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Michael Muhammad Knight wants to introduce you to Islam’s prophet — 40 times

“Muhammad: 40 Introductions” and author Michael Muhammad Knight. Images courtesy of Counterpoint Press

(RNS) – In his new book, “Muhammad: 40 Introductions,” Michael Muhammad Knight gives a crash course in the multiplicity of ways Muslims have historically imagined and remembered the Prophet Muhammad through 40 hadith.

Hadith are the reported sayings of the prophet from many different sources that Muslims look to for guidance in living their faith. Collections of 40 hadith, arbaeen in Arabic, are a genre of exegesis in which Islamic scholars compile selected hadith to offer a particular lens into the life of Muhammad.

Knight’s collection includes hadith that invite explorations of Muhammad’s appearance, family life, infallibility, mystical nature and more. Each chapter is a fresh reminder that for nearly every accepted fact of Islam, there exists another element within the expansive Islamic tradition that competes with, complicates or questions it.

An assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Knight wrote the book while planning a seminar about the Prophet Muhammad at Ohio’s Kenyon College. “I don’t know that I always stayed faithful to this, but I started out by imagining the textbook I wanted to see in the world,” he told Religion News Service in a recent interview excerpted below.

The project straddles the lines Knight has followed in his previous 11 books, which include a cult classic novel (“The Taqwacores”), memoir (“Impossible Man”) and nonfiction (“Magic in Islam”). It offers scholarly analysis of the Prophet Muhammad, but with a personal touch. Almost inescapably, writing this book became an act of worship for Knight, who converted to Islam in his teens.

So he leaned in, he said, noting his own reflections on each hadith and including two cycles of prayer — in keeping with the practice of traditional hadith scholars — after finishing each chapter.

Knight discussed the process of creating his own arbaeen and his personal journey with the prophet with RNS. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

I heard that you’re a new dad. Congratulations! Is there a certain hadith or element of the prophet’s life that you find inspiring as you take on the journey of fatherhood?

Thank you! I don’t sleep a lot these days. There are plenty of hadith about the prophet’s tenderness with kids, particularly the way he would let his grandchildren play on him as he prayed.

There’s the story in which his son died as a baby, and we see the prophet’s tenderness as he cries. For a lot of people, Islam means complete surrender to divine will. It might be confusing, then, to see someone who is so perfect in their surrender weeping as though they are struggling with what was written for them. And the prophet addressed those concerns, explaining that he was given this compassion and love and mercy.

How did you choose which sayings to include? Were there any introductions to the Prophet Muhammad that you had to cut?

“Muhammad: 40 Introductions” by Michael Muhammad Knight. Image courtesy of Counterpoint Press

There were some themes that I knew I had to talk about to use this project as a tool in the classroom. I needed to, for example, explore the prophet’s experience of revelation, the prophet’s marital life, the prophet as a legal authority. Then there were hadith that provoke conversations. There were hadith that were denounced as inauthentic, which still represent something in this tradition, that speak from the margins of the tradition, and can sometimes be fruitfully engaged and seriously considered. These hadith speak to the full range and complexity of the tradition.

How much did you consider the authenticity of hadith when including them? Did you study hadith science?

I don’t take it for granted that pre-modern classical hadith science is actually a science or that it does what it promises to do. The idea is that by assessing the reputation of a given hadith’s transmitters, being able to line them up and say that ‘OK, these two people were both trustworthy and they both lived in the same era and likely met each other,’ we can say that it’s probably a reliable hadith. I think there’s more to the authenticity question than that, but I’m also not an absolute skeptic. I just don’t let the authenticity question dictate what’s useful to me.

Sunni hadith criticism prioritizes the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and is based on the idea that if you can trace the hadith reliably to the companions, then it must be accepted. And that’s a sectarian view. I disagree with the idea that if a hadith goes back to a companion, say Ibn Abbas, then Ibn Abbas must be taken 100 percent at his word. He’s a subjective human being also. The chains of transmission can be a great tool, and they tell a story about texts and how they travel. It tells us something important about the reporters. Historians in other fields say they wish they had something like that.

You talk about how most introductory books, like the Cambridge Companion collection, skip studying the family of the prophet except in sectarian contexts. Can you talk about that and why you found it critical to include?

Historically, everybody loves the family of the prophet, but in modernity that has come to be increasingly sectarian. The Cambridge Companion to Muhammad is a great resource, but there is an unavoidable Sunni-centrism. There are chapters on law, mysticism, the state and the historical context, but there’s nothing about his family. That’s a reminder of the assumption that loving the prophet’s family is only a Shia thing. So I wanted to show how mainstream and popular and significant this is in the tradition, that it is a part of the tradition that is really being erased from Sunni discourses over the past century or so.

Author Michael Muhammad Knight. Photo courtesy of Jonas Yunus Atlas

What other gaps in popular understandings about the prophet were you seeking to fill in?

The mystical Muhammad gets erased, too. In modern conversations we’re looking for an Islamic model of economics and government. We’re asking how the prophet teaches us about gender and ethics. These are secular, worldly concerns — and I don’t take away from any of that. But there’s also a mystical, almost shamanic sort of Muhammad that spooks a lot of people out. Incidents like the experience of the prophet’s ascension to heaven either don’t appear in a lot of modern biographies, or they just get washed away or skimmed over. In a lot of premodern contexts, though, this mystical experience was essential to understanding Muhammad.

We like to think that modernity makes us more open, that it makes things more fluid and malleable, but in a lot of ways modernity also reflects constriction. We’ve really, really limited the kinds of things we can conceivably think about him.

The book is an introduction to the prophet. But for Muslims who already have some understanding of his life, what do you hope they begin to think about?

It can make history a little more complicated. And it can be unsettling, it can be discomforting, it can be threatening in some ways, to think that the narratives we rely on aren’t simply the only narrative. Our narratives are only one of many in a tradition; our personal constructions of Islam today are not the only construction of Islam. That can be destabilizing for a lot of people. But it’s intellectually compelling and personally liberating.

One thing the book might do is encourage Muslims to recognize that their constructions of the prophet are their own, and that the prophet remains malleable and fluid. So they can do this for themselves. They can compile their own Muhammad.

What did you take away as a Muslim from writing the book? And as an academic?

The two are intertwined inescapably for me. I wish they weren’t. But I had to take comfort in the instability. I had to find a way for that instability to nourish me somehow, because academia trains us to take things apart. It trains us to dismantle things, and then it trains us to put them back together. Even if I’m trying to put together my own Muhammad, in a way, I’m still left with this awareness that it’s entirely subjective. It’s entirely a product of my choices and what I have access to. I’m trying to find comfort with myself, as much as with the prophet. The way the prophet emerges from my project is about me.

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

40 Comments

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  • There is not much known about Mohammed but what we know is disturbing:

    Mohammed was a warmongering, misogynist, ex-spice, literate trader who started his life of horror by conquering spice -trading cities in an attempt to control the flow of spices such as frankincense and myrrh, two spices used routinely in those times to mask body and building odors. And today we have the stench of Islam covering the globe. Irony?

    He and his scribes eventually converted his crusade into a religion to keep his subjects bound to himself and a mythical god, Allah with his mythical angel Gabriel being the earthly connection. The absurdity of it all boggles the mind!!!

  • I wonder who diddled Mary, also a very young girl? Or perhaps that was another time and another culture of which you know nothing as many US states allowed preteens to marry not that long ago. Are your 19th & 20th Century US forbearers also kiddy diddlers?

  • You can wonder about that till the cows come home.

    NOBODY diddled Mary.

    But that was another time and another culture of which you know nothing, a world in which God worked wonders, a world you seem to have shut yourself off from.

  • Oh, look, it’s the lazy argument. So now you’re saying that either Mohammed is the same as GOD, and that ALL kiddy diddlers are as perfect role models worthy of 1.6 billion fanatical followers as Mohammed. Nice.
    Mary was at least in her teens and it was DIVINE conception. It was a virgin birth. I guess you forgot the title “Virgin Mary”? Not quite the same as a 50+ year old diddling a 9 year old – and doing it so early he damaged her uterus and prevented her from having any offspring. And which founding father diddled a kid? Also, marriage is not the same as actual diddling. Most of the time, marriage was about securing family estates. You can be married without diddling. But the Quran clearly states she was diddled at the age of 9. Also, if you’re saying “Oh that was a different time”, you’re simply piling on debunking Islam’s ‘eternal’ claims.” because if we were to allow Muslims to do as they please in the US, they’d STILL be emulating Mo-Mo and diddling kids. Hell, they’re dealing with that in Europe and primarily Sweden.
    So I hope you feel really stupid for that lazy argument covering for an illiterate pedophile.

  • I spent some time researching “allowed preteens to marry” in the United States and was unable to confirm that.

    Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming all currently lack statutory lower age limits for marriage.

    A number of studies indicated that in none of them were any preteens married.

    In the absence of a statutory age limit, in American law the traditional minimum common law marriageable age is 12 for girls and 14 for boys, neither preteen.

  • Islamic history says that she married at 9 but that there were no sexual relations until she was 11. She likely gave herself willingly to someone that she, her family and everyone around them considered a prophet of God. I don’t feel stupid about anything. You’re the one ranting here with your ignorance & bigotry. In many cultures worldwide some marriages may have been about treaty alliances, estates or other reasons for arranged marriages, but not all marriages, unless you’re claiming the entire ancient world was made up of just wealthy nations and individuals.

  • Most folks in the US consider 12 to be pre-teen.

    I notice there isn’t much in the way of info that you provide on the Deep South. That’s where the “kiddie diddling” may still be occurring.

    Your last line you created out of whole cloth in your own head.

  • If they consider to be 12 pre-teen, they join these folks

    http://news.yahoo.com/quarter-americans-convinced-sun-revolves-around-earth-survey-062143342–abc-news-topstories.html

    in believing nonsense.

    The word denotes the numbers between 9 and 20, commencing with 10 and concluding with 19.

    There’s nothing particularly sacrosanct about these marriages ages.

    As to “In the absence of a statutory age limit, in American law the traditional minimum common law marriageable age is 12 for girls and 14 for boys, neither preteen.”;

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1521540/Common-law-rule-lets-girls-of-12-marry.html

    “Although the three-judge panel stopped short of setting a minimum age for common law unions, it noted that Colorado recognises English common law, which states such marriages are legal for girls at 12 and boys at 14. Precedent dating back to the 19th century was cited in the case.”

    And I can provide dozens of those precedents if that is your desire.

  • I have known of child marriages from living in different parts of the country, and they were among people of all different religious and non-religious backgrounds.

    It was hardly “a religious fundamentalist thing”, as you and the article intimate.

  • You really don’t see it outside of ultra-religious communities. I have never seen or heard of non-religious child marriages or non-religious justifications for it.

    If you have examples, I will be happy to revise my prior statements. (I am telling you now Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis do not count!)

  • Actually the Quran says she was married at 6 and diddled at 9. This, of course, being only one of SIXTEEN WIVES. So you’re arguing over a two year difference? She still was diddled too early and was unable to bear offspring due to it being early. Name any other ‘prophet’ who diddled an 11 year old and claimed to be the perfect role model for humanity?
    Who cares if she gave herself willingly? A perfect role model would have just married her and not diddled her till she was 18. And yes, she submitted willingly because she was raised by other nutbars who were conned. How about Ali’s wife? How Allah ‘moved hastily to please Mohammed’ by letting him take Ali’s wife for himself?
    AGAIN you ARE being stupid because you’re equating the actions of people WHO DON’T HAVE 1.6 BILLION FOLLOWERS, who DON’T HAVE A BOOK SUPPOSEDLY WRITTEN BY GOD APPROVING IT, nor do they claim to be the PERFECT ROLE MODEL TO EMULATE. You’ve completely missed the point. You’re basically saying Mohammed is as ‘good’ as those people. John Wayne Gacy also diddled kids, so Mohammed is on par with John Wayne Gacy?
    How many kids did Jesus diddle? How many wives did he have? Oh. right, none.
    And I see you completely avoided the fact that child marraige and diddling is STILL GOING ON MUSLIM COMMUNITIES in 2019. This isn’t ancient anymore.

  • Oh snap, and now you’re showing your bigotry to the ‘deep south’. Clearly you’ve never been there. You do realize the ‘deep south’ is the most heavily concentrated Black population, right?

  • plus obviously Aisha and her family were all on board. They expected a nice piece of Mo’s loot. Hence why there is a fight between Team Aisha and Team Ali over who gets to take over the loot after Mo died of food poisoning (which he claimed allah would prevent from ever occurring)

  • “Each chapter is a fresh reminder that for nearly every accepted fact of Islam, there exists another element within the expansive Islamic tradition that competes with, complicates or questions it.”

    I’ll just go with that.

  • Well, after Jesus was born Joseph and Mary had other children. Don’t think those conceptions were immaculate.

  • Jim, I wasn’t speaking about sex offenders, I was speaking about child brides in the deep south.

  • “. . . the prophet remains malleable and fluid. So they can do this for themselves. They can compile their own Muhammad.”</blockquote
    Wow. Why bother then? Your own Muhammad. Your own personal Jesus. Is this postmodern Islam? Not that I care, as an atheist, the more disagreements between religionists, the better. Keeps them out of our hair.

  • Dear Michael,

    Now for the reality:

    Again and again and again, it all revolves around Islam’s Koran and how its dictates of horror continue to wreak havoc around the globe. USA citizens continue to die to keep this horror in check. And we spend trillions of dollars in funding of our War on Terror/Islam to do the same.

    And the idiocy of it all is that Islam was founded by a warmongering, misogynist, ex-spice, literate trader who started his life of horror by conquering spice trading cities in an attempt to control the flow of spices such as frankincense, and myrrh, two spices used routinely in those times to mask body and building odors. And today we have the stench of Islam covering the globe. Irony?

    He and his scribes eventually converted his crusade into a religion to keep his subjects bound to himself and a mythical god, Allah with his mythical angel Gabriel being the earthly connection. The absurdity of it all boggles the mind!!!

  • Joseph and Mary had no other children. Joseph had several from his earlier marriage to Salome.

    Do you think an immaculate conception has to do with the couple not having sex?

  • I need to work on my sarcasm. You need to study your Bible! Where did you get this Salome nonsense from? Joseph and Mary had other children the old-fashioned way.

  • “the Deep South. That’s where the “kiddie diddling” may still be occurring.”

    A quick Google indicates that the minimum age is not set in many states. Tennessee, which has a history of child brides (as young as 10), just set a minimum age. Otherwise the South is not set apart.

  • Mouthing prejudice like mob frenzy is telling on a person’s level of intelligence. You have Christians who are uncomfortable with the concept of Mary’s virgin birth and they believe or insinuate that the carpenter had some role in it. Muslims on the other accept Mary’s virgin birth as given with no ifs and buts. I cannot help wondering on the Black /White divide in Christian America on Dr Martin Luther King’s Day. Black and White Muslims pray together and there was never a Black or White mosque. One of the many humane legacies of Prophet Muhammad’s teaching !

  • Apparently, you missed these passages in your book of horror:

    o “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.” (Surah 5:51)
    o
    “Believers, when you encounter the infidels on the march, do not turn your backs to them in flight. If anyone on that day turns his back to them, except it be for tactical reasons…he shall incur the wrath of God and Hell shall be his home…” (Surah 8:12-)

    “Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme.” (Surah 8:36-)

    “…make war on the leaders of unbelief…Make war on them: God will chastise them at your hands and humble them. He will grant you victory over them…” (Surah 9:12-)

    “Fight against such as those to whom the Scriptures were given [Jews and Christians]…until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued.” (Surah 9:29-)

    “It is He who has sent forth His apostle with guidance and the true Faith [Islam] to make it triumphant over all religions, however much the idolaters [non-Muslims] may dislike it.” (Surah 9:31-)

    “If you do not fight, He will punish you sternly, and replace you by other men.” (Surah 9:37-)

    “Prophet make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home.” (Surah 9:73)

    “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them.” (Surah 9:121-)

    “Say: ‘Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom…” (Surah 17:111)

    “‘How shall I bear a child,’ she [Mary] answered, ‘when I am a virgin…?’ ‘Such is the will of the Lord,’ he replied. ‘That is no difficult thing for Him…God forbid that He [God[ Himself should beget a son!…Those who say: ‘The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,’ preach a monstrous falsehood…” (Surah 19:12-, 29-, 88)

    “Fight for the cause of God with the devotion due to Him…He has given you the name of Muslims…” (Surah 22:78-)

    “Blessed are the believers…who restrain their carnal desires (except with their wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to them)…These are the heirs of Paradise…” (Surah 23:1-5-)

    “Muhammad is God’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another.” (Surah 48:29)

    “Shall the reward of goodness be anything but good?…Dark-eyed virgins sheltered in their tents…They shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets…Blessed be the name of your Lord…” (Surah 55:52-66-)

    Quran (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

    Quran (9:5) – “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them.”

    And please no “out of context” excuses. Your imams and terrorists don’t follow your excuses but follow the literal word of the Koran.

  • to quote random passage/ passages Lesson 101 is always remember to contextualise and check for interpretation. I suppose that is an educated way of going about it.

  • Ouch – got me! Just kidding. They’re OK with science except when the Bible says differently. So yes to the heliocentric system. No to evolution, yes to a global flood and Genesis. They acknowledge the Earth is billions of years old and the 6 days weren’t literal days. No to dinosaurs and man coexisting. They acknowledge global warming but are convinced god will step in soon. Not that different from Catholics, right?

  • Catholics say yes to evolution, but not the materialistic version of it, and not without the deity commencing the human race through some means or other.

    Modern science owes its existence to Catholics.

    A Catholic priest proposed the Big Bang Theory.

  • Everything in the Koran is either a lie, plagiarism, or fiction. No such thing as Allah the moon god. The Muslim Faith teachers intolerance, violence, hatred, sexism, slavery, murder, etc. And it teaches this in a modern day standpoint not from an antiquity standpoint. It’s the most destructive indoctrination on the planet.

  • Mouthing prejudice like mob frenzy is telling on a person’s level of intelligence. You have Christians who are uncomfortable with the concept of Mary’s virgin birth and they believe or insinuate that the carpenter had some role in it. Muslims on the other accept Mary’s virgin birth as given with no ifs and buts. I cannot help wondering on the Black /White divide in Christian America on Dr Martin Luther King’s Day. Black and White Muslims pray together and there was never a Black or White mosque. One of the many humane legacies of Prophet Muhammad’s teaching !

  • Dear Michael, (once again)

    Now for the reality:

    Again and again and again, it all revolves around Islam’s Koran and how its dictates of horror continue to wreak havoc around the globe. USA citizens continue to die to keep this horror in check. And we spend trillions of dollars in funding of our War on Terror/Islam to do the same.
    And the idiocy of it all is that Islam was founded by a warmongering, misogynist, ex-spice, literate trader who started his life of horror by conquering spice trading cities in an attempt to control the flow of spices such as frankincense, and myrrh, two spices used routinely in those times to mask body and building odors. And today we have the stench of Islam covering the globe. Irony?

    He and his scribes eventually converted his crusade into a religion to keep his subjects bound to himself and a mythical god, Allah with his mythical angel Gabriel being the earthly connection. The absurdity of it all boggles the mind!!!

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