Review: It’s All About Muhammad: A Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet, by F.W. Burleigh. Portland, OR: Zenga Books, 2014. 555 pp. Illustrated.
Cover illustration: Artist’s rendering of Muhammad entering either Medina after his flight from Mecca in 622, or entering Mecca on his return in 630 on a pilgrimage prior to his compelling its surrender and conversion to Islam. Illustrator unknown.
As a “prophet,” Muhammad was a late bloomer. He didn’t begin hearing voices or having hallucinations about Allah’s prescription for living and dying until 610 A.D., when he was forty years old. Twelve years later he and a handful of his converts and followers took an urgent powder from Mecca, populated by the Quraysh, who were hostile to his blasphemy against their numerous pagan gods, and fled to Medina (then called Yathrib), populated by the Khazraj tribe. It was in Medina that he developed Islam by having numerous personal sessions with Allah through the medium of an angel, Gabriel (aka, Jibreel). Or so he would claim at the drop of a turban, which was often.
Islam, after closer examination, was and still is all about Muhammad. And about nothing else. You had to take his word for everything he said had happened or will happen. He insisted on it, forcefully. Like a berserker. There isn’t a single totalitarian regime that wasn’t also a personality cult. Islam fits that description. Muhammad is its personality, and Islam ishis cult.
He was the Billy Sunday of his time in that region, or if you like, a supreme showman in the way of P.T. Barnum. By the time of his death in July 632 at the age of sixty-two, Muhammad had converted all of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam, by hook, crook, military conquest, banditry, torture, extortion, genocide, terror, and murder. He was born in 570, the “Year of the Elephant,” but very likely had never seen or heard of an elephant. But Islam, especially after his demise and because of the missionary efforts of his successors, spread through the Peninsula and all compass points like scalding coffee through a cheap paper towel.
Another appropriate comparison would be that Muhammad was the Jim Jones of his time, skillful in manipulating the gullible, but his Kool-Aid was Islam, which didn’t poison men, but instead their minds, and turned them into “Walking Dead” zombies.
Or, picture Muhammad as a kind of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ranting to his congregation about hell and damnation and God-damning the Jews and Christians and all unbelievers, his Koran-thumping eliciting vocal expressions of spontaneous fervor among the flock. That was, more or less, Muhammad’s preaching style. He was a master of working his credulous converts into near hysterics, if not into a revival tent, rolling-on-the-ground lather and foaming at the mouth for salvation.
That’s if you believe he even existed, and have instead speculated that the whole Muhammad story was woven out of whole cloth over centuries by Islamic scholars and scribes in search of the perfect and unalterable Koran, supposedly dictated verbatim by Allah to Muhammad, but which they were willing to emend, correct, embellish, and edit. These worthies labored to preserve the original Meccan verses – the banal “peaceful” ones – but abrogate them with the violent ones, over a hundred of them. It’s the violent ones that defined Islam in Muhammad’s time and which define it in our own. The implication is that these ancient editors were also hearing voices. “Press one for Arabic, press two for Aramaic.You have reached Seventh Heaven….Please, leave a message stating your question….”
Also the Hadith (plural), the collection of personal behavior, practices, recollections, and predilections of Muhammad, underwent serious revision over the centuries in order to make them comport more closely with the Koran. This perpetual project was an attempt to “humanize” Muhammad, to demonstrate that he was just like everyone else.
Nevertheless, purists and Islamapologists near and far will damn F.W. Burleigh’s narrative of the life of Muhammad, It’s All About Muhammad: A Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet, or ignore it and just mutter under their breath. Muslim demonstrators will more likely froth at the mouth and develop laryngitis, as is their habit, because Burleigh’s book also boasts twenty-five pen-and-ink line illustrations, many of them depicting Muhammad at various points in his itinerant career.
The last one shows him giving a “thumbs-up” to Allah, both them seated on separate thrones in judgment of a cringing supplicant on the Day of Resurrection. In that scenario, Muhammad is acting as a kind of plea-deal attorney for those seeking to enter Paradise and be saved from a sentencing to eternal hellfire but had extenuating circumstances to reveal. He appointed himself to that role. After all, Allah is nothing if not “merciful” and open to suggestions from his “prophet,” while Muhammad was, to put it gently, full of himself. There was no appeal once a judgment had been made.
Among the verses is a celestial advisory that Muhammad must be obeyed: “It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path.”-Koran, 33:36. Note 12, Chapter 33, “Terror Has Made Me Victorious,” It’s All About Muhammad.
To call him merely narcissist would be letting him off easy. He invented the shadada as the universal profession of faith: “There is only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger).” Burleigh relates numerous instances of a person suspected of secret paganism or apostasy reciting the shadada to Muhammad to save himself from a beheading or some other form of execution. It was supposed to act as verbal shield. Often, the recitation fell on deaf ears.
And, yes, Muhammad consummated his marriage to nine-year-old Aisha, the daughter of his most loyal follower, Abu Bakr, adding pedophilia to his criminal “rap sheet,” in addition to the rape of captured women and girls after raids on caravans and Arab towns. “Weepy” Bakr, who at first objected to the proposed union, nevertheless served Muhammad to his dying day as his adviser, advance man, press agent, and public relations consultant. His submission to his employer’s desires served as an example for countless generations of Muslim parents who arranged the forced marriages of their prepubescent daughters, and still do, up to this day.
Burleigh’s biography is a compelling read, at times entertaining, but mostly informative. He brings to life what to most Westerners, and even to most Muslims, has been an abstraction, an untouchable icon never to be depicted, slandered, libeled, or mocked under pain of a death fatwa. Drawing on authoritative texts of the Koran and Hadith, together with the interpretations, histories and revisions by commentators such as Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Warraq, Al-Tabari, Edward Gibbon, Ahmed Qiresjo, and the translations of J.M. Rodwell, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and M.H. Shakir, among others, the author presents an indelible picture of Muhammad the Monster who loosed a virulent evil on the world over fourteen centuries.
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