Deepak Chopra’s Muhammad humanizes the religion’s leader

By Dalia Mogahed It was befitting that I began reading Deepak Chopra biography of the Prophet Muhammad after dawn prayer … Continued

By Dalia Mogahed

It was befitting that I began reading Deepak Chopra biography of the Prophet Muhammad after dawn prayer during the last precious days of Ramadan. Starting with the Author’s note, I was already engrossed. I found beloved figures from my history come to life through the eyes of an outside observer, all the more compelling for me as a believer. His approach is at once engaging as it is informative and deeply humanizing. The first person narratives each paint a new layer onto the picture of The Beloved of God, in all his humanity and complexity and perfection.

I appreciated how Chopra dealt with the issues on which he may have felt ambivalence, most notably the call for jihad and the execution of the men found guilty of conspiracy and treason among Banu Quraidha. I felt that he reported and allowed each side a chance to be heard, silently allowing their voice, not his judgment, to speak. The stories of the Most Beloved were riveting and moving, capturing his many dimensions: the orphaned child, the young business man, the loving husband and father, the seeker of truth, the self doubter, the believer, the Prophet, the oppressed, the Statesman and Commander in Chief, the transformer of the world for all time. All familiar but with the touch of an outside observer’s fresh eyes and creativity. I was often moved to tears and felt that reading the manuscript was a spiritual experience. Chopra captured the Messenger’s sweetness and his strength. I love the Prophet with all my soul and I saw a glimpse of his beauty in his writing. Among the most striking themes of the book was that of redemption and return to who we really are, seekers of truth, needers of God. I think this, my favorite line, captures the essence of the story: “He appeals to me most because he remade the world by going inward. That’s the kind of achievement only available on the spiritual path.” How simple and profound a truth.

Though some Muslims may be uneasy about this, I very much appreciated Deepak’s gentle treatment of doubt within the community. I don’t mean the hypocrites, but the doubt of the believers, their questions, their disagreements even with the decisions and opinion of the Prophet. Their struggles and uneasiness were evidence, paradoxically, of the utmost strength of their faith. This was a community of individuals, his “companions”, as he lovingly and respectfully called them, not his disciples or yes-men. This was proof, not of a weak and fractured community, but of unbreakable enduring bonds of faith. They were also, like their leader, men among men. I wonder if it is Islam’s raw and unapologetic embrace of humans as we really are, not a fairy tale ideal of who we are, that makes some who treat all doubt as ruin, and all flesh as sin, so uncomfortable?

I very much appreciated Chopra allowing some of the many women who surrounded the Prophet as friends, advisors and family members, to be heard on their own terms. His women companions included the sophisticated elegance of Khadijah and the warm simplicity of Halimah. The rich and the poor alike made up Muhammad’s inner circle, all showing another dimension of his character and beauty.

It is important however to understand the book properly. It is a “novel” and not an attempt at an exact account of history. Muslims scholars have an incredibly well developed science of authentication when it comes to what The Prophet said and did. Scholars scrutinize books about the life of the Prophet in a way that would make our modern academic standards for fact checking and references look horribly sloppy. It is very important that this book not be seen as attempting to meet this standard. It is not a book recounting Muhammad’s life, but a beautiful story inspired by it. There was editorial license and creativity, and while many of the words and events have been recorded in authentic sources, many have not.

If I had one change it would be the time line. Chopra’s description of the trial and execution of the Jewish tribe was fair, allowing both those who hated and loved Muhammad to describe it. However, he seemed to depart from his consistent methodology of presenting, and not prejudging, by calling it a “massacre” in the timeline. This is, I believe, a judgment best left for the reader to make. Those executed on that day were given a trial by an arbitrator that they agreed was fair and impartial. It was not the Prophet’s decision. They were found guilty of treachery and giving aid to the enemy– crimes met by similar punishments in modern democracies, and ones those punished did not deny. At least one of the banu Quraidha came to the Prophet and said he did not directly engage in the conspiracy with his brothers, and he was pardoned and lived the rest of his days a Jew in Medina. It was not ethnic persecution because they were Jewish, but a punishment for a crime. Calling it an “execution,” which is factually what it was, would have been more consistent. Also, the time line implies that all the Jews were driven out of Medina, which is also not true. There is a well documented case when Omar, as Caliph, had a dispute with a Jew in which Ali, the grand Jurist at the time, judged in the Jew’s favor.

Finally, I very much appreciated the way stories were told to be true to the self understanding of those who tell them. The one exception is the story of Haggar. Chopra seemed to have formed a hybrid between the Muslim and Jewish version. Muslims do acknowledge that Sarah was unhappy with Haggar and Ismael’s presence and could not help her jealousy and may have wanted them to go. However, Abraham, according to Islam’s telling of the story, took them into the Arabian dessert in obedience to God, not Sarah. This distinction is of the utmost importance to Muslims. This is why Muslims harbor no ill will toward Sarah and love her as they do our mother Haggar. Sarah is a very popular and common name in Muslim communities. God ordered Ibraheem to take Haggar and Ismael to the desert. When he took them and was leaving, Haggar demanded from him, “to whom are you leaving us?” He did not answer. She then said, “Did your lord order you to do this?” Ibraheem replied, “yes”, to which she said with all the confidence of a woman of her level of faith, “then go, He will not leave us.” It was divine will that Haggar be brought to the desert to be the founder of the holiest place on earth. The difference is paramount.

I believe Deepak Chopra’s novel about the Prophet does the world a great service. In the midst of escalating suspicion of Islam, the book humanizes the religion’s leader for those who do not yet know him, a man adored by billions.

Dalia Mogahed
Executive Director, Senior Analyst
Center for Muslim Studies
GALLUP

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    I am speechless. It doesn’t happen often, but I am. I don’t trust myself to say anything more for now. (Go to hell comes to mind, but, as I said, I don’t trust myself to speak further.)

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    No offense to Islam, and not intending to brand all Muslims as fanatical extremists, but I predict that there will be a generally negative reaction within the Islamic community to this book, VERY negative.

  • AKafir

    Muhammad is to be understood through the words of Kafirs like Chopra and Armstrong? Is Chopra a muslim? So what ever he thinks of Muhammad, he rejects Muhammad as a prophet of any real deity. I read the book, and have found it very very wanting. Chopra totally sidesteps many heinous acts of Muhammad. He hardly touches the torture and killing of Kinana al-Rabi the jewish husband of Safiyya one of the wives of Muhammad. Ibn Hashim, one of the very early biographers of Muhammad writes: “Kinana al-Rabi, who had the custody of the treasure of Banu Nadir, was brought to the apostle who asked him about it. He denied that he knew where it was. A Jew came (Tabari says “was brought”), to the apostle and said that he had seen Kinana going round a certain ruin every morning early. When the apostle said to Kinana, “Do you know that if we find you have it I shall kill you?” He said “Yes”. The apostle gave orders that the ruin was to be excavated and some of the treasure was found. When he asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr Al-Awwam, “Torture him until you extract what he has.” So he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad b. Maslama and he struck off his head, in revenge for his brother Mahmud.” Muhammad then has sex with Kinana al-Rabi’s wife in his tent the same night he has butchered her tribe and her husband. We do the muslims no favors by refusing to look Islam’s history as told by the early Muslims straight and speak truthfully about it. Armstrong and Chopra appease by brushing aside the violence and evil of Muhammad. Read the early biographies of Muhammd if you want the honest truth instead of the new-age gurus mumbo jumbo.

  • ron10

    I’ll just take a shot in the dark here and guess that Chopra also conveniently omitted The Beloved of God’s taking the nine year-old child, Aisha, as his bride and having sex with her. He was 52 years old. (In his defense, he did ask her to marry him three years earlier– when she was six.) This is found in the Hadith and Sira.Shall I continue, Mr. Mogahed, or did you not know these things about your Prophet?I encourage you to do a bit more research before making such proclamations about his “character and beauty”.The evidence is right there, if you will only choose to see it.

  • shashank1

    Deepak Chopra is a new age guru who wants to market his stature to a larger audience. Naturally, he has not touched the sensitive aspects of Muhammed. If Mr.Chopra were to write even a miniscule part of it, there’d be a fatwa in his name. He’d be dead! Although certain portions hint at unmentionable past. He should not have chosen Muhammed in the first place if the past was such… Intolerance is the order of the day! Certainly people like Mr. Chopra & Mogahed rewrite the history…for the worse. Not digestible.

  • abrahamhab1

    I would appreciate it if some knowledgeable person would evaluate the integrity and sanity as well as sense of justice of a common man in authority who would do some of the following.1. Permit his followers four wives and yet allows himself eleven permanent wives including a 9 years old child along with a license to sleep with whoever “gives herself to him”. At the same time refuses to allow his son in-law add a single co wife to his daughter. 2. A common man who would force his son to divorce his wife so he could marry his daughter in law and then tries to justify his misdeed to his neighbors by committing an even worse and far reaching crime of delegitimizing adoption, and worse yet blaming it on the Creator. Yet this man, according to the author, is “adored” by over a billion man, woman and child. Amazing!

  • ISLAMOPHOBIA

    I find it very interesting the rampant islamophobic remarks from several posts here.It seems that the disinformation party is in full swing, propagating their anti-Muslim agendas.What’s particularly interesting, for over 14 centuries, the very comments and suggestive questioning were answered, but they (the islamophobes) would continue to ask these questions, not out of earnest wanting to know the truth, but simply because they are in a delusional mindset to think that these inquiries would stop people from researching or looking into Islam.Fain would they extinguish God’s light with their mouths, but God will not allow but that His light should be perfected, even though the Unbelievers may detest (it). (Quran: Chapter 9, Verse 32)I would like to encourage everyone, to dialogue with us (Muslims) and use your basic common sense. Hatred is not ingrained in anyone, it’s a behavior that is taught. There’s little or no difference between some of these posts on here when compared to the extremists elements within Islam. Both sides of these narrow-minded people teach the same thing; to hate!Muslims are not here to CONVINCE you of anything. We do not go around proselytizing and forcing people to “believe” in a certain “god” to get food, clothing or shelter.visit Let’s talk. Rationally. With respect and an open heart to the truth.

  • ron10

    “@Islamophobia: So anyone who disagrees with the author is now labeled a “hater” and “Islamophobe”? That’s the default position for Muslims who cannot defend their faith: attack the person who challenges their belief, instead of defending the beliefs. You do Muslims a great disservice by this tactic.I sense you must be completely unaware of the Qur’an, Hadith literature and Sunnah’s requirements for proselytizing (or you are simply propagating a lie.) You state, “Muslims are not here to CONVINCE you of anything. We do not go around proselytizing and forcing people to “believe” in a certain “god” to get food, clothing or shelter.Islam’s goal is to make every nation and people-group follow the faith. Though some people take exception with this claim, it’s easy to verify and follows from the exclusivist nature of Islam. First, standard Muslim authorities affirm this teaching. Muslims are commanded to promote Islam until all people acknowledge Allah and believe Mohammed is his prophet. This is taught in the Qur’an (surah 8:39), by Mohammed, and by Hadith literature (authoritative Islamic traditions). It’s also affirmed by competing Muslim sects like the Sunnis and Shi’ites, ancient Muslims, modern Muslims, and by virtually every theological camp in Islam. Second, it’s the logical conclusion of a central Muslim truth claim: Islam is the only true religion. Every contrary belief is false. Since Muslims believe this, it makes sense to take this message to anyone whose eternal destiny is at stake. In their attempt to neutralize Christianity– the religion of 85% of Americans– Muslims utilize three specific attacks: They argue the Bible is corrupt, the Trinity is false, and Jesus’ divinity is blasphemy.So where do you get it that Islam is not trying to convince anybody of anything?Am I a hater or Islamophobe for even mentioning this? Perhaps that is indeed your definition.You say, “Let’s talk. Rationally. With respect and an open heart to the truth.”I am waiting.

  • ZenLover

    I have not read the book, not planning to, either. I was wondering why there were no riots in India and Pakistan over this book. Now, I can see why. This is a Sufi/New Age twist to the narrative. When i first heard about this book, my thoughts were, this was going to unleash another set of communal violence in India/Pakistan. When the Salman Rushdie book (Satanic Verses) came out, there was mayhem in India. I wonder why people feel the urge to kill or be killed when someone writes or says something or threatens to burn a book. I wonder if there are there directives in any religion that doing this will get you to heaven?

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