Book Reviews

Ali Dashti’s 23 Years : A Study of the Prophet­ic Career of Muham­mad”: A Review

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23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad

Since this book has come up as a top­ic, and I have read it, I thought, insha’al­lah, I’d write my impres­sions. I ordered the book sight unseen because I like read­ing sir­ah and I liked the title. Its kind of dramatic.

Dashti appears to have been born Mus­lim but accord­ing to the trans­la­tor’s intro­duc­tion, it appears he reject­ed Islam for patri­o­tism” and estab­lished a news­pa­per called Red Dawn”. This was in the 1920s. Imme­di­ate­ly, it seems safe to assume Dashti was a social­ist, most like­ly entranced by the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion in 1917. So he might have been an out­right athe­ist. He must have been active in Sovi­et Social­ist issues because he was invit­ed to Rus­sia to cel­e­brate the 10th anniver­sary of the revolution.

Giv­en this, I recall read­ing that there is a body of lit­er­a­ture giv­ing Marx­ist-Social­ist inter­pre­ta­tions of Muham­mad’s (P) life. Dashti’s book appears to be one of these inter­pre­ta­tions. Indeed, he com­pares Lenin to Muham­mad ear­ly in the book (p. 8). Inter­est­ing­ly, he also com­pares Muham­mad to oth­er social con­querors and war­riors such as Alexan­der, Cae­sar, Napoleon, Hitler, Cyrus, Chen­giz Khan and Tim­or. Now, he says that Muham­mad was greater than they, but only because Muham­mad (P) made his way into his­to­ry” with­out the ben­e­fit of a strong armed force and strong pub­lic opin­ion. I found it odd that one would not com­pare Muham­mad (P) to oth­er reli­gious lead­ers such as Bud­dha, or Jesus, or Moses, or even Lao Tzu. This must give us pause to ques­tion the author’s per­spec­tive on events (espe­cial­ly now that we know Marx­ist-Lenin­ism was a bit of a failure).

He starts in a way that piqued my inter­est as he object­ed to the Mus­lim ten­den­cy to turn this man into an imag­i­nary super­hu­man being, a sort of God in human clothes, and have gen­er­al­ly ignored the ample evi­dence of his human­i­ty.” I could relate to this !

He imme­di­ate­ly launch­es into the issues sur­round­ing the had?th lit­er­a­ture and oth­er Mus­lim accounts of Muham­mad (P)??the pos­si­bil­i­ty that some things found in the lit­er­a­ture are self-evi­dent­ly pious sto­ries, not bio­graph­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal sto­ries (such issues are often heat­ed­ly dis­cussed by today’s Mus­lims). Dashti mer­ci­less­ly ridicules, for instance, the had?th telling of Muham­mad’s birth and Night Jour­ney, cit­ing Mus­lim reli­gious bias as being respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing what are in essence myths, fan­tasies and fairy-sto­ries. He gives an appear­ance of fair­ness by indi­cat­ing that con­verse­ly, West­ern Chris­t­ian writ­ers present a neg­a­tive pic­ture of Muhammad(P) due to their own reli­gious bias­es. So, Dashti says that nei­ther group was capa­ble of objec­tive study of the facts” due to reli­gious bias. For instance, a view of Muham­mad (P) as a liar, impos­tor, adven­tur­er, pow­er-seek­er, and lech­er” is not sup­port­able and due to West­ern Chris­t­ian bias.

After some pre-emp­tive praise of Muham­mad (P) he begins his story.

Right off, giv­en his con­dem­na­tion of both Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian accounts of Muham­mad as not being based upon objec­tive facts” he total­ly does the exact same thing :

What most offend­ed the Mec­can chiefs was that this call.… came from a man of low­er sta­tus than them­selves.” (empha­sis mine) 

This can­not pos­si­bly be an objec­tive fact. To encounter this so soon after his intro­duc­tion gave me pause. How he read their minds so well I do not know. While this may have been part of the Mec­can chiefs’ rejec­tion of Muham­mad’s mes­sage, to say it is what most offend­ed is a huge stretch, it would seem, and not at all an objec­tive fact. He does this mind-read­ing trick quite a bit.

Anoth­er exam­ple of this is in his dis­missal of the sto­ry of the Night Jour­ney. Rather than actu­al­ly explor­ing the sto­ries he mere­ly writes :

it is obvi­ous the Prophet did not say such things and that these child­ish fables are fig­ments of the imag­i­na­tions of sim­ple-mind­ed peo­ple who con­ceived of the divine order as a repli­ca of the court of their own king or ruler.” 

I found this stun­ning­ly banal.

First, it is not obvi­ous, much less an objec­tive fact, that Muhammad(P) did not describe the expe­ri­ence of the Night Jour­ney as has been record­ed in the had?th lit­er­a­ture. And indeed, anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion might be : It is obvi­ous the Prophet(P) had an inef­fa­ble expe­ri­ence of The Transcendent??accounts of which are found in reli­gious literature??and described that expe­ri­ence in a way the peo­ple could under­stand.” This is actu­al­ly more rea­son­able than Dashti’s state­ment, because we know there are peo­ple who have recount­ed inef­fa­ble expe­ri­ences of The Tran­scen­dent. So, even though Dashti wants to reduce the sto­ries down to psy­cho-social dynam­ics, he does not real­ly even do such a good job with that, because he does­n’t real­ly seem to be aware of the breadth of psy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on such things as mys­tic expe­ri­ence, as well as oth­er top­ics I’ll not out­line here.

Sec­ond, Dashti will use the had?th lit­er­a­ture when it suits his pur­pose, for instance, in describ­ing Muhammad(P) as shy, or as mend­ing his own clothes he uses had?th. He uses it for his whole sto­ry, of course ! He does not explore why he would reject one had?th and not the oth­er. One might think he rejects any­thing that smacks of the non-ordi­nary, but he seems to accept the had?th regard­ing the account of the begin­ning of the revelation??which is cer­tain­ly as non-ordi­nary as the Night Jour­ney. So why he ridicules one and not the oth­er is not real­ly clear. Though it is clear he rejects the idea that any­thing super­nat­ur­al is happening.

He also uses the had?th to com­pare Muham­mad (P) to famous con­querors as men­tioned above. For instance, dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions with the Medini­ans before the hejra, Dashti quotes had?th. Muhammad(P) is asked how com­mit­ted he will be to the Medin­ian tribes over his own, On the con­trary. Blood, blood, destruc­tion, destruc­tion ! I shall be yours and you shall be mine. I shall be at war with those at war with you and at peace with those at peace with you.” Dashti writes :

The rep­e­ti­tion of the words blood’ and destruc­tion’ brings to mind the state­ment of the famous French rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jean Paul Marat, I want blood’.”

Uh, even I can tell the had?th’s exclaimed oath is not at all like Marat’s desire.

So, Dashti did not impress me as a very broad­ly-based writer or thinker, and he was not going to actu­al­ly explore the issues. As a Marx­ist-Lenin­ist thinker he is not aware of the tran­scen­dent, and does not think it is of impor­tance to human life. That is a huge over­sight and deficit when look­ing at reli­gious texts, behav­iors and issues.

His social­ist lean­ings to not serve him well in this endeav­or, for the book comes off as a form of mere??and transparent??anti-Muslim rhetoric. So entranced with the West” and Marx­ist thought, Dashti seems to have unre­flec­tive­ly swal­lowed and regur­gi­tat­ed anti-Mus­lim inter­pre­ta­tions of Muhammad(P) which are famil­iar to many today, and are rec­og­nized as being anti-Mus­lim mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Mus­lim history.

It would appear that in spite of Dashti’s upbring­ing as a Mus­lim his under­stand­ing of the­ol­o­gy was very ele­men­tary. For instance, he is very con­fused about All?h’s role in guid­ance or mis­guid­ance of the human, which is tied to the issue of des­tiny” or All?h’s mea­sur­ing out of good and evil, i.e. If All?h so willed, all would believe.” So, says Dashti, is it God’s fault peo­ple do not believe ? And so then how could pun­ish­ment be just ?

I’m not going to say this is not a sub­tle the­o­log­i­cal issue. All I’m say­ing is Dashti’s amazed con­fu­sion over this aspect of tawheed points to his poor grasp of Mus­lim thought, in spite of his hav­ing been raised Muslim.

Dashti com­plete­ly fails to under­stand the very idea of a text” and takes great excep­tion to the Qur’?nic chal­lenge to pro­duce a sur?h like it.”

First — and this is amaz­ing to me — he writes on pp. 47 – 48 :

Non-Moslem schol­ars have found numer­ous grounds for ques­tion­ing the intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty and elo­quence of the Qur’an, and Moslem schol­ars have con­curred in so far as they have found that the Qor’an needs interpretation.” 

Uh, every text, and indeed every thing the human expe­ri­ences, needs inter­pre­ta­tion. Its what the human does?interpret mean­ing. With one sen­tence, Dashti throws him­self to the winds of irrel­e­vance. Indeed, it is in inter­pre­ta­tion that one dis­cov­ers the infi­nite intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty and sub­lime elo­quence so strong­ly attest­ed to by libraries of Mus­lim lit­er­a­ture ? lit­er­a­ture that is just so eas­i­ly ignored, it would seem, by Dashti, in favor of a fas­ci­na­tion with the non-Mus­lim lit­er­a­ture which he seems to sim­ply swal­low whole.

He cites??so famil­iar to us??the idea that at times the Qur’?nic text is not gram­mat­i­cal, unfa­mil­iar words are used, and oth­er aber­ra­tions of lan­guage”. Aside from the fact that he does not explore the actu­al Mus­lim lit­er­a­ture on the Qur’?nic tex­tu­al form, he com­plete­ly ignores the evi­dence of the pro­found impact the lan­guage had on Muhammad’s(P) contemporaries??reflected in the Qur’?n itself as accu­sa­tions of spell­bind­ing words??and as attest­ed to by Ara­bic-know­ing Mus­lims across time and cul­tures. What Dashti — in a way indica­tive of a banal lack of imag­i­na­tion — does not rec­og­nize is that the Qur’?n is a new and unique form of lan­guage use.

Odd­ly, he does say this :

… the Qor’an is indeed unique and won­der­ful. There was no prece­dent for it.…” 

So, he says it, but does not real­ly under­stand what he is saying !

Dashti’s poor grasp of Mus­lim thought, and creduli­ty in light of West­ern” and Marx­ist (and per­haps Enlight­en­ment) thought thus leads him towards a por­tray­al of Muhammad(P) not just as human, but as all too human. That is, as a per­son who act­ed out of ques­tion­able and less-than-noble moti­va­tions. Exact­ly what anti-Mus­lim lit­er­a­ture does.

For instance, he puts forth the idea??most of us have seen it before??that with the pow­er that came from the estab­lish­ment of the Medin­ian State Muhammad’s(P) per­son­al­i­ty makes a dras­tic change. Actu­al­ly, he says that Muhammad’s(P) inner self”??that is, his real self??now makes an appear­ance. Here is how Dashti puts it (p. 81):

With his thoughts fixed on the here­after, he implored his Mec­can com­pa­tri­ots to revere the Lord of the Uni­verse, and con­demned vio­lence, injus­tice, hedo­nism, and neglect of the poor. Like Jesus, he was full of com­pas­sion. After the move to Mad­i­na, how­ev­er, he becomes a relent­less war­rior, intent on spread­ing his reli­gion by the sword, and a schem­ing founder of state. …A man who had lived for more than twen­ty years with one wife became inor­di­nate­ly fond of women.” 

Well, what can I say to that ? This is sim­ply a repeat of stan­dard anti-Mus­lim big­ot­ed takes on Mus­lim his­to­ry. No attempt to place the events in a full con­text (as would be need­ed for a psy­cho-social analy­sis) no sense of bro­ken treaties and geno­ci­dal aggres­sion on the part of the Qur?ysh and their allies. Just the old stand­by : reli­gion of the sword”. Sure, it’s dressed up but there it is !

It is with some hor­rid fas­ci­na­tion we might recall Dashti’s dis­missal of the West­’s” reli­gious­ly-biased pic­ture of Muham­mad at the begin­ning of his book, which I men­tioned above. He asserts pret­ty much the same thing !

Accord­ing to Dashti, Muhammad(P) now acts out of revenge for his bruised ego :

Dur­ing his last ten years, which he spent at Mad­i­na, he was not the same man as the Moham­mad who for thir­teen years had been preach­ing humane com­pas­sion at Mec­ca. …[he] reap­peared in the garb of the Prophet intent on sub­du­ing his own tribe and hum­bling the kins­men who for thir­teen years had mocked him.” 

God for­give me, but what Dashti is say­ing here is that because Muhammad(P) was mocked, made fun of, called names — now that he had pow­er he was going to go humil­i­ate them for hurt­ing his feelings.

Muham­mad ! The mes­sen­ger from God ! Act­ing like the kid every­one made fun of in school, now a suc­cess, com­ing to the reunion for some cheap revenge jollies.

You got­ta be kidding.

I mean, I’m pret­ty easy, but even I am com­plete­ly offend­ed by that. God love Muhammad !

I am going to assume most read­ers — Mus­lim and non-Mus­lim — know that this is not actu­al­ly accept­ed by any­one oth­er than anti-Mus­lim big­ot types. Muham­mad was nev­er aggres­sive or revenge­ful, nor did he have much of an ego. He did­n’t change in Med­i­na. Cir­cum­stances did. Treaties were bro­ken — not by the Mus­lims. Geno­ci­dal mania was in the land — direct­ed at the Mus­lims. The Mus­lims fought back as any­one would.

Bizarrely, Dashti seems to have no sense here that Qur’an­ic ayat always refer back to the his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. So, state­ments of war are rel­e­vant only in light of the Mus­lims being under attack, while those relat­ed to peace are — sur­prise ! — rel­e­vant to times when Mus­lims are not under attack. He does not show aware­ness of this.

So, a long post, and no more need be written.

Dashti is him­self a prod­uct (or should I say vic­tim?) of his own times. His coun­try was in upheaval. The social­ist fan­ta­sy enticed many. Inor­di­nate exal­ta­tion of the Enlight­en­ment ide­al of the pri­ma­cy of rea­son seduced, and still seduces, many. Dashti’s book exem­pli­fies both this fan­ta­sy and this seduc­tion, such that he could no longer even dim­ly appre­hend The Tran­scen­dent Unity??Allah Most High, and so reject­ed The Truth. Try­ing to under­stand and bridge mul­ti­ple world views, he failed to tru­ly enter either. Kind of sad.

I have to pray he declared shah?d ? before he died, and his sins of schol­ar­ship be for­giv­en. But the book is lousy. Sorry.

12 July 1999 

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly post­ed in soc.religion.islam and is reprint­ed here with the per­mis­sion of its author. Endmark

1 Comment

  1. Jere­mi­ah, your com­ments about the book is very shal­low. I sug­gest you read it again. if you are open­mind­ed you will under­stand what mes­sage the book is try­ing to give. how do you know he was a com­mu­nist ? you do not have any proof about that!! All those peo­ple who have come up with new ideas about islam, had been raised in very strict islam­ic teach­ings but have found dis­crep­an­cies and unex­palan­able things with­in islam. He was a mas­ter of ara­bic lanaguage and you know that but God has made you blind so you do not see. Please open up your eyes. Do not throw rub­bish at some­thing you do not under­stand. Start from page one and con­tin­ue to the end, then you might understand.

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