The Lives of Muhammad by Kecia Ali, is essentially a historiography describing how the life of the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] has been written over the centuries. It was an innovative, yet easy to read book where the author attempts to take the reader on a journey through the various biographies written on the Prophet, often complemented by a thematic approach – whether it be discussing his multiple wives, or his marriage to the young Ayesha. While reading this work, it often reminded me of Jonathon Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy.
Ali spends a lot of time focusing on popular biographical works written over the course of time, both by European and Eastern (Muslim or otherwise) authors and the conclusions that are derived by these authors by focusing on different dimensions of his life. Some of these books include the works of William Muir, Deepak Chopra, Karen Armstrong, George Bush, Ameer Ali and others. Although – she clarifies – a book like this demands tough authorial choices for it to not run into dozens of volumes and thus she exempts herself from focusing too much on some equally other popular books.
The conclusions that she herself reaches are those that perhaps Muslim apologists and those involved in polemics, may not be too unfamiliar with. Both apologists and critics tend to portray the Prophet’s life to suit their agendas and biases. While the age of Ayesha was never an issue throughout the centuries, critics today – in light of greater awareness towards sex abuse of children and notions towards pedophilia – do not let a moment slip away without ridiculing him for this decision. However at the same time, his supposed lustfulness and multiple marriages – which were during one point, the key areas for critics to focus on – are not seen as problematic today, given that lustfulness is rampant and accepted in many irreligious societies.
On the contrary, with the change of tide, Muslims have also understood different aspects of his life and have utilized it for the times they are living in – something that is not an issue for Muslims given that he is seen as a role model for all times. At one time considered a mere shepherd, and at another time a social reformer, could the Prophet today be considered the best Muslim CEO to walk the earth? Why not.
All in all, the book is mine of information, particularly for those who wish to study the biography of the Prophet or even write it. For those who have not read any detailed works on the biography of the Prophet, this might be a good first book to start off with as a primer to know what to expect. As for those who are already well-versed in his biographical works, this book will serve to help them put together the different perspectives, thoughts and conclusions in an organized and fluid manner.
Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.