Q: Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction, it is excellent introduction to the life of Muhammad, well balanced between elements of faith and rational discussions, 144 pages, it’s very Short Introduction, What do you want to add?
Dr. Brown: I wish I could have added more about Qawwali music. I would have liked to have been able to convey to the reader a sense of the intoxicating effect of listening to it and the way in which it can communicate and elevate religious devotion. I would have liked to talk about Ibn Sina’s Mirajname, a book in which he examines the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) ascension to heaven from a philosophical perspective. I wish I had mentioned how the Prophet sent food and allowed food to be sent to Mecca during a famine in the later years of the conflict between Medina and Mecca – even during a time of war and conflict he was a humanitarian figure. I wish I had been able to discuss the Sira al-Halabiyya, a very influential late medieval Siraof the Prophet. There are so many things I would have liked to add, but I think that I forgot most of them as a psychological device for suppressing my regret.
Q: The furor surrounding the Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoon crisis reminded the world of the tremendous importance of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, How should the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) be introduced to the west?
Dr. Brown: This is a very good question to which I think there is no one answers. The West is not a monolith. Some non-Muslims in the US and Europe relate better to a ‘Protestant’ vision of the Prophet: a mere vehicle of revelation and an admirable leader. For these people, reading a sira like the Life of the Prophet by Muhammad Husayn Haykal is probably the best introduction. Others in the West are affected deeply by the Prophet as a holy man, as a locus of Baraka, as a miracle worker, as a focus of devotion. For these people, the Burda poem or the Kitab al-Shifa or even some Mawlid manuals might be a good way to communicate to them about the Prophet. Others really want to feel like they’re learning about him as a historical figure, in which case something like Karen Armstrong’s book on Muhammad or other such books might be the best way.
Q: The West’s Approach to Prophet Muhammad differs from Prophet Muhammad according to Islamic Tradition, how can we near Prophet Muhammad according to Islamic Tradition to them?
Dr. Brown: I think that often people have to have direct experience with devotion to the Prophet. Attending a Mawlid celebration, a Sufi Dhikr or even seeing how the Prophet is mentioned during a Jum`ah Khutbah would be useful.
Q: The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith, Could you elaborate on that?
Dr. Brown: This book was a result of my dissertation at the University of Chicago. For years I had wondered how the Sahihayn became ‘the Sahihayn‘. I was interested in how and why these two books attained their station, and what their various roles have been in Islamic civilization. I was also interested in debates over whether or not the books had been or could be criticized.
Q: Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World is a great introduction into the science of Hadith, and focuses on Hadiths, their collection and their criticism, early Hadith scholars focused on the Isnad , the Isnad’s quality, the quality of the Matn,
what do you say about Hadith great scholars?
Dr. Brown: I would say that I’m in awe of their work and that I was greatly humbled by my studies of Hadith. Whether or not a person believes that the Sunni Hadith tradition has managed to capture the true teachings of the Prophet, it is an intellectual edifice that deserves to be studied and held in awe by scholars from my point of view.
Q: The Weak Hadith, Weak narrations are not necessarily lies, you rarely mentioned “weak” as one of the classifications of Hadith, why?
Dr. Brown: I think that I mentioned weak Hadiths a lot in my Hadith book. I’m not sure why you think I didn’t. There is a whole chart illustrating the various types of flaws from which a Hadith could suffer, and that makes it very clear that an outright forgery is only the farthest end of the spectrum of weak Hadiths. I also recently wrote an article in the journal Islamic Law and Society entitled “Even if it’s Not True it’s True: the Use of Unreliable Hadiths in Sunni Islam“, which also makes it clear that Sunni Muslim scholars would never defend using a Hadith that they knew was a forgery.
Q: What do you say about “the genocidal Hadith” that mentioned by Robert Spencer to Fitzgerald?
Dr. Brown: I assume you’re asking about the Hadith about the End of Time when (satuqatilun al-yahud…) and even the rock saying that there is a Jew behind me? This Hadith is interesting; it’s in the Sahihayn, but in general in chapters on Malahim(Apocalyptic events and signs) chapters or by the same Isnad in a jihad chapter. From the perspective of Sunni Hadith criticism, the Hadith is Sahih. But it is also possible that, since Muslim scholars from the time of `Abdul-Rahman bin Mahdi (d. 197) onward treated Hadiths dealing with Malahim with much less critical rigor than Hadiths on law, that this Hadith might still be unreliable but was approved by Sunni critics because they did not see it as having any great import. To look at things from that perspective, you would have to step outside the science of Sunni Hadith criticism as it has generally been understood and take the position that all evaluations made by classical critics on Hadiths dealing with Adab,Malahim, and Tafsir should be treated as a separate tier of Hadiths. This degree of reevaluation would not be acceptable to many Sunni Hadith scholars today.
Q: You present Abdullah Al-Sa’d as a fellow “Traditional Salafi” of Al-Albani, what else would you like to present?
Dr. Brown: I would also add Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’I, Abu Ishaq al-Huwayni, as well asHatim al-Awni.
Q: Is the demonization of political Islamism in Western Europe an overstatement?
Dr. Brown: I think the demonization of political Islam anywhere is an overstatement. One can disagree with a political stance or vision without considering at existential threat.Also, demonization blinds people to understanding the forces that motivate people to believe in a certain ideology and to try and achieve some degree of reconciliation.
Q:Islam is a religion of peace, yet many in the West remain suspicious that Islam is not at all a peaceful faith. Resolving this crisis of authority will take several generations , Could you elaborate on that?
Dr. Brown: People in the West need to realize that the Muslims who are engaged in acts of violence are a tiny, tiny fraction of Muslims worldwide… maybe .03%. The rest of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims lead normal lives as parents, children, friends, employees, people trying to get food to eat or make a living.
These people are all Muslims, and they are not violent. So clearly Islam does not cause violence. I would read Robert Pape’s latest book on the roots of suicide bombing on this.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you, Jazakal-Lahu Khairan.
CAIRO – When a friend recently told me that Professor Jonathan Brown was visiting Cairo, I was determined to arrange an interview. My aim was to learn from the experiences of an American citizen-cum-Islamic researcher.
It is high time to learn from Western scholars like Jonathan Brown about the political turning points in Egypt and the Middle East.
Could you tell me a little about your background?
I was raised in Washington DC but went to a boarding school called Thacher in California. I then attended Georgetown University [in Washington DC] and majored in History, with Russian as my second subject.
Then I studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo from 2000 to 2001. I did the CASA [Centre for Arabic Study Abroad] programme. I also had lessons at Al-Azhar, mainly from Sheikh Ali Gomma.
At the University of Chicago, I did my PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations and specialised in Islamic Thought. I graduated in 2006 with my dissertation on ‘The Canonisation of al-Bukhari and Muslim’.
Is Islam your original religion or did you convert to Islam for certain reasons?
I was not born into a Muslim family and I raised as an Episcopalian Protestant. This was mostly cultural- religion was not part of our home. We did go to church on Sunday, however.
At high school, I thought a lot about mortality, and in retrospect I was clearly longing for a sense of meaning. I always believed in God, but did not know how to express my belief. When I went to university I took a class on Islam and started reading the biography of the famous Austrian Muslim Muhammad Asad [The Road to Mecca].
I can’t remember, the details are fuzzy now, but at some point I felt that Islam was the religion in which I had always believed in my younger years. At the age of 19, I gradually started practising Islam.
How long have you spent in Egypt?
This is certainly not my first visit. I have been coming here almost every year for at least a month since 2000. I consider this country my second home, if it will accept me!
My impression after the revolution is that there is pride in unseating a corrupt despot, but also a great deal of anxiety over the present economic conditions and real political reform. Mature voices at all levels understand that the process of moving the country out of the Mubarak era will take time.
Others are understandably very worried about the present economic downturn, which stems from factors like the sudden decrease in tourism, and just want things to return to some form of normality.
But looming over all this is the concern of the politically aware that the old regime could return in a new guise and the revolution would have been in vain. Of course, strong and effective leadership is needed to avoid this, as well as patience and fortitude on behalf of the people. Egyptian people understand this, I think.
What do you think of the Islamists’ political role in Egypt? Will they win the elections and how will Western countries react?
I think that all Islamist parties have accepted the fact that the Egyptian State will be a civil state that draws its core constitutional and legislative principles from the Sharia [Islamic Law]. That’s actually how the country is already constitutionally structured.
I do not think life in Egypt will dramatically change if the president or ruling party are self-proclaimed ‘Islamists’. Egypt is already a very Islamic society: no-one drinks in the street, people dress conservatively, even the financial system has to justify its operations in terms of Islam.
No-one is going to implement hudud [Islamic rules] haphazardly any time soon. The reaction of Western countries is much harder to predict. I think that, unlike in the case of Iran, which has become a pariah state in Western eyes, an Islamist-ruled Egypt would remain an important and accepted player in world politics.
The country is too important to write off and this is not 1979. The ‘Islamic threat’ so often touted by Western pundits has been undermined by factors like AK Party rule in Turkey, and it will be less frightening when people see that Egypt is not much different from before.
Why did you decide to do your Masters’ degree on Sahih al-Bukhari?
My dissertation and first book were about how the Sahihayn achieved preeminence in Sunni Islam and their function in the Islamic civilisation, and how their position was challenged.
This is obviously too much for one interview, but I can summarise the most important findings as follows.
Criticising the Sahihayn, and whether they were allowed or not, was not really an issue until the 1700s. Before then, Muslim scholars advanced minor critiques of the two books (the Sahihayn) with no real reaction. Since the 1700s and until today, however, criticising the two books has become very contentious and controversial, because the books have become symbols of the tradition of Sunni learning.
Groups like the Salafist revivalists, emerging in the 1700s, and Islamic modernists who criticised the two books [the first group because they believed no book was perfect except the Holy Qur’an and insisted on that, the second group because they considered the two books to exemplify many supposedly backward ideas of medieval Islam], threatened the historical continuity of the Sunni tradition.
Defenders of that tradition therefore chose to raise the Sahihayn as a symbol of the authority of Sunni religious heritage. The two books became a representation of ideas contended over by various factions within Islamic thought in the early modern and modern periods. So, in short, debates over the Sahihayn were really about what the books stood for and not about the books themselves.
Do you think Al-Azhar is playing a crucial role in spreading the right image of Islam all over the world?
I think Al-Azhar has some of the best Muslim scholars in the world today, and they have done an admirable job in helping Muslims understand their religion better. Al-Azhar has of course faced many challenges since 1960, particularly since it was co-opted by the State during the Mubarak years. It will have to demonstrate its independence.
What should the Islamic countries do to deliver the right image?
Muslims should make sure their behavior, both as individuals in daily life and as a community of nations, truly reflects the teachings of Islam.
Are you able to preach with total freedom in the US? And how do you deal with Islamophobia?
In general, Americans enjoy constitutional protection to practise their religion. Muslims in America wear the hijab freely wherever they want. They can start their own schools, open mosques, pray at work and university and take time off to attend religious services like Friday prayers. There are two Muslim members of Congress.
However, since the 1990s, there has been an increasingly powerful lobbying effort by individuals and organisations that hate Islam virulently, like Steven Emerson, and even members of Congress like Peter King and former Senator [now presidential candidate] Rick Santorum, to convince Americans that any Muslim that practises his or her religion is a secret extremist bent on destroying America.
The chief culprit, they say, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider a terrorist organisation. This has led to two states in the US, Tennessee and Oklahoma, passing laws banning the Sharia. Any Muslim who follows the Sharia in those states [which could mean anything from praying to paying zakat] can be charged with a crime.
This gives prosecutors in these two states the right, potentially, to investigate, charge and convict any Muslim they want. In addition, the US Federal Government has used the broad reaching powers granted by the Patriot Act Laws [passed after 11/9, 2001] to prosecute a number of prominent Muslim charities.
In the case of the Holy Land Foundation, the US Government sentenced the heads of this Muslim charity to 65 years in prison for sending money to zakat committees in the Palestinian territories.
Although the US prosecutors admitted that none of this money was used for any violent ends, and that the zakat committees to which it was given were also given money by the US Government and the United Nations, these prosecutors argued that the Holy Land Foundation was nonetheless aiding Hamas, which the US Government has designated a terrorist organisation.
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court declared that even speaking to a designated terrorist organisation, even if you tell them not to use violence, can be considered an act of material support for terrorism, for which you can be punished severely. You can see the effect of this legislation on Muslims in the US. It makes them feel alienated and targeted.
Tell us more about the role of the centre you are working in. Do you think that the preaching centres in the US are correctly portraying Islam?
I work as a professor in the Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for Muslim Christian Understanding, which is part of Georgetown University’s famous School of Foreign Service.
Like other university departments, we are an academic centre, not a preaching centre.
We offer university courses on subjects ranging from Islamic History to Islam & the West to Islamic Art. We also organise a range of academic and public outreach programmes designed to build bridges of understanding between the US and the Muslim world and improve academic discourse in the West on Islam and Muslims.
For example, this year we are having a conference on Morality and Scripture in Islam and Judaism, as well as many educational workshops for American schoolteachers on Islam and Muslims, and a variety of interfaith academic forums.
How did you in the US deal with the burning of the Qur’an?
I think almost all educated Americans rejected the burning of the Qur’an and saw it for exactly what it was: the desperate, ignorant and bigoted act of a marginal preacher with few supporters who was trying to gain some sort of notoriety.
The real problem is not the act of the man who burned the Qur’an, but the fact that the American media and public actually saw this as a subject that merited so much attention.
This act would not have received any attention if the American public weren’t so obsessed with Islamophobia, which is mostly due to a small number of bigoted politicians and pseudo-scholars committed to vilifying Islam and Muslims at any price.
Do you think that Arab Spring will change the Western attitude towards Islam?
I think the Western countries will no longer have the luxury of dealing with handpicked dictators whose main concern was placating their Western sponsors.
Western countries will have to deal with governments that will most likely represent the will of their people much more than before. That means an increased acknowledgment of the political, religious and cultural sensibilities and priorities of majority Muslim countries.
In the following piece, Joseph Preville, an American author living in Oman, interviews Jonathan A.C. Brown, an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Brown is the author of Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction and discusses the book, his inspiration for writing it, and his personal faith.
Preville: Was this a challenging project for you?
Jonathan Brown (JB): Yes it was very challenging indeed. It’s very difficult to write about something that is at the heart of your own faith, crucial to the faith of over a billion people worldwide, and yet so hotly contested from both a scholarly and political angle. I tried to write a book that would help Muslims learn about the Prophet by understanding his [historical] context and legacy while also answering all the questions that non-Muslims might have in an accurate way. It’s also challenging because the [volume of the] body of literature, popular practice and scholarly work on the Prophet…One has to make tough choices about what one can address and at what depth.
Preville: What problems do historians encounter in writing about Muhammad and the origins of Islam?
JB: Well, basically, Western historians face the challenge of to what extent the Muslim narrative of the Prophet’s life is historically reliable. How do you tell the story of a figure like the Prophet while simultaneously questioning the reliability of the story? Do you simply give a secularized, materialist account of his life? Do you tell the Muslim perspective and then offer a separate analysis? Sadly, the extent to which Western historians have been sucked into these questions has led them to neglect the most important aspect of the Prophet’s legacy: what he has meant to Muslims. You could sit and obsess over whether or not Ibn Ishaq’s Sira is historically reliable, but you’d still miss out on telling people about the story of the spider weaving its web over the cave during the Hijra – it’s not in that source or most of the other early Sira accounts. But it’s one of the most salient and identifiable stories that Muslims all know about the Prophet. You’d never talk about the Burda poem or Mawlid celebrations or the role of prayer upon the Prophet in Muslim prayer and juma sermons.
Preville: Do you agree with Fred M. Donner (Muhammad and the Believers, Harvard University Press, 2010) that Muhammad established an ecumenical “community of Believers” in Madinah?
JB: This is hard question to answer for me because Professor Donner was one of my teachers, and I respect him a great deal as a scholar and a person. I told him when I was his student, and I still maintain today, that I think his thesis is wrong. The Quran clearly states over and over again that the followers of the Prophet have to follow his religious edicts. Think of the verse that says “wa man yushaqiq al-rasul min ba’da ma tabayyana lahu al-huda wa yattabi’ ghayr sabil al-mu’minin nuwallihi ma tawalla wa nuslihi jahannama…” (4:115). If the early Muslim community was an open community of “the believers (mu’minun)”, you still had to follow the Prophet’s religious teachings to a T. Sure, to the extent that Islam was a religion revealed over 23 years, you could be a Jew or Christian and also Muslim, but that would gradually end as the Muslim identity was completely revealed. So before Friday became the Muslim day of communal prayer, a formerly-Jewish Muslim might still honor Saturday as the Sabbath. But once Juma was announced, he’d have to stop. There is no example that I know of someone who was a follower of the Prophet but said, “You know, I know you’re a Prophet, but I’d really like to still eat pork. Is that ok?” If you disagreed with the Prophet on religious matters you were expelled from the Muslim community.
Also, just because a Bedouin unit of the Muslim army conquering Iran didn’t have a clear idea of what the Muslim identity was doesn’t mean that that identity had not been fully formed. Ask U.S. military officers if every grunt on the ground knows exactly why they are there fighting or exactly what the Constitution says. Professor Donner is a wonderful person, and he longs for a world of ecumenical peace and understanding. I think his good intentions have led him to read that vision into the past. Allahu A’lam.
Preville: How will your book encourage readers to seek a deeper understanding and appreciation of Muhammad and Islam?
JB:I hope that my book will de-exoticize the Prophet for Western readers. I also hope it will make them realize that, for non-Muslims, it’s not really about the Prophet but about what he means to Muslims. That’s what they have to appreciate, and doing so will improve their ability to understand and empathize with Muslims.
Preville: How did writing this book touch your own life and spirituality?
JB: I would not phrase it in that way. I would say that this book came out of me trying to answer questions that I have always had as both an American and a Muslim and trying to build a better bridge between those two parts of my identity. It was more exorcizing the demons of unclarity than an exercise (riyadha) in my spirituality. That’s probably too dramatic, but what I mean is that all my books and speeches come out of questions and anxieties that I have and that I want to answer. I’ve found that there are others with the same questions or concerns, and that my work can be of use to them as well.
Jonathan A. C. Brown is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He was educated at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic Law and the author of several books, including, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).
Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Oman. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Saudi Gazette, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, emel, and Tikkun.