(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In MUHAMMAD: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE PROPHET, Armstrong defends Islam against its Western critics by presenting a sympathetic biography of its founder. Armstrong discusses the situation in pre-Islamic Arabia, a land of relentless vendettas and violence, and how Muhammad sought to bring order to this troubled land. She then describes how Muhammad received his calling, gathered together a following in his native Mecca, fled to Medina when his own tribe turned against him, and rose to a position of dominance in Arabia with the spread of his new faith. The book ends with a touching description of Muhammad’s death.

Armstrong seems to have mastered those primary sources about early Islam which are available in translation; however, no Arabic-language sources are cited in her notes or bibliography. She is right in arguing that Western misconceptions of Islam have led to needless rancor and bloodshed, but her editorializing on this theme becomes repetitive. Her most serious problem, however, is a tendency to overemphasize the political and social aspects of Muhammad’s career at the expense of discussing his religious message. Muhammad was more directly involved in the political life of the world than Jesus, but his fundamental message was one of obedience to the will of God, an obedience from which all social and political good would come.

Armstrong does succeed in presenting a coherent, believable narrative of the Prophet’s life which is accessible to a wide audience; if she had placed more emphasis on this narrative and omitted some of the polemical digressions which interrupt it, MUHAMMAD would have been a stronger book.