The Lives of Muhammad By Kecia Ali (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 342 pages.)
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The title of Kecia Ali’s latest book, The Lives of Muhammad, suggests that
it is another biography of the Prophet. And it very much is that book, not as
biography but as historiography, cultural study, and the methods of the Study
of Religion. By focusing narrowly on the material, she is able to be expansive
in her thought and raise several important issues in the study of Muhammad’s
life, both from the perspective of the believer and the non-believer.
Most importantly, and what makes this book particularly successful, is that
she recognizes conflict and contradiction without offering resolution. The
result is a work that can be extremely useful in classroom settings, in addition
to making a valuable contribution to what we think about the meanings
The work is structured into six chapters, with shorter introduction and
conclusion sections. However, the length of these two sections belies the depth
of material contained therein. In the introduction, Ali maps out the scope of
her project: a diachronic study of the biographies of Muhammad. She argues
for the increasing dialogic between non-Muslim and Muslim views of the
Prophet, especially since the nineteenth century. Her statement of what she
chose to exclude is greatly appreciated, for it helps point out that there is a great
diversity of Muslim thought concerning Muhammad. By making the breadth
of the material omitted explicit, she allows the reader to understand in more
concrete terms her statement that “[religious] traditions have always been internally
heterogeneous” (p. 3).
The first chapter focuses on questions of constructing a historical Muhammad.
Ali begins with a basic outline of the Muslim narrative version of his
life story, but immediately begins to bring up some of the issues, both in terms
of the sources and the narrative’s neatness. She explicitly mentions Hagarism
and the more recent work of Fred Donner in laying out the historical context
of Muhammad. She then deftly works through this scholarship, giving the ...