads Salahi to ramble on, repeating phrases like “we will discuss this later, but I thought I mention…” This tendency to “jump around” also adds significant content, making the work cumbersome. This is a must have Seerah for reference and select details, however, for those new to the Prophet’s life something more linear and fact focused would be a better read.
Salahi tends to ramble on, which is surprising since he is a journalist. He should be economical with his words. This can’t be completely faulted against Salahi because it is a work of love and his effort tended to bring into English aspects of the Seerah that have so far been only accessible to Arabic readers (maybe Farsi and Urdu and Turkish readers as well?). I believe the editors could, and probably should have done a better job at tightening the content of the Muhammad: Man and Prophet.
A significant point of contention that developed over the 700 pages of the Seerah for me was that Salahi repeated himself often. He had this desire to re-word and re-phrase, repeat and re-iterate the same point within parts of the same chapter, constantly, what he had already clearly described. Often this came as a chapter introduction and summary, but over the course of the entire book this became tiresome to read.
Another problem I faced was that Salahi would jump around the time line, drawing attention to other aspects of the biography to get his point across. Partly out of his re-iteration, and partly out of having to explain the context, this convoluted the overall textual reading of the Seerah, leaving me frustrated that he hadn’t gotten to the point already.
The problem with this was that buried in all this was often his key point, the crux of his analysis and if you can bare to read through all of this with patience, you would often times find the gem that makes this Seerah a pleasure to read. Because, Salahi is trying to relate the significance of the events that took place during the Prophets life, connecting it to the broader Muslim history, the Salahi’s analysis takes on a life of its own.
Salahi’s greatest accomplishment is that he brings into English aspects of the Seerah that have so far been only accessible to Arabic readers and those who might sit through hours of Seerah workshops to get gems that speakers might remember to translate to their Western audiences. In this one respect, Salahi’s seerah is a must have and a must read for a Muslim.
But I wouldn’t recommend this to someone new to the Prophet’s life, or to non-Muslims. At least not as the first Seerah someone reads. Mainly because of the points I cover in the bad section.
Overall it was a wonderful Seerah that provided me with new insight and also a better understanding of many of the hadiths that are commonly shared in Friday sermons (khutbahs).