Though wearing the hijab tends to bring (unwanted) questions about place of birth and ethnic origin, it does have the pleasant consequence of attracting questions about the Prophet Muhammad. Whether it is with coworkers at previous summer jobs, with roommates, or during grad school, genuine conversations with people trying to learn more about the Prophet are a joy, because they are an opportunity to share and strengthen my own love.
Yesterday to further my learning, I read Karen Armstrong’s book “Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time”. It’s a short, accessible text that focuses on select events instead of a comprehensive view of the Prophet’s life. At the outset, Armstrong explains that she wrote the book because most non-Muslims don’t know much about Islam, totally misunderstand the messenger and the message, and this has to change. In a post 9/11 world Armstrong says, we need to strive for understanding and appreciation and declare to ourselves and others that bigotry and prejudice is unacceptable. If we have misconceptions, we need to make the decision to learn.
As a Muslim reading the book, it is neat to see a scholar describing the Prophet’s accomplishments and beauty, and how his life and commitment to peace, equity and social transformation holds lessons for our world today. I appreciate her work because unlike so many authors who find themselves in the “Islam section” of bookstores and libraries she is striving to be a fair and respectful scholar, and doesn’t indulge in stereotypes. She respects and likes Islam, and that sentiment comes through in her writing.
And yet, the love that is missing makes a world of difference. The book doesn’t convey the love Muslims have for the Prophet, how Islam has shaped civilizations and societies, and the details of his character that Muslims try to embody today. Compared to reading Tariq Ramadan’s book, a book that softened my heart and made me want to be a better urban planner, a better family member, a better citizen, and a better person overall, I felt distant from this book, and it wasn’t a book that engraved itself on my heart.
What I did learn however, is that the world needs more bridge-builders, more people who can explain their deep love and commitment to their ideals in a way that is understandable to others. When I was in undergrad preparing for a trip to the city of Makkah and Madinah, my roommate saw me poring over maps and books, realised that she really didn’t know much about Islam, and asked for material to learn more. In reply, I gave her one of my favourite books, a children’s book called “Tell Me about the Prophet Muhammad”, and we supplemented that text with long conversations about how the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him had impacted my own life. Reading Karen Armstrong’s book was a reminder that we need to cultivate spaces and cities where this can happen more frequently, where we can be open about what we love and care about, feel comfortable to ask questions, and confident enough to challenge our own assumptions.