It was befitting that I began reading Deepak Chopra's fictionalized account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad after dawn prayer during the last precious days of Ramadan. Starting with the Author's Note, I was 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 as 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 deals with the issues toward which he may feel ambivalence, most notably the call for jihad and the execution of the men found guilty of conspiracy and treason among Banu Quraidha. He reports and allows each side a chance to be heard, silently allowing their voice, not his judgment, to speak. The stories of the Most Beloved are riveting, capturing his many dimensions: the orphaned child, the young businessman, 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 captures the Messenger's sweetness and his strength. I love the Prophet with all my soul, and I saw a glimpse of his beauty in Chopra's writing. Among the most striking themes of the book is 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 appreciated that Chopra allows 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 therefore 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 is editorial license and creativity, and while many of the words and events have been recorded in authentic sources, many have not.
If I could suggest one change, it would be the timeline. Chopra's portrayal of the trial and execution of the Jewish tribe is fair, allowing both those who hated and those who loved Muhammad to describe it. However, by calling it a "massacre" in the timeline, he seems to depart from his consistent methodology of presenting and not prejudging. Whether the event is a massacre 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, for offenses that those punished did not deny. At least one of the Banu Quraidha came to the Prophet and said that he did not directly engage in the conspiracy with his brothers, and he was pardoned and lived the rest of his days as a Jew in Medina. It was not ethnic persecution but a punishment for a crime. Calling it an "execution," which is factually what it was, would be more consistent. Also, the timeline implies that all the Jews were driven out of Medina, which is also not true. There is a well documented case in which Omar, as Caliph, had a dispute with a Jew and Ali, the grand Jurist at the time, judged in the Jew's favor.
Finally, I admire the way stories are told to be true to the self-understanding of those who tell them. The one exception is the story of Haggar. Chopra seems to have formed a hybrid between the Muslim and Jewish versions of the story. 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, Ibraheem (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.
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