The life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in its geopolitical context

“Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires” by Juan Cole

This is a very well-researched book about how life was like during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), from the context of geopolitics. While many other excellent books on the Prophet focused on the person or the early Muslim community, this book adds into the dimension of his story by providing the crucial background environment.

It depicts the vibrant mash up of cultures and languages in the region, the crowded markets, the traveling merchants on top of a camel, how the trade routes operate, and most profoundly the influences of political superpowers on the ever changing and ever complicated conditions for trade and commerce.

It also shows the strong existence of Paganism within this rigidly hierarchical society, with Jews and Christian influences slightly receded and played only the minority roles. All of which became the young Muhammad’s working condition as a merchant in his early years, and later on became the political environment during the early days of the Muslim community.

The author, Juan Cole, is a Middle East political expert with decades of experience. And to write this book he reads the Qur’an, the Bible, and their many accompanying texts, as well as many other sacred books such as Zoroastrianism texts, not to mention a huge trove of historical findings – from those carved in stones, to the many scrolls, to academic research findings -, so that he can narrate the stories as accurate as possible with impressive relevant Quranic and Biblical citations to make the points across within the narration.

As Cole remarks, the main purpose of the book is to “puts forward a reinterpretation of early Islam as a movement strongly inflected with values of peacemaking that was reacting against the slaughter of the decades-long war and attendant religious strife.”

Indeed, Islam was born in the middle of a massive clash between two empires, the Romans and the Sasanian Empire (of Iran), that was fought with unparalleled brutality for nearly 3 decades. This shows the extreme difficulties for the Prophet to preach the message of peace, and also explains the context for some of the “war verses” that are often taken out of context and misinterpreted in modern days and/or criticized by those who don’t understand.

However, to be fair, the critics are not entirely wrong. While Cole said the early Muslim community under the leadership of the Prophet “resembles much more the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount than is usually admitted”, he also acknowledges that “[l]ife in medieval feudal societies did not encourage pacific theologies, and Muslims in later empires lost touch with the realities of the early seventh century.” But Cole then argues that, judging Islam from only the later empires is like judging Christianity from the actions of the likes of Pope Urban II, who launched the brutal Crusades in the Holy Land.

In other words, it is true that after the Prophet passed away Islam became increasingly militant, but as Cole remarks, “[w]e might consider some other historical parallels here. The peaceful spiritual founder of the Sikh religion in medieval India, Guru Nanak (d. 1539), was succeeded by more militant figures such as the fifth Guru, Arjun, and then by the tenth, Gobind Singh (d. 1708), who instituted warlike rules for the religion.” Hence, for those who pinpointed Islam as a violent religion by highlighting only the era after the Prophet has passed away, they’re technically right, but they’re missing the larger context: That all from secular to religious empires were also violent in those eras.

Furthermore, the book also highlighted some of the misconceptions of Islam. Such as the Sharia law, where the word sharia in the sense of Islamic law does not actually exist in the Qur’an, but instead the notion of sharia law was constructed by later generations using collected sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet, which were passed down orally and many of which were actually folk literature, dubious, or even blatant forgery. In other words, there are also political infighting within the Muslim community, complete with all the egos and political agendas.

Another argument from the book is the possible geopolitical reason for the Hijra movement, where “[s]cholars have increasingly also tied the second half of Muhammad’s career, 622–632, to the maneuverings of Rome and Iran, even suggesting that his move to Medina from his hometown of Mecca may have been connected to Roman diplomacy.” The book also shows the massive backlash for the Muslim community in their arrival at Medina during the Hijra, and how the Prophet masterfully ride and change the political tide into a more favourable condition for Muslims.

But perhaps the most controversial argument of the book is about the eternally-debated intelligence of Muhammad before his encounter with the angel, which makes more sense and actually shows the brilliance of our Prophet more than what he was given credit for.

In Cole’s own words, “[a]lthough most of his biographers have treated him as a provincial holy man, Muhammad traveled widely. He would have been acquainted with Roman law, culture, and languages. Contrary both to later Muslim apologetics and to the assumptions of Western Orientalists, he was literate, as any great long-distance merchant would have been. He knew the Bible, probably in written Aramaic versions and oral Arab traditions, though possibly in Greek as well. In his thirties, I suspect, Muhammad’s inner thirst took him to Christian monasteries, eldritch shrines, Jewish synagogues, and Neoplatonist salons in Damascus and Bostra. Unexpectedly, his quest ended when its object came instead to him.”

All in all, as you can see, the book gives the human side of historical Islam, it provides the much needed context to fully understand what really happened, and shed a light into the political operator side of the Prophet, which, given the complicated geopolitical situation of his days, made his role as a messenger of God looks more important and his overall achievements of building Islam as the religion of peace even more impressive.