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Jan 13 2019

Illuminating Islam’s Peaceful Origins – 2 Book Reviews

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Source: https://www.nytimes.com/section/books/review
By Mustafa Akyol
(NY Times), Dec 2018


[The following is an excerpt of an article written by Mustafa Akyol where he reviews two books:

God In The Quran, by Jack Miles, 241 pgs, $26.95

Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires by Juan Cole, 326 pgs, $28

]


Is Allah, the God of Muslims, a different deity from the one worshiped by Jews and Christians? Is he even perhaps a strange “moon god,” a relic from Arab paganism, as some anti-Islamic polemicists have argued?

What about Allah’s apostle, Muhammad? Was he a militant prophet who imposed his new religion by the sword, leaving a bellicose legacy that still drives today’s Muslim terrorists?

Two new books may help answer such questions, and also give a deeper understanding of Islam’s theology and history.

To begin with, one should not doubt that Allah is Yahweh, the God of the Bible, because that is what he himself says. The Quran’s “divine speaker,” Miles writes, “does identify himself as the God whom Jews and Christians worship and the author of their Scriptures.” That is also why Allah reiterates, often with much less detail, many of the same stories we read in the Bible about Yahweh and his interventions in human history. The little nuances between these stories, however, are distinctions with major implications.

Through such scriptural comparisons, Miles gets to the core of the Abrahamic matrix: The monotheism that the Jewish people developed over the centuries was inherited by Islam and was turned into a global creed. All the national elements within Judaism, meanwhile, were then muted.

What about Christianity, the third, and the largest, piece of the matrix? It seems to be, just like Islam, a universalization of Judaic monotheism. But Christianity introduced a new theological element to the scene — a divine Christ and triune Godhead — which proved unacceptable to both Judaism and Islam. In the chapter comparing the Quran with the New Testament, Miles shows this by explaining how Islam rejects Christian theology, while showing great respect for Jesus Christ and Mary. He also sees “a brilliant symmetry” in how Islam combined Judaism’s criticism of Christian theology with Christianity’s criticism of Jewish particularism.

Non-Muslims who take the time to read the Quran may end up feeling a bit baffled, though. For they will hear a lot about Abraham, Moses, Joseph or Jesus, but almost nothing about the person they may be expecting the most: Muhammad. For while the Quran often speaks to Muhammad, it almost never speaks about him.

That is why the Islamic tradition developed a post-Quranic literature on the life and times of Muhammad, recorded in the books of sira, or biography. And a cutting-edge version of sira comes from the pen of Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and the author of the popular blog Informed Comment.

Cole’s book, “Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires,” is not just eruditely informative, but also ambitiously revisionist, with two unorthodox arguments he keenly advances throughout the book.

Going against familiar if not frequent militant images of the Prophet Muhammad in the West, he portrays Islam’s founder as a peacemaker who wanted only to preach his monotheism freely and who even tried to establish “multicultural” harmony.

The first years of Muhammad’s mission, which he spent as the leader of an oppressed minority in Mecca, provides ample evidence to support this argument. The next decade in Medina, during which swords were unsheathed and battles were fought, complicates it. Cole solves the problem by advancing the explanation that modern Muslims typically offer: All these wars by the Prophet Muhammad were “defensive” in nature, fitting into a vision of “just war.”

 

[See Full Review HERE]

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