Review: It’s All About Muhammad: A Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet, by F.W. Burleigh. Portland, OR: Zenga Books, 2014. 555 pp. Illustrated.
Cover illustration: Artist’s rendering of Muhammad entering either Medina after his flight from Mecca in 622, or entering Mecca on his return in 630 on a pilgrimage prior to his compelling its surrender and conversion to Islam. Illustrator unknown.
As a “prophet,” Muhammad was a late bloomer. He didn’t begin hearing voices or having hallucinations about Allah’s prescription for living and dying until 610 A.D., when he was forty years old. Twelve years later he and a handful of his converts and followers took an urgent powder from Mecca, populated by the Quraysh, who were hostile to his blasphemy against their numerous pagan gods, and fled to Medina (then called Yathrib), populated by the Khazraj tribe. It was in Medina that he developed Islam by having numerous personal sessions with Allah through the medium of an angel, Gabriel (aka, Jibreel). Or so he would claim at the drop of a turban, which was often.
Islam, after closer examination, was and still is all about Muhammad. And about nothing else. You had to take his word for everything he said had happened or will happen. He insisted on it, forcefully. Like a berserker. There isn’t a single totalitarian regime that wasn’t also a personality cult. Islam fits that description. Muhammad is its personality, and Islam is his cult.
He was the Billy Sunday of his time in that region, or if you like, a supreme showman in the way of P.T. Barnum. By the time of his death in July 632 at the age of sixty-two, Muhammad had converted all of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam, by hook, crook, military conquest, banditry, torture, extortion, genocide, terror, and murder. He was born in 570, the “Year of the Elephant,” but very likely had never seen or heard of an elephant. But Islam, especially after his demise and because of the missionary efforts of his successors, spread through the Peninsula and all compass points like scalding coffee through a cheap paper towel.
Another appropriate comparison would be that Muhammad was the Jim Jones of his time, skillful in manipulating the gullible, but his Kool-Aid was Islam, which didn’t poison men, but instead their minds, and turned them into “Walking Dead” zombies.
Or, picture Muhammad as a kind of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ranting to his congregation about hell and damnation and God-damning the Jews and Christians and all unbelievers, his Koran-thumping eliciting vocal expressions of spontaneous fervor among the flock. That was, more or less, Muhammad’s preaching style. He was a master of working his credulous converts into near hysterics, if not into a revival tent, rolling-on-the-ground lather and foaming at the mouth for salvation.
That’s if you believe he even existed, and have instead speculated that the whole Muhammad story was woven out of whole cloth over centuries by Islamic scholars and scribes in search of the perfect and unalterable Koran, supposedly dictated verbatim by Allah to Muhammad, but which they were willing to emend, correct, embellish, and edit. These worthies labored to preserve the original Meccan verses – the banal “peaceful” ones – but abrogate them with the violent ones, over a hundred of them. It’s the violent ones that defined Islam in Muhammad’s time and which define it in our own. The implication is that these ancient editors were also hearing voices. "Press one for Arabic, press two for Aramaic. You have reached Seventh Heaven….Please, leave a message stating your question….”
Also the Hadith (plural), the collection of personal behavior, practices, recollections, and predilections of Muhammad, underwent serious revision over the centuries in order to make them comport more closely with the Koran. This perpetual project was an attempt to “humanize” Muhammad, to demonstrate that he was just like everyone else.
Nevertheless, purists and Islamapologists near and far will damn F.W. Burleigh’s narrative of the life of Muhammad, It’s All About Muhammad: A Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet, or ignore it and just mutter under their breath. Muslim demonstrators will more likely froth at the mouth and develop laryngitis, as is their habit, because Burleigh’s book also boasts twenty-five pen-and-ink line illustrations, many of them depicting Muhammad at various points in his itinerant career.
The last one shows him giving a “thumbs-up” to Allah, both them seated on separate thrones in judgment of a cringing supplicant on the Day of Resurrection. In that scenario, Muhammad is acting as a kind of plea-deal attorney for those seeking to enter Paradise and be saved from a sentencing to eternal hellfire but had extenuating circumstances to reveal. He appointed himself to that role. After all, Allah is nothing if not “merciful” and open to suggestions from his “prophet,” while Muhammad was, to put it gently, full of himself. There was no appeal once a judgment had been made.
Among the verses is a celestial advisory that Muhammad must be obeyed: “It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path.”—Koran, 33:36. Note 12, Chapter 33, “Terror Has Made Me Victorious,” It’s All About Muhammad.
To call him merely narcissist would be letting him off easy. He invented the shadada as the universal profession of faith: “There is only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger).” Burleigh relates numerous instances of a person suspected of secret paganism or apostasy reciting the shadada to Muhammad to save himself from a beheading or some other form of execution. It was supposed to act as verbal shield. Often, the recitation fell on deaf ears.
And, yes, Muhammad consummated his marriage to nine-year-old Aisha, the daughter of his most loyal follower, Abu Bakr, adding pedophilia to his criminal “rap sheet,” in addition to the rape of captured women and girls after raids on caravans and Arab towns. “Weepy” Bakr, who at first objected to the proposed union, nevertheless served Muhammad to his dying day as his adviser, advance man, press agent, and public relations consultant. His submission to his employer’s desires served as an example for countless generations of Muslim parents who arranged the forced marriages of their prepubescent daughters, and still do, up to this day.
Burleigh’s biography is a compelling read, at times entertaining, but mostly informative. He brings to life what to most Westerners, and even to most Muslims, has been an abstraction, an untouchable icon never to be depicted, slandered, libeled, or mocked under pain of a death fatwa. Drawing on authoritative texts of the Koran and Hadith, together with the interpretations, histories and revisions by commentators such as Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Warraq, Al-Tabari, Edward Gibbon, Ahmed Qiresjo, and the translations of J.M. Rodwell, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and M.H. Shakir, among others, the author presents an indelible picture of Muhammad the Monster who loosed a virulent evil on the world over fourteen centuries.
While Burleigh has proved himself a creditable and dauntless researcher of all the Islamic sources, and from translations and interpretations from respected contemporary sources (there are 47 pages of end notes, and a five-page bibliography), one must take those sources with a generous dose of skepticism, because the Koran and the Hadith were works-in-progress for centuries. Robert Spencer’s book, Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, would be an ideal companion to Burleigh’s work. Burleigh performed the unenviable task of weaving together fourteen centuries worth of myriad tribal alliances and animosities, myths, lore, and legends, including commentaries, corrections, and interpretations by Islamic scholars and contemporary (i.e., modern) Muhammad and Islam authorities, into a coherent, linear, and comprehensible narrative.
Allah, the Supreme Mentor and Author, his alleged omniscience to the contrary notwithstanding, kept adding and changing things. There is no evidence that he minded the constant deletions and retentions and sent down thunderbolts to fry those who dared meddle with his words. As for Muhammad, no one else had been given a ride to Heaven on a winged mule to meet holy notables and stand before Allah’s blinding throne. Why, in Jerusalem, he had even taught Abraham and Jesus how to pray properly. So he claimed – or else.
It is difficult for Westerners to imagine Arabs as other than Muslims. But in Muhammad’s time, the majority of them were pagans, worshipping a bewildering menagerie of deities. The “prophet” set out to correct and outlaw this, and once he had destroyed the statues in the Kaaba in Mecca, he forbad idolatry in all forms, including of Allah and himself. This will partly explain the murderous riots over the Muhammad cartoons of 2005. Not that the cartoonists were idolizing Muhammad. Quite the opposite.
Burleigh reveals that Muhammad must have experienced an unhappy, “fatherless” childhood, having been given to a wet nurse for about three years by his mother. Halimah, the wet nurse, returned him to his mother claiming he was possessed by a demon. Why?
Burleigh explains that Muhammad must have had a damaged frontal lobe, and was subject also to epileptic fits (these are described or alluded to by Islam scholars). In Muhammad’s time, there was no other name for epilepsy except for the “falling sickness.” These conditions persisted throughout his life, but it was during these seizures that he had auditory and mental hallucinations about Allah and Gabriel. This is one reason why Meccans believed he was “touched in the head” or possessed by a demon. It was the only diagnosis they were capable of at the time. Combine these circumstances with an inbred paranoia, an inferiority complex, and a tenacious strain of obsessive compulsiveness, with an urge to “govern” others, and there was a recipe for the making of a psychopath. Overall, Muhammad and his record make Hannibal Lector look like a vegetarian devotee of tea and crumpets.
Of course, one needn’t have an abnormal frontal lobe to become a terrorist, nor even a dose of paranoia. Just an unhealthy strain of nihilism, of wanting to kill those who love life, and of a desire to end one’s own in the same action.
Muhammad demanded loyalty of his followers, but displayed little of it himself. For example, having met, Zaynab, the wife of his adopted son, Zayd, and ogled and lusted after her to distraction, he proposed that his son divorce her so he could marry her. The loyal son submitted. His reward was to be “divorced” from his adoptive father, who, sensing his son’s resentment, subsequently reported a new diktat from Allah: Adoption was now forbidden, and retroactively, Zayd was never his adopted son. Out the window went all inheritance rights, as well.
Muhammad was thorough in his war against the Jews (about whom, before his “visions,” he had borne no animus.) When he conquered the Qurayza Jews near Medina, he had all the males and boys, between four and nine hundred of them, beheaded, his two cousins welding the swords far into the night. The women and children were taken as booty by his army, or sold at auction in distant slave markets to raise money for horses and weapons.
The current onslaught of ISIS, or the Islamic State, through Syria and Iraq, proves that Islamic methods and ends are consistent and have not changed a whit since Muhammad’s time. Mass executions, mass rapine, looting, brutal conquest, and the imposition of barbaric Sharia law have been the practice ever since then.
Muhammad’s hubris included making himself a direct descendent or successor of Abraham and Jesus. He borrowed or cadged elements of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and various pagan faiths to cobble together his new religion (just as Christians borrowed from Greek and Roman religions before him).
There are interesting stories about the origin of the term “Allah.”
Classical Arabic co-existed with the Old North Arabian languages. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus (Histories I,131; III,8) quotes the epithet of a goddess in its pre-classical Arabic form as Alilat (Ἀλιλάτ, i. e.,ʼal-ʼilat).
On the other hand,
Allah as Moon-God is a claim put forth by some that the Islamic name for God, Allah, derives from a pagan Moon god in local Arabic mythology.
The word “Allah” certainly predates Islam. As Arthur Jeffrey (A. Jeffrey, Islam: Mohammed and His Religion) states:
"The name Allah, as the Quran itself is witness, was well known in pre-Islamic Arabia. Indeed, both it and its feminine form, Allat, are found not infrequently among the theophorous names in inscriptions from North Arabia".
Doubtless, one of the many statues in the Kaaba ordered destroyed by Muhammad upon his conquest of Mecca in 630 was of Hubal, the moon-god. Apparently it was a regal human form made of onyx. Perhaps “Allah” was a minor moon-god or goddess whose statue also merited a place in the temple and in 630 its destruction. The deity was worshipped by pagans in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
The irony is that the Kaaba (or Kabah, or the “Cube”), which Muhammad helped to reconstruct in 605 when a flash flood damaged the sorry excuse for a temple that housed all the pagan idols, was virtually rebuilt by a shipwrecked Copt Christian, Baqum, largely from the remnants of his beached vessel in Jeddah on the Red Sea. Baqum supervised the reconstruction and was a skilled carpenter and mason who ensured that the new stone walls, a yard thick at the base, would not collapse during another flash flood.
Muhammad devised and refined the ablution, or the ritual cleansing, which Muslims are obliged to perform five times a day.
…It begins with the rinsing the hands and mouth, cleaning the nostrils by breathing in water and blowing it out, washing the face, scrubbing the right arm up to the elbow and then the left arm – each step of this routine performed three times. The ritual continues with wiping the head, ears, and neck with wet hands. The cleansing is finalized by washing both feet up to the ankles, also performed three times, beginning with the right foot.
The prayer routine, equally elaborate, is characterized by precise motions of the body and arms, with exactness in placing the palms of the hands and toes of the feet while the body flexes forward and the forehead touches the ground. The prayer protestations are preceded by ritual motions one performs while standing and are followed by exacting posture while sitting on one’s knees, camel-like.
Muhammad was soon washing and praying like this five times a day, seven days a week….
Failure [by his followers] to properly perform the ritual cleansing and prayer routines would invalidate them in the eyes of Allah, Muhammad declared. (p. 80)
Muhammad performed his ablutions even more often than five times a day, to set an example for his followers, or because he was anxious about solving a problem or when he experienced a setback. The head-banging part of it must not have done much for his frontal lobe. Often his followers would note that his forehead was black and blue after performing multiple ablutions.
Muhammad also originated everything we are familiar with today when we encounter or think of Islam: Compulsory veils (of various forms) for women in public; allowing a Muslim man four wives (Muhammad allowed himself five, and a harem of concubines and sex slaves); the treatment of all women, including wives, as chattel; death for adulterous women; death for apostates, homosexuals, and anyone who slanders Muhammad or Allah; severe corporeal punishment for thieves, deceivers and hypocritical Muslims; justifiable lying to infidels (taqiyya) to gain their trust before enslaving, subjugating or killing them; poll or head taxes (jizya) on kaffirs or infidels, or taxes on a whole group; and the prohibition of alcohol, games, music, and the mixing of the sexes, even in mosques.
Today, however, young “radical” Muslims broadcast what can only be called “Allah Rock” music over the Internet, or lull themselves into a jihadist trance by listening to monotonous “official” Arabic music laced with lyrics about the greatness of Allah and Muhammad and how the world’s going to pay for denying them and how wonderful it would be to martyr oneself in a suicide vest and take as many infidels as possible with one.
As he did with Abraham, Muhammad was not above recasting other biblical and Judaic persons into strictly Islamic roles.
For example, per the Koran, about the "end days," when the "Evil One," Dajjal, besieges Damascus and threatens the First Mahdi, Jesus goes to the gates, exhales, and many in the Evil One's army drop dead because they're kaffirs or infidels or unbelievers. Then righteous, true-believing Muslims explode from the mountains to finish the job in an orgy of slaughter.
"Dressed in armor and wielding two swords and a shield, Jesus stalks the Evil One on the battlefield. He slays him in the grand finale at one of the gates of the city and leaves the battlefield with his shield splattered with the blood of the Evil One." (p. 257)
Not exactly a pacifist fellow who turned the other cheek and loved his enemy.
Further on in Mohammad's version of Christ, Christ will succeed the First Mahdi and rule over a utopian world. Everyone will have a goat and a camel and bushels of pomegranates each the size of a Chevy pickup. Christ will live on for forty years, get married (no mention of the number of wives), have lots of kids, then die, and will be privileged to be buried next to Muhammad. Then, on the Last Day, in Seventh Heaven, Jesus, resurrected, will act as an intercessionary in the judgment of the naked billions eligible to enter Paradise or to be tossed into hellfire (after first being chopped up by Satan), but may be overruled by Muhammad, the Supreme Intercessionary. What a court case load, and all the defendants are nude, too!
Mohammad made up a lot of this stuff during his Friday sermons in Medina, and people bought it, in fact, lapped it up. He was, as the colloquial line goes, “a legend in his own mind.” And in the minds of his converts. In Medina, when he was having one of his epileptic “visitations” with Allah by way of Gabriel, believers would flock to his quarters in al-Qaeda (“the base”) to witness it first-hand and to be the first to hear the latest pronouncement. If Muhammad happened to wash his hands in a bowl and spit in it, believers would rush to pass the bowl around to splash the water and his spittle over their faces. That could be called “gross groupiness.”
As for non-Muslims, and especially Jews, Muhammad made them the target of submission (or “Islam”), subjugation, or death.
“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (Koran, 9:29).
The truth is that many of Muhammad’s converts were attracted to Islam by the prospect of seventy-two doe-eyed renewable virgins in Paradise, especially if they martyred themselves in battle, or to the promise of loot and sex slaves that their “right hands” possessed. The nub and rub is that Muhammad could be said to be responsible for the double meaning of “booty call,” although no Islamic scholar I know of is likely to admit it. Muhammad made it an iron rule that he would take only one/fifth of the booty, whatever its form: women to sell, camels, goats, sheep, gold, silver, land, harvests. The rest went to his army, earlier consisting of only a few hundred spiritual marauders and opportunists; later they numbered in the thousands.
After an epileptic episode, Muhammad would emerge from it and say in two voices – his own and Allah’s in what must be the oddest ventriloquist act in history – “strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah” (Koran, 8:60). He had the habit of speaking to his congregations as though he were, séance-style, sans Ouija board, transcribing verbatim the direct commands of Allah. Then he would switch to the humble role of “messenger” of what Allah had just commanded.
Muhammad wouldn’t recognize Mecca today. It’s being Disneyfied by the Saudis into a lush pay-as-you-go pilgrimage madhouse (or anthill), complete with luxury hotels and apartment towers, shopping malls, and even a Starbucks and perhaps a halal McDonald’s. Not that it ever wasn’t a madhouse in its brick-and-mortar days, a whirling maelstrom of white-garbed bodies performing their stations of the crescent moon around the Kaaba during the Hajj. But the Saudi makeover of Mecca, to judge by the Daily Telegraph pictorial, resembles more Las Vegas than a pilgrimage destination, with Muhammad the Unforgettable as its attraction.
F.W. Burleigh must be credited not only for having researched Muhammad’s life and created a person with flesh and bones (and an addled skull) from a vast storehouse of documented information, but for having the courage to tell it “like it was” about history’s most notorious “prophet.” His book is well worth the time to read.
I guarantee you will come away with a new understanding of what makes Islam and jihadists tick. Basically, it’s Muhammadan insanity armed with a razor-sharp sword looking for a convenient neck to strike, or an empty, weak, malleable mind to fill. And whether they’re called al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or ISIS, or Hamas, or Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood or any of its sundry and cousinly franchises , they are all nihilistic psychotics.