New biography offers novel approach to life of Muhammad

In his new book, 'Muhammad, the World-Changer: An Intimate Portrait,' biographer Mohamad Jebara takes long-established sources and weaves them together for a fresh telling of a familiar story.

The Masjid as-Sahabah in Massawa, Eritrea. Photo by Grullab/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — A new biography of the Prophet Muhammad takes a narrative-driven approach to depicting the life of Islam’s key figure. In his new book, “Muhammad, the World-Changer: An Intimate Portrait” (available Nov. 16), biographer Mohamad Jebara takes long-established sources and weaves them together for a fresh telling of a familiar story.

During Muhammad’s lifetime, his followers recorded the various details and sayings of the prophet, and, in the centuries since, chains of narration or “isnad” have been passed down. Such retellings have been key for scholars in weighing the importance and veracity of each quotation. Jebara, however, leaves such details to the endnotes. The result is a biography that reads like a novel, as we see the prophet’s life, family and decisions unfold.

Muhammad’s Jewish ancestry is revealed and given its prominence.

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“This book focuses on the nuances of how Muhammad’s life shaped his mindset and how that mindset lies at the core of Islam,” Jebara told RNS. “Exploring Muhammad’s dramatic personal life story can help readers of all backgrounds gain deeper access to his remarkable message.”

The book draws on both Sunni and Shia historical sources — innovative in itself — and also details Muhammad’s Jewish ancestry. Jebara believes these inclusions make the prophet’s story more relevant to a modern reader’s experience.

“(I) cast a bigger net than most. I prefer to take the best from each. My book is an example of what can come from fusing details from the various schools,” said Jebara, who also emphasized in the book Islamic reforms regarding issues such as slavery and the status of women during the era of Jahiliyyah, or ignorance.

"Muhammad, the World-Changer: An Intimate Portrait" by Mohamad Jebara. Courtesy image

“Muhammad, the World-Changer: An Intimate Portrait” by Mohamad Jebara. Courtesy image

Making Islam more accessible to Western readers has long been a core passion for Jebara, a Canadian Imam who says many young Muslims “see that much of the Muslim world stagnates in a dark age of neo-Jahiliyyah, while much of the West is either Islamophobic or condescending to Muslims.”

The book attempts to frame Quran verses within their specific historical context. Islamophobic scholars have long drawn a stark contrast between the verses of the Quran revealed in Mecca and those in Medina. In Mecca, Muslims were an oppressed minority. Conversely, in Medina, the early Muslims formed an open community. The early Islamic community was invited there to make peace amongst various Jewish tribes.   

During the period in which the early Muslims were an oppressed minority in Mecca, a group of Muslims moved to Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea). Often a footnote in many texts of Islamic history, Jebara’s work resurrects the importance of this period, which challenges the Mecca-Medina dichotomy triumphed by Orientalist scholarship. It was here that the first mosque was built and the first Muslim community freely worshipped. Today the Masjid Al-Sahaba in Massawa, Eritrea, claims to be on the site of that first mosque.

Jebara’s patience as a scholar is revealed in his ability to find moments from earlier periods of Islamic history that are relevant for today. Jebara describes such passages as “hidden gems.” The author points out in his opening that these are like puzzle pieces.

“Muhammad purposely obscured himself because he wanted people to focus on his message and not to obsess with his person,” Jebara said. Like his prophetic namesake, Jebara would prefer not to dwell on his own background, but his personal story did contribute to his drive to produce this biography. By the age of 12, he had become a hafiz, or someone who had memorized the entire Quran in Arabic.

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He spent years teaching and studying Arabic in the Middle East. As a lecturer, he has addressed everyone from university students in Malaysia to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In Canada, he is known as the “cycling cleric” for his long charity bicycle rides across Canada.

“My book tries to point to a healthier way forward, where both Muslims and non-Muslims can appreciate Muhammad’s remarkable life and deep impact on the world. I hope readers discover in my account a Muhammad who emerges very relevant to our modern lives.”

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