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EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW WITH KAREN ARMSTRONG
INTERVIEWER: Why did you write your book, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I'd become very disturbed by the amount of hostility towards Islam that is so very evident in the west, even among very liberal people. I felt that this ingrained attitude was a dangerous thing for us, especially in Europe, where we've had a horrible history of religious persecution. We simply can't afford to allow ourselves these easy cultural prejudices. And it seemed that there was no better way of approaching Islam than looking at the life story of it's great prophet, Muhammad.
After all, Muslims model their entire lives on Muhammad. His biography presents the archetype of the perfect act of self-surrender to God, which by the way is what the word 'Islam' means. His recorded words and actions form the basis of Muslim law. When you look at Muhammad 's struggles, his sufferings, his triumphs, you begin to get a sense of the underlying passion and spirituality of Islam. Each religion has its own particular genius and each has its own particular flaws. And by looking at the life story, the struggles, the passions, the triumphs of its founder, in this case, Muhammad, you begin to see the particular rhythm and dynamism of the religion.
INTERVIEWER: Muslims find Muhammad an example to live by. What inspiration might a person of another faith, or of no faith, find in his story?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I think he's an example of huge courage and commitment, an example of what one person can do with the help of the sacred, with the help of the divine, but with your own human inspiration too. Above all that he remained kind, human, warm, loving. He did not allow himself to become a daunting human being of daunting achievements. He must be one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, both spiritually and politically, yet he was also a genius at humanity. I think of his kindness to his wives, his kindness to children, his loving care of animals, his devotion to his companions, and the fact that he was constantly moved to tears when he saw suffering. Never in any moment of his life did he cease to be less than a human being.
INTERVIEWER: How did Muhammad's experience compare to those of other prophets?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Muhammad had never heard about the experiences of the great Hebrew prophets of the 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries B.C.E. So it is very remarkable how his experiences almost replicated theirs, though in a particularly Arabian way. When Isaiah had his experience of God in the temple, he, like Muhammad, felt near to death. He cried out I'm lost. It was like a lethal shock, as if he were saying, I've looked upon the Lord God and nobody can do that and live.
Ezekiel felt absolutely stunned and was literally knocked out for three days. He lay almost unconscious after he'd had his vision of the divine chariot. Jeremiah felt God as a terrible pain that racked his every limb and that broke his heart and tore him apart and made him stagger like a drunk. That revelation in the monotheistic traditions, especially in Judaism and Islam, is not experienced as something peaceful and quiet rising up from the depths of the self, but rather as a devastating divine blow, as a wrenching apart of the self. The prophets all find it difficult to speak as well. Isaiah has to have his lips burned with a coal before he can speak. Jeremiah says, Ah my Lord God, I'm a child, I can't speak. I don't know how to speak. And Muhammad too when asked to recite, says No, no, I'm not a reciter, I can't, I can't do this.
It's very difficult to utter the word of God. It's not easy to come out with a divine message.
INTERVIEWER: What was the prevailing spirit of Muhammad's early effort to build the first Muslim community, in Medina?
KAREN ARMSTRONG:Well, he was doing something quite unheard of in Arabia at that time. He was going to create, in Medina, a polity that was not based on blood, and on tribe, but on ideology. It was something completely unheard of. The tribes who were watching this experiment with astonishment would not, I should have thought, have given it in 622 a lifetime of more than a couple of years at most. Very early, he created a sort of confidence treaty with the various groups of Medina, stating that he would be, as it were, the leader of the community, but no one was to be obliged to convert to Islam. There was never to be any compulsion in religion. Muhammad had learned very early, at the hands of his own tormentors in Mecca, what persecution meant in religious terms, and it was never his policy to force people to convert against their will. The treaty, or Constitution of Medina, was a purely political arrangement. He was coming to Medina with his Muslims, and if any people there chose to join in, that was fine. But no one was to feel pressured or coerced to do so. He was to be the leader, but not to impose ideological conformity.
INTERVIEWER: Mecca was clearly opposed to Muhammad and his community. What was the situation in Medina when he arrived?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: For some years before his arrival, the settlement was engulfed in tribal warfare of the worst kind. And the whole situation had got completely out of hand. It was an example of where the whole system in Arabia was beginning to break down. One killing led to another and nobody could seem to find a solution. Then they heard about Muhammad.
For one thing, they were more easily disposed to monotheism, towards belief in just one God, than the people of Mecca, because a number of Jewish tribes lived in the oasis. Now these Jewish tribes are mostly mysterious to us. No one has ever really been able to explain satisfactorily when they came from Palestine, who they were, or what they believed. They seem to have believed in a very rudimentary form of Judaism. They were not familiar with the later prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and they seem to have had no notion of the Talmud. But they knew the Bible stories of Abraham and Noah, Ishmael and Isaac, and they believed in one God. It would be a great mistake, however, to imagine that these Jewish parts of the oasis were like Brooklyn, or Crown Heights, because these people were Arabs. They had their own Arab tribal customs, they fought their own tribal wars in the oasis. They had their own allies.
INTERVIEWER: How was Muhammad received?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: When the Prophet finally arrived and was welcomed joyously by his own followers into Medina, not everybody was overjoyed to see him. There were a number of people who were very decidedly in favor of Muhammad's message, and his revelations. Some were converting to Islam. Other people simply saw in him a new hope for ending the terrible civil war that had been going on there. But there was also a considerable opposition.
For one thing, there was a group of devout Pagans or polytheists, in the traditional Arabian style of the day, who had no intention of allowing these foreigners to come marching in to their settlement and taking over. For another thing, some of the Jewish tribes, especially those with much to lose, were appalled by this newcomer who seemed to have come to disturb the balance of power. They were determined to oust him.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of expectations did Muhammad have of what his relationship with the Jews of Medina would be?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Muhammad had been very excited about going to Yathrib and joining forces with the Jewish community there. Until then, he'd been working totally in isolation, struggling forward, almost, one might say, going through the whole monotheistic experience in his own person. Now he was going to have allies, he was going to join up with people who were long tried in the worship of the one God. And he was really excited about it. He was genuinely expecting them to welcome him as a prophet.
The Jews, however, for excellent religious reasons of their own, could not accept Muhammad as a prophet, because after all, in their view the era of prophecy was over. For most of them, theologically speaking, Muhammad's proposal was outrageous. They poured a lot of scorn on the Prophet. They had political reasons and religious reasons to want to get rid of him. This rejection was one of the greatest disappointments, I think, in the Prophet's life, because it undermined his whole position. He believed that he was in a line of great prophets, the last person to come along with a message from God. Because the QURAN teaches that God has sent messengers to every single people on the face of the earth, and it repeats again and again and again that Muhammad did not come to cancel out the revelations of the prophets of old, did not come to cancel out Moses or Jesus or David or Solomon. Rather, he had come as a continuer of this message. It was a major, major problem for him, and a deep disappointment, and a deep distress.
But some of the Jews there were friendly. They did not join in the mainstream opposition to Muhammad. They engaged in conversation with him, and filled in gaps in his knowledge of Jewish and religious history. It was here, for example, that Muhammad learned that the Jews and the Christians whom he previously thought belonged to one religious community, all worshipping one God, in fact had very serious theological disagreements. And this seemed absolutely shocking to him, that the community of the one God should split itself into warring sects for the sake of a few theological arguments, about which no one could adjudicate satisfactorily one way or the other.
INTERVIEWER: What made The Qur'an so special?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: The Qur'an is the most extraordinary beautiful discourse. It doesn't come over in translation, but the Arabic is extraordinary and it does evoke a significant response. When the first Muslims heard the Qur'an, many of them were converted to the Prophet's message. Not necessarily because of its content but because of its beauty. And I think that tells us something important about the nature of religion and the nature of religious discourse. The Qur'an is imparting a certain amount of information and it is giving out a lot of legislation. But what the Qur'an, like any religious discourse is mostly doing, is working like art, which invades us, which gets below the level of rational, cerebral judging of content to a core of receptivity that we sometimes don't even know that we have. Music, for example, sweeps into us and gets right to the heart of our feelings, of our being, and evades rationality. The great works of religion have more in common with art than with factual, scientific or even philosophical discourse.
INTERVIEWER: It's hard to believe that simply because someone hears a passage from the Qur'an they would convert to a whole new religion.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I think you underestimate the power of great art, if you say it would be impossible for the Qur'an to convert people by virtue of its sheer beauty. Because I think its beauty is so exceptional that many first-time listeners felt it was issuing from a divine source. At the time, it was as though people were witnessing the creation an entirely new literary form, and it still speaks to Muslims in an extraordinary way.
The great story concerning this subject, of course, is the story of Umar, one of Muhammad's chief opponents, a man who opposed Muhammad ideologically on every front, and a nephew of Muhammad's close friend, Abu Bakr. There are actually several stories. This is one:
There was just this curtain between himself and the Prophet. And as he listened, he said, Islam entered into me and I wept.