Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy (Book Review)

Jonathan A. C. Brown is a well-known American scholar of Islamic Studies, who is currently an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

He has written several books, related to Islam: Slavery in Islam, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction, The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim, and Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy (Oneworld Publications, 2014), which is the subject of the present article.

The book tries to explain in a simple way the rich intellectual legacy of Islam. Although he focuses more in the Sunni tradition, as being an Islamic majority that possesses a wide variety of sources and explanations for those interested to study it, he was still able to mention the view from other groups like Shias and Sufis.

Brown recounts history: from traditional scholars scattered throughout the Muslims shortly after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad , to recent events, like the coup d’etat that took place in Egypt in 2011.
He also focuses on the main controversial aspects of Islam by discussing how they originated and providing enough material to ponder their doubted or criticized validity:

  • Martyrdom
  • Women as rulers of states
  • The sources of knowledge on which laws are based
  • Hadiths, their importance for interpreting the Quran and their chains of narrators
  • The origin of the madhabs or schools of thought
  • Reason as a source of knowledge
  • The Quran as a revelation from God compared with other monotheistic scriptures
  • The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, including the often cited and controversial verse of the Quran that supposedly allows the killing of unbelievers
  • Jihad
  • Marriage with small girls
  • The conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam
  • Honor killings
  • The death penalty for apostasy
  • Fabrications by people and the manipulation of scripture to attain personal goals that are in no way related to the true objective of the religion.

The author explores these controversies from many points of view without leaving a school of thought aside, and even includes a Western perspective in each of them.

The comparison and contrast between the Quran and the Bible gives a hint to the reader of the manipulations involved with this issue; religion is subjected to the interests of those in power, who can change, add, or hide things if needed to make “legal” their actions. The Ottoman empire is an example of this, where certain rules pretended to legalize things explicitly forbidden in Islam like drinking alcohol, and even promiscuous behavior. In Christianity, this has been evidenced as well, when the Roman Catholic Church removed books from the Old Testament, and the surprising fact that the concept of the Trinity was not mentioned in the original versions of the Books of the Bible.

The most controversial section is in chapter 4, “Sex with little girls: interpreting scripture amid changing norms,” that deals with one of the most difficult topic in Islam to deal with, even for Muslim scholars: the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad SAWS when he was 50 years old to Aisha, who was said to be approximately 10 years old. The author, to explain this issue, mentions that economic difficulties inflict this type of marriage, taking into account, at the same time, that it is not widely accepted in Muslim countries. Sometimes this type of marriages can also be found around the world without having the same harsh media coverage that has existed regarding the Muslim case. Countries like India, the United Kingdom, and even in the USA, “in some US states, such as Georgia, the legal age of consent for woman was as low as ten well into the twentieth century.”

It should be noted that respected scholars have challenged the traditionally accepted age of Aisha based on a re-analysis of the sources, as detailed in our essay: A Hadith Scholar Presents New Evidence that Aisha was Near 18 the Day of Her Marriage to the Prophet Muhammad.

Brown mentions the dilemma experienced by scholars regarding these controversial issues. He asserts that the case of this controversial marriage, which may have been acceptable according to the norms of 1400 years ago, should not be judged according to the views and beliefs of the 19th and 20th centuries.

But the objective of the author is by no means to increase the controversy: rather he seems to try to reconcile the misinformation that we have in the West towards Islam, thus he uses comparisons in order to help the reader understand the background of these issues, the misunderstandings to which it has been victim (in some cases due to our own scholars) and the complexity of language that can bring wrong translations of the original texts in Arabic.

The book, after analyzing all these aspects in the light of the Quran, the Sunna, the opinions of scholars and other views, ends by talking about the issue of lying for noble causes, especially as it related to the use of unauthentic narrations by preachers who believe that the noble teachings present in this narrations outweigh the fact that may have been entirely fabricated. Brown discusses the ethical issues surrounding changing sayings or statements in order to accommodate them to a specific reality or to avoid aversion from people that lack the knowledge needed to understand it. Brown states,

A population that believes stories merely because they are useful or warm the heart places expedience toward an end above a commitment to demonstrable truth as a common reference meaningful to all individuals regardless of their religious beliefs. A community that accepts Noble Lying wholeheartedly is likely to drift into gullibility, uncritical of what it is told and vulnerable to manipulation.

Misquoting Muhammad is a good resource for understanding the historical background of issues that can be subjected to misunderstandings and tergiversations. Without telling the reader what to think, it provides them with the necessary tools to see the two sides of the issue and then leaves the conclusion to the reader.

Brown strives to make the concepts clear: the comparison of both worlds; Eastern and Western, enables wider understanding. As such, this book is a good present to those who try to understand the essence of Islam and the potential misunderstandings that surround it.

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