From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Winged Words: Maxime Rodinson on the Prophet Mohammad
Date June 25, 2021 12:00 AM
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[ With Islamophobia rife in Europe and the Western hemisphere and
with France’s center and far-right parties weaponizing laicity and
scapegoating refugees, it’s time for engaged readers to reacquaint
themselves with Rodinson’s classic study. ] [[link removed]]


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Tariq Ali
June 17, 2021
Tariq Ali London Review of Books
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_ With Islamophobia rife in Europe and the Western hemisphere and
with France’s center and far-right parties weaponizing laicity and
scapegoating refugees, it’s time for engaged readers to reacquaint
themselves with Rodinson’s classic study. _



The​ most stimulating, balanced and sympathetic secular biography of
the Prophet of Islam was written by a left-wing French Jewish
intellectual in 1961. Maxime Rodinson’s Life of Muhammad was a
formative influence on my generation. It seemed to be the first real
attempt to come to terms with a culture that could not be understood
through sacred texts or works of exegesis alone. Rodinson’s
intellectual trajectory was indelibly linked to his personal and
political biography. His parents, like many other Russian Jews, had
fled the tsarist pogroms of the late 19th century, ending up in
Marseille, where his father worked in the clothing trade. Maxime, who
was born in 1915, left school at the age of twelve to work as an
errand boy. His parents had backed the Russian Revolution, and in its
wake joined the French Communist Party. But their refuge in France was
short-lived. They were dispatched to Auschwitz by Hitler’s French
auxiliaries. It’s worth recalling that the herding up and dispersal
of French Jews was at least in part a Vichy initiative. It’s a
sordid history that the Gaullists and their successors (of most
political persuasions) effectively covered up for decades. The
reintegrated fascists played a horrific role during the Algerian war
in both colony and metropolis.

Rodinson was luckier than his parents. Despite his lack of formal
educational qualifications, in 1932 he passed the entrance exam for
the School of Oriental Languages in Paris, where he specialised in
Arabic, Turkish and Amharic. His linguistic abilities saved his life.
During the war he was taken on as a military interpreter and later
worked at the Institut Français in Damascus and then the Department
of Antiquities in Lebanon, returning to France only in 1947. As well
as helping him escape the extermination camps, this accident of
location enabled a deep study of Islamic culture, its history and
origins. Back in Paris he took charge of the Muslim section of the
Bibliothèque Nationale and then taught at the École Pratique des
Hautes Études. He left the PCF after Khrushchev’s denunciation of
Stalin and the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising by Soviet tanks in
1956, but remained an independent-minded Marxist for the rest of his

By Maxime Rodinson( translated by Anne Carter) 
New York Review Books Classics; 432 pages
March 2, 2021
Paperback:  $18.95
ISBN: 9781681374925
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New York Review of Books
Rodinson was never a Zionist. His views on Israel, already critical
after Israel ganged up with France and Britain to topple Nasser,
hardened further after the Six-Day War in 1967. Sartre’s
magazine, _Les Temps modernes,_ devoted a special issue to the
Israeli-Arab conflict on the eve of the war, with contributions from
Israeli and Arab writers separated so as not to appear in dialogue.
Rodinson was the only contributor awarded space of his own. He had no
doubts about the nature of Israel as a settler-colonial enterprise,
but argued that its existence was a historical fact that had to be
recognised. His sympathies always lay with the Palestinians. To them
he would explain the sui generis character of Israeli colonisation.
The Jews were not _colons_ in the French Algerian mould. They had
nowhere to go back to. They had been gassed and burned out by Hitler;
the US and Britain had limited the number of Jewish refugees they
would accept. The Jews would resist being driven into the sea. He told
the Israelis that they should cultivate the friendship of nationalist
Arab states (Nasser proposed this to Moshe Sharett, only to be
rejected by Ben Gurion and Golda Meir). Israel did exactly the
opposite, choosing to become the principal relay of Western
imperialism in the region. None of this affected Rodinson’s attitude
to Islam and its history. His breach with the dominant Christian
narrative was permanent. He died in 2004. Three years earlier, in an
interview with _Le Figaro_ published as an appendix to this new
edition of _Muhammad_, he argued that violence wasn’t any more
intrinsic to Islam than it was to other religions.

Rodinson’s biography, which he revised more than once, first
appeared in 1961, when very little writing of any value on Islam was
available in the West. In Emmanuel Macron’s debased language, this
makes Rodinson a premature ‘Islamo-gauchiste’. Recounting the
story of Muhammad’s life wasn’t an easy task. For one thing,
unlike the compendium known as the Old Testament, there is very little
biography or history in the Quran. The first hundred years of Islam
produced military histories of its conquests, synthesised later by the
historian Tabari (whose account of the conquest of Iran and the ease
with which the population embraced Islam is still worth a read), but
not much else. Some early texts conveniently disappeared as evidence
of internecine conflicts and rival interpretations was hidden.
Finally, the dominant Sunni faction managed to agree on an acceptable
version of the Quran and the basic outlines of the Prophet’s life.
Rival accounts were suppressed and the first armed bands in the
movement began to spread the winning version of events. What possessed
Maxime Rodinson, a materialist to the core, to write a biography when
only such limited and contradictory material was available?

‘I have tried to show how his character and his ideas were
formed,’ he wrote.

I have sought to understand how his personal traits, growing out of
his psychological structure and personal history, had prepared him to
receive a special Message which he believed to come from the
Hereafter, and to comprehend how and why this Message was consonant
enough with the needs of his milieu to be received with enthusiasm,
first by a small group, then by all of Arabia and beyond. I have
attempted to understand, and to make understandable, how and why this
mystic, intoxicated with the Divine, was able to become a head of
state, a military commander and an ideological leader.

Rodinson believed that hostility to Muhammad and to Islam itself was a
result of the instrumentalisation of Christian and imperialist war
aims from the eighth century onwards. A 19th-century example of this
type of ‘scholarship’ was Sir William Muir’s _The Life of
Muhammad from Original Sources_, first published in 1861, soon after
the British brutally suppressed the Great Uprising of 1857 in India,
particularly targeting the Muslims among its leaders. The nominal
leader of the revolt, the last Mughal emperor, was exiled to Burma,
and some of his sons were executed. ‘The sword of Muhammad and the
Koran are the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty and Truth
which the world has yet known,’ Muir wrote, a sentiment still shared
by many Western politicians. In his interview with _Le Figaro_,
conducted two weeks after 9/11, Rodinson remarked that ‘the
temptation may be strong to equate [Islam] to a kind of barbarism.
This must obviously be resisted, for Islam is also the winged words of
the great Muslim thinkers.’

Rodinson begins by describing the world into which Muhammad was born.
Rome besieged by barbarians; Constantinople giving an impression of
serenity and solidity, its confident and complacent rulers gazing on
the Golden Horn, unaware of the rumblings in their lands; further
east, the rulers of Persia failing to recognise that their kingdom was
in terminal decline. Islam was, Rodinson explains, the last of the
three monotheistic religions, after Judaism and Christianity, that met
the social and economic needs of semi-nomadic trading communities in
the Arab East. Early Christianity worked away patiently at the Roman
Empire, with martyrdom helping to diffuse its ideas. The Trinitarians
laid the foundations for a serious challenge to paganism and
Constantine’s conversion did the rest. Christianity was the main
political, economic and religious rival that confronted the fledgling
faith being created in Yathrib (Medina). The concurrent implosion of
two huge empires, Byzantine and Persian, made the task of the new
religion easier. Islamic armies swept into these collapsing worlds at
astonishing speed and within a hundred years of the Prophet’s death
in 632, Islam had extended itself through force of arms to the
Atlantic coast – the _al-gharb_ or Algarve – in the west, while
its traders had reached Khanfu (Canton) in the east.

In the absence of much worthwhile Western scholarship, Rodinson’s
analytical and rationalist biography had to rely on previous works in
Arabic, including the Quran and the often unreliable _hadith_,
compilations of the sayings and actions of the Prophet. Some of these
texts are still disputed: each faction or sect picks and chooses what
it needs. The first biography was composed by Ibn Ishaq several
generations after the Prophet’s death. Though the manuscript was
carefully edited some decades later – episodes that did not tally
with the needs of the day were neatly removed – it remained a useful
reference for those who came later. The story it tells is simple: an
orphan boy from the powerful Quraish tribe in Mecca was adopted by his
uncle. Each member of the tribe in theory had the same rights and a
share in the common property. In practice it didn’t work out like
that, and because of their hidden wealth and military prowess the
elected tribal elders became an elite. In a culture where the lineages
of horses, even, were carefully recorded and the most prized animals
prevented from mating with others of inferior pedigree, Muhammad’s
orphan status – his disrupted lineage – was frowned on. He found
work in a local trading outfit run by a woman called Khadija, who took
him as her husband. Her financial, political and emotional support
played a huge role in his development before his visions, as Rodinson
calls them, began.

Muhammad never claimed to be anything other than a human being: he was
a Messenger of God, not the son of Allah, and not in direct
communication with him. The visions were mainly aural: the Prophet
heard the voice of Gabriel, who dictated the Quran on behalf of Allah.
In a largely illiterate world, in which storytelling was rife and
memories strong, history was transmitted orally. Muhammad was not the
only travelling preacher at the time; his message caught on because
the nomadic communities found it plausible. Sometimes he stated that
on a particular matter (usually related to sexuality) he had asked
Gabriel for advice and obtained his approval. Khadija became his first
follower. Breaking with his tribe, which then subjected him to the
most vicious slanders, pushed Muhammad to create a new movement. He
came to realise that tribal divisions were exacerbated by the plethora
of local gods and goddesses, with each tribe worshipping its own
favourites. Monotheism was the solution. He chose Allah, one of the
Arab gods, to be the sole divinity at the expense of other deities,
including the extremely popular women goddesses, who are honoured in
an earlier version of the Quran, but were dispensed with later when
the tribes that worshipped them converted to Islam. A rigorous
monotheism prevailed thereafter.

Hounded out of Mecca by enemies including the leaders of his own
tribe, the new Prophet and his handful of followers migrated to
Yathrib (Medina). It was in Medina that a growing movement armed
itself spiritually, with a first draft of the scriptures (more or
less) completed, and militarily, securing the allegiance of rival
tribes. Both the faith and its armies found new recruits. They moved
rapidly to take advantage of the weaknesses of Eastern Christendom and
the movement was soon in control of Mesopotamia, Syria and then

Muhammad’s death in 632 led to a factional war. He had made clear
that his followers should never present him as anything other than a
human being blessed by Allah. He was a simple messenger, not a maker
of miracles. He did not choose a successor, and disputes over who
should become caliph were the origin of the split between the Sunni
and Shia branches of Islam. War erupted within the faith when the
Umayyads, the peninsula’s first Muslim dynasty, which had itself
replaced the non-hereditary leaders who first followed Muhammad, were
themselves defeated and supplanted in 750 by the Abbasids, who
represented the enlarged fiefdom of Islam and the newly converted
non-Arab Muslims. One Umayyad prince, Abd al Rahman, fled to a
different peninsula on the edge of the Atlantic and took power in
al-Andalus, the name given by the Arabs to the whole of Muslim Spain.

The homage paid by Cervantes in _Don Quixote_ to the heritage of
Spanish Islam is seldom remarked on. (There isn’t a single reference
to it in Harold Bloom’s weak, lazy introduction to Edith
Grossman’s translation of 2003.) When he was writing the novel in
the early 17th century Spain was racked by an economic crisis whose
chief causes included the depopulation of the countryside after the
expulsion of Spanish Muslims, and inflation following the arrival of
large quantities of silver and gold from the New World. For nearly
five hundred years the dominant culture and language in Spain and
Portugal had been Arabic. In the opening pages of _Don Quixote_ the
narrator explains that he found the manuscript he is editing in the
Alcana bazaar in Toledo and that it is written in Arabic. It’s an
old language, he says, but there is another that is even more antique.
He is referring to Hebrew and signalling his own Jewish origins, still
denied by the Royal Spanish Academy. At one point the two anti-heroes
reach an uninhabited village and cautiously reflect on the ethnic
cleansing of Jews and Muslims. Towards the end of the novel, Sancho
questions his master about the meaning of a word he has just used:

‘What are albogues?’ asked Sancho. ‘I’ve never heard of them
or seen them in my life.’

‘Albogues,’ responded Don Quixote, ‘are something like
candlesticks, and when you hit one with the other along the empty or
hollow side, it makes a sound that is not unpleasant, though it may
not be very beautiful or harmonious, and it goes well with the rustic
nature of pipes and timbrels; this word _albogues_ is Moorish, as
are all those in our Castilian tongue that begin with _al_, for
example: _almohaza, almorzar, alhombra, alhucema, almacen,
alcancia_ and other similar words ... I have told you all this in
passing because it came to mind when I happened to mention

But nothing is ever told ‘in passing’ in this courageous novel. It
is perhaps the most carefully crafted work in European literature,
both parts written in the shadow of the Inquisition. In another
passage, Cervantes gives Sancho some lines whose reference to the
expulsion of the Muslims and Jews is unmistakeable: ‘I’d like your
grace to tell me why is it that Spaniards, when they’re about to go
into battle, invoke St James the Moor-Slayer and say: “St James, and
close Spain!” By some chance is Spain open so that it’s necessary
to close her, or what ceremony is that?’

In describing​ pre-Islamic Arabia, the period of Jahiliya (the state
of ignorance) according to Islamic tradition, Rodinson cites the
observation of the fourth-century Roman soldier Ammianus Marcellinus
that Arabian tribespeople are

always on the move, and they have mercenary wives, hired under a
temporary contract. But in order that there may be some semblance of
matrimony, the future wife, by way of dower, offers her husband a
spear and a tent, with the right to leave him after a stipulated time,
if she so elects: and it is unbelievable with what ardour both sexes
give themselves up to passion.

‘This description is undoubtedly an exaggeration,’ Rodinson
declares, though he admits that women played a ‘less subordinate
role among the nomads than was the case with sedentary peoples, or
than that which occurred after Islam’. That women’s lives became
more regulated and oppressed after the emergence of the three
monotheisms is beyond dispute, but women found ways to resist some of
the impositions. The Tunisian scholar Abdelwahab Bouhdiba argues
in _Sexuality in Islam_ (1975) that while patriarchy is fundamental
in Islam, the third great monotheism is better than the two earlier
ones at recognising some of the needs of women. He compares the
different versions of Adam and Eve’s expulsion in the Old Testament
and the Quran. In the former they succumb to temptation; in the
latter, despite their disobedience and punishment, they discover a new
truth. Quranic verses insist that copulation and physical love are the
true genesis of life. The pleasures of the flesh reflect the will of

Bouhdiba’s second example is the story of Joseph’s temptation. The
Old Testament version puts the blame entirely on the wife of the rich
merchant Potiphar, who tries to seduce Joseph. He resists, and the
scorned woman uses the shirt she has torn off him to accuse him of
assault. He denies it, but is imprisoned, before becoming a powerful
man who brings his father, Jacob, and his family to Egypt, escaping
the famine in Canaan. In the Quranic version, the situation is more
ambiguous. There are a number of temptations on offer. ‘Come, take
me,’ Zuleikha says. ‘God be my refuge,’ he replies. She tears
off his shirt and ‘they race to the door’ just as her husband
enters the room. The evidence is inspected and a lot hinges on whether
the shirt was torn at the front or from behind. The latter is the
case, and Joseph is acquitted. God’s intervention in order to
prevent adultery was necessary, the Quran says, ‘for she desired him
and he would have taken her.’ Imam Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and
son-in-law, believed that Joseph was about to fall. Another Muslim
exegetist, Ibn Abbas, goes further: ‘He undid his trousers, adopting
the posture of traitors.’ According to the ultra-orthodox exegete
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Joseph had taken up a position between
Zuleikha’s thighs and was undressing her, but found himself
incapable. Al-Razi writes that he is merely reporting this and does
not believe it himself. Fantasies and fictions abound in both Jewish
and Muslim accounts of the episode.

More​ than a decade ago I visited the Great Mosque in the Yemeni
capital, Sanaa. I was with an Iraqi architect, an expert in Yemen’s
mudbrick architecture. The mosque is one of the three oldest places of
worship in Islam. It was in the process of restoration and had been
carefully stripped bare. Scaffolding was everywhere. I was lucky to be
allowed in. The mosque was founded in the seventh century, possibly
during the Prophet’s lifetime, and was said to have been visited by
Imam Ali. A team of Italian experts was hard at work, flanked by
Yemeni archaeologists. Artefacts and faded murals from a pre-Islamic
past were being uncovered, some Christian, others pagan, indicating
the previous lives of the structure: temple, church, mosque. Not at
all uncommon in the Arab world and beyond. The archaeologists were
also searching for something that would help date the foundation of
the mosque.

Sanaa’s mud-brick architecture is stunning. There is nothing like it
anywhere else in the world. Whether these glories of early Islamic
civilisation will survive the destruction being wrought by the Saudi
‘guardians of Islam’s Holy Places’ and their Western allies
remains to be seen. There has been extensive damage already. The
Saudis are past masters in destroying places of importance to early
Islamic history. The royal family’s adherence to the sectarian
Wahhabi doctrine led them to order the destruction of the tombs of
Muhammad’s family and some of his closest followers in Medina.

The importance to modern scholarship of the Sanaa palimpsest is
immeasurable. It was found during restoration work in 1972, hidden in
an attic behind a false ceiling. The work in the mosque was funded by
the West German Foreign Ministry, and radio-carbon technology enabled
German scholars to read the lower layer of the palimpsest and date the
texts to between 578 and 669 ce, about forty years after the
Prophet’s death. They were transcribed in Hijazi calligraphy, and
are in a different order from any known version of the Quran. They
provide the clearest evidence to date that a version of the Quran did
exist around the time of Muhammad’s death, something the scholar
John Wansbrough and some of his disciples denied for a long time,
arguing that a ‘stable scriptural text’ did not emerge until up to
two hundred years later. These early fragments had been erased and
replaced on the top level of the palimpsest by the version of the
Quran agreed by a committee of scholars under the supervision of the
third caliph, Uthman.

The texts are preserved in the House of Manuscripts in Sanaa, where
they remained available for scholarly inspection until the outbreak of
the war that is now in its seventh year. As I write, Yemen is still
being bombed by Western-backed Saudi armed forces. Were they to take
the capital, they would have no compunction in destroying the mosque.
The fact that it was visited by Imam Ali, the inspirer and first
caliph of the Shia, would be an inducement.

Rodinson​ acknowledged his own debt to another maverick historian,
the British Christian-Marxist scholar William Montgomery Watt, whose
own biography of Muhammad appeared in the mid 1950s. Both works were
highly regarded by scholars and historians in the Islamic world. The
reason is simple. There was no mockery, and both made a firm break
with the descriptions of Muhammad as a ‘charlatan’ or
‘impostor’. Islamic empires had been seen as a challenge since
Charles Martel’s victory against the Muslim armies at Poitiers in
732 (a reference point in all French school histories), and propaganda
against the religion was unremitting. Dante honoured the Muslim
philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, but as a Christian poet he had to
do his duty, so imagined the Prophet of Islam and his son-in-law Ali
consigned to the eighth circle of Hell, one of the ditches of

No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop or end-piece, ever gapes as
one whom I saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart: his bowels
hung between his legs, one saw his vitals and the miserable sack that
makes of what we swallow excrement. While I was all intent on watching
him, he looked at me, and with his hands he spread his chest and said,
‘See how I split myself! See now how maimed Mohammed is! And he who
walks and weeps before me is Ali, whose face is opened wide from chin
to forelock. And all the others here whom you can see were, when
alive, the sowers of dissension and scandal, and for this they now are

A similar prejudice was on display when the supposedly satirical
neocon magazine _Charlie Hebdo_, treated these days as a secular
Bible by many in the French establishment, printed notorious images of
the Prophet in 2012. The octogenarian Henri Roussel, the founder of
the magazine (when it was _Hara-Kiri)_, was one of the few to
reprimand his former colleagues. After pointing out that the terrorism
in France should be put on the scales with French involvement in wars
against the Muslim world, he rebuked the editor: ‘To show, with the
caption “Muhammad: A Star Is Born”, a naked Muhammad praying, seen
from behind, balls dangling and prick dripping, in black and white but
with a yellow star on his anus – whatever way you look at it, how is
this funny?’

Islamophobia has always been present in French colonial culture. The
Maghreb wars came home and festered, with migrants (predominantly
African Muslims) on one side and white settlers and ex-soldiers on the
other. With the almost complete collapse of the anti-colonial wing of
the French intelligentsia in the 1980s, aided by the belated turn to
anti-communism in the mid 1970s, a vacuum emerged in French political
culture. The old parties of the left – the Socialist Party and the
Communist Party – hadn’t been staunch opponents of French
imperialism before the nationalist victories in Vietnam and Algeria.
The events of 11 September 2001 brought the country’s deep hostility
to Muslims and Islam out into the open. In the years that
followed _laïcité_ was weaponised.

With Macron and Marine Le Pen mud-wrestling for the presidency, French
Muslims remain a key target. Macron is playing catch-up on a field
where his opponent has all the advantages and no need to prove her
credentials. For French Muslims, there is a stench of Vichy in the
air, with pollution levels highest in cities and regions dominated by
the far right. Few are searching for antidotes to this poison, but
some exist. One of them is this biography.


_[Essayist TARIQ ALI is a British political activist, writer,
journalist, historian, filmmaker, and public intellectual
[[link removed]]. He is a member of
the editorial committee of the New Left Review
[[link removed]] and Sin Permiso, and
contributes to The Guardian
[[link removed]], CounterPunch
[[link removed]], and the London Review of
Books [[link removed]]. He read
Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
[[link removed]] at
Exeter College, Oxford
[[link removed]].  The author
of many books, including Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power
(1970), Can Pakistan Survive? The Death of a State (1983), Clash of
Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002), Bush in
Babylon [[link removed]] (2003),
Conversations with Edward Said
[[link removed]] (2005), Pirates of the
Caribbean: Axis Of Hope (2006), A Banker for All Seasons (2007), The
Duel (2008), The Obama Syndrome
[[link removed]] (2010),[4]
[[link removed]] and The
Extreme Centre: A Warning
[[link removed]] (2015),
 his most recent work is Islam Quintet, a series of linked historical
novels, depicting clashes between Western Christendom and Islamic


_Listen to Tariq Ali discuss this piece on the LRB Podcas__t_
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