Ali Dashti’s “23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad”: A Review

23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad

Since this book has come up as a topic, and I have read it, I thought, insha’allah, I’d write my impressions. I ordered the book sight unseen because I like reading sirah and I liked the title. Its kind of dramatic.

Dashti appears to have been born Muslim but according to the translator’s introduction, it appears he rejected Islam for “patriotism” and established a newspaper called “Red Dawn”. This was in the 1920s. Immediately, it seems safe to assume Dashti was a socialist, most likely entranced by the Russian revolution in 1917. So he might have been an outright atheist. He must have been active in Soviet Socialist issues because he was invited to Russia to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the revolution.

Given this, I recall reading that there is a body of literature giving Marxist-Socialist interpretations of Muhammad’s (P) life. Dashti’s book appears to be one of these interpretations. Indeed, he compares Lenin to Muhammad early in the book (p. 8). Interestingly, he also compares Muhammad to other social conquerors and warriors such as Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Cyrus, Chengiz Khan and Timor. Now, he says that Muhammad was greater than they, but only because Muhammad (P) “made his way into history” without the benefit of a strong armed force and strong public opinion. I found it odd that one would not compare Muhammad (P) to other religious leaders such as Buddha, or Jesus, or Moses, or even Lao Tzu. This must give us pause to question the author’s perspective on events (especially now that we know Marxist-Leninism was a bit of a failure).

He starts in a way that piqued my interest as he objected to the Muslim tendency “to turn this man into an imaginary superhuman being, a sort of God in human clothes, and have generally ignored the ample evidence of his humanity.” I could relate to this!

He immediately launches into the issues surrounding the had?th literature and other Muslim accounts of Muhammad (P)??the possibility that some things found in the literature are self-evidently pious stories, not biographical-historical stories (such issues are often heatedly discussed by today’s Muslims). Dashti mercilessly ridicules, for instance, the had?th telling of Muhammad’s birth and Night Journey, citing Muslim religious bias as being responsible for creating what are in essence myths, fantasies and fairy-stories. He gives an appearance of fairness by indicating that conversely, Western Christian writers present a negative picture of Muhammad(P) due to their own religious biases. So, Dashti says that neither group was “capable of objective study of the facts” due to religious bias. For instance, a view of Muhammad (P) as “a liar, impostor, adventurer, power-seeker, and lecher” is not supportable and due to Western Christian bias.

After some pre-emptive praise of Muhammad (P) he begins his story.

Right off, given his condemnation of both Muslim and Christian accounts of Muhammad as not being based upon “objective facts” he totally does the exact same thing:

“What most offended the Meccan chiefs was that this call…. came from a man of lower status than themselves.” (emphasis mine)

This cannot possibly be an objective fact. To encounter this so soon after his introduction gave me pause. How he read their minds so well I do not know. While this may have been part of the Meccan chiefs’ rejection of Muhammad’s message, to say it is what most offended is a huge stretch, it would seem, and not at all an objective fact. He does this mind-reading trick quite a bit.

Another example of this is in his dismissal of the story of the Night Journey. Rather than actually exploring the stories he merely writes:

“it is obvious the Prophet did not say such things and that these childish fables are figments of the imaginations of simple-minded people who conceived of the divine order as a replica of the court of their own king or ruler.”

I found this stunningly banal.

First, it is not obvious, much less an objective fact, that Muhammad(P) did not describe the experience of the Night Journey as has been recorded in the had?th literature. And indeed, another interpretation might be: “It is obvious the Prophet(P) had an ineffable experience of The Transcendent??accounts of which are found in religious literature??and described that experience in a way the people could understand.” This is actually more reasonable than Dashti’s statement, because we know there are people who have recounted ineffable experiences of The Transcendent. So, even though Dashti wants to reduce the stories down to psycho-social dynamics, he does not really even do such a good job with that, because he doesn’t really seem to be aware of the breadth of psychological literature on such things as mystic experience, as well as other topics I’ll not outline here.

Second, Dashti will use the had?th literature when it suits his purpose, for instance, in describing Muhammad(P) as shy, or as mending his own clothes he uses had?th. He uses it for his whole story, of course! He does not explore why he would reject one had?th and not the other. One might think he rejects anything that smacks of the non-ordinary, but he seems to accept the had?th regarding the account of the beginning of the revelation??which is certainly as non-ordinary as the Night Journey. So why he ridicules one and not the other is not really clear. Though it is clear he rejects the idea that anything supernatural is happening.

He also uses the had?th to compare Muhammad (P) to famous conquerors as mentioned above. For instance, during negotiations with the Medinians before the hejra, Dashti quotes had?th. Muhammad(P) is asked how committed he will be to the Medinian tribes over his own, “On the contrary. Blood, blood, destruction, destruction! I shall be yours and you shall be mine. I shall be at war with those at war with you and at peace with those at peace with you.” Dashti writes:

“The repetition of the words ‘blood’ and ‘destruction’ brings to mind the statement of the famous French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat, ‘I want blood’.”

Uh, even I can tell the had?th’s exclaimed oath is not at all like Marat’s desire.

So, Dashti did not impress me as a very broadly-based writer or thinker, and he was not going to actually explore the issues. As a Marxist-Leninist thinker he is not aware of the transcendent, and does not think it is of importance to human life. That is a huge oversight and deficit when looking at religious texts, behaviors and issues.

His socialist leanings to not serve him well in this endeavor, for the book comes off as a form of mere??and transparent??anti-Muslim rhetoric. So entranced with “the West” and Marxist thought, Dashti seems to have unreflectively swallowed and regurgitated anti-Muslim interpretations of Muhammad(P) which are familiar to many today, and are recognized as being anti-Muslim misinterpretations of Muslim history.

It would appear that in spite of Dashti’s upbringing as a Muslim his understanding of theology was very elementary. For instance, he is very confused about All?h’s role in guidance or misguidance of the human, which is tied to the issue of “destiny” or All?h’s measuring out of good and evil, i.e. “If All?h so willed, all would believe.” So, says Dashti, is it God’s fault people do not believe? And so then how could punishment be just?

I’m not going to say this is not a subtle theological issue. All I’m saying is Dashti’s amazed confusion over this aspect of tawheed points to his poor grasp of Muslim thought, in spite of his having been raised Muslim.

Dashti completely fails to understand the very idea of “a text” and takes great exception to the Qur’?nic challenge to “produce a sur?h like it.”

First — and this is amazing to me — he writes on pp. 47-48:

“Non-Moslem scholars have found numerous grounds for questioning the intelligibility and eloquence of the Qur’an, and Moslem scholars have concurred in so far as they have found that the Qor’an needs interpretation.”

Uh, every text, and indeed every thing the human experiences, needs interpretation. Its what the human does?interpret meaning. With one sentence, Dashti throws himself to the winds of irrelevance. Indeed, it is in interpretation that one discovers the infinite intelligibility and sublime eloquence so strongly attested to by libraries of Muslim literature ? literature that is just so easily ignored, it would seem, by Dashti, in favor of a fascination with the non-Muslim literature which he seems to simply swallow whole.

He cites??so familiar to us??the idea that at times the Qur’?nic text is not grammatical, unfamiliar words are used, and other “aberrations of language”. Aside from the fact that he does not explore the actual Muslim literature on the Qur’?nic textual form, he completely ignores the evidence of the profound impact the language had on Muhammad’s(P) contemporaries??reflected in the Qur’?n itself as accusations of spellbinding words??and as attested to by Arabic-knowing Muslims across time and cultures. What Dashti – in a way indicative of a banal lack of imagination – does not recognize is that the Qur’?n is a new and unique form of language use.

Oddly, he does say this:

“… the Qor’an is indeed unique and wonderful. There was no precedent for it….”

So, he says it, but does not really understand what he is saying!

Dashti’s poor grasp of Muslim thought, and credulity in light of “Western” and Marxist (and perhaps Enlightenment) thought thus leads him towards a portrayal of Muhammad(P) not just as human, but as all too human. That is, as a person who acted out of questionable and less-than-noble motivations. Exactly what anti-Muslim literature does.

For instance, he puts forth the idea??most of us have seen it before??that with the power that came from the establishment of the Medinian State Muhammad’s(P) personality makes a drastic change. Actually, he says that Muhammad’s(P) “inner self”??that is, his real self??now makes an appearance. Here is how Dashti puts it (p. 81):

“With his thoughts fixed on the hereafter, he implored his Meccan compatriots to revere the Lord of the Universe, and condemned violence, injustice, hedonism, and neglect of the poor. Like Jesus, he was full of compassion. After the move to Madina, however, he becomes a relentless warrior, intent on spreading his religion by the sword, and a scheming founder of state. …A man who had lived for more than twenty years with one wife became inordinately fond of women.”

Well, what can I say to that? This is simply a repeat of standard anti-Muslim bigoted takes on Muslim history. No attempt to place the events in a full context (as would be needed for a psycho-social analysis) no sense of broken treaties and genocidal aggression on the part of the Qur?ysh and their allies. Just the old standby: “religion of the sword”. Sure, it’s dressed up but there it is!

It is with some horrid fascination we might recall Dashti’s dismissal of “the West’s” religiously-biased picture of Muhammad at the beginning of his book, which I mentioned above. He asserts pretty much the same thing!

According to Dashti, Muhammad(P) now acts out of revenge for his bruised ego:

“During his last ten years, which he spent at Madina, he was not the same man as the Mohammad who for thirteen years had been preaching humane compassion at Mecca. …[he] reappeared in the garb of the Prophet intent on subduing his own tribe and humbling the kinsmen who for thirteen years had mocked him.”

God forgive me, but what Dashti is saying here is that because Muhammad(P) was mocked, made fun of, called names – now that he had power he was going to go humiliate them for hurting his feelings.

Muhammad! The messenger from God! Acting like the kid everyone made fun of in school, now a success, coming to the reunion for some cheap revenge jollies.

You gotta be kidding.

I mean, I’m pretty easy, but even I am completely offended by that. God love Muhammad!

I am going to assume most readers — Muslim and non-Muslim — know that this is not actually accepted by anyone other than anti-Muslim bigot types. Muhammad was never aggressive or revengeful, nor did he have much of an ego. He didn’t change in Medina. Circumstances did. Treaties were broken — not by the Muslims. Genocidal mania was in the land — directed at the Muslims. The Muslims fought back as anyone would.

Bizarrely, Dashti seems to have no sense here that Qur’anic ayat always refer back to the historical situation. So, statements of war are relevant only in light of the Muslims being under attack, while those related to peace are — surprise! — relevant to times when Muslims are not under attack. He does not show awareness of this.

So, a long post, and no more need be written.

Dashti is himself a product (or should I say victim?) of his own times. His country was in upheaval. The socialist fantasy enticed many. Inordinate exaltation of the Enlightenment ideal of the primacy of reason seduced, and still seduces, many. Dashti’s book exemplifies both this fantasy and this seduction, such that he could no longer even dimly apprehend The Transcendent Unity??Allah Most High, and so rejected The Truth. Trying to understand and bridge multiple world views, he failed to truly enter either. Kind of sad.

I have to pray he declared shah?d? before he died, and his sins of scholarship be forgiven. But the book is lousy. Sorry.

12 July 1999

This article was originally posted in soc.religion.islam and is reprinted here with the permission of its author.

1 Comment

  1. Jeremiah, your comments about the book is very shallow. I suggest you read it again. if you are openminded you will understand what message the book is trying to give. how do you know he was a communist? you do not have any proof about that!! All those people who have come up with new ideas about islam, had been raised in very strict islamic teachings but have found discrepancies and unexpalanable things within islam. He was a master of arabic lanaguage and you know that but God has made you blind so you do not see. Please open up your eyes. Do not throw rubbish at something you do not understand. Start from page one and continue to the end, then you might understand.

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