The greatest difficulties facing Muslims in this time and especially in the west are raised from the enormous differences in culture and mores between modern times and 7th century Arabia. An often miss represented issue in the prophets behaviour is that regarding marriage. When Muhammad married Aisha she was 6 or 7 years old and the marriage was consummated sexually when she was aged 9 and the prophet aged 53, as Martin Forward notes: “Modern readers may find this story poignant or even repugnant, though neither Aisha nor other contemporaries found it so ” ( Forward,1997)
Rodinson also made it clear that criticising the prophet in our times for actions we find disgusting is not fair as in their culture in that time, child marriage was the norm. During the early Muslim wars against other Arabs and Jews, Rodinson notes that women where bought and sold as spoils of war or even just taken for personal satisfaction and that the prophet was merely saving a girl from this fate when he married her himself, later he married a Jewish girl who having seen her father and brother killed in the preceding raid decided to try to poison him and he forgave her.
(Rodinson, 1973 p96-97) The prophet also had sexual relations with women who where not his wives such as the Coptic concubine, this episode created tensions with his wives as Hafsa was particularly hurt when she found the prophet with his concubine Marya (Rodinson, 1973 p280) in her tent when it was her time for the prophet to stay. The marriage to Zaynab has also been cited as an example of times unique to the prophet in that only because Allah told the prophet was he allowed to marry her, otherwise it would not be acceptable to arrange the divorce of a son and daughter in law and then marry her (Rodinson, 1973 p206).
The execution of Abu Afak and Asma Bint Marwan, poets who spoke insultingly of the prophet is another key issue that poses problems for the traditional views of the prophets role today, but as Rodinson explains, this behaviour was not the norm (Rodinson, 1973 p158). Rodinson noted that the prophet was very tolerant of debate but could not stand intellectual insults such as the case of a captured Jew who was beheaded (Rodinson, 1973 p171) like the 100 year old poet Abu Afak and Asma Bint Marwan before him. The Jew’s crime was he had criticised the prophet for not understanding the scriptures properly.
These episodes have caused a minority of Muslims to call for similar action against those that insult the prophet today as was debated recently in the controversy over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet in a Danish newspaper. In Iraq and Afghanistan their have been beheadings of captured prisoners also but it is highly debatable whether the context can be reconciled. Groups that behead captives in the 21st century do so on the principle of jurisprudence that if the prophet had done this then they should also do it.
Obviously such issues as raised above pose hard questions for Muslims in the modern world, in so far as we can agree that such actions where suitable for the time we must conclude that either they are the actions of the infallible prophet and therefore universally true for this time also or concede that our modern values impose a greater obligation on us not to act in the same way but we can’t have both at the same time and this is the greatest challenge facing Islam today, that of how to interpret the context of 7th century Arabian society with the modern world.
Muslim scholars have been instrumental in forging a dialectic that accommodates both the modern world and its mores and the traditional view of the prophet’s role as the model of human life.
The traditional and liberal writers from the Muslim academics are opposed by the fundamentalists but as Ebrahim Moosa says in the postscript to Fazlur Rahman’s “A Study of Islamic Fundamentalism” The problem facing scholars like Rahman is the concept that if something happened in the time of the prophet then it was meant to happen because it ought to have happened, this is not the case according to Rahman as there needs to be a clear link which is not as clear as fundamentalists would like: “Distance in time, it has been observed, creates an intellectual illusion just as distance in space provokes a sensory illusion……….
The present and future only have legitimacy if they (speaking about the fundamentalists) can find a precedent, irrespective of whether it is remote… ” (Rahman, 2000, p205) What Moosa does not say here is that actually Rahman’s ideas do not contradict the jurisprudence per se, in principal what Rahman is arguing is not that what Muhammad did was wrong or that it cannot be a guide to present generations, neither is he saying that what happened then was not the will of Allah; the essence of Rahman’s argument is that because of the nature of time, we as perceivers are getting confused when we try to understand the past.
Rahman and other modern scholars of Islam only disagree with the fundamentalists in that they don’t wish to recreate the social contexts and other factors of the 7th century in order to make the traditional jurisprudence fit contemporary society once more. In conclusion it has been the purpose of this essay to show how it is impossible to reconcile the enormous divergence that exists within the contemporary umma as well as the western responses to the role of the prophet.
In order to reconcile the divergent views, the first pre requisite would be a return to the social context of the 7th century which would make those issues of Islamic law that are problematic in the face of the modern west no longer problematic, this was attempted in Afghanistan under the Taliban but never fully achieved. The folly in such an attempt is that it reduces the dynamic of Islam in relation to the rest of the world to earlier, bloodier conflicts such as the Sunni Shia divide that erupted again so violently in Iraq over recent years.
Disagreement on the nature of the prophet and on what he said and did has been a part of the umma of Islam for the entirety of its existence and is bound to continue but I would suggest in closing this essay that increasing violence in the face of differences does not mean a return to a previous social atmosphere is either the answer or the problem.
References: FORWARD, M. (1997).Muhammad: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld HEINZ, H. (1991). Shiism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press RAHMAN, F. (2000). (Ed MOOSA, E. ) A Study of Islamic Fundamentalism: Revival and reform in Islam Oxford: Oneworld RODINSON, M. (1973). Mohammed. Bungay, Suffolk: Pelican ANON. (2005). Shaiksiddiqui. com. Homepage. [online] (cited on Nov 28 2006) ;http://www. shaikhsiddiqui. com/barelvi. html;