I've been meaning (since last year) to read this book till the end, telling myself "One day I'll finish it" but every time I started reading, something would hinder me from going all the way till the back cover so the next time I read it, I had to start from the beginning again, so that one day never materialised.... Until today. Haha. But better late than never! (pats self in the back) (congratulates self) (wears sash over body) (gives a heartfelt speech about never giving up)
My verdict? Loved it! I loved that it was written by a non-Muslim, thus giving me an insight from the perspective outside of Islam. It's an account of the life of our Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him (PBUH). Despite being largely an interpretation - array of historians' interpretations and the author's interpretation of those interpretations - I loved how it made me think and try to teleport myself to the settings of Arabia of millennials ago, which was not an easy picture to paint in my mental canvas. Some parts were a bit painfully belaboured, while some other parts fell flat and a bit detached and hard for me to relate to, but some particular parts struck me right to the core so I'll talk about those parts.
I must have learnt and been told about it multiple times but it must have never stuck in my head, but only after reading this book was I fully able to realise that the Quraysh people of Mecca, it's not that they denied God. They did not deny the existence of God. They believed in Allah. In fact, Kaaba had always been their divine sanctuary. The thing is, their faith demanded loyalty not just to Allah, but the lesser gods as well, the "three daughters" namely Lat, Uzza, and Manat. So yeah there's that, the invalidation to my own ignorance all this while for thinking that they simply rejected Allah.
And then there's the experience that Muhammad encountered on Mount Hira.
What exactly happened on Mount Hira that night? Muhammad's recount of that night was relayed to one person, and then to another, and then to another, at several removes and with each narration, the narrator struggled to translate Muhammad's ineffable experience into terms that mere humans can understand because as it was, what Muhammad experienced was beyond human comprehension.
His reported words came together in a set with panicked disorientation, a palpable feeling of terror.
The author raised the question if it's possible that Muhammad was in an altered state of consciousness on that night. It's scientifically proven that fasting, sleep deprivation, and intense meditation (which were what Muhammad had been doing in the cave prior to the incident) can alter brain's chemistry, thus inducing such state, but the author also admitted that to explain everything by chemistry is to fall into the reductive trap of medical materialism.
Muhammad came stumbling down the mountain after his encounter with the angel. He slipped, he slid. He went to his wife, Khadija, trembling and shuddering and begging her to hold him & hide him, akin to a child seeking refuge from the terrors of the night. He did not come floating off the mountain as though walking on air. He did not radiate light or joy. Nor were there choirs of angels or golden aura circling around him to symbolise his elation and glory. There was none of the things that one would think are essential to the legend of a man who had just done the impossible and crossed the border between this world and another, none of things that would denigrate his story as a mere invention or a folklore.
In fact, Muhammad's reaction was quite the contrary.
He was convinced that he was hallucinating, or being possessed. He trembled down Mount Hira with fear and was overwhelmed with doubt. The sheer humanness of his reaction may be the strongest argument for the historical authenticity of this event, and this just adds to how meaningful this event is as the starting point of him becoming the messenger of Allah.
And it made me believe even more that our prophet is indeed just a homo sapien, like you and me. The same way we'd be reduced to paralysing fear when we see ghastly depictions that take very different forms from our physiques in horror movies, Muhammad mirrored exactly this level of fear when he saw the angel on Mount Hira and the first revelation came to him.
Not just that, he may have experienced another level of fear - fear that what was asked of him was too much, fear of being unequal to the task, fear of being inept to shoulder such responsibility.
Another part that forced me into rumination was after Muhammad's hijra to Medina, when he came to realise that 2 years after the hijra, none of the Jews in Medina had accepted Islam. Muhammad would probably have assumed that the Jews of Medina would be the most ready to welcome his message with open arms, because their prophets were his prophets. The Quran honours the great figures of the Hebrew bible - Adam, Abraham, Moses, etc. so this should mean that Jews and Muslims were the common descendants of Abraham. They were two branches of the same monotheistic tree. They were cousins, not strangers. Muhammad could’ve been deeply disappointed with their resistance to his message, because like, couldn’t they see that they were betraying their own faith by not accepting Islam? Couldn’t they see that the Quran was not a denial of the Judaic message but a renewal of it? But the Jews probably saw no need for a renewal of the message that they received.
So these are the things from the book that are most memorable to me. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone who wishes to know a little bit more about our beloved prophet, about how he navigated through his journey from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from zero to hero. The cardinal input for me is that this book made me question, question, question everything I learnt in Pendidikan Islam (Islamic Studies) back in primary school and secondary school, and gave me, if not the best, a better outlook on our prophet and his actions. This isn't to negate outright everything that I learnt in school before, but if anything, this is to consolidate my preexisting knowledge about our prophet, and to give more meaning to it.