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Orientalist Approach towards the Prophet’s Biography

Abdul Majid Daryabadi [1]

Translated by Waqar Akbar Cheema

Translator’s note:

Though this article was written decades ago it is equally relevant today. The problems that the writings of Carlyle’s ilk can potentially pose are there in the writings of contemporary orientalists like Karen Armstrong and Lesley Hazleton as well. It is hoped that this article will expose to the Muslims the fundamental problems with the writings of the orientalists and the kind of subconscious impressions they can leave on the minds of Muslims not fully aware of the reality of the Orientalist school of thought and its considerations and limitations in an age of widespread, though blatantly mistaken, notions of West’s intellectual superiority.

George Finlay was a prominent British orientalist in the middle of the nineteenth century. He studied at University of Göttingen, Germany completing his M.A. and L.L.B. there. His special interest was the history of Greece. Between 1826 and 1864 he produced a number of works on the history of Greece. In 1844 he published his book ‘Greece under the Romans’ which was for long considered an authoritative reference on the subject. The advent of Islam coincides with the period covered in this work. During the time of the Prophet (ﷺ) Greece was a province of the Roman Empire. Early encounters between Companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) and the Romans happened in Greece, therefore the book mentions Islam and first Muslims.

The author had no particular bias and the book was not written as a polemic against Islam but nevertheless it is work of an orientalist. The forthcoming will show how even the unbiased orientalists presented the facts on Islam in mutilated form and subjected the life of the Prophet (ﷺ) to insinuations, albeit in an indirect way.

That few odd individuals had given up idolatry in favor of monotheism before the advent of the Prophet (ﷺ), the author portrays it as if there was a widespread yearning for change and reform in Arabia already. He writes:

It may be remarked that the Arabs had been gradually advancing in moral and political civilisation during the sixth century, and that their religious ideas had undergone a very great change. The decline of their powerful neighbours had allowed them to increase the importance of the commerce which they retained in their own hands, and its extension gave them more enlarged views of their own importance, and suggested ideas of national unity which they had not previously entertained. These causes had produced powerful effects on the whole of the Arab population during the century which preceded the accession of Heraclius ; and it must not be overlooked that Mahomet himself was born during the reign of Justin II., and that he was educated under the influence of this national excitement.[2]

There can be no greater manifestation of frustration. The author knows the miraculous achievement of the Prophet (ﷺ) and he is wondering how to tone it down. He is confused whether to portray the Prophet’s mission as of religious nature or to present it in merely political terms. He ends up writing what suggests that the Prophet’s mission was originally political in nature namely; to unite the Arabian tribes and to form a national alliance. One can only marvel at such a presentation.

If the objective was just political one wonders what then was the need to come so hard at the cult of idolatry, fight wars to destroy it, present a specific set of beliefs and to determine a new code for worship? Moreover, as a ‘bona fide’ historian, Finlay should have given us at least a few names of the proponents of the political movement for national unity that he suggests had already started in Arabia before the rise of Islam.

If the author meant to say that the movement was religious but its foundations had been laid already even then it would have been great if he could a name a few of those early religious reformers. Perhaps it could then be estimated as to how much the ground had been prepared and to what extent Islam contributed to it. Ibn Hisham etc. could manage to give us the names of four people who had become fed up of the paganism and idolatry and were roaming from to place in search of the true faith of Abraham. Two of them eventually became Christians[3]. One of them kept changing to different religions[4] till his end and only one of them remained firm on the monotheistic creed.[5]

Is this called the preparation of the ground? Which nation or age has not seen such few odd sensible people?

It needs to be seen if the Arabs at large had been receptive to the influence of these odd individuals, or that of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion? Non-affirmative answer to this has been given not only by Muslim historians, even orientalist Muir has said the same. He states:

During the youth of Mohammad, the aspect of the Peninsula was strongly conservative; perhaps never at any previous time was reform more hopeless. Causes are sometimes conjured up to account for results produced by an agent apparently inadequate to effect [sic] them. Mohammad arose, and forthwith the Arabs were aroused to a new and a spiritual faith; hence the conclusion that Arabia was fermenting for the change, and prepared to adopt it. To us, calmly reviewing the past, pre-Islamite history belies the assumption.[6]

Defeat of Heraclius at the hands of the Muslim army is one of the most wonderful events of history. On one side were every kind of logistics, generations of military experience, wealth, and knowledge of the warfare, great army and large quantity of ammunition. On the other side there were a small number with meagre resources of weapons, virtually no knowledge of arts and sciences and sheer dearth of logistics. Yet victory and a manifest victory embraces this second group. The author mentions this in the following words;

While Heraclius was endeavouring to restore the strength of the empire in the East, and enforce unity of religious views, the pursuit of which has ever been one of the greatest errors of the human mind,—Mahomet [sic], by a juster [sic] application of the aspiration of mankind after unity, had succeeded in uniting Arabia into one state, and in persuading it to adopt one religion.[7]

Amazing! When Heraclius who held the crown of a great empire, belonged to a centuries old dynasty, had hoards of wealth, and was surrounded by experts of different fields fails in his efforts it is termed as ‘one of the greatest errors of the human mind.’ But when an illiterate from the wilderness of Arabia, far removed from the centers of civilization and sophistication, impoverished and destitute within a span of few years changes the destiny of nations and revolutionizes not just their beliefs but also their practices no superhuman force is seen behind it, no signs of revelation are traced. Instead, it is naively suggested that he was able to do it simply with ‘a juster application of the aspiration of mankind after unity.’ Is this objective historiography and enlightened scholarship?

These quotes are a good sample of West’s mastery of insinuations about Islam and its Prophet. The author is not a priest or a Christian missionary. He is a historian known for his knowledge. The subject of his work is not polemics on Islam rather it is history of Greece. Islam and its Prophet (ﷺ) are mentioned only as a side-note. Reader passes over the passage without any prior thoughts about the author and finds a mention of the Prophet (ﷺ) of Islam. The mention is without any apparent fault-finding and ridicule rather it has admiration for his achievements. But it presents him not as a true Prophet (ﷺ) or recipient of the divine revelation, not even as holy figure or saint but only as an intelligent and successful leader. Praise for his prophetic achievements is concluded by saying that he made a better judgment of human aspirations. An ordinary gullible Muslim who has already given in to the notions of author’s objective, non-partisan scholarly approach falls for the author’s bid to affect him the way he wants to. Unwittingly, he contents at considering the Prophet (ﷺ) merely as a victor and a statesman. The polemic attacks of a Christian missionaries and a priest are at least blunt and head on, the strikes of an orientalist ‘scholar’ are always covert and catching one unaware he stabs in the back.

Victories in the battlefields are eternal miracles of the Prophet (ﷺ) and an evidence unto the disbelievers. The disbelievers used to ask for evident distinguishing sign (furqan). The evident sign came in the empirical form through victories in the battlefield. Even the most stubborn disbeliever cannot deny these glaring victories. However, the modern day disbeliever despite accepting them tries hard to see them in a different way. Heretic of the old used to dub the miracles as sorcery, modern day disbeliever basks on some innovative terms and tries to feed them to his intellect. Introducing the era of Islamic conquests Finlay states;

Strange as were the vicissitudes in the fortunes of the Persian and Roman empires during the reigns of Chosroes and Heraclius, every event in their records sinks into comparative insignificance, from the mighty influence which their contemporary Mahomet, the Prophet (ﷺ) of Arabia, soon began to exercise on the political, moral, and religious condition of the countries whose possession these sovereigns had so eagerly disputed.[8]

In other words, the miraculous achievements of the Prophet (ﷺ) are acknowledged, it is also accepted that the revolution he set up in no time had no parallel in the mighty empires of Persia and Rome but – and this is the root of all trouble- it is not recognized that all this was due to the merit of his claim to the office of prophethood rather, the suggestion is, it was merely for his ingenuity and intelligence. Finlay writes;

The success of Mahomet as a law giver, among the most ancient nations of Asia, and the stability of his institutions during a long series of generations, and in every condition of social polity, prove that this extraordinary man was formed by a rare combination of the qualities both of a Lycurgus and an Alexander.[9]

It is thus acknowledged that the Prophet (ﷺ) personality was, in ways, superhuman. It is also recognized that that his reforms were wonderful but there is no chance of accepting that he was true in his claims. However, the sole secret of his achievements was, it is suggested, the combination of rare qualities of great conquerors and law-givers. Traditions tells us when Abu Jahl was humbled by miracles and material signs he used to seek refuge from his frustration by saying, ‘this is man is a sorcerer.’ How different is the rejection of prophecy by our days’ ‘enlightened’ from the mentality of Abu Jahl?

Which military general of the world made such great conquests with so meager resources at his disposal? Did Alexander, Napoleon or Genghis do it? Which general had the army displaying such morals as the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) did? Which conqueror commanded over such righteous and noble men? Which army fought multiple times larger armies fasting during the day-time and praying at night only to seek Allah’s pleasure? Who was the legislator to formulate laws with universal application and due consideration of human needs? Who was the law-giver to uphold the ideals of truth and justice, chastity and nobility, and self-purification above all ad hoc preferences and temporary benefits? Did the author not feel any shame in counting such a noble character among the conquerors and legislators of the world? If this is research and objectivity then wonder what ignorance would be.

Moving on he again acknowledges the greatness of the Prophet’s person and his feats but as if mindful of not affirming to prophethood he further states;

The circumstances of the age in which Mahomet lived, were indeed favourable to his career; they formed the mind of this wonderful man, who has left their impress, as well as that of his own character, on succeeding generations. He was born at a period of visible intellectual decline amongst the aristocratic and governing classes throughout the civilised world. Aspirations after something better than the then social condition of the bulk of mankind, had rendered the inhabitants of almost every country dissatisfied with the existing order of things. A better religion than the paganism of the Arabs was felt to be necessary in Arabia; and, at the same time, even the people of Persia, Syria, and Egypt, required something more satisfactory to their religious feelings than the disputed doctrines which the Magi, Jews, and Christians inculcated as the most important features of their respective religions, merely because they presented the points of greatest dissimilarity.[10]

So, everyone was looking for a “better religion” yet when that “better religion” was presented the whole of Arabia gathered to resist and fight it and everyone turned an enemy to its Prophet. Is this a proof of “aspiration”? Is the said “aspiration” proven by years of bloody conflict and all-out war against the Prophet (ﷺ) of this religion? If Arabia and its environs were really so yearning for a new religion why then they did not readily accept the message? Why did not there rise at least a sizeable group responding positively to his call?[11] Even otherwise, if merely a new call could guarantee success why then Musaylama and Aswad al-Ansi who claimed prophethood in the same years not succeed?

Dr. Finlay could not have been unaware of this evident objection. Perhaps his conscious felt the guilt but the response he gave is even more ironic. He says;

The excitement in the public mind of Arabia, which produced the mission of Mahomet, induced many other prophets to make their appearance during his lifetime. His superior talents, and his clearer perception of justice, and, we may say, truth, destroyed all their schemes.[12]

In a nutshell, all of the Prophet’s qualities shall be acknowledged, his ability, wisdom, foresightedness, personal uprightness, honesty et al. However, what shall not be referred to in any way is that this truthful and able person was true also in his claim to prophethood. And every effort is made to ensure that reader does not give a thought to this belief.

Thomas Carlyle was a man of letters not a historian. He was one of the most well-known writers of the nineteenth century. In 1841 he published his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. In its various chapters famous people from different fields have been presented as heroes; Shakespeare and Dante from among the poets, Cromwell and Napoleon among the leaders, and likewise, and review of their lives has been presented. One of the chapters is about the Holy Prophet. He is termed as a hero among the prophets and in this backdrop comments are made about his life and Islam.

Evangelic priests have used such a language about the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) that they no more make any mark even in Europe. At least no Muslim would take any effect from their works. Besides these priests, the other orientalist writers are of two types. Firstly there are such who openly call the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) an imposter and make all kinds of allegations against him. Second category is of the writers who appear as harbingers of tolerance, justice, and objectivity and they rather highlight the ‘bright aspects’ of the Prophet’s life-history. Carlyle belongs to this second category. Characteristic style of these writers is; People have defamed such a great personality of the world, it is now the time to remove such notions. We must redress our injustices. Muhammad, the Arabian reformer and the great hero from the East does not deserve the accusations made against him. He was neither a thief, nor deceitful or licentious. He was a great and successful reformer of his age. He changed the destiny of Arabia. He was sincere and truthful. Millions of people hold him in reverence, we must also honor him.

The poor, simple young student and a weak Muslim mostly falls for such a style. He begins to trust the intention and objectivity of the author and starts to mold his thoughts according. And by the time he finishes reading the book in most cases the mental picture of the Prophet (ﷺ) he draws is not of a true Prophet (ﷺ) of Allah or His Messenger to the entire mankind rather only that of a sincere and noble reformer. Carlyle’s essay has this characteristic. The author[13] of this paper has himself experienced this in his college days. The ill-beliefs he developed were not due to some blunt critic of Islam rather it was due to the writings such friend like foes. To conceptualize about the Prophet (ﷺ) in this way is akin to terming the governor of the state as more powerful than a low level administrative staff or a peon. Is this display of respect towards the governor or a ridicule?

Towards the end of his essay Carlyle passionately states;

To the Arab Nation it was as a birth from darkness into light; Arabia first became alive by means of it. A poor shepherd people, roaming unnoticed in its deserts since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was sent down to them with a word they could believe: see, the unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has grown world-great; within one century afterwards, Arabia is at Grenada on this hand, at Delhi on that;[14]

The pagans of Arabia sought after material signs only. They always asked for ‘tangible’ miracles. Same mentality prevails in the West. Their best minds and intellectuals cannot go beyond recognizing that an illiterate united the whole country, defeated empires of the world and who performed such material and tangible feats. If he is not to be accepted as a statesman and great intellectual what else is to be done then? Gist of the above quote from Carlyle is that the Prophet (ﷺ) actualized a great revolution in Arabia. When an unknowing, and unwitty Muslim youth rattled by Carlyle’s fame reads this paragraph he praises Carlyle’s enlightened and just nature. Moreover, his conception of the Prophet’s greatness gets capped as that of great reformer who brought the Arabs out of the veils of ignorance and made turned them into world leaders. From beginning of the essay to the end Islam is the ‘religion of Muhammad’. As if a brainchild of the Prophet (ﷺ) it has nothing to with divine revelation.

See a few selected examples of what he wrote in favor of the Prophet;

But of a Great Man especially, of him I will venture to assert that it is incredible he should have been other than true. It seems to me the primary foundation of him, and of all that can lie in him, this. No Mirabeau, Napoleon, Burns, Cromwell, no man adequate to do anything, but is first of all in right earnest about it; what I call a sincere man. I should say sincerity, a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.[15]

So you see the reality of Prophet’s sincerity and truth? It’s not that he was true in his claim to prophethood, in fact just like Napoleon and Cromwell etc. were true and committed to their ventures, the Prophet’s intent was likewise free of deceit and falsehood. He faithfully did what he felt like and what he believed at heart. His word and his heart were not averse to each other.

This Mahomet, then, we will in no wise consider as an Inanity and Theatricality, a poor conscious ambitious schemer; we cannot conceive him so. The rude message he delivered was a real one withal; an earnest confused voice from the unknown Deep … Neither can the faults, imperfections, insincerities even, of Mahomet, if such were never so well proved against him, shake this primary fact about him.[16]

Carlyle’s sympathy for Islam is now evident to you? This was still not his best. The real specimens of the filth he uttered are yet to come. It is not to say that he meant to misguide Muslims. Perhaps he never thought his book will be read by Muslims. The question is not of his intentions rather it’s about the effects his writings have. Whatever his intention may be; even if it was genuinely to remove blame from the Prophet (ﷺ), whatever may be the case, the fact is his writings dim the grandeur and greatness of prophethood from one’s heart. His reader goes farther from believing in prophecy. The large number of youth who are becoming averse to religion today, their journey starts from the writings of such authors.

After leaving the impression of his sympathy for Islam, this is what he says about the word of Allah- Qur’an;

A wearisome confused, jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.[17]

This is the opinion of one of the intellectuals from the intellectuals of Europe about your holy Book which has remained and will continue to remain unmatched by any other scripture in its spiritual, literal and ethical content. How did he develop this opinion? Not after reading the Qur’an but after reading its English translation done by a priest. Further, it is not a direct translation even, it is English rendering of a Latin translation. It is, however, not clear if the Latin translation was direct or if it was in turn based on some other translation. This is the wisdom and objectivity of the Western intellectuals. They base such firm opinions on second hand indirect translations and that too done by those adverse to Islam and yet they so adamantly propagate their views. Justice demanded laying to rest any suggestion of Carlyle’s wisdom, fairness and mental stability after reading such an irresponsible opinion. But with rattled and borrowed mind Muslim youth thinks to himself that such a great thinker and well established scholar’s opinion must have some basis at least- and this is the real strife (fitna) of Westernized education, Western culture and West’s overlordship.

Such light had come, as it could, to illuminate the darkness of this wild Arab soul. A confused dazzling splendor as of life and Heaven, in the great darkness which threatened to be death: he called it revelation and the angel Gabriel;—who of us yet can know what to call it?[18]

In other words, a reformer found an illumination on his heart and he decided to call it ‘revelation’ and named the angel Gabriel. There is no direct charge of being an imposter rather there is acknowledgement of his sincerity and good faith but implicitly the refutation of Prophet’s claim is all over.

The blasphemous and evil comments he made about Qur’an are not required to be reproduced here. What has been shown as a sample is enough. Since they are already convinced of and rattled by the names of Western authors our youth take effect of their ‘profound research.’ They do not even consider the possibility of these writers going wrong. Instead this is how the thoughts shape up: ‘When such impartial and objective writers despite their sympathetic approach towards Islam reach these conclusions there must be some truth to it. It seems the ideas and stories we have heard from our family and society till now are actually fairy tales. There must be some serious issues and evident problems with the Qur’an that such an intelligent mind did not miss them and had to recognize the truth.’

This is how Western writers likes Carlyle and Gibbon are far more dangerous than open polemicists like Rajpal[19]. Seeing the vulgarities of Rajpal etc. a namesake Muslim will also boil in rage and he will get ready to defend his faith. But once a person reads Carlyle etc. considering them impartial the defense mechanism is not activated and a sudden covert attack on the belief system takes the faith away. If someone attacks with a naked sword one can easily draw his own sword to fight back but who can defend himself against a ‘friend’ who presents a poisoned drink?

— This article also appeared in Monthly Al-Balagh, Karachi (December, 2015) 15-26


Daryabadi in his autobiography states how he was, in his youth, lead to heresy;

A priest, a follower of Arya Samaj (a Hindu extremist movement), or any open adversary of Islam had no sway over me as such. If I was affected, then it was by the more insidious and hidden adversaries; their knowledge and intellectual endowment, their immaculate research and scrutiny, with claims of impartiality and objectivity on their tongues. But, wittingly or unwittingly within they continued to inject this slow poison [of doubt]. And, a simple and nubile reader, without his defences on alert continued to be engulfed by their writings and thought. My mind was already completely enamoured by the greatness and reverence of knowledge of intellectuals and grey-beards of the West. And, their every word, every utterance beyond reproach and above doubt.[20]

References & Notes:

[1] This paper “Seerat-i-Nabawi aur Ulema-i-Farang” is taken from a collection of Daryabadi’s articles about the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) titled, “Sultan-i-Maa Muhammad” (Lahore: Dar al-Tazkir, 2006) 85-101
[2] Finlay, George, Greece under the Romans, (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1857) 397
[3] They were Waraqa bin Nawfal and ‘Uthman bin al-Huwayrith
[4] He was ‘Úbaydullah bin Jahsh who first shunned idolatry, then became a Muslim then turned apostate and died as a Christian in Abyssinia
[5] He was Zayd bin ‘Amr bin Nufayl. He died before the Prophet (ﷺ) proclaimed the message.
[6] Muir, William, The Life of Mohammad, (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1923) xcvii
[7] Finlay, George, Greece under the Romans, 423
[8] ibid., 436
[9] ibid., 436-437
[10] ibid., 437-438
[11] Karen Armstrong repeats the same flawed assertion refuted by Daryabadi. In her work, Islam: A Short History; she writes, “There was also spiritual restlessness in Mecca and throughout the peninsula.” (p.3) and “but there was a growing tendency to worship only one God” (p.7)
[12] Finlay, George, Greece under the Romans, 438
[13] Refers to the author; Abdul Majid Daryabadi. See a quote from his autobiography, ‘Aap Beeti’ in the addendum.
[14] Carlyle, Thomas, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, 75
[15] ibid., 44
[16] ibid., 45
[17] ibid., 63
[18] ibid., 56
[19] Mahashay Rajpal was a Hindu publisher who published a blasphemous book about the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) in 1927. He was eventually slain by Ghazi Ilm-ud-Din Shaheed.
[20] Daryabadi, Abdul Majid, Aap Beeti, (Karachi: Majlis Nashriyat Islam, 1996) 243

Published : July 16, 2014                 Last modified : December 24th, 2015

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