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A Modern Arabic Biography of Muhammad: A Critical Study of Muhammad Husayn Haykal's Hayat Muhammad

by Antonie Wessels

Review Author: Robert B. Campbell S.J.

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 95, No. 2. (Apr. - Jun., 1975), pp. 303-305.

To write a history of the life of Muhammad poses problems for the modern Muslim, as a history of Jesus does for Christians. It is not easy to remain faithful both to objective history and the demands of faith. Moreover, for the Muslim today there exists an additional tension. His growing respect for western science and objectivity is accompanied by his rejection of western cultural imperialism (al-isli'mar ai-ikaqti.fi) and an effort to identify even more closely than ever before with the cultural tradition and heritage of the Islamic East. The first serious effort by a modern Arab Muslim to achieve an acceptable balance between these two compelling attractions was Haykal's Hayat Muhammad.

For a Muslim audience at least, that effort seems to have met with considerable success, if one can judge by the book's popularity. The ten editions to date total nearly 100,000 copies and represent a record for publications of this kind in the Arab world. Moreover, Haykal's book is still used as a text in Egyptian public schools, and the Muslim Hollywood producer, Mustafa al-'Aqqad, has used it as the historical outline of his three-hour multi-million dollar epic film on the life and teaching of Muhammad.

For the western reader, however, more interest lies in knowing the degree of success Haykal achieved in applying what he calls the "new scientific method" to the study of Muhammad's life. We are, then, indebted to Antonie Wessels for giving us a detailed analysis of Haykal's work and a careful critique of Haykal's applica­tion of the new scientific method.

In Hayat Muhammad, Haykal had the double aim of refuting western attacks on the Prophet and of providing the modern Muslim with an account that would both satisfy his intellect and strengthen his Islamic faith. In an article written three years before the book, he had stated;

Whoever studies honestly and without prejudice the history of Muhammad and his preaching and the cul­ture which is built on this foundation will finally come to the conclusion that Muhammad was the great­est man that history has known. The new scientific method must be used to parry missionary attacks (as quoted by Wessels, p. 47).

Wessels sets out to demonstrate how well Haykal has researched his subject "honestly and -without prejudice," according to the "new scientific method." The three principle chapters focus on Haykal's response to western attacks against the prophet of Islam in regard to his integrity, his marriages, and his use of violence. One gets the flavor of Haykal's style as well as the substance of his arguments since the first part of each of these three chapters consists almost entirely of lengthy excerpts from Haykal in Wessels' translation. Each of these chapters concludes with Wessels' discussion of the arguments Haykal presents.

The final chapter summarizes the material, presents the final critique of Haykal's method and use of sources, and gives the evaluation of the work as a whole. Wessels offers four principal criticisms: 1) Haykal has manipulated his source material, both the classical Arab sources and the work of western orientalists, often omitting texts "that might be derogatory of Muhammad or in conflict with the image which Haykal wishes to present" (p. 200); 2) Haykal claimed to have consulted a variety of sources, whereas an analysis of his presentation makes it clear that he has relied on very few; 3) Haykal has confronted the negative aspects of Christian history with the positive aspects of Islamic ideals; 4) Haykal applied the historical-critical method in a limited number of cases only. This criticism, however is softened by Wessels' keeping before the reader's attention the fact that Haykal's self-appointed task "to maintain himself on two fronts, over against the orientalists on the one hand and the all too rigid ap­proach of the Muslims on the other" (pp. 238-39) was a difficult task indeed, and that Haykal himself saw his work as only a beginning in the new scientific approach to Muslim history.

The brief but useful survey in the introduction of other modern Arab efforts to present to Muslims the life of Muhammad also enables the reader to evaluate more clearly Haykal's contribution. Wessels presents summaries of the biographies of Taha Piusayn Tawfiq al-Haklm, 'Abbas Mahmud al-'Aqqad, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Shar-qawl, and Najib Mahfuz and points out their individual approach to the subject. The first chapter is devoted to a brief biography of Haykal, the background of his writing the Hayat, and the climate in which it came to be. One would have liked to see added to this a more detailed analysis of Haykal's concept of science and the scientific method and how he conceived its role, other than the all too brief comments on pp. 92 and 217. Haykal's preface to the second edition is informative in this regard.

There remains but to signalize what may be the most important contribution of a work like Wessels' in focusing the attention of western readers on the values the modern Muslim finds in his tradition and which he proposes as essential for the peace and progress of the modern world. The fact that Haykal, with many other modern Muslims, find reflected in Islam and the life of their prophet certain values that also rank high in the universal and current conscience of man is more, significant for our understanding of contemporary  Islam than whether or not these values were actually present as such in the primitive tradition. Still another factor heightens how important it is for the West to be aware of Muslim values as expressed by Haykal and others. In the current world energy crisis and partially as a result of the latest round in the struggle with Israel, the Arabs have become aware of themselves as a world power. However fragile or chimerical their position may turn out to be in the realm of fact, there has already taken place a significant psycho­logical change. The Arab media now speak constantly of the; "new Arab man." Myths about themselves: their powerlessness before western imperialism, their incapacity to enter the technological age, their lack of will and constancy, the failure to achieve Arab unity-these myths have all been destroyed. Unquestionably, many Arabs will put upon this new phase a religious interpreta­tion, and what some writers in the 50's confidently pre­dicted as the return of the cyclical movement of history into the hands of the Muslim East will seem to many Arabs to have been confirmed by recent events.

But the question remains whether this "new Arab man" will act responsibly toward the world, or will he proceed to exploit it for his own selfish ends? It is essential for the West to understand that there are many Muslims moved by the higher values which they find in Islam and exemplified in its prophet: a preference for peace, for universal brotherhood, a mandate to develop world resources for the benefit of all men, an emphasis on the humane without neglecting technology and ef­ficiency. A work like Wessels' should encourage us to be open to his "new Arab world" and not to recoil from it in suspicion and mistrust. At this point in history, the fate of mankind seems to hinge on whether all men, both East and West, can make those values, which are sincerely expressed by Haykal and others, prevail.

 

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