Revisiting Haykal’s Life of Muhammad (saws)

life-of-muhammad

The book is undoubtedly well researched where the reader, especially one who has read a couple of Seerahs, will find the brief arcs of arguments very compelling. Haykal is, at the same time, respectful of difference of opinion, and in the tradition of Adab-ul-Ikhtilaf [Ethics of Disagreement], prefers to leave the ball of final judgement in the reader’s court in several instances.

Book: Life of Muhammad
Author: Muhammad Husein Haykal
Translator: Ismail Raji al-Faruqi
First published in Arabic in 1933, the English translation was published in 1976. 


Haykal’s The Life of Muhammad, has a unique place among the biographies (Seerah) of Prophet Muhammad (saws) in the English language. Its rational method of analyzing situations in the noble life tends to leave a unique impression upon the reader. Hailing with a fresh perspective, in stark contrast to translations such as ‘The Sealed Nectar,’ The Life of Muhammad situates the reader closer to the Arabian sands of the seventh century.

About the Author

Born in Egypt, Muhammad Husein Haykal (1888-1956) is well-known to the 20th century Arabic reader. Given his background in Egypt – a lawyer for a decade, then Editor-in-Chief of Al-Siyasa newspaper who was later appointed as a Minister of State (Interior Ministry) before being appointed as Minister of Education wherein he introduced several reforms – he may not strike one as an author of an academically pursued Seerah.

To fracture this stereotype, one may know that during his PhD in Paris, he was to compose what is considered the first modern Egyptian novel, Zaynab. With the passage of disenchanting years, he came to understand that colonialism, in seeking to “destroy freedom to seek the truth” would lead Muslims “to wallow in sterility and conservatism.”

“I have come to feel that I stand under the duty to foil these manoeuvres and spoil their purpose, for they are certainly harmful to the whole of mankind, not only to Islam and the Orient,” he writes in the preface. “It was this consideration that led me at the end of the road of life to study the Life of Muhammad…”

His various books also count the biographies ‘Sayyidna Al Farouq Omar’ (1944) and ‘Sayyidna Uthman bin Affan,’ published in 1968.

About the Methdology

Haykal claims that this is the first scientific treatment of the life of Muhammad. “The Qur’an constantly warns its readers not to adopt uncritically and blindly the ideas and principles…” Muhammad Mustafā al-Marāghī, grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar states in his foreword that this claim of the study being a western method “is rather questionable. It is a method of the scholars of the past” and emphasizes the example of Mutakallimūn. Haykal believes that such a scientific study would:

  • Clear psychological and spiritual problems
  • Prepare Muslims for scholarly research
  • Show the road to mankind to a new civilization to which to is groping, i.e., the Muslims.

About the Book

After about 85 years since it was first published, his wishes have not materialized for the Muslims. But the reader of his book will come face to face with an admirable force of certainty, in that Haykal appears fully convinced that the religion of Muhammad (saws) will surely deliver mankind from doubt and dark materialism to conviction and divine light.

It is clear that Haykal gives more weight to Qur’anic Exegesis and is critical of blindly accepting early biographers. While it is not uncommon for him to quote Orientalists who portrayed the greatness of the Prophet (Muir, Irving, Sprenger etc.), he also mentions that “a lack of vision, penetration and critical skill” facilitates their attributions of certain cases in the prophetic life as “blameworthy.” Haykal does a tremendously successful job of refuting these “blameworthy” cases, such as those of goddesses of Makkah, wives of the Prophet, call for arms etc.

Haykal is inclined towards explaining something thoroughly, in a manner where his reader is left with no room for further doubts. His preface to the first and second edition themselves utilize about 70 pages, with the first expounding upon the fanatic blames of the Christians while the second preface deals with the false charges by the Orientalists.

The book ends with two essays, ‘Islamic Civilization as depicted in the Qur’an’ and ‘Islamic Civilization and the Western Orientalists.’ The first essay is a fascinating read, making a great brief introduction to Islam and its tenets, reminding one of the approach employed in the translation of ‘Four Pillars of Islam’ by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. These two essays encompass about 80 pages.

One would thus expect the book to be too long, further owing this impression to the thickness of the book, but what Haykal does in just 555 pages is nothing short of marvellous.

Review

Haykal has, like many other Seerahs, broken down his chapters into sub-chapter, making it easier to read, especially to the modern mind suffering from shorter attention spans. This method does not intrude the flow, but unfortunately don’t complement the flow either, as far as the English translation goes. The reader is bound to feel a pristine execution of rationality in every sub-chapter.

While every Seerah makes the Prophet accessible to the believer, offering prospects to draw closer, Haykal employs a unique way. This also clearly indicates where the author is coming from. Alongside the scientific method, Haykal employs the language of ‘perhaps/ maybe,’ lending necessary ambiguity in imagining how the Prophet felt and thought on a certain occasion. This helps the reader to relate to the Prophet as a human, but at the same time acknowledging that the Prophet’s mind is impalpable and our empathy unreliable. He engages us with various other methods that humanize the last messenger for the reader.

For instance, in the sub-chapter ‘Marriage to Hafsa’ under ‘Between Badr and Uhud,’ Haykal deliberates:

“Did all these successes convince Muhammad that his position was really secure? Did his present victories delude him about the dangers of the future? Did the fear of Makkah and the various booty seized from Quraysh persuade him that the word of God and His Prophet was really safe and secure? Did his faith in God’s timely help and providence cause him to let things take care of themselves on the grounds that divine government is supreme? Certainly not.”

In the same vein of building engaging affinity, Haykal opens chapters with not only the climate in Arabia, but the climatic conditions within the Prophet as well. The chapter after the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah has these words in the beginning:

“[Muslims] continued to feel dejected and despondent until Surah al-Fath, revealed on the road to Madinah, alleviated their despondency. While in Hudaybiyyah as well as well after the return to Madinah, Muhammad thought about what he should do to strengthen the faith of the companions and to spread the message of Islam.”

And, in the beginning of the chapter “The campaigns of al-Khandaq and Banu Qurayzah” he writes:

“Though Muhammad felt largely secure, he was always cautious lest the enemy strike without notice. He therefore had to maintain eyes, ears, and channels of communication throughout the Arabian Peninsula…”

“Since Muhammad was himself an Arab and understood the will to retaliate innate in Arab character, he took extreme care to guard the Muslim community from all sides.”

An example of how encompassingly Haykal elucidates a subject in the Life of Muhammad is evident in the sub-chapter headings of Al-Isrā’:

  • Al-Isrā’(621CE)
  • Was Al-Isrā’ in Body or Soul?
  • Al-Isrā’ as Given in Literature
  • Ibn Hisham’s Report on Al-Isrā’
  • Al-Isrā’ and the Unity of Being
  • Al-Isrā’ and Modern Science
  • Doubt of Quraysh & Apostasy of some Muslims
  • Al-Isrā’ in Body

Haykal beautifully writes in the Chapter, Al-Isrā’ and the Unity of Being, “In the moment of Al-Isrā’ and Al-Mi‘rāj, Muhammad grasped the unity of being in its totality and perfection.” While noting that weaker perceptive faculties restrict our consciousness from transcending the limitation of time and space, Haykal continues about the Prophet, “In that moment, neither space nor time could prevent his consciousness from encompassing all being”.

From time to time, he also expounds upon the inner turmoil of the opposing parties (citing narrations that later reached the Muslims), which almost succeed in placing the reader on the ground, rather than hovering above as a spectator.

Translation

Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (1928-1986) in translating this work, after the many hurdles that spanned years, carried out this commendable task nonetheless in 1976. Rendering several arguments in a brief yet well-reasoned paragraph, while maintaining a flow with preceding and subsequent sub-chapters is difficult. It appears that he has adeptly sustained the argument since the reader is bound to feel compelled. The fluidity, that certain other Seerahs enjoy, such as Tahia Ismail’s, is not a characteristic of this translation.

The finest, and the most touching, is the translation of the interpretation of Qur’anic verses by al-Faruqi. Since Haykal intensely values the verses as turning points, by the virtue of Abaab-un-Nuzool, al-Faruqi’s English rendering of the holy verses arrive at pertinent moments, and do not fail to stir the heart of the reader.

Conclusion & Recommendation

The book is undoubtedly well researched where the reader, especially one who has read a couple of Seerahs, will find the brief arcs of arguments very compelling. Haykal is, at the same time, respectful of difference of opinion, and in the tradition of Adab-ul-Ikhtilaf [Ethics of Disagreement], prefers to leave the ball of final judgement in the reader’s court in several instances.

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