Book Review: Revelation – The Story of Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him)

Revelation

Title: Revelation – The Story of Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him)
Author: Dr. Meraj Mohiuddin
Publisher: Whiteboard Press, LLC (2015)
Website: http://www.revelationthebook.com/

This recently published book has garnered considerable attention among Muslims living in the west, especially in the United States. This book is a compilation of the best available English resources on Prophetic biography that is available today. The author has reviewed the available material then complied, synthesized and presented the Prophetic biography in a manner which appeals to modern reader. The back cover reads:

Revelation: The Story of Muhammad is a uniquely modern approach to the prophetic biography that finally gives readers the opportunity to explore Muhammad’s life in extraordinary clarity and detail. Born out of the need to a more accessible approach to classical texts in the English language, Revelation uses clear writing, compelling visuals, and a remarkable network of elaborations to explain how the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad over 23 years.

Unlike traditional biographies that simply narrate events, Revelation tackles complex and controversial topics by bringing together the best scholarship from Saifur Rehman al-Mubarakpuri, Karen Armstrong, Reza Aslan, Martin Lings, Tariq Ramadan, Adil Salahi, W. Montgomery Watt, Hamza Yusuf and Yahiyah Emerick. Revelation incorporates over 400 verses from the Qur’an, presented in approximate chronological order. It also features an easy-to-use timeline along the side of every page, over 90 original figures, and an extensive glossary of more than 350 names.

Before we delve deeper into this book, I’d like to include a portion of Dr. Mohiuddin’s biography from the book’s website:

Dr. Meraj Mohiuddin is an American physician and writer. The son of Indian immigrants, he was raised on the East Coast with a strong emphasis on sports and education. With a college background in neuro-science and medical degree from Northwestern University, he moved to Boston to complete his training in Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine. While teaching at Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals, Dr. Mohiuddin developed an interest in international relief work and created a curriculum to encourage young American doctors to share their skills in the developing world.

Dr. Mohiuddin has no formal training in the Islamic sciences. He considers himself a mainstream American-Muslim who believes that every prophet lived a timeless example of moderation and integrity. He has no political agenda other than to close the gaps of disharmony between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. “By getting to know our prophets,” he writes, “we can hope to attain a more compassionate, more gracious version of ourselves.”

The author, while not being an Islamic scholar is well-attuned to the needs of a regular Muslim in the West. In the preface, he writes:

I am neither an Islamic scholar nor an amateur historian. The son of immigrants, I was born and raised in New Jersey and grew up in the American public school system. While education was foremost in our house, my siblings and I never attended Sunday school. At that time, Islamic schools, immersion programs, and podcasts were not widely available. My parents raised us with a solid foundation in the Qur’an and Islamic history. However, as we grew older, most of the books in our house were limited to English translations of traditional Urdu and Arabic texts…not the kind of material most teenagers wanted to read.

As this book was written by Dr. Mohiuddin, who admittedly is not an Islamic scholar, the author overcomes this perhaps perceived limitation by two key actions. The first being that he does not include his own opinion in any portion of the book. In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the books website, the following question is presented:

Does the author include his opinions in the book?

Revelation does not include the personal opinions of the author. Rather, it is a platform which presents the Prophet’s life based on the earliest sources (Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq, al-Waqidi, Ibn Sa’d, etc.) along with relevant commentary from contemporary writers and scholars. However, Dr. Mohiuddin explains how and why he wrote the book (and why he chose to keep his opinion out of it) in his Preface and Introduction.

The second is that he has garnered endorsements from some of the most well-known scholars in the west. Namely Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Imam Zaid Shakir, Imam Suhaib Webb, Shaykh Rami Nsour and Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda, among others. The most important endorsement is that of Dr. Sherman Jackson who reviewed the book and wrote the foreword. I believe these factors would allow readers to read this book, satisfied with its contents.

In an effort to explain how this book came about, author writes in the preface:

The Islamic books I read at home were completely different from the textbooks I studied in school. Having learned to use diagrams, tables and glossaries, I was struggling to remember Islamic history from page after page of translated English text. The books felt devotional rather than scholastic.

and later in the preface, the author writes:

What I lacked…was an efficient study guide of classical texts. Something that could present the historical contexts of the Qur’an in a format that I could study, analyze, memorize and master.

and lastly, while Dr. Mohiuddin was listening to Shaykh Hamza’s 24 CD audio collection, The Life of the Prophet (which is based on Martin Lings’ book) he was spurred to begin a seemingly simple task of compiling a few names which eventually became a 13-year project to write this book. To imagine that a recorded tangential remark by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf could result in a 429 page book on Prophetic biography is awe-inspiring. The author writes:

On the fifth CD, Yusuf pauses in the middle of his lecture and exposes the very problem that I, as an American Muslim, had been facing:

This book…a lot of people find it difficult because of the names….it is a problem…and you know what would be really nice? If somebody actually went through the book, wrote down all the names, and then had a glossary of names. You could kind of keep that with you as you read the book. That would be really useful.

I took Yusuf’s suggestion to heart. I revisited Lings’ book and started writing down all the names I encountered: names of people, their ancestors, parents, an offspring, and various tribes, clans, battles, treaties and towns. As I worked my way through the text, the long list of names grew unmanageable. I needed a better system. So I employed techniques I used in medical school to consolidate multiple sources of information, reduce them down to succinct notes and diagrams, organize them into an efficient study guide, and use that guide to master the original texts. Over the years, what started as a list of names slowly evolved into an extensive examination of the Prophet’s life. Urged by family and friends, I have compiled my notes into a professionally edited textbook to share with others.

The books is largely based on the 3 sources, and then a number of auxiliary sources. The three main sources are Safiur Rehman al-Mubarakpuri’s The Sealed Nectar, which was published in the 1970s and originally written in Arabic and then translated into English, and is considered a standard of Prophetic biography; Martin Lings’ Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources, which was published in 1983 and is based on the four earliest biographers of the Prophet (peace be upon him); and lastly William Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad in Mecca and Muhammad in Medina, published in 1953 and 1954 respectively. The auxiliary sources include Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time, Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet, Reza Aslan’s No god but God, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s The Life of the Prophet (audio lectures) and Adil Salahi’s Muhammad: Man and Prophet. The manner in which excerpts of these books are woven together are described by the author in his preface:

Undoubtedly, the most challenging part of this project was arranging the vast array of material in a well-organized and reader friendly format. With so many perspectives to sift through, I decided that the best way to present all of this information is to imagine that we are sitting in a classroom. Our professors (al-Mubarakpuri, Lings, and Watt) are summarizing the essentials and citing relevant Qur’anic texts on the chalkboard. They are surrounded by five ‘teaching assistants’ (Armstrong, Ramadan, Aslan, Salahi, and Yusuf) who are chiming in with unique insights that serve to enrich the lecture material in one of the following ways:

a) Contextualizing history for modern readers,
b) Providing moral insight into events and themes,
c) Explaining challenging or controversial topics,
d) Eloquently reinforcing ideas, descriptions, or behaviors, or
e) Challenging readers with sound yet innovative perspective.

Because the details can be intimidating, I have incorporated a network of elaborations that highlight social, political, and historical subtleties that tend to fall through the cracks. These memos will help you remember how people and events are related through time, and also provide background information, mnemonics, and suggested readings from primary sources.

Before moving on to a few excerpts, I like to draw your attention to the writing style of the book, the author writes:

I purposely wrote this book in a casual style and did not include any Arabic text so that you will not have to treat it with ceremonial care. This text was designed to be highlighted, questioned, discussed, and debated. In short, my goal is to help you learn the material, inside-out.

There are many unique aspects of the book that I have personally benefited from. The book is full of family trees, and although I had heard of many tribes that existed in the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) era, the author takes those tribal relationships and contextualizes them. With the use of trees, charts, maps which illustrate geographical locations of certain tribes, it highlights the relevance of which tribe or clan a companion or foe was from. As the pre-Islamic Arabian culture was often tribe and clan driven, and the actions of the individual were often tribe-oriented, understanding the tribal relationships offers the reader a deeper understanding into the decisions made by certain individuals. Other biographical books such as Martin Lings’ book are sure to point these relations out as well, however Dr. Mohiuddin presentation of the same facts in a visual form, and its timely referrals within the book constantly emphasis those relations throughout the book. This visual method of presenting age-old information is what sets this book apart. Chapter 5.4 Allies & Enemies: A Survey of the 14 Clans of Quraysh is a very useful chapter and can be referred to during the course of the book. Another key feature of the book is almost after every chapter there is a chart summarizing the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) family at the end of that year. This sheds immense light at the situation of his household at every year of his life.

Another aspect that is quite useful is that this book isn’t just a list of biographical events but rather offers analysis and interpretation from ‘teaching assistants’ mentioned above. Perhaps if one were to say that Mubarakpuri’s and Martin Lings’ books were the who, what, when and where. The insertion of quotes from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Karen Armstrong, Reza Aslan, Tariq Ramadan and others expound on the why and how. This format leads the reader to not only learn the facts of the Prophetic biography but offers context and reasoning behind certain events and actions of both the Prophet (peace be upon him), his Companions and those in opposition to him. Many of the excerpts from the analytical commentary start with a questions such as: What was the wisdom in the Prophet’s Response? What was the Prophet’s Vision for Medina? What was the economic reality of Emigrants in Medina? What was the Prophet’s mindset at Hudaybiyah?

The third aspect of the book I found especially beneficial was the timely insertion of Qur’anic verses. Reading the translation of the Qur’an without an understanding of Prophetic biography leads to the loss of context. As the book progress through the biography of the Prophet (peace up upon him), the author points out verses after verses that are being revealed as the events in his life unfold. This gives the reader a deeper connection to the verses of the Qur’an. If the reader hears the verses later, in congregational prayer or otherwise, they may remember the circumstances in which they were revealed in. Where the Prophet (peace be upon him) was, what year it was, what had happened just before and after the verses were revealed, etc. This goes a long way in building a contextualized connection to the Qur’an. In fact, it would be a fascinating personal project to read the Qur’anic translation in the order it was revealed in, alongside this book of Prophetic biography and a dose of Qur’anic exegesis.

Lastly, the visuals of the book are well diagrammed and well designed. The maps are simple and uncluttered, offering the right amount of digestible information. The diagrams of some of the battles are very helpful, the locations of tribes (both friendly and hostile), the routes of migrations, expeditions and trade routes.

Revelation 1

The following excerpt is from Chapter 19.3 titled: The Treaty & It’s Reception [regarding the Treaty of Hudaybiyah]. I hope this excerpt will demonstrate how Dr. Mohiuddin weaves the biography using the resources discussed earlier.

The Prophet begins dictating the terms of the treaty starting with Bismillah as-Rahman ar-Rahim (In the Name of God, the Good, the Merciful). Suhayl responds that does no know ar-Rahman and demands that the document simply begin with Bismik Allahumma (In Thy Name, oh God). The Prophet consents to his request and continues dictating:

“This is what Muhammad the Messenger of Allah, has agreed to with Suhail bin ‘Amr”

Again Suhayl insists on rephrasing the sentence explaining:

“If we knew thee to be the Messenger of God, we would not have barred thee from the House, neither would we have fought thee; but write Muhammad the son of Abd’Allah.”

[Ramadan]; How could the Prophet strike out his own title:

“The Prophet heard his [Suhayl’s] point of view and was able, at that particular moment, to shift his perspective and see things from his interlocutor’s standpoint. What Suhayl was saying was perfectly true according to his outlook. It was indeed obvious that if the Quraysh had acknowledged his [Muhammad’s] status as God’s Messenger, they would not have fought against him; therefore an agreement on equal footing could not possibly state an element that would in effect acknowledge what one side held as truth while contradicting the other’s position.”

The Prophet again yields to Suhayl’s objection and asks ‘Ali to strike out the title “Messenger of God” after his name. ‘Ali cannot bring himself to cross out the words, but agrees to point them out so the Prophet can strike them out himself and replace it with “Muhammad ibn Abd’Allah.”

[Watt]; What was the Prophet’s Mindset at Hudaybiyah?

“The treaty was only satisfactory for the Muslims in so far as one believed in Islam and its attractive power. Had Muhammad not been able to maintain and strengthen his hold on the Muslims by the sway of the religious ideas of Islam over their imaginations, and had be not been able to attract fresh converts to Islam, the treaty would not have worked in his favor. Material reasons certainly played a large part in the conversion of many Arabs to Islam. But other factors of supreme importance were Muhammad’s belief in the message of the Qur’an, his belief in the future of Islam as a religious and political system, and his unflinching devotion to the task to which, as he believed, God had called him. These attitudes underlay the policy Muhammad followed at al-Hudaybiyah.”

[Yusuf]; How could ‘Ali Disobey the Prophet:

“This is an important fiqh [jurisprudence] issue. The scholars describe this action ‘disobeying the Messenger of Allah out of adab [respect courtesy] to the Messenger of Allah’. We also see an example of this in Abu Bakr when he refuses to lead the prayer in front of the Messenger.”

After joint deliberation, the two parties draft the terms of the treaty:

In Thy name, O God. This is the treaty which Muhammad b. Abd’Allah made with Suhayl b. ‘Amr. They agreed to remove war from the people for ten years. During this time the people are to be in security and no one is to lay hands on another. Whoever of Quraysh comes to Muhammad without permission of his protector (or guardian), Muhammad is to send back to them; whoever of those with Muhammad comes to Quraysh is not to be sent back to him. Between us evil is to be abstained from, and there is to be no raiding or spoliation. Whoever wants to enter into a covenant and alliance with Muhammad is to do so and whoever wants to enter into a covenant and alliance with Quraysh is to do so…You are to withdraw from us this year and not enter Mecca against us; and when next year comes we shall go out in front of you and you shall enter it (Mecca) with your companions and remain in it three days; you shall have the arms of the rider, swords in scabbards; you shall not enter it bearing anything else.

The document is co-signed by Umar, Abu Bakr, ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn Awf, Mahmud ibn Maslamah, and ‘Abd Allah ibn Suhayl (one of Suhayl’s sons).

[Aslan]; Why did Muhammad Accept the Treaty of Hudaybiyah?

“It is difficult to say why Muhammad accept the treaty of Hudaybiyah. He may have been hoping to regroup and wait for an opportune time to return and conquer Mecca by force. He may have been observing the Quranic mandate and jihadi doctrine to ‘fight until oppresion ends and God’s law prevails. But if [the enemy] desists, then you must also cease hostilities”

The Truce: Treaty of Hudaybiyah
1) Both parties agree to a conditional 10-year-truce.
2) Any Meccans who flee to Medina must return to Mecca.
3) Any Medinans who flee to Mecca may remain in Mecca.
4) There will be no tolerance for treachery of subterfuge.
5) Each city is free to make pacts with third parties
6) The Muslim pilgrims will not perform the pilgrimage that year
7) The Muslim pilgrims may return the following year (bearing no arms, except the arms of a traveler.

Revelation 2

The chapter continues addressing the following questions: [Ramadan] Signing the Treaty Required Deep Understanding; [Armstron] Why Did the Prophet Agree to the Treaty?; [Yusuf] What Does Hudaybiyah teach about the Nature of Compromise?; [Armstrong] Why was the Treaty Hard to Accept?; [Yusuf] What does Hudaybiyah teach us about Abu Bakr?; [Armstrong] How did the Prophet regard his wives? and lastly; [Yusuf] Was Hudaybiyah really a clear victory?

In summary, this book is a tremendously useful contemporary book of Prophetic biography. This book wonderfully weaves the existing primary English resources available on the biography of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and is written in a fluid and accessible manner. I would recommend this book to anyone studying his biography, and is a great place to start before delving into other books on the subject. As this book combines the best of what is available in English, it spreads a wide net allowing the reader to taste the formats, styles and perspectives of a wide range of scholars and authors. Normally one begins studying a subject with general books before focusing on specialized books within the field of study, in that sense, this book is a great place to start a life-long journey into the biography of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

I pray to Allah that He blesses those involved in compiling this book and we should recognize the debt we have to the earliest of biographers of the beloved Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), a debt that only Allah can recompense. Dr. Mohiuddin has taken the Prophetic biography, standing on the shoulders of scholarly works of the past, and has refreshingly launched the Story of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) into the 21st century.

For more information:

There is an interview of the author here:

http://almadinainstitute.org/blog/telling-the-story-of-the-prophet-in-a-new-way-meraj-mohiuddin/

This is a short video by Shaykh Rami Nsour:

This book also has its own twitter feed:

https://twitter.com/revelationthebk

Here is a radio interview with the author:

http://www.ciibroadcasting.com/2016/01/07/05012016-revelation-book-offers-fresh-perspectives-on-studying-sirah/

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