SHAFAQNA – The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad
by Barnaby Rogerson
On the morning of his death, the Prophet Muhammad unexpectedly appeared before his followers in the city of Medina as they gathered for prayers in the makeshift mosque that also served as his home. No one had seen him for some time. Rumours were swirling around the city about his ill health. The Messenger of God was dying, people said, perhaps already dead. So when he suddenly turned up on that sunny morning in 632 CE, looking stout and rosy if a bit greyer than anyone remembered, the anxiety about his health gave way to shouts of jubilation. A few hours later, when the prayers had ended and the congregation had dispersed, Muhammad slipped back to his room, closed his eyes and quietly breathed his last.
As news of Muhammad’s death spread through Medina, the elation that had accompanied his appearance at the mosque quickly transformed into raw panic. Muhammad had done nothing to prepare his followers for his demise. He had made no official statement about who should replace him, nor had he put into place the mechanism by which a leader could be chosen. It was as though the possibility of his death had not occurred to him.
Meanwhile, the Muslim community was growing faster than anyone could have imagined and was on the verge of splintering into competing sects. For more than a decade, all that had kept the community unified was the sheer magnitude of Muhammad’s charisma. With his death, the internecine power struggles that had been simmering for years among the Muslim leadership suddenly came to a boil. Indeed, Muhammad’s corpse had yet to be washed before a row flared up among his friends, family and earliest followers over which of them should take his place at the head of the community.
What began on that sombre morning as a simple argument over succession was to erupt into a bloody civil war that permanently fractured the Muslim community into rival religious and political factions, whose quarrels would reverberate throughout the Muslim world to this day.
It is at this pivotal moment in history that Barnaby Rogerson picks up the story of Islam. Essentially the sequel to his acclaimed biography of the Prophet, Rogerson’s new book follows the reigns of Muhammad’s first four successors, or caliphs: the zealously loyal early convert to Islam, Abu Bakr; the deeply pious though unapologetically misogynistic warrior, Umar; the kindly yet politically inept septuagenarian, Uthman; and Ali, the Prophet’s beloved nephew and son-in-law, the man whose partisans (the Shiatu Ali) would one day launch a wholly new sect in Islam – the Shia. Together, these so-called “Rightly Guided Caliphs” ushered in a time that most Muslims regard as the Golden Era of Islam, a period in which the small community of faith that Muhammad left behind blossomed into a vast empire stretching from the Indian subcontinent to North Africa. What Rogerson’s astute scholarship and detailed narrative shows is that this period in Islamic history was in reality far from a golden era.
To begin with, Muhammad’s death unleashed deep-seated tensions that had existed for years over issues as diverse as how to divide tax revenues equitably to what it even meant to be a Muslim. Rogerson deals adroitly with these internal conflicts, delving into the intricate sociopolitical composition of ancient Arab society with the skill of a historian and the flair of a novelist (though, remarkably, he is neither). This is no dry history, but an absorbing narrative, full of action and intrigue, with historical figures so complex in their motivations and compelling in their characterisation that they leap off the page.
Rogerson’s principal profession is as a writer of guidebooks, an experience he puts to use in The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. It is clear that this is a writer who has trekked through the landscapes he describes, who has tasted the hot winds as they sweep off the sand dunes and witnessed for himself the otherworldly glow of the desert sun as it hovers just above the horizon.
Unfortunately, the same attention to detail that brings the Arabian landscape to life becomes tedious as Rogerson’s focus switches from the internal tensions of the Muslim community to the external threats faced during its expansion into the hitherto impenetrable borders of central Asia and western Europe. Empires often rise and fall on the field of battle, but Rogerson’s exhaustive depiction of nearly every skirmish fought by the Muslim armies in its first 50 years slows the narrative to a crawl. He would have better served his narrative if he had painted Islam’s wars of expansion with broad strokes rather than such a fine brush.
On the other hand, he could have paid more attention to what the book’s subtitle promises will be a discussion of “the roots of the Sunni-Shia schism”. Much has been written about this topic since the occupation of Iraq launched a civil war between the two sects the like of which has not been seen in 1,400 years. But neither the theological nor, for that matter, the political origins of this conflict are very deeply mined in Rogerson’s text. Instead, he simply recounts the stories he has culled from the traditional histories of this tumultuous period and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to how and why the unified Muslim community so suddenly split upon the death of Muhammad into Sunni and Shia sects.
Whatever its scholarly shortcomings, The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad vividly illustrates how the debates, the divisions and the sometimes bloody conflicts that resulted from trying to discern God’s will in the absence of God’s Prophet ultimately gave birth to the varied and wonderful traditions of the Muslim faith.