Image of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the West

Image of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the West

Sīrah of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) was first written in the Arabic language, and all the main sources which provided the material regarding his life and Islām to the later writings were also present in it. After that, numerous biographies had been written almost in every language of the world; some were in favor of him and some were against him and his religion. Similarly, the English language also took an interest in producing volumes on this topic and the Westerns show the image of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the West through this language, but most of them are based on a hostile and malicious approach to Islām and its followers. On the other hand, some Sīrah writers accepted Islām while researching material regarding Prophet Muḥammad’s (SAW) life. Here we are going to discuss the image of the Prophet (SAW) in the West.

Generally, we can classify the Western Sīrah literature into two broad categories: biased and unbiased. Mostly the books written in the early ages (during the Crusades era) were based on the biased attitude of the Westerns and were therefore negative in nature.
Shiblī N‘umānī (1857-1914) wrote in “Sīrat-un-Nabī” that Europe was not aware of Islām for a long time, and when it tried to become conscious of it, it was suffering from strange conceptions based on calumnious as well as whimsical attitude. A European author, R. Bosworth Smith (1839-1908) writes: “During the first few centuries of Mohammedanism, Christendom could not afford to criticize or explain; it could only tremble and obey. But when the Saracens had received their first check in the heart of France, the nations which had been flying before them, faced round, as a herd of cows will sometimes do when the single dog that has put them to flight is called off; and though they did not yet venture to fight, they could at least calumniate their retreating foe”. Similarly, a French writer Henry de Castries (1850-1927), described the view of Europeans towards the Islām in these words:
“We do not know what the Muslims should think when they get acquainted with all those stories and songs that were commonly current in the Europe of the Middle Ages. All this literature, in prose and verse, is impregnated, for want of knowledge, with malice, and to this early material are entirely due to the misconceptions and misrepresentations that survive even to this day. To every Christian poet, the Muslims were polytheists and idol worshippers. They were supposed to be worshipping a hierarchy of three divinities- Mahum or Mawmet or Maphomet, Apollyon, and Termagant. The Prophet was believed to have made the deification of his own self the foundation of his faith, the stranger still, Muhammad (who was an idol breaker and an enemy to image-worship) was said to be inviting people to pay homage to an image of his own that was made of gold.”
In English, the early accounts of Islām and the Muslims came from French and Latin sources, with occasional contributions from other languages. These accounts were based on legends and fables, generally speaking. During the course of time, they increased in quantity. Then, the introduction of the ‘press’ played a key role in their increment and embodied them in book form. The literature of 16th and the 17th centuries was based on legends and fables that included absurd, abusive, and obscene material[4]. For instance, William Bedwell (1561-1632 AD), an English Orientalist, became famous for two important works, firstly, the Arabic dictionary in seven volumes; secondly “Mohammadis Imposturae”, published in 1615 which is nothing but a heap of absurd, abusive and untrue material.[5] On the whole, it can be said that the Englishmen of this period didn’t have any originality in their material related to the fundamental teachings of Islām. However, they were copied, quoted, read, and believed by all the classes in this country. The public read them to denounce and accuse the system of Islām; the uneducated sharing the same attitudes with scholars.[6] Alexander Ross (c. 1590-1654) translated the Holy Qurān into English for the first time in 1649 from a French translation. He regularly employs derogatory epithets such as “The great Arabian Impostor”, “The Little Horn in Daniel”, “Great Hypocrite”, “Mahomet the great destroyer, as his name signifies”. Moreover, he has used similar expressions for the Holy Qurān, and describes it as “A gallimaufry of errors”, “Misshapen issue of Mahomet’s brain”, or “Corrupted puddle of Mahomet’s invention”.[7] George Sale (1697-1736 AD) translated the Holy Qurān for the first time directly from Arabic into English in 1734 by the name “Alcoran of Mohammed”. He said in its translation that Mohammedanism was nothing but a human invention that became successful almost completely due to the sword.
In Europe, the 17th and 18th centuries showed a great increment in the percentage of books on the life of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) and Islām. Though, mostly these writings were a heap of calumnies, accusations, myths, and lies about the Prophet (SAW) and Islām, and generally a repetition of the earlier works. Such as, “Of the Impiety and Imposture of Paganism and Mahometanism”, a sermon delivered by the famous preacher, Isaac Barrow (1630–1677), and “The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet” by Humphrey Prideaux (1648–1724) portray negative images of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) and Muslims.
Unfortunately, this stereotypical image of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) that existed during the medieval ages did not change and was continuously repeated in later centuries. The renowned French philosopher, François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778), wrote a play entitled Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet (1736), in which he represented the Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) as “a false Prophet” and “the founder of a barbarous sect.”
The misconception related to Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) as a worshipping God or idol along with the false Prophet commonly found in Chansons de geste (a type of epic poem that appears at the dawn of French literature). Orlando is the most primitive among these, whose main objective was to target the personality of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW); in it, he has been expressly called false and fallacious.
On the other hand, there were also some solitary personalities that had a logical perspective and were inspired by their own philosophical reasoning; their full concentration on the problem of the rise of Islām. They proceeded to their logical pattern in inquiring about the Islamic teachings and Islamic accounts, to which the introduction of Oriental Study also gave strong support and progress. The most illustrious name in this context is Henry Stubbe (1632-1676) who wrote “An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism and a Vindication of Him and His Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians”. Before that, England had been content to read the Histories of Muslims either in Latin and French or through translations from these languages. It has its own inaccuracies but, to an extent, it presents positive views and shows objectivity in arguments about Islām and Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) and encounters the Christian allegations and misrepresentations.
An important figure who depicted Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) in a positive manner was the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832), author of the “West Östliche Diwan” (West-East Dīwān); he described his positive feelings and interpretation of Islām and Prophet Muhammad (SAW) through his poetry. He wrote a poem in 1773 by the name “Muhammeds Gesang” (Muḥammad’s Song). In it, he praises Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and also uses the true phrase “Muḥammad, the best of mankind” (Oberhaupt der Geschöpfe Mohammed). Another writer who followed an objective approach in his writing concerning Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) was the British historian and author, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who though much younger than Goethe (1749-1832), corresponded with Goethe and translated his work, “West Östliche Diwan” into English by the name “West-East Dīwān”. He wrote “Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History” in 1846, describing Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the category of the great leaders who changed the history of the world. This work was actually a collection of his lecture series.
In the 20th century, the publications on Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) were very large in quantity. Despite claiming objectivity and fairness in their works, the scholars made various types of allegations, false charges, and common errors and have biased views regarding his biography and the religion of Islām.
The writings of distinguished Orientalists, such as Sir William Muir (1819-1905), Professor David Samuel Margoliouth (1858-1940), Professor William Montgomery Watt (1909-2006), and Karen Armstrong (b. 1944) are considered to have played a key role in recasting the inherited distorted image of Islām and its Messenger (SAW) in the minds of the Westerners.
Muir (1819-1905) wrote “The Life of Mahomet” in four volumes which consists of many grave allegations. Margoliouth (1858-1940) wrote “Mohammed and the Rise of Islām” in 1905 which became very popular among Western reviewers whereas Muslims have largely been suspected of its value as an academic work. Watt (1909-2006) wrote three important works on the life of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) namely “Muhammad at Mecca” in 1953, “Muhammad at Medina” in 1956, and “Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman” in 1961. Pīr Muḥammad Karam Shāh al-Azharī (1918-1998) writes in his book “Ḍiyā’-un-Nabī” that, Watt (1909-2006) also falls in that category of the Orientalists who distorted the image of Islām and its Messenger (SAW). However, Watt himself accepted the animosity and hatred of Western writers towards Islām and Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) in his book “Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman”.
Aloys Sprenger (1813-1893), an Austrian Orientalist, wrote “Life of Mohammed, from Original Sources” in 1851 at Allahabad. It is also based on the malicious and hateful nature of the writer. And, he introduces Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in his book as an imposter.
On the other hand, Michael H. Hart (b. 1932), an American historian, mathematician, and astronomer wrote the book “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History” in 1978. In this work, he arranged the most influential personalities of the world in order of their excellence from the first to the hundredth. In this book, he placed Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) in the first position. And, he explains the reason to put Prophet (SAW) in this position by saying:
“My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular level”.
Martin Lings (1909-2005) was an eminent Orientalist of the contemporary period who accepted Islām in 1938 and changed his name to Abū Bakr Sirāj al-Dīn. He wrote the Sīrah book “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources”, which is widely accepted as an excellent favorable biography of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) in English. The first edition of this book consisted of some errors and misconceptions related to Prophet’s life and teachings.
Karen Armstrong (b. 1944), a distinguished British author and commentator of Irish Catholic descent in recent times, wrote two books on Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) entitled, “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet” in 1991 and “Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Times” in 2006, and many others on the teachings of Islām and other religions. In her book ‘Muhammad: A Prophet of Our Time’ she writes, “As a paradigmatic personality, Muḥammad has important lessons not only for the Muslims but also for Western people. His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice, and arrogance.” This quotation from her book shows her positivity towards Prophet’s (SAW) life, but in reality, she is not completely positive in her thinking toward him and Islām. She also introduced some distorted images in her writings on Islām, for instance, she describes in her prominent work, “Muhammad: A Prophet for our time” that “We know practically nothing about Muhammad’s early life before he began to receive what he believed were revelations from God at the age of forty”.
In more recent times, a famous antagonist of Islām and Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) is Robert Spencer (b. 1962). He is an American author and blogger, and the director of “Jihad Watch”, a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and author of the New York Times best-seller “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)” published in 2005, as well as the writer of four other books on Islām and terrorism, including “Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World’s Fastest Growing Faith” and “Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West”, along with eight monographs and hundreds of articles. He wrote “The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion” in 2006.
Besides all the above-mentioned Orientalists, there are numerous other writers in the West, who wrote about the biography of Prophet Muḥammad (SAW).

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