Tag Archives: Muhammad

Muhammad’s Motive

 Question:

I just read your book, "Muhammad", which is a very interesting read, not only because of the powerful story telling skill, but also because of the awareness of the details of the place, the timing, and the way of thinking, coming from someone who was born a Muslim, but now consider myself agnostic. My question is: What was Muhammad’s true motivation? from my point of view, I think he was one of two things: 1- Someone who actually thought he saw Gabriel, God, Buraq…..etc.  2- A selfish leader who has represented the "ultimate" sales and marketing pitch and product (Fear of death and hopes for eternity). However, I might be off here, because, to play the devil’s advocate, in defense of the first motivation, I don’t think someone who saw shadows will be a great leader who people would listen to, I mean, a leader if anything should have some sense of common sense, and logic. And in defense of the second motive, if he was an evil and he knew it, then I don’t think he would have been as successful as he was for that long simply because he knows that he is not doing the right thing! So to conclude, what do you think Muhammad truly believed? I appreciate your input.

Answer:

I think the purity of Muhammad’s motive is apparent in his teachings. He seems to have been a simple soul who reluctantly answered the spiritual calling to convey the message he was given to others. Your second option that he had a great sales pitch makes sense. Given the other religions available at the time in that area of the world, the teaching of fear of death and hope of salvation wasn’t unique, or a particularly effective way to gather a following. I think his message of monotheistic reform had a special power and energy that stirred something deep and real in people, and that was the main reason why his teaching spread the way it did.

Love,

 Deepak

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Finding peace within

 It’s very true that someone can come into your sunny day and make it all cloudy. That was their choice to come and mess with your personal peace. But the important thing is what you do with that cloud and how you decide your next course of action will be. I have to admit lately I have been that cloud, making everyone’s day well "cloudy" because of my own unclear mind. Also, mainly because I did not know how to deal with people who had cloudy judgements, thus when a negative person came my way I became engulfed and apart of their sadness. It’s much easier to live by the glass is half full rule just as it requires less energy and muscles in your face to smile. In Islam the prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) says, "You should never be upset about anything more than 2 days." This is apart of the cloud in people minds, dwelling on the past, and feeling that every day is just another day. But today is a new day and so is tomorrow. If something bad happens today it CAN be changed in an instant if you want it to be changed. You just have to either brush it off or find the better alternative. Then life will be easy breezy! 😀

On the Prophet’s Birthday: Old Guards, New Guards and Rear Guards

 As with Easter and Passover, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad is dated by the lunar calendar. This year it falls on Feb. 15, and the time seems particularly fraught with meaning. Every time there is a crisis in the Muslim world, grudges and resentments going back almost to the beginning of the faith, in the seventh century, seem to resurface. Islam, being an all-inclusive religion, refers every aspect of life back to God. When you feel that God has been affronted or disobeyed by your enemies, time disappears. It’s always a good time to reopen old wounds.

 That’s why there are rarely any upsets in society that are not also religious upsets. Traditional Muslim society equates with religious society. In Egypt, where secular rule has been the rule, the chemistry between God and government is still volatile and almost impossible to fathom if you live outside the Arab world.  I don’t speak as an insider but as a writer who delved into these issues when researching a book on the life of Muhammad. It is remarkable the extent to which the life of the Prophet set the template for attitudes that persist today.

 Among the most marked of these are a sense of being embattled for God, a defensive posture against infidels, a fierce desire to devote one’s life to protect the Prophet, a desire to obey God’s laws down to the smallest letter, and jihad, which in its broadest meaning denotes the struggle of the soul to reach a pure relationship with Allah against the temptations of one’s base nature.  These elements are entangled inside the worldview of devout Muslims.  The new guard that tries to provoke change must contend not just with the old guard — in this case the clash is between the youth of Egypt and the ruling military elite — but also there is the rear guard of religious conservatism. A centuries-old worldview is always ready to condemn change as being against the will of God.

 What I came to understand is that this worldview has its reasons for being. The Prophet was personally troubled about the messages he received that commanded him to convert the entire world to the new faith.  When the early Muslims first fled from Mecca to Medina, Muhammad was welcomed as a peacemaker among warring tribes and faiths. His approach was conciliatory, and all sides recognized him as a fair arbiter. Islam sees itself as a faith that is far more inclusive than exclusive. Therefore, when Muhammad was forced to lead battles in defense of the faith, and afterwards when he turned on former Christian and Jewish allies, a dangerous rift became part of the Muslim worldview, at once aiming for universal peace and brotherhood but using violent means to get there.  Christianity has its own built-in contradictions. This will always occur as long as human nature is divided. "What we say" and "what we do" have been perpetually at odds.

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Is the Prophet a Founding Father?

In America and in Egypt, should a majority religion inspire political life? How will Islam play a role in the struggles for democracy happening now in Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world?

All societies present an entangled mesh of values, with many contradictions that never get sorted out. In America, religion is a particularly tangled strand, and despite the Founding Fathers’ clear intention to provide freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, some Americans insist on re-arguing the point continuously. In their vehemence they contradict another typical value that they hold, an irrational worship of the Constitution. But that’s how society is meant to be when people elect to be free. 

The case of Egypt, as it convulses toward becoming a democracy, is similar and at the same time radically different. The sad truth is that a tiny sliver of the rich, privileged, and Westernized — the very people the West thinks are "just like us" — deserve to be overthrown. They took unconscionable advantage of their privileges, imposing repression on the bottom 90% of society. No one seems to dispute that it’s time for Egypt to play catch up with the rest of the world and its long trend toward democracy.

Yet this raises the bugaboo of the Islamist factions, the religious conservatives who see the U.S. as a sworn enemy of their faith. The West was burned by the Iranian revolution and its steady drive toward anti-Western belligerence, along with its support for terrorism and the chimera of a world where every country bows to the Prophet Muhammad. A leading expert of the Arab world, Bernard Lewis, years ago predicted that if popular uprisings succeeded in toppling the dictatorships that span from the top of Africa throughout the Middle East, the new governments would be dominated by religious fundamentalism. It was a dark prophecy, and it remains the most feared prospect as viewed by the U.S. We called for elections in Palestine, only to punish the Palestinians when they chose Hamas as their ruling party. We fled Lebanon in the midst of religious strife. We stood by helplessly as Iran moved in the wrong direction, and now many see the Shiite clerics gaining a strong hold in Iraq, hiding discreetly behind the scene.

This is a long preamble to saying that Muhammad cannot be kept out of Arab politics. The Westward-looking elites in the Arab world are secular — even Saddam was secular — but they hold power by brutal means. Ironically, it was the economic rise of Egypt and Tunisia in recent years that has largely fueled the discontent in the streets, for suddenly, as in India, the poorest people see a glimmer of hope for achieving dignity and economic progress. Even so, religion will be a big part of the mix. On one side, Egypt watchers tell us that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t take over the country; one is reminded of Iraq watchers who assured the neocons that invading Iraq wouldn’t lead to religious strife, given how secular that country was.

The root that runs deepest in every Arab country is Islam, and one of the ideals of the faith is that everything in life — art, politics, law, and daily habits — must revolve around God’s strict rules. Having written a book about the Prophet, my immersion into Islam showed me, with regret, that their is a fine line between what the religious conservatives want, which is religious totalism, and what the Taliban delivered in Afghanistan, which is religious totalitarianism. I have no predictions about Egypt, which was founded by Nasser as a modern secular state on the basis of Arab nationalism. We can only stand by and see how the entangled mesh of values in Egypt unravels. The worst of one system may give way to the worst of its opposite — let’s hope not.

Published in the Washington Post/On Faith

Life After Death

Question:
I’m an academic neuropsychiatrist with deep interest in brain and mind. I only read 2 of your books, Buddha and Muhammad. What impressed me the most is your thorough understanding of the person in these figures. For me you seem to know that what is sacred is every moment we spend existing and not in what is "out there". I don’t believe in god/gods or in religion and I feel that humans are miserable because they developed "consciousness", an extension of the frontal lobe function that allowed awareness of time, what has passed and what to come, which created this eternal anxiety about life and death and all the complexity that followed. I think that the Buddha figured it out and gave us the only way to go through it with the least suffering. But when we die, we blend back to the energy in this universe, our soul is the set of experiences that we had and left traces behind, the noise of the working machine of our body and the products of that machine that is left behind. How far am I from the "Truth"!
Answer:
I don’t presume to know Truth with a capital “T”, but Buddha’s doctrine of freedom from suffering is premised on the idea of awakening from ignorance. This ignorance is the energetic pattern of our identity that keeps us in the cycle of reincarnation until we are fully enlightened. So while the raw material of our bodies is recycled on death, the energy of our individual consciousness is not united with the consciousness of the universe until the body of the enlightened person dies. As for what exactly that experience will be or won’t be, we’ll have to see.
Love,
Deepak
 

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Making Muhammad Safe

For the past decade Islam has been suffering from fear almost everywhere you look.  Arab countries are afraid of being invaded by the U.S. in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. Sunni Muslims are nervous about the rise of Iran to a nuclear state dominated by Shiites.  But on a far more personal level, everyone is afraid to say anything about Muhammad that would inflame the faithful.  I’ve experienced this recently myself. On tour for a book about Muhammad — one that I wrote primarily to tell Westerners that the Prophet led an exciting, inspiring life — the first word that comes up in every interview is fatwa. The first question is "Aren’t you afraid to write this book?"

Every religion takes sole possession of its founder. That’s what makes it strong. That and claiming that your version of God is the only correct one. But nobody who writes books about Jesus or Buddha does so in fear. The irony is that the stronger the faith, the more open it is to intolerance. Fundamentalist Christians believe that everyone else is an outsider to the true faith, including other Christians. But Islam has become locked down to an extraordinary degree. Those of us who want to write as sympathetically as possible about Muhammad, without giving in to official hagiography, are warned off. We are made to walk on eggshells. Saddest of all, those Muslims who are pleased to see a novel about Muhammad’s life scan it nervously to make sure that nothing is out of place.

Isn’t it time to make Muhammad a safe topic?  The Danish cartoonist who lampooned the Prophet stepped into taboo territory since Islam forbids any physical depiction of him. But Islamic art over the centuries has come to terms with the strictures against painting portraits and taking photos of people’s faces. Adaptation means survival, and those forces in Islam that don’t want to adapt, far from preserving their faith for eternity, are endangering it. 

The irony of the situation is double, actually. Muhammad recognized Jews and Christians as people of the Book, along with Muslims.  They are not outsiders but fellow worshipers.   Islam was meant to be an umbrella that includes them and tolerates their faith. So the fundamentalist streak in Islam isn’t true to the spirit of the Prophet.  The very notion that the Koran should never be translated from the Arabic and never commented upon was born (so far as I can ascertain) among his followers after the Prophet’s death. As a result, the other people of the Book have passed through reform movements and adaptations that have been denied to the Muslim faithful.

Surrounding the Prophet with veneration is one thing. We can all understand and respect that. But surrounding him with threats, a kind of theological barbed wire, is another thing. It isn’t acceptable to the outside world, and moderate Arabs would be well served to speak out against it.  I don’t mean to dictate to anyone how they should follow their religion. But we’ve come to an impasse if no one is allowed to speak the truth about Muhammad or comment upon his life. As long as freedom of thought is considered the enemy, the Islamic world will be embroiled in fear forever. 

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Peace Day with Deepak and Muhammad

I’ve always loved the International Day of Peace in September. As a non-religious person with no altars to pray to, I made this day into a ritual of making peace with different issues, like my not so divine frustration over the end of the short Swedish summer.  But this year, September 21 will be my day spent with Deepak and Muhammad.
 
I trust Deepak Chopra’s new book to help me make peace with the issue of Islam. I actually have no issues with Islam at all, partly because I don’t know that much about it, and partly because I don’t find religious issues disturbing.
 
But what does disturb me is my incapacity to understand the people who fight over Islam. My eyes widen in disbelief when one of my country’s small but very vocal political parties drives its election campaign with a good dose of “beware of Islam”. I have a hard time understanding the reasoning of my Danish neighbours who insist that drawing the portrait of Muhammad is a necessary thing to do, even if it insults and disturbs other people. I also have a very hard time wrapping my head around the logic of flying airplanes into American buildings full of living people.
 
If this book is anything like Buddha and Jesus, the first two books of the trilogy, then I will probably fall in love again. I don’t know how Deepak did it, but he transformed them from two interesting but quite indifferent religious characters, into beings that are as close to me as my own self. If I fall in love with Muhammad too, then I guess that for a moment I will be at peace as I see all people, extremists or not, without judgment. For a moment, I will be peacefully innocent, among all other innocent beings.
 
Isn’t that what love is to do on Peace Day?

Love,

Aurora

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Muhammad and the Litmus Test

Does the truth need to pass a litmus test? When you tell the truth about anyone’s religion, the answer isn’t so clear. Before I engaged in writing a novel on the life of Muhammad, the risks were only too apparent.  Islam was a hot-button issue. Tempers were running high. Looming large were the fatwa and Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, and the worldwide uprising among Muslims over a cartoon in a Danish newspaper that was thought to blaspheme against the Prophet.  Therefore, simply to set down the events of Muhammad’s life — events that are by turns gripping, exciting, disturbing, and inspiring — leads directly into an inflamed debate.

To me, the danger of writing about Muhammad are, frankly, a red herring.  You can’t know what is safe to say these days and what isn’t. Before he backed down at the urging of President Obama and others ,  an obscure Florida pastor with less than a hundred in his congregation,  proposed, against all sense, decency, and caution, that everyone join in Burn-a-Koran Day to commemorate 9/11.  Terry Jones feels perfectly safe to incite potential violence, because he has prayed over it, and apparently his God can’t stand Allah (I thought they were the same God) and favors ignorant intolerance.  By lineage, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share The Book, meaning the same antecedents in the Old Testament, which each faith interprets so that it comes out number one. Being "people of The Book," a term frequently used when discussing the relationship between Islam and Judaism, hasn’t stopped historical feuding and bloodbaths. 

To keep their claims of absolute divine truth, each religion has learned to moderate its criticism of other faiths.  It’s not so much live and let live as people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Your founder walked on water? Yours heard a voice in a burning bush? Yours was visited in a cave by the angel Gabriel?  From inside the faith, these are articles of belief that cannot be questioned. If you stand outside the faith, they seem unreasonable, to use the mildest term possible. As a non-Muslim, I was writing from outside the faith. Therefore, I didn’t challenge the accepted life of Muhammad as taught for over a thousand years to all devout Muslims. Yet at the same time I couldn’t give them only the aspects of their Beloved that are the most attractive.  Muhammad, viewed as a historical figure, was involved in military campaigns; he asked God to strategize the battles.  At one point he ordered the execution of Jews who had collaborated with the enemy. He was told by God to marry a girl of six who was betrothed to another man.

I didn’t judge any of this from a modern perspective. Child marriage was part of a society that existed across enormous gulfs of time and mores, just as the ancient Greeks do. Once you apply litmus tests to someone else’s faith, the result is guaranteed to be explosive. Fundamentalists in all religions don’t care. The benighted Terry Jones has counterparts in the Islamic world who are just as disturbing, and both say "God wants me to do this."  It’s not up to me or any chronicler of Islam to judge either side of religious conflict.   To me, putting on my writer’s cap, the only muse that must be honored is the truth, told with respect and without distortion.  The great enemy here is denial. None of us has the right to deny another person the dignity of faith, and by the same token, no person of faith has the right to claim sole ownership of the facts.  Outsiders are allowed to peer in the window of churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues. Those inside then have a choice: slam t window shut or open it and let in some light. 

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