Winged Words: Maxime Rodinson on the Prophet Mohammad
The most stimulating, balanced and sympathetic secular biography of the Prophet of Islam was written by a left-wing French Jewish intellectual in 1961. Maxime Rodinson’s Life of Muhammad was a formative influence on my generation. It seemed to be the first real attempt to come to terms with a culture that could not be understood through sacred texts or works of exegesis alone. Rodinson’s intellectual trajectory was indelibly linked to his personal and political biography. His parents, like many other Russian Jews, had fled the tsarist pogroms of the late 19th century, ending up in Marseille, where his father worked in the clothing trade. Maxime, who was born in 1915, left school at the age of twelve to work as an errand boy. His parents had backed the Russian Revolution, and in its wake joined the French Communist Party. But their refuge in France was short-lived. They were dispatched to Auschwitz by Hitler’s French auxiliaries. It’s worth recalling that the herding up and dispersal of French Jews was at least in part a Vichy initiative. It’s a sordid history that the Gaullists and their successors (of most political persuasions) effectively covered up for decades. The reintegrated fascists played a horrific role during the Algerian war in both colony and metropolis.
Rodinson was luckier than his parents. Despite his lack of formal educational qualifications, in 1932 he passed the entrance exam for the School of Oriental Languages in Paris, where he specialised in Arabic, Turkish and Amharic. His linguistic abilities saved his life. During the war he was taken on as a military interpreter and later worked at the Institut Français in Damascus and then the Department of Antiquities in Lebanon, returning to France only in 1947. As well as helping him escape the extermination camps, this accident of location enabled a deep study of Islamic culture, its history and origins. Back in Paris he took charge of the Muslim section of the Bibliothèque Nationale and then taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. He left the PCF after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising by Soviet tanks in 1956, but remained an independent-minded Marxist for the rest of his life.
By Maxime Rodinson( translated by Anne Carter)
New York Review Books Classics; 432 pages
March 2, 2021
Rodinson was never a Zionist. His views on Israel, already critical after Israel ganged up with France and Britain to topple Nasser, hardened further after the Six-Day War in 1967. Sartre’s magazine, Les Temps modernes, devoted a special issue to the Israeli-Arab conflict on the eve of the war, with contributions from Israeli and Arab writers separated so as not to appear in dialogue. Rodinson was the only contributor awarded space of his own. He had no doubts about the nature of Israel as a settler-colonial enterprise, but argued that its existence was a historical fact that had to be recognised. His sympathies always lay with the Palestinians. To them he would explain the sui generis character of Israeli colonisation. The Jews were not colons in the French Algerian mould. They had nowhere to go back to. They had been gassed and burned out by Hitler; the US and Britain had limited the number of Jewish refugees they would accept. The Jews would resist being driven into the sea. He told the Israelis that they should cultivate the friendship of nationalist Arab states (Nasser proposed this to Moshe Sharett, only to be rejected by Ben Gurion and Golda Meir). Israel did exactly the opposite, choosing to become the principal relay of Western imperialism in the region. None of this affected Rodinson’s attitude to Islam and its history. His breach with the dominant Christian narrative was permanent. He died in 2004. Three years earlier, in an interview with Le Figaro published as an appendix to this new edition of Muhammad, he argued that violence wasn’t any more intrinsic to Islam than it was to other religions.
Rodinson’s biography, which he revised more than once, first appeared in 1961, when very little writing of any value on Islam was available in the West. In Emmanuel Macron’s debased language, this makes Rodinson a premature ‘Islamo-gauchiste’. Recounting the story of Muhammad’s life wasn’t an easy task. For one thing, unlike the compendium known as the Old Testament, there is very little biography or history in the Quran. The first hundred years of Islam produced military histories of its conquests, synthesised later by the historian Tabari (whose account of the conquest of Iran and the ease with which the population embraced Islam is still worth a read), but not much else. Some early texts conveniently disappeared as evidence of internecine conflicts and rival interpretations was hidden. Finally, the dominant Sunni faction managed to agree on an acceptable version of the Quran and the basic outlines of the Prophet’s life. Rival accounts were suppressed and the first armed bands in the movement began to spread the winning version of events. What possessed Maxime Rodinson, a materialist to the core, to write a biography when only such limited and contradictory material was available?
‘I have tried to show how his character and his ideas were formed,’ he wrote.
I have sought to understand how his personal traits, growing out of his psychological structure and personal history, had prepared him to receive a special Message which he believed to come from the Hereafter, and to comprehend how and why this Message was consonant enough with the needs of his milieu to be received with enthusiasm, first by a small group, then by all of Arabia and beyond. I have attempted to understand, and to make understandable, how and why this mystic, intoxicated with the Divine, was able to become a head of state, a military commander and an ideological leader.
Rodinson believed that hostility to Muhammad and to Islam itself was a result of the instrumentalisation of Christian and imperialist war aims from the eighth century onwards. A 19th-century example of this type of ‘scholarship’ was Sir William Muir’s The Life of Muhammad from Original Sources, first published in 1861, soon after the British brutally suppressed the Great Uprising of 1857 in India, particularly targeting the Muslims among its leaders. The nominal leader of the revolt, the last Mughal emperor, was exiled to Burma, and some of his sons were executed. ‘The sword of Muhammad and the Koran are the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty and Truth which the world has yet known,’ Muir wrote, a sentiment still shared by many Western politicians. In his interview with Le Figaro, conducted two weeks after 9/11, Rodinson remarked that ‘the temptation may be strong to equate [Islam] to a kind of barbarism. This must obviously be resisted, for Islam is also the winged words of the great Muslim thinkers.’
Rodinson begins by describing the world into which Muhammad was born. Rome besieged by barbarians; Constantinople giving an impression of serenity and solidity, its confident and complacent rulers gazing on the Golden Horn, unaware of the rumblings in their lands; further east, the rulers of Persia failing to recognise that their kingdom was in terminal decline. Islam was, Rodinson explains, the last of the three monotheistic religions, after Judaism and Christianity, that met the social and economic needs of semi-nomadic trading communities in the Arab East. Early Christianity worked away patiently at the Roman Empire, with martyrdom helping to diffuse its ideas. The Trinitarians laid the foundations for a serious challenge to paganism and Constantine’s conversion did the rest. Christianity was the main political, economic and religious rival that confronted the fledgling faith being created in Yathrib (Medina). The concurrent implosion of two huge empires, Byzantine and Persian, made the task of the new religion easier. Islamic armies swept into these collapsing worlds at astonishing speed and within a hundred years of the Prophet’s death in 632, Islam had extended itself through force of arms to the Atlantic coast – the al-gharb or Algarve – in the west, while its traders had reached Khanfu (Canton) in the east.
In the absence of much worthwhile Western scholarship, Rodinson’s analytical and rationalist biography had to rely on previous works in Arabic, including the Quran and the often unreliable hadith, compilations of the sayings and actions of the Prophet. Some of these texts are still disputed: each faction or sect picks and chooses what it needs. The first biography was composed by Ibn Ishaq several generations after the Prophet’s death. Though the manuscript was carefully edited some decades later – episodes that did not tally with the needs of the day were neatly removed – it remained a useful reference for those who came later. The story it tells is simple: an orphan boy from the powerful Quraish tribe in Mecca was adopted by his uncle. Each member of the tribe in theory had the same rights and a share in the common property. In practice it didn’t work out like that, and because of their hidden wealth and military prowess the elected tribal elders became an elite. In a culture where the lineages of horses, even, were carefully recorded and the most prized animals prevented from mating with others of inferior pedigree, Muhammad’s orphan status – his disrupted lineage – was frowned on. He found work in a local trading outfit run by a woman called Khadija, who took him as her husband. Her financial, political and emotional support played a huge role in his development before his visions, as Rodinson calls them, began.
Muhammad never claimed to be anything other than a human being: he was a Messenger of God, not the son of Allah, and not in direct communication with him. The visions were mainly aural: the Prophet heard the voice of Gabriel, who dictated the Quran on behalf of Allah. In a largely illiterate world, in which storytelling was rife and memories strong, history was transmitted orally. Muhammad was not the only travelling preacher at the time; his message caught on because the nomadic communities found it plausible. Sometimes he stated that on a particular matter (usually related to sexuality) he had asked Gabriel for advice and obtained his approval. Khadija became his first follower. Breaking with his tribe, which then subjected him to the most vicious slanders, pushed Muhammad to create a new movement. He came to realise that tribal divisions were exacerbated by the plethora of local gods and goddesses, with each tribe worshipping its own favourites. Monotheism was the solution. He chose Allah, one of the Arab gods, to be the sole divinity at the expense of other deities, including the extremely popular women goddesses, who are honoured in an earlier version of the Quran, but were dispensed with later when the tribes that worshipped them converted to Islam. A rigorous monotheism prevailed thereafter.
Hounded out of Mecca by enemies including the leaders of his own tribe, the new Prophet and his handful of followers migrated to Yathrib (Medina). It was in Medina that a growing movement armed itself spiritually, with a first draft of the scriptures (more or less) completed, and militarily, securing the allegiance of rival tribes. Both the faith and its armies found new recruits. They moved rapidly to take advantage of the weaknesses of Eastern Christendom and the movement was soon in control of Mesopotamia, Syria and then Persia.
Muhammad’s death in 632 led to a factional war. He had made clear that his followers should never present him as anything other than a human being blessed by Allah. He was a simple messenger, not a maker of miracles. He did not choose a successor, and disputes over who should become caliph were the origin of the split between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. War erupted within the faith when the Umayyads, the peninsula’s first Muslim dynasty, which had itself replaced the non-hereditary leaders who first followed Muhammad, were themselves defeated and supplanted in 750 by the Abbasids, who represented the enlarged fiefdom of Islam and the newly converted non-Arab Muslims. One Umayyad prince, Abd al Rahman, fled to a different peninsula on the edge of the Atlantic and took power in al-Andalus, the name given by the Arabs to the whole of Muslim Spain.
The homage paid by Cervantes in Don Quixote to the heritage of Spanish Islam is seldom remarked on. (There isn’t a single reference to it in Harold Bloom’s weak, lazy introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of 2003.) When he was writing the novel in the early 17th century Spain was racked by an economic crisis whose chief causes included the depopulation of the countryside after the expulsion of Spanish Muslims, and inflation following the arrival of large quantities of silver and gold from the New World. For nearly five hundred years the dominant culture and language in Spain and Portugal had been Arabic. In the opening pages of Don Quixote the narrator explains that he found the manuscript he is editing in the Alcana bazaar in Toledo and that it is written in Arabic. It’s an old language, he says, but there is another that is even more antique. He is referring to Hebrew and signalling his own Jewish origins, still denied by the Royal Spanish Academy. At one point the two anti-heroes reach an uninhabited village and cautiously reflect on the ethnic cleansing of Jews and Muslims. Towards the end of the novel, Sancho questions his master about the meaning of a word he has just used:
‘What are albogues?’ asked Sancho. ‘I’ve never heard of them or seen them in my life.’
‘Albogues,’ responded Don Quixote, ‘are something like candlesticks, and when you hit one with the other along the empty or hollow side, it makes a sound that is not unpleasant, though it may not be very beautiful or harmonious, and it goes well with the rustic nature of pipes and timbrels; this word albogues is Moorish, as are all those in our Castilian tongue that begin with al, for example: almohaza, almorzar, alhombra, alhucema, almacen, alcancia and other similar words ... I have told you all this in passing because it came to mind when I happened to mention albogues.’
But nothing is ever told ‘in passing’ in this courageous novel. It is perhaps the most carefully crafted work in European literature, both parts written in the shadow of the Inquisition. In another passage, Cervantes gives Sancho some lines whose reference to the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews is unmistakeable: ‘I’d like your grace to tell me why is it that Spaniards, when they’re about to go into battle, invoke St James the Moor-Slayer and say: “St James, and close Spain!” By some chance is Spain open so that it’s necessary to close her, or what ceremony is that?’
In describing pre-Islamic Arabia, the period of Jahiliya (the state of ignorance) according to Islamic tradition, Rodinson cites the observation of the fourth-century Roman soldier Ammianus Marcellinus that Arabian tribespeople are
always on the move, and they have mercenary wives, hired under a temporary contract. But in order that there may be some semblance of matrimony, the future wife, by way of dower, offers her husband a spear and a tent, with the right to leave him after a stipulated time, if she so elects: and it is unbelievable with what ardour both sexes give themselves up to passion.
‘This description is undoubtedly an exaggeration,’ Rodinson declares, though he admits that women played a ‘less subordinate role among the nomads than was the case with sedentary peoples, or than that which occurred after Islam’. That women’s lives became more regulated and oppressed after the emergence of the three monotheisms is beyond dispute, but women found ways to resist some of the impositions. The Tunisian scholar Abdelwahab Bouhdiba argues in Sexuality in Islam (1975) that while patriarchy is fundamental in Islam, the third great monotheism is better than the two earlier ones at recognising some of the needs of women. He compares the different versions of Adam and Eve’s expulsion in the Old Testament and the Quran. In the former they succumb to temptation; in the latter, despite their disobedience and punishment, they discover a new truth. Quranic verses insist that copulation and physical love are the true genesis of life. The pleasures of the flesh reflect the will of Allah.
Bouhdiba’s second example is the story of Joseph’s temptation. The Old Testament version puts the blame entirely on the wife of the rich merchant Potiphar, who tries to seduce Joseph. He resists, and the scorned woman uses the shirt she has torn off him to accuse him of assault. He denies it, but is imprisoned, before becoming a powerful man who brings his father, Jacob, and his family to Egypt, escaping the famine in Canaan. In the Quranic version, the situation is more ambiguous. There are a number of temptations on offer. ‘Come, take me,’ Zuleikha says. ‘God be my refuge,’ he replies. She tears off his shirt and ‘they race to the door’ just as her husband enters the room. The evidence is inspected and a lot hinges on whether the shirt was torn at the front or from behind. The latter is the case, and Joseph is acquitted. God’s intervention in order to prevent adultery was necessary, the Quran says, ‘for she desired him and he would have taken her.’ Imam Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, believed that Joseph was about to fall. Another Muslim exegetist, Ibn Abbas, goes further: ‘He undid his trousers, adopting the posture of traitors.’ According to the ultra-orthodox exegete Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Joseph had taken up a position between Zuleikha’s thighs and was undressing her, but found himself incapable. Al-Razi writes that he is merely reporting this and does not believe it himself. Fantasies and fictions abound in both Jewish and Muslim accounts of the episode.
More than a decade ago I visited the Great Mosque in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. I was with an Iraqi architect, an expert in Yemen’s mudbrick architecture. The mosque is one of the three oldest places of worship in Islam. It was in the process of restoration and had been carefully stripped bare. Scaffolding was everywhere. I was lucky to be allowed in. The mosque was founded in the seventh century, possibly during the Prophet’s lifetime, and was said to have been visited by Imam Ali. A team of Italian experts was hard at work, flanked by Yemeni archaeologists. Artefacts and faded murals from a pre-Islamic past were being uncovered, some Christian, others pagan, indicating the previous lives of the structure: temple, church, mosque. Not at all uncommon in the Arab world and beyond. The archaeologists were also searching for something that would help date the foundation of the mosque.
Sanaa’s mud-brick architecture is stunning. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Whether these glories of early Islamic civilisation will survive the destruction being wrought by the Saudi ‘guardians of Islam’s Holy Places’ and their Western allies remains to be seen. There has been extensive damage already. The Saudis are past masters in destroying places of importance to early Islamic history. The royal family’s adherence to the sectarian Wahhabi doctrine led them to order the destruction of the tombs of Muhammad’s family and some of his closest followers in Medina.
The importance to modern scholarship of the Sanaa palimpsest is immeasurable. It was found during restoration work in 1972, hidden in an attic behind a false ceiling. The work in the mosque was funded by the West German Foreign Ministry, and radio-carbon technology enabled German scholars to read the lower layer of the palimpsest and date the texts to between 578 and 669 ce, about forty years after the Prophet’s death. They were transcribed in Hijazi calligraphy, and are in a different order from any known version of the Quran. They provide the clearest evidence to date that a version of the Quran did exist around the time of Muhammad’s death, something the scholar John Wansbrough and some of his disciples denied for a long time, arguing that a ‘stable scriptural text’ did not emerge until up to two hundred years later. These early fragments had been erased and replaced on the top level of the palimpsest by the version of the Quran agreed by a committee of scholars under the supervision of the third caliph, Uthman.
The texts are preserved in the House of Manuscripts in Sanaa, where they remained available for scholarly inspection until the outbreak of the war that is now in its seventh year. As I write, Yemen is still being bombed by Western-backed Saudi armed forces. Were they to take the capital, they would have no compunction in destroying the mosque. The fact that it was visited by Imam Ali, the inspirer and first caliph of the Shia, would be an inducement.
Rodinson acknowledged his own debt to another maverick historian, the British Christian-Marxist scholar William Montgomery Watt, whose own biography of Muhammad appeared in the mid 1950s. Both works were highly regarded by scholars and historians in the Islamic world. The reason is simple. There was no mockery, and both made a firm break with the descriptions of Muhammad as a ‘charlatan’ or ‘impostor’. Islamic empires had been seen as a challenge since Charles Martel’s victory against the Muslim armies at Poitiers in 732 (a reference point in all French school histories), and propaganda against the religion was unremitting. Dante honoured the Muslim philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, but as a Christian poet he had to do his duty, so imagined the Prophet of Islam and his son-in-law Ali consigned to the eighth circle of Hell, one of the ditches of Malebolge:
No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart: his bowels hung between his legs, one saw his vitals and the miserable sack that makes of what we swallow excrement. While I was all intent on watching him, he looked at me, and with his hands he spread his chest and said, ‘See how I split myself! See now how maimed Mohammed is! And he who walks and weeps before me is Ali, whose face is opened wide from chin to forelock. And all the others here whom you can see were, when alive, the sowers of dissension and scandal, and for this they now are split.’
A similar prejudice was on display when the supposedly satirical neocon magazine Charlie Hebdo, treated these days as a secular Bible by many in the French establishment, printed notorious images of the Prophet in 2012. The octogenarian Henri Roussel, the founder of the magazine (when it was Hara-Kiri), was one of the few to reprimand his former colleagues. After pointing out that the terrorism in France should be put on the scales with French involvement in wars against the Muslim world, he rebuked the editor: ‘To show, with the caption “Muhammad: A Star Is Born”, a naked Muhammad praying, seen from behind, balls dangling and prick dripping, in black and white but with a yellow star on his anus – whatever way you look at it, how is this funny?’
Islamophobia has always been present in French colonial culture. The Maghreb wars came home and festered, with migrants (predominantly African Muslims) on one side and white settlers and ex-soldiers on the other. With the almost complete collapse of the anti-colonial wing of the French intelligentsia in the 1980s, aided by the belated turn to anti-communism in the mid 1970s, a vacuum emerged in French political culture. The old parties of the left – the Socialist Party and the Communist Party – hadn’t been staunch opponents of French imperialism before the nationalist victories in Vietnam and Algeria. The events of 11 September 2001 brought the country’s deep hostility to Muslims and Islam out into the open. In the years that followed laïcité was weaponised.
With Macron and Marine Le Pen mud-wrestling for the presidency, French Muslims remain a key target. Macron is playing catch-up on a field where his opponent has all the advantages and no need to prove her credentials. For French Muslims, there is a stench of Vichy in the air, with pollution levels highest in cities and regions dominated by the far right. Few are searching for antidotes to this poison, but some exist. One of them is this biography.
[Essayist Tariq Ali is a British political activist, writer, journalist, historian, filmmaker, and public intellectual. He is a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review and Sin Permiso, and contributes to The Guardian, CounterPunch, and the London Review of Books. He read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Exeter College, Oxford. The author of many books, including Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power (1970), Can Pakistan Survive? The Death of a State (1983), Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002), Bush in Babylon (2003), Conversations with Edward Said (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis Of Hope (2006), A Banker for All Seasons (2007), The Duel (2008), The Obama Syndrome (2010), and The Extreme Centre: A Warning (2015), his most recent work is Islam Quintet, a series of linked historical novels, depicting clashes between Western Christendom and Islamic civilization.]