by Mark Chmiel
You’re one of the most enthusiastic, ardent devotees of reading I know. So I’d like to introduce you to a person who is an amazing reader and recommend his short book to you and hope one day we might discuss it at a nearby cafe. It’s called, Muhammad, by translator and essayist Eliot Weinberger (he is highly regarded as the translator of Mexican poet Octavio Paz and has also worked on translations from Chinese). It’s a dazzling, mind-blowing, breathtaking portrait.
In his “Afterword,” Weinberger writes, “During the first Gulf War, I began to read the poetry and history written during the Abbasid caliphate, from the period a thousand years ago, when Baghdad was the most civilized city in the Western world. With the invasion of Iraq, my antidote to the daily newspaper was books in Islamic philosophy and traditional sources on the life of Muhammad.” It’s eerie to realize that was 11+ years ago.
Weinberger isn’t a scholar, he is not at home in the academy, he isn’t a Muslim. He has not written the work using any historical-critical methods (there are neither footnotes nor a bibliography). Elsewhere, he has stated that he’s read poetry everyday of his life since he was 13; the present work, then, is a prose poem/collage for this secular age and the Islamophobic context of the U.S He presents the life of Muhammad in three parts and retrieves vivid and astonishing stories and perspectives on him.
For example, in Part One, on creation stories and Muhammad’s birth and youth, Weinberger reports from traditional sources such gems as the following: “When the spirit entered his eyes, and he saw his own form and the angels singing his praises, Adam sneezed. So God gave Adam speech, and he cried out: ‘Alhamdulilah,’ ‘Thanks to God.’” Throughout this first section, we encounter a series of extraordinary visions, such as when “Seventy columns of light appeared between heaven and earth.” We learn that the young Muhammad’s “shoulders were broad, his joints strong and hollow, his limbs symmetrical.” Weinberger cites one night, “when his disciples were leaving his house, he put his hand outside the door, and the light from his hand lit their way home.” Weinberger notes Muhammad’s arachnid appreciation as he ordered people never to kill spiders, “for once he hid in a cave, escaping enemies, and a spider wove a huge web across its entrance. When the enemies came, they saw the web and assumed no one had been there.”
In Part Two, we learn of the singular place Aisha had in his life: “They took baths together; he prayed lying in her arms; he received verses lying in her arms; he died in her arms, when she was eighteen, and was buried in her house. Muhammad was once asked who was his favorite person. ‘Aisha.’ ‘No, I mean among men.’ ‘Her father,’ Muhammad replied.” Weinberger tells of other significant women in the Prophet’s life, recounting that “Jibril brought Muhammad a dish prepared by the Houris of paradise, which gave him the conjugal powers of forty men, and he visited all of his wives on a single night.” And we see that the Prophet had a hard time accepting the inevitable fact of aging: “[Dhaba’s] beauty was legendary: when she sat down she would occupy a great part of the carpet and her body would be covered with her long hair. Muhammad offered to marry her, but changed his mind when he discovered she had grown old.”
Part Three focuses on Muhammad’s Night Journey and what he experienced. For example, “He saw an angel sitting with the world on his knees and a tablet of light in his hand, which the angel stared at with unrelenting melancholy. This was the angel of death, who told Muhammad that there is not a house on earth whose inhabitants he does not observe five times a day, and when relatives weep for the departure of a loved one, he tells them to hold their tears, for he will visit them again and again until none are left.” (This reminds me of the grieving woman and the mustard seed in Buddhist lore.) Weinberger points out that Muhammad “saw an angel of immense size, and half his body was snow and half fire, but the fire did not melt the snow and the snow did not quench the fire. This angel was crying: ‘Holy holy holy is the Lord who preserves entire the conflicting element of my being.’”
Weinberger brings up the following stupendous encounter: “Jibril gave Muhammad a quince, which he opened and a Houri with long black eyelashes appeared, wearing seventy green robes and seventy yellow robes of so fine a texture, and she herself was so transparent, that the marrow of her ankles could be seen like a flame in a glass lamp. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘My name is Happiness. The upper part of my body is made of camphor, the middle of amber, the lower of musk. I was kneaded in the waters of life. God told me to be, and I was.’”
I read this book with a sense of wonder, for the man, the times, the tradition, and the down-to-earth stories as well as the cosmic ones. Recently, I asked one of my former students, a Palestinian-American Muslim, what most impressed her about Muhammad. Her response: “His compassion.” I’d love to hear what you learned about Muhammad growing up in Morocco and what people you’ve known would say about him.
I’d also urge you to read another Weinberger work which had its genesis at the same time as this book on Muhammad. What I Heard about Iraq is a devastating assemblage of the record of U.S. deception, criminality, stupidity, and destruction. It is sure to regenerate your rage. It’s a marvel, like that angel of snow and fire, that Weinberger can compose two such vastly different books as these in the same period.
Love and gratitude,