Hundreds, if not thousands, of biographies are written about Muhammad. Some are for small children, others designed for Muslim teenagers living in the West, and still others intended for non-Muslims. Countries such as Saudi Arabia have competitions for students to write the best biography of the Prophet.
The interesting thing is that all of these are based on a trilogy of books that have been here for 1200 years. They are the Quran, the sayings of Muhammad, and his original biography. There have been no recently discovered hidden documents, no Dead Sea Scrolls, not even a Da Vinci Code.
The original biography was written by Ibn Ishaq (Is-haq) about 130 years after Muhammad died. His text is lost to history, but an editor named Ibn Hisham (Hi-sham) collected most of it and published it along with his own notes and additions. That is available today in English, translated by A. Guillaume, under the title, “The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah”. I’d read it some time ago, but today I walked into the Obeikan Bookshop and bought the original Arabic version, 850 pages of “As-Sira An-Nabawiya”, by Ibn Hisham.
What amazes me is that the Muhammad I see in this book is so different from the fawning biographies on the shelf at Barnes & Nobles. Guillaume’s translation contains all the authentic material but there’s something sobering about reading it in the original language, as Arabs have done for 1200 years. The first story I read was “The Raid of ‘Umayr Bin ‘Uday Al-Khatmi to Kill ‘Asma Bint Marwan”. Asma was a poetess, the mother of five children. When she heard that Muhammad had sent one of his soldiers to kill another poet, the 100-year old Abu ‘Afaq, she said, “I blame Islam and its people.” She then composed the following lines:
I despise you, Oh you tribal people
You obey a stranger who is not from you
He’s not from any of your tribes
How can you expect good from the person who killed all your leaders?
Why are you waiting like a hungry man hoping for the cook’s left-over broth?
Are none of you courageous enough to attack him by surprise,
And cut off the hopes of those who are expecting something from him?
That was enough to get her killed. As soon as Muhammad heard about it, he asked, “Who will get rid of that woman for me?” One of his courageous (irony intended) followers went to her house that night and killed her in her bed with her nursing child by her side. In the morning he told Muhammad what he had done. The Prophet’s response was, “You have brought victory to Allah and his Apostle.” The murderer asked if anything might happen to him as the result of what he had done. Muhammad replied, “Two goats won’t butt their heads about her.” Just in case the message wasn’t clear, my Arabic edition has the footnote, “That means she is insignificant.”
We don’t understand this in the West. We can’t connect the dots between the death of a poetess 1400 years ago because of a poem, and the blowing up of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad because of a cartoon. We can’t make the connection between her being murdered for criticizing Muhammad, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali receiving death threats for Submission. We’d rather believe, with our President, that a “few extremists have hijacked the religion of peace”. It’s a lot easier than actually examining that religion. We don’t want to really know about Asma Bint Marwan or the Prophet who killed her.