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21.03.24 Tolan, Faces of Muhammad

The Medieval Review

21.03.24 Tolan, Faces of Muhammad


Over his long and distinguished career, John Tolan has established himself as arguably the preeminent scholar on European perceptions of Islam. Faces of Muhammad is a culmination of this work. Its central premise is to study how "westerners" have viewed the Prophet Muhammad throughout history and thereby to challenge the false impression maintained by laypeople and scholars alike that these outsiders' views have been invariably negative and monolithic (pace Masuzawa, e.g.). These perceptions were often ambiguous, ambivalent, and inter-linked in the sense that earlier modes or traditions of viewing could either recur or motivate divergences among later observers. Thus, what Tolan sets out to examine is far more complex than simply compartmentalized "faces" of the Prophet. His highly learned book is invested in contextualizing and exploring the genesis and interconnectivity of these highly politicized traditions of conceptualizing Muhammad, his role in the religious and political development of Islam, and his broader role in world history.

In deftly charting the many twists, turns, and recurrences in the long history of these western perceptions, Faces of Muhammad is thus more about the rich and convoluted nature of European intellectual and political development as it is about Muhammad and Islam. Whether they were interested in manufacturing insulting falsehoods about the Prophet, holding him up as a hero or role model or architect of a universal religion, or simply scrutinizing the intricate source materials in a range of non-European languages to faithfully reconstruct his life, the motives western observers supported, Tolan argues, were invariably conditioned by their own personal circumstances: images of Mohammed and of Islam generally served as a foil for a critique of the religious conduct and political systems of Christian believers. The historical Muhammad and origins of Islam are of interest to his study only in so far as they came to be pursued by European and American intellectuals who, for a variety of complex reasons, were motivated and prepared to dispense with inventions and distortions and undertake the research and adopt the principles that would ultimately foster the emerging fields of Islamic and religious studies. Tolan uses various devices to remind the reader that he is dealing with problematic and often false images of the Prophet, the most clever and effective of which is to maintain his authors' spellings. As a result, his narrative features different images of the man, "Machomeete," "Mouamed," "Mafometus," as well as of the central characters in his story (e.g., "Cadijah" or "Adiga") and the texts he and his followers helped produce (e.g., the "Alkoran" and "Alhadiz").

While the book's nine chapters are arranged in roughly chronological order, their treatment grows progressively more focused and concentrated as the traditions of viewing of Mohammed become more complex, multi-layered, and well evidenced, resulting in a narrative that is weighted towards the early modern and modern periods. The stereotypes and distortions produced by most medieval observers surveyed in the opening chapters, however, pervade Tolan's treatment of subsequent centuries throughout the remainder of the book as later observers variously appropriated, critiqued, or altogether dismissed them as they formulated their own self-interested impressions of the Prophet. Within the overarching chronological framework, Tolan organizes his chapters topically, grouping each around a core interpretive characteristic or tradition, religious context, or political agenda. This approach helps Tolan build and support his main interpretive argument with careful and inspired selections from an overwhelming number of possible examples, while enhancing the readability and liveliness of the discussion.

The first chapter explores how and why medieval Europeans developed the patent falsehood that Muslims were idolaters. Tolan shows how early and high-medieval theologians used Jerome, in particular, to forge a link between Muslims and the Saracens/Ishmaelites and thereby depict them as pagan worshippers who illegitimately sought to claim descendance from Abraham's wife, Sarah. This reputation for idolatry eventually comingled with distorted stories of the Prophet and encouraged later commentators to envision Mohammed as their venerated idol god. Crusade chronicles and the Chanson de Roland developed this charge further by falsely reporting idol-smashing within the vanquished sites in the Holy Land and Muslim Spain, respectively, victories that demonstrated the truth and superiority of Christianity and its saintly intercessors. Numerous fascinating examples pepper this chapter: including how "mahomet" became a common term in Old French designating an idol, which incidentally could be worshipped by Jews as well as Muslims, and how mock-battle festivals between "Moros y Cristianos" in Spain from as late as the mid-twentieth century continued to feature sieges in which Christian troops would overtake the Andalusi citadel to destroy the Mahoma, an effigy of the idol/prophet filled with fireworks that promptly burst into flames.

Chapter 2 examines a parallel interpretive tradition, which also emerged during the medieval period and would have a long life in many different iterations throughout later centuries, of viewing Mohammed as a trickster and charlatan who hoodwinked his followers into believing his prophetical claims by staging fake miracles, such as putting bird seed into his ear in order to appear to be receiving his divine messages from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Similarly, certain Christian authors attested that the Prophet's deceived followers maintained this fraud through other mechanistic "miracles" such as suspending the Prophet's tomb with magnets (a feature of the eastern landscape that was depicted in a number of famous maps, including the Catalan Atlas), thereby helping to account for Islam's remarkable but ultimately unmerited appeal and growth among its duplicitous or duped followers. Writers such as Guibert de Nogent further accounted for Mohammed's appeal and Islam's extraordinary expansion by gesturing towards the heretical depravity of the Eastern Christians, which inclined God to allow their punishment through vanquishment, in sharp relief to the spiritual purity and divinely-inspired valor of the conquering Franks. Others, such as the converted Jew Petrus Alfonsi, drew a contrast between Mohammed's cupidity, tricks, and empty obsession with conquest (and failure to foresee the defeats of his followers), as contrasted with Jesus's humility, authentic miracles, and shunning of worldly power in anticipation of the afterlife.

In the next chapter, Tolan shifts his focus to Iberia in order to complicate further this theme of Mohammed's trickery and deception by showing how Christian authors deployed it to suit various agendas that were largely conditioned by the Peninsula's peculiar environment, marked by conquest and accommodation. For Castilian writers and their patrons, such as Archbishop Rodrigo Jimenéz de Rada of Toledo and King Alfonso X, denigrating Mohammed and labeling him a pseudo-prophet underscored the God-given Christian superiority on the battlefield and helped justify the subordinate social status of Muslims living under Christian rule. Later authors, however, such as Nicholas of Cusa and Juan de Segovia, espoused more positive views of the Prophet, emphasizing the essential synergistic unity of the messages of Islam and Christianity and promoting peaceful dialogue and disputation as a means of reconciling the differences between the two faiths. Tolan also gives readers a glimpse of how largely unwilling Muslim converts (Moriscos) in the sixteenth and seventeenth century forged texts in the effort to either transform Christianity into something more Islamic and thus palatable or penned treatises to illustrate the essential harmony between Christian and Muslim belief through a close analysis of various Qur'ānic passages.

Chapter 4 turns to consider how the fascinating juxtaposition of Christendom's simultaneous rift between Catholics and Protestants and contest with the Ottoman Turks influenced western views of the Prophet. Authors on either side of the confessional divide, as well as Unitarians who opposed both camps, presented renderings of Mohammed's life as a means to support their principles and slander their opponents. Although Luther, for example, maintained a negative view of Mohammed's life and teachings (in particular his "obsession with the flesh") and held firmly that the Turks needed to be resisted militarily, in arguing that Catholics were an even more dangerous enemy, he asserted that Mohammed was a saint in comparison with the pope, "who does what he can to fill hell with Christians through his blasphemous teachings" (109). For Calvin, however, both "Mahomet" and papists were guilty of making wicked alterations to the scriptures. Catholic apologists, in turn, criticized Luther and his supporters for mimicking Mohammed's polygamy by breaking their vows of celibacy and for their shared teachings about the uselessness of good works. Unitarians such as Michael Servet referred to the Prophet's doctrines in support of their assault on the absurdity of the doctrine of the Trinity. For such radicals, the Turks (and Jews) were just another misinformed sect but closer, overall, to the truth than both Catholics and Protestants. The break from traditional religious practices thus served to complicate and variegate the range of interpretations of Mohammed's life, teachings, and influence.

In the fifth chapter, Tolan shifts his attention to the complex political circumstances of seventeenth-century England, which encouraged the first fully positive treatment of Mohammed, by Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), a text that would prove to have great influence over subsequent writers. In what I consider to be one of the most elegantly argued and inspired parts of the book, Tolan deftly illustrates how, in a narrower application of some of the techniques surveyed in chapter four, royalists and parliamentarians wielded politicized representations of the Prophet's life and teachings. The royalist Thomas Ross, for instance, focused in on Muhammad's "project of political revolution under the guise of religious reform," thereby rendering him "a rabble rouser and a revolutionary," an Islamic Cromwell (139). Parliamentarians like John Milton responded by reviving the traditional view of the Prophet as trickster to reject the comparison with Cromwell and instead suggest that the royalists were guilty of the same duplicitous impostacy. Stubbe emboldened this image of Muhammad as revolutionary by making the unprecedented case that he was a "better Christian than most" (154). For Stubbe, far from corrupting Christianity, the Prophet had "tried to return to its purest expression" (142), rescuing it from its degeneracy as a veritable form of paganism, with its devotion to the multiple gods of the Trinity and the goddess Virgin Mary.

Tolan next turns to examine the work of eighteenth-century French and English Enlightenment intellectuals. The collection of authors gathered together here produced both hostile and positive portraits, variously lambasting Muhammad for repeating the corruptions allegedly perpetrated by Moses and Paul or praising him for his perceived anti-clericalism. With the Arabist George Sale's work on the Qur'ān, we begin to see the fruits of an ability to engage directly with the sources attesting to Muhammad's life, which allowed Sale to present an influential picture of the Prophet and his rise (even Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of his book) that was both well evidenced and contextualized by the environment of seventh-century Arabia. In an illuminating juxtaposition of Voltaire and Gibbon, we observe the French philosopher's changing view of Muhammad's story, which shifted from seeing him as an ambitious impostor to an enthusiastic renewer of traditional religion and thereby a foil to the dangerous fanaticism that was endangering France. As a historian, Gibbon employed methods that differed sharply from those of Voltaire, and he was encouraged by his Anglican critics to delve all the more deeply into his sources and make ample use of his notes to advance further his many critical observations. Yet, Gibbon ended up agreeing with Voltaire's later portrait and asserted that the Prophet was "an extraordinary man" who developed a creed that was "free from suspicion or ambiguity" and a "Koran" that was "a glorious testimony to the unity of God," in contrast to the degradation of seventh-century Christianity (179). While they engaged with the Prophet's life in different ways and emerged with different portraits, these Enlightenment intellectuals shared a similar interest in using Muhammad and Islam as a means to "imagine other ways of organizing European societies...and better ways of regulating the relations between political power and religious authority" (183).

Chapter 7 examines the images of Muhammad produced by Napoleon, Goethe, and nineteenth-century writers of the Romantic movement such as Thomas Carlyle and Alphonse de Lamartine. Napoleon's self-serving intellectual endeavors to understand his own raison d'être and destiny and failed effort to colonize Egypt led him to adopt a highly positive view of Islam and the Qur'ān and to identify with the Prophet, who, in his estimation, was similarly "born with superior gifts" that equipped him to "lead mortals behind [his] chariot" and thereby illustrate "what human genius can accomplish under favorable circumstances" (189). Differing vigorously with Voltaire, Goethe, via his own personal spiritual quest, presented Muhammad as "a force of nature: joyous, beneficent, and awesome" (199) and used him to explore the intersection of the objectives of poets and prophets, whereas numerous Romantics offered a similarly favorable picture on the grounds that Muhammad's great deeds would have been impossible had he not been both holy and sincere.

In the next unexpected yet fascinating chapter, Tolan explores how nineteenth-century Jewish religious reformers and intellectuals used Muhammad, alongside Jesus, as their own foil to reexamine the history of the Jewish religion and its people and, in some instances, to make the case for targeted reforms to contemporary Judaism. While Abraham Geiger contrasted Muhammad's lasting influence on Islam with the corruption of Jesus's reformist message by Paul that had resulted in Christianity's Anti-Semitic "lust for destruction" (215), Gustav Weil (employing a less sophisticated interpretive methodology) presented a Prophet who sought "to renew the pure, primitive monotheism of Abraham" (219) and thereby produced a "purified version of both Judaism and Christianity," thus providing a model for Jewish reform (221). While their methods and results may have different, these and other Jewish intellectuals during this formative period were similar in that they used Islam and Muhammad "as a foil to Christian Europe" to argue about "Jews' proper place in European society" (223-224).

In the final chapter and as a means to begin to wrap up this brilliant study, Tolan turns his attention to the daunting twentieth century and explores a set of vantage points that once hopefully imagined a more tolerant and understanding shared future among the Abrahamic faiths. After exploring how men such as Louis Massignon and Giulio Basetti-Santi depicted Islam as a "positive spiritual challenge to Christianity" and how the latter, in particular, came to believe that Muhammad had received divine inspiration and Islam had thus played a positive role in the history of redemption, Tolan turns to evaluate the dramatic influence of Vatican II, which embraced the salvific capacity of Islam (and other non-Christian religions). In Vatican II's wake, reformers such as Hans Küng furthered its ethos that the world's different religions "share a common core of essential values that constitute a basis of a new planetary ethic" (246). He ends the chapter with an examination of the Scottish Orientalist Montgomery Watt, whose many writings made the case that Muhammad was a genuine prophet and advanced the optimistic notion that Islam might someday serve as the one unified new world religion.

To conclude the book, Tolan revisits his core arguments: that a wide array of different understandings of Muhammad and Islam have circulated among westerners over the intervening centuries and that these portrayals of the Prophet and the religion he brought to life are, in turn, "integral elements of European culture" (261). Although preoccupation with the Prophet's life and influence were integral to the development of the modern critical study of the history and culture of Islam and the Qur'ān, these images of the Prophet nevertheless ultimately speak far more about the attitudes and objectives of western observers than they do about the life of this seventh-century Arab.

Tolan's elegantly written, deeply learned, and engaging book thus offers a rich and complicated view of how Mohammad's many "faces" were constructed and deployed for a variety of purposes by generations of westerners in a self-interested dynamic that will doubtlessly continue into the foreseeable future. This tour de force will captivate and edify scholars and non-specialist readers alike.