Whence Muhammad?

‘Muhammadanism’ was always a heresy, a contamination, a deviation – and hence, always needed satire. Where humor inserts the uncanny into the mundane, satire exposes the decay inside the ordinary. Muhammadanism has always been understood through the satirical gesture, whether couched in scholarly objectivism or bazari insouciance.1

The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. The eighth century epic The Song of Roland – written in the eleventh century – depicts Muslims as idol-worshippers of a trinity of gods – Apollin, Tervagant and ‘Mahomet’:

“From Tervagant take they his ruby, and into a ditch they throw/ Mahomet, where foul swine rend him, and dogs hale to and fro.”

The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives. This is most legible in the tradition of a biography of Muhammad – Vita Mahumeti – that cast him specifically as a Christian heretic who got a garbled message of Christianity from a Monophysite or an Arian or a Nestorian or a Jewish monk.

Under Peter the Venerable in 1142, a translation project made a version of the Qur’an available in Latin, but those early editions included such biographies of Muhammad where notions that Muslims worshipped him – as an idol – persisted. These biographies, often with illustrations, were inserted in world histories, histories of the Church or of the Crusades throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Despite the interactions between Muslims and Christians from Spain to Sicily to Jerusalem, the understanding that Islam was a heresy of Christianity and Muhammad was a figure who could be mocked and degraded for perpetuating this heresy persisted.

Dante’s Comedy had Vergil speak directly to Muhammad — who had been sent to the eighth circle of hell for the sin of sowing schism. Dante is keen to let Muhammed himself proclaim: “See how I open myself! See how Muhammad is burst!” (Inf. 28.30-31) and all surviving manuscripts of Comedy illustrated Muhammad rent from chest to groin.

In the later medieval period, Muhammad’s portraiture gathered some more complexity – he was frequently ‘wicked,’ ‘with a desparate stomach,’ and delighted with rapes and plunder, or was seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666.

The first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649 – The Alcoran of Mahomet – made the text by Muhammad. It came via the French L’Alcoran de Mahomet (1647) by Andre Du Ryer. Matthew Dimmock notes the immense popularity and circulation of this anonymously-composed English text which was rather un-familiar with Arabic itself. It significantly imagines Muhammad as a living being – who has invaded and conquered the present Christendom:

There being so many Sects and Heresies banded together against the Truth, finding that of Mahomet wanting to the Muster, I thought good to bring it to their Colours, that so viewing thine enemies in their full body, thou mayst the better prepare to encounter, and I hope overcome them. It may happily startle thee, to find him to speak English, as if he had made some Conquest of the Nation, but thou wilt soon reject that fear, if thou consider that this is his Alcoran (the Ground-work of the Turkish Religion) hath been already translated into almost all Languages in Christendom.2

The introduction then re-states: “Good reader, the great Arabian imposter, now at last after a thousand years, is by the way of France arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or gallimaufry of errors (a brat as deformed as the parent, and as full of heresies, as his scald head was of scurf) has now been exposed to the publick view’ just as any African monster might be, for people to gaze, not to dote upon”.

The Muhammad who speaks in English — compared to an Ass, to an African monster — is inside England – just as the Turk is at the gates of the empire.

The tradition of biographies of Muhammad continued as well – with dramaturgists leading the way. Henri Boulainvilliers, Humphrey Prideaux, or Voltaire were all producers of plays on the life of Muhammad where his sensuality and his corruption of women become key personality traits.

André Du Ryer, Walter Raleigh, Henry Stubbe, Edward Gibbon, Ann Cotton, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, are just some of the writers of “true” biographies of Muhammad which focused on his blasphemy, his heresy, his sexuality, his capacity to lie – and all were produced, or reproduced, with woodcuts or illustrations that depicted Muhammad as a demon, as a deviant, as a devil.

In the seventeenth century, missionaries took their pamphlets exposing Muhammad to Egypt, to India, to Iran. Little scholarly attention is paid to the production of polemics in para-texts of the Bibles which meant to correct Muslim believers. Yet, these productions inevitably took a changed relationship between text and image to the colonized world.

Many scholars note that until the seventeenth century, depictions of Muhammad were not considered extra-ordinary – the presence of scratched out faces in hundreds of manuscript pages in the libraries of Berlin, Paris, London and DC attest to this change that occurred in Muslim practices. The Qur’an certainly prohibits worshipping idols (or images) in one or two places – and the Tradition (events and sayings of Muhammad) does prohibit depiction of human beings (or Muhammad) because they can distract the believer, cause spiritual discomfort, or imply the power to create life. (A side note here: throughout this period under review, there exists a venerable scholarly and hagiographic tradition on the depiction of Jesus and Mary in Muslim spaces. There are Traditions which note that the Prophet himself saw murals of Jesus and Mary inside the Ka’aba and left them un-touched. All the way to the robust miniature-productions of Mary and Jesus under the Mughals)

Yet, this same Tradition includes vast amounts of textual depictions of the body and features of Muhammad (shamā’il) and, since the ninth century, a whole genre is devoted to the depiction of Muhammad (Sharāt al Nabi). Muhammad and his early companions, Saints, and other religious elite were thus depicted in manuscripts and murals in Iran, in India, in North Africa, until the seventeenth century.

When we speak about the depiction of Muhammad, the sacral practices of Islam at the origins (Qur’an or the Tradition) is the only frame of analysis and enquiry. We make two grave errors here: the first is that the long history of the depiction and ridicule of Muhammad in Europe is swept away from view as irrelevant to this particular present. The second is that we ignore the histories of colonial productions on Islam in the colonized world which – either as proselytization or as scholarship – created a different hermeneutics for seeing Muhammad for the Muhmmadans.

The result of these errors is a continuation of heresies and perversions – except instead of a single Muhammad, the billions of Muhammadans are deemed to be the guilty ones. Each a heretic to the faith in freedom of expression or in Enlightenment. Hence, each needs to be confronted by a maligned Muhammad to understand the beautiful Truth. At the one side sit individual artists, thinkers, writers – all who privilege and are privileged by their adherence to the creative gods. On the other side, are millions who await their Reformation or their Glorious Revolution (either would do). There needs to be an out from these dichotomies and that must include a careful study of our collective, connected pasts.

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  1. Since long, I have been meaning to finish an argument about the centrality of the Prophet to Pakistan but … the work remains; and one import of my argument will be to demonstrate that the European understanding of the centrality of the Prophet is now the reigning understanding in Pakistan, in distinction with the pre-colonial. []
  2. Quoted in Matthew Dimmock, The Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pg. 167 []

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