Not Everybody’s Darling

Miraj_by_Sultan_Muhammad[2]

Tilman Nagel. Allahs Liebling – Ursprung und Erscheinungsformen des Mohammedglaubens. Oldenbourg, Munich 2008, 430 pages

The original sources for the detailed descriptions of legends and fairy tales which circulate among both ordinary people in the Islamic world and, for example, Sufis since Muhammad’s and his followers’ conquest of much of the world have never been described in a scientific way. When reading, for instance, Eliot Weinberger’s Muhammad (Verso, London 2006), which is, according to the author, mainly based on the Holy Qur’an and ahadīth, or the traditions of the Prophet, one may ask the question how many generations of people have, over the centuries, embellished so nicely the historical facts (?) so that an attractive legend was created which fascinates even sober, contemporary Westerners, the main target audience of Weinberger’s nice booklet.

Allah’s Darling (or Allahs Liebling, the original title of the book which has, so far, been published only in German) is the attempt by renowned German Orientalist Tilman Nagel, a professor emeritus of the University of Göttingen, to explain the origins and manifestations of the belief in the founder of Islam, Muhammad. The book is sort of a spin-off of Nagel’s opus maximum, his voluminous biography of the Prophet, mainly praised but also heavily criticized by others.

When having read the subtitle of “Allah’s Darling” (“Ursprung und Erscheinungsformen des Mohammedglaubens”), I was wondering whether the author wants to make the point that Islam is not an extreme form of monotheism, as claimed in particular by Sunni Muslims, but rather that Muslims are “Mohammedans”, a pretty frivolous, Orientalist, conception. He frankly admits that everyone who would undertake the task of highlighting the circumstances under which a faith could emerge which was essentially based on prefabricated “eternal” knowledge, ever-valid for any area of life; a faith in an ever-competent messenger of Allah, would inevitably face the “foolish” charge of Orientalism or Essentialism. He may be right, but whether the charge is in fact foolish was not clear to me after having read the book.

The seemingly sound construction of what one may describe as the House of Islam is, however, not different from that of other, older, world religions. That, after the Age of Enlightenment, fundamentalist Christianity, for instance, has largely (unfortunately not entirely, though) been repelled in modern, determined secular, societies may have something to do with the foundation of Christianity as the author correctly claims, but not with its Church(es), as it (they) developed in century-long processes, with its (their), for example, heated arguments regarding the “nature” of Jesus, the World’s Redeemer; or strange beliefs in the Virgin Mary. There is no difference in overall absurdity. It is self-evident that, in order to write a credible, in particular scientific, treatise or even book on one of the world religions authors should make clear in the very beginning that they are not religious! That is unfortunately not the case here.

Several times Nagel points to the huge problems of Integrationspolitik, i.e. how Muslims may be integrated in Western societies. He stresses again and again that the overpowering (erdrückende) majority of Muslims still live their fatalism due to strong beliefs in the believer’s general inability of getting hold of his own lives. For Nagel it seems to be clear that Mohammedanism should be regarded the main reason for the widely observed (in comparison) developmental retardation in Islamic societies. His plenty arguments, however, are taken from medieval authors commenting on ahadīth [1]; notoriously unreliable, as it becomes clear time and time again in Nagel’s narrative. The realm of medieval Islam (note that the Middle Ages describe the dark ages of European cultures and societies when, at the same time, the Islamic world was bright and pretty enlightened) was huge, though, and spanned from Spain to Central Asia, from North Africa to parts of India. Islam, as Nagel describes it using accounts of numerous medieval authors, Andalusian, Cairene, Damascene, or Iranian [2], is not, and never has been, a monolithic entity. There are four prominent Sunni schools of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, and two schools for the Shi’a, which are not covered in Nagel’s book.

In his epilogue, Nagel concludes with the description of his pretty unjustified dismay about the publication of now, since 1981, eight volumes of Muhammad. Encyclopedia of Seerah (The Muslim Schools Trust, London, 2nd ed. 1985), clearly a sort of personality cult. He might not even be aware of comparably voluminous works of contemporary authors about Shi’a Imams with a similar, of course questionable, approach [3]. That currently by the majority of the faithful practiced Islam won’t fit into a rapidly changing, now again flat, world with its traffic, world wide web, demands of intercultural competence etc, is commonplace. Professor Nagel acknowledges, in the preface of Allahs Liebling, one of his co-workers for introducing him to and solving emerging problems with electronic data processing. So, even he might not have arrived yet in modern times.

Notes

[1] When introducing the reader to his text, Nagel describes the pretty bizarre “fly” hadīth: The Prophet once narrated: “If a fly falls into one of your containers (of food or drink), immerse it completely (falyaghmis-hu kullahu) before removing it, for under one of its wings there is venom and under another there is its antidote.” The purpose here is clearly defamatory, not realizing that Christian salvation history is full of similar absurdities, not mentioning the Jewish Tanakh.

[2] As regards the latter, I am not even sure. Iran, a center of medieval Islam, seems not to be covered at all. Moreover, Nagel rarely informs the reader about the specific background of the authors he extensively quotes: the historical circumstances during the periods they lived when they created their scriptures. That, of course, raises questions about the targeted audience. Is it politicians, a lay audience? The book is not a reference text. In contrast to his claims, I would not even regard it a sound scientific study. Too copious, even biased, in its descriptions of absurdities (see [1]) which may have led eventually to his (or our) perceived totalitarian Mohammedanism of the Islamic world.

[3] I own, for instance, an English translation by Jasim al-Rasheed of the 1926 book by Baqir Sharif al-Qarashi’s The Life of Imam Ali bin Musa al Rida; Ansariyan Publications, Qum 2001, which was a personal gift by Kuwaiti Shi’ites on the occasion of their pilgrimage to the Holy Shrine of Imam Ridha in Mashhad in 2006, when I was invited to join the group. Much of Nagel’s descriptions of the Prophet’s reported excellence, for example of his physics, his manners, his generosity etc., which elevated him from ordinary people, may be found in the description of Imam Ridha as well. It would have been even more interesting to study the deeply rooted piety of ordinary, say, Iranian people in rural areas, including their legends and personality cults as regards Ali, Husayn, the numerous Imami Shi’a Saints, etc. In particular ahadīth related to Ali, the Nahj al-Balagha, may prove that Allah may have just another darling besides Muhammad.

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3 Responses to Not Everybody’s Darling

  1. I was scanning something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your linear perspective on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read before. I am still pondering over the various points of view, but I’m inclined to a great extent toward yours. And regardless, that’s what is so superb about contemporary democracy and the marketplace of ideas online.

  2. Pingback: On Going Astray « Freelance

  3. Pingback: A Rhetorical Triumph « Freelance

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