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The path of the prophet

Two new works seek to uncover the man who was Muhammad

By Eliot Weinberger
Verso, 64 pp., $10.95

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time
By Karen Armstrong
HarperCollins/Atlas, 249 pp., $21.95

In a lecture at the University of Regensburg, in Germany, last month, Pope Benedict XVI talked about "jihad" as holy war and about using religion as an excuse for destruction and death. He quoted from a debate in the 14th century between Manuel II Paleologos, emperor of the Byzantine Empire, and a Persian cleric. "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The immediate response in the Muslim world was one of outrage. In the end, the pontiff was forced to apologize, and maybe revisit his ideas about Islam.

Such episodes aren't new. They emphasize the ignorance about the life of Muhammad ( 570-632 ) that is rampant in Western civilization. To what extent is the average educated person familiar with the Koran? The Torah and the New Testament, in contrast, and even the Talmud are far more familiar. At the core of the so-called war on terror, and in general the tension concentrated on the Middle East and exacerbated by the crisis in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the misconception, suggested by the pope in Germany, that Islam is a religion of fanaticism and not a theology based on justice and decency. Judaism and Christianity, too, have gone through radical periods of intolerance and depreciation. The list of examples is too long: from Mas ada to the Crusades, from the sect of the Essenes to the edicts of expulsion of ethnic groups from Spain, Portugal, and England.

In Arabic the name Muhammad means "the praised one." A child of a well-to-do family, he was a merchant turned military figure at a time of tribal tension. His Koranic revelations came in a cave, and he proclaimed himself prophet of Islam in 610. Eventually, through conquests and treatises, he unified Arabia, organizing his followers around his revolutionary vision of faith. Yet details about his ordeal and succession remain in confusion. Muslim biographies of Muhammad abound, from recorded oral tradition collectively known as Hadith to the "Sirah Rasul Allah" ( "The Life of the Apostle of God"), by Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Yasar, and more contemporary biographies like "The Sealed Nectar," by Saifur Rahman al- Mubarkpuri. (Of course, first and foremost is the Koran itself.) In the West , countless profiles of Muhammad have been published, including works by William Muir and Martin Lings. These are often the byproduct of outsiders eager to serve as bridge between cultures. This isn't a handicap: Sir Richard Burton, translator of "The Arabian Nights" and "Kama Sutra," was British, for instance; and Lafcadio Hearn, an American, wrote stories about Japan recognized as a key to understanding the Japanese psyche.

Thus, the fact that Eliot Weinberger's increased curiosity toward the Muslim world is due, in large measure, to George W. Bush's intolerance ought not to be seen as an impediment. He's known as a translator of Octavio Paz into English and for editing a superb compendium of Jorge Luis Borges's nonfiction. But 9/11 appears to have redefined his career, in part because he's a New Yorker, and perhaps as a result of his Jewish ancestry. Last year he released a volume of chronicles of Bush mishaps called "What Happened Here." And now he's producing a lyrical silhouette (a pamphlet, really) of Muhammad based on quotations from the Koran and other material, including the Hadith.

Unfortunately, Weinberger's "Muhammad" is rather useless. Eager to move away from the type of rhetorical disquisitions that tarnish rather than enlighten, he offers a succinct portrait of the prophet, mechanical, without pathos, ahistorical, and empty of context. Plus, he expurgates the military endeavors, making the prophet's life look like an Andalusian tale of wonder and redemption.

Karen Armstrong's "Muhammad" is drastically different. A former nun whose oeuvre focuses on the three major Western religions -- Armstrong, who lives in London, has written more than a dozen works on topics ranging from Buddha and mysticism to Genesis and a brief history of Islam -- she offers a panoramic perspective, meticulously following the path of the prophet from birth to death while analyzing the theological, social, economic, military, and cultural forces shaping him. As she pursues her objective, she explains the link between Islam and Christianity and Judaism, for, as Armstrong puts it, "you could not be a Muslim unless you also revered Moses and Jesus."

This is her second book on Muhammad (the first one came out in 1992) and is part of the "Eminent Lives" series released under the aegis of Atlas Books. Readers will find her style stilted: At her best, she makes use of her intellectual skills to explore the tension between the personal and the historical, presenting Muhammad as an average individual doubting his choices, a visionary testing the limitations of his epoch; at her worst, she's didactic, frequently making sermonizing comments about thinking critically about jihad that are a mere rhetorical device. For Armstrong isn't a savvy, inquisitive thinker: She tells rather than shows, assumes rather than explains. She also stops short in exploring the connections between Muhammad's teachings and modernity. Thus, her subtitle, " A Prophet for Our Time," is ambiguous. Still, in her hand Muhammad is a religious reformer, although he's also a strategist aware of his power.

The sword isn't absent in the Koran. Neither are tales of wisdom and morality. Pope Benedict shouldn't waste time in proxies and surrogates. He would do well by reading the Koran directly. So would we.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest books are "The Disappearance" and "Lengua Fresca."

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