7) The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography, by Barnaby Rogerson
8) The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad and the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism, by Barnaby Rogerson
I picked up the second of these remaindered in Belfast last month, and realised that I had better read the first one as well so ordered t from Amazon. These are two breezily written, enthusiastic books about the early decades of Islam. In both cases, Rogerson spends a good third of the book getting to the starting point – the first gives us a detailed description of Arabia’s geographical and political surroundings in the sixth century, before we get onto the meat of the Prophet’s life, and the second recapitulates the narrative of the first book, though I felt it was still worth having bought both.
Rogerson is clearly a sympathiser, and this means that neither book can be considered particularly neutral. But that’s perhaps not such a bad thing; I am more interested in finding out what the Prophet’s followers believe than in getting the historical “facts”, whatever they are. His narrative is complete enough that I did find myself taken aback at some points. Rogerson appears to expect us to be shocked that one of Muhammad’s wives had previously been married to the Prophet’s adopted son, but in fact while the circumstances are a bit murky this is a process that appears to have been consensual on both sides; I was much more taken aback by the fact that his marriage to Aisha took place when the latter was only nine. And whatever the record of later Muslim regimes for inter-religious tolerance (generally not bad, at least, alas, compared to many of their Christian contemporaries) the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Medina was surely not a good start.
My biggest disappointment, however, is that we don’t really get under Muhammad’s skin; Rogerson is too much in awe of him to make him seem like a human being. This may be unfair of me. The thing Muhammad is best known for, his experience of divine revelation, is a long way outside the range of experience for most of us, and it may well be impossible for a biographer – especially, I suspect, a sympathetic biographer – to make it comprehensible for the general reader. But I actually I felt I had got a better idea of his character from Gibbon.
In the second book, Rogerson’s enthusiasm in the face of the facts is almost endearing. While the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar, seem to have indeed been gifted leaders – it was under Omar that the really big military conquests took place, culminating with Persia, the Holy Land and Egypt – the caliphate collapsed under the leadership of Uthman and Ali, and Rogerson’s attempts to exalt Ali’s reputation (as indeed it is exalted in both Shia and Sunni tradition) are difficult to sustain given his failure to keep his own regime together.
However. This was a very interesting pair of books for me, filling in a significant gap in my knowledge which I had previously only really read in much detail in chapters L and LI of Gibbon