Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Muhammad Haykal : The Life of Muhammad

Muhammad Haykal (1888-1956) would have been in his mid-twenties in the opening chapters of the "Cairo Trilogy" by Naguib Mahfouz, so I'm figuring he would have served quite well as one of the characters in that novel -- especially because his urban, educated, middle-class life was marked by the same conflict between modern Western European and traditional Islam that engaged the characters in the Mahfouz novel.

And remarkably, Haykal began his literary career in 1914 as a modern novelist - only to become an advocate of Islam in the later decades that produced this book.

Educated Egyptians understandably had a problem with Western Europe. Actually, it's two big problems. First, other than for Romantic entertainment, Europeans do not especially appreciate and respect the Islamic culture that had been the foundation of Egyptian society for over a thousand years. Second, 19th C. European colonialism sought to put Egyptians into the kind of subservient position that no educated, modern European would accept for himself.

In reaction , Haykal is contemptuous of many things European - including the religious toleration, freedom of speech, and adversarial electoral and judicial processes for which some of us are quite grateful. As he explains it, these are all the fruit of a society that lacks true conviction -- though I would say that this fruit is more sweet than bitter, and the above does comprise an ideal of "freedom" that is something like a religious faith.

Haykal confirms that reaction as he recounts the life of the Prophet, through specific references to the Koran - and it's quite chilling. So far as I know, Muhammad is the only self-proclaimed prophet since Moses to lead an army. He would also authorize brigandage, invade countries, capture cities, capture slaves, take slave women into his harem by gift or conquest, distribute booty, and execute prisoners -- including a woman whose only crime was mocking the prophet. And then there's the entire adult male population of the Banu Qurayzah, a Jewish tribe that lived in Medina. As Haykal put it:

Muhammad pondered the general situation of the cause of Islam. God had seen fit to remove the outside enemy, but the Banu Qurayzah remain in the midst of Madinah. Surely they were capable of repeating their treason in another season. Were it not for the internal division and sudden withdrawal of the Makkans and their allies, the Banu Qurayzah would have attacked Madinah and helped in the routing of the Muslims. Did not the common saying counsel, "Do not cut off the tail of the viper and allow it to go free"? The Banu Qurayzah therefore must be completely destroyed"

And who isn't capable of "repeating their treason"? tomorrow (even if they are quite peaceful today? This is an invitation to preemptively attack anyone - especially, of course, the modern state of Israel whose Jewish people have already been condemned by the Koran as cursed by God.

(BTW -- be very careful about Googling "Banu Qurayzah" since this episode remains a sore subject in Arab-Jewish relations, and one website gave my computer the most ingenious and virulent virus it ever picked up)

Like the other great sacred texts of world religions, passages from the Koran can be the starting point for profound and enlightening contemplations of the human condition. They have certainly been an inspiration for some of the world's greatest calligraphy. But it's hard to ignore the repeated, explicit intolerance of Jews, "pagans", and most of us other infidels.


To summarize Haykal's argument:

All things are interconnected and "necessary and immutable laws regulate and govern all these interconnections" -- which are held together by a "moving spirit..to which man should be subject"

This is the spirit that began to communicate to the 40 year old Muhammad in a cave outside of Mecca, and over the course of the next twenty years would instruct him on those necessary and immutable laws concerning men.

As he shared these revelations with his neighbors and family, his community of believers came into conflict with those who did not accept them. For safety, they fled to a neighboring city, Medina. Eventually they became numerous and powerful enough to dominate Medina, then Mecca, then the Arabian peninsula, and eventually neighboring areas previously ruled by Greeks or Persians -- all in order to establish and protect the kind of society required by the one and only God.

And why would anyone resist the true words of God, unless they were corrupt, prejudiced, and/or morally diseased -- as may be explained by an Islamic science of history.

As Haykal explains it, the ideals of "science" have been closely connected to Islam from the very beginning -- and only faded as invading peoples from central Asia conquered Arab lands and adopted their own, corrupted version of Islam in order to sustain their rule.

Examples may be found here and it kind of makes sense, following an Islamic predilection to see the natural world as phenomena independent of human sacred narrative.

But Islam demands that the human world be tightly connected to its own, special sacred narrative, as originally narrated by a man who could not read, nor appears to have had any kind of moral, philosophical, or spiritual instruction beyond what he received from a voice that only he could hear. It's no wonder that he, and his followers to this day, are deadly serious about mockery

And most of Haykal's book is quite vulnerable to mockery as well as he consistently drapes assertions of faith in the flimsiest trappings of reason, often defending Islam against the western 'orientalists' by asserting that Christians have not behaved any better.


Considering its prominent role in the Mahfouz novel, it's interesting what Haykal has to say about sexual continence.

Whatever the nomadic nature of Arabian civilization had been before Islam, and regardless of whether or not such cities as Makkah and Medinah had enjoyed a level of civilization unknown to the desert, relations between men and women had never extended much beyond the sexual. According to the witness of the Qur'an , as well as the traditions of class and tribe, such relations were quite primitive in every other respect. The women used to show themselves off not only to their husbands but to any other men they pleased. They used to go out into the open country singly or in groups and meet with men and youths without hindrance or sense of shame. They exchanged with men glances of passion and expressions of love and desire--- Among a number tribes, adultery was not at all regarded as a serious crime--- men were completely free to do as they pleased and women were completely free to give birth as they pleased"

Apparently, the best remedy was expressed by Quran Surah 24, instructing women to lead a life of chastity, lower their eyes, and dress modestly and not to show their beauty outside a specifically defined range of family relationship. As Haykal explains it, this would protect women from the abuse of hypocrites (the munafiqun). In addition, adultery was declared a serious sin, and men were limited to four wives. (although I don't think there was any restriction regarding sex with slaves - at least that's how the family patriarch in "The Cairo Trilogy" interpreted a relevant surah in order to justify his dalliance with courtesans)

Haykal asserted that this achieved the "equality of men and women under Islam" -- but that is open to debate.