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The Lives of Muhammad

The Lives of Muhammad

Kecia Ali

ISBN 9780674659889

Publication date: 03/14/2016

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Recent outbursts sparked by a viral video and controversial cartoons powerfully illustrate the passions and sensitivities that continue to surround the depiction of the seventh-century founder of Islam. The Lives of Muhammad delves into the many ways the Prophet’s life story has been told from the earliest days of Islam to the present, by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Emphasizing the major transformations since the nineteenth century, Kecia Ali shows that far from being mutually opposed, these various perspectives have become increasingly interdependent.

Since the nineteenth century, two separate streams of writing, one hagiographic and the other polemical, have merged into a single, contentious story about the life of Muhammad. Protestant missionaries, European Orientalists, Indian and Egyptian modernists, and American voices across the spectrum, including preachers, scholars, Islamophobes, journalists, academics, and new-age gurus, debated Muhammad’s character and the facts of his life. In the process, texts written symbolically came to be read literally. Muhammad’s accomplishments as a religious and political leader, his military encounters with Meccans and Medinan Jews, and—a subject of perennial interest—his relationships with women, including his young wife Aisha, are among the key subjects writers engaged, repurposing early materials for new circumstances.

Many of the ideas about Muhammad that Muslims embrace today—Muhammad the social reformer, Muhammad the consummate leader, Muhammad the ideal husband—arose in tandem and in tension with Western depictions. These were in turn shaped by new ideas about religion, sexuality, and human accomplishments.


  • [Ali] examines Muhammad biographies as a genre to which both Muslim and non-Muslim authors have contributed… The modern telling of Muhammad’s biography appears in Ali’s work as a collaboration between Muslims and non-Muslims, revivalists and reformists, sympathetic outsiders and antagonistic critics who drew not only from a more or less stable outline of Muhammad’s life, but also from worldwide notions of great men and from certain controversies… For Ali, the development of Muhammad’s biography serves to undermine the famed clash-of-civilizations thesis, in which the West and the Muslim world exist as separate and self-contained wholes. In her view, the mutual influence between Muslim and non-Muslim writers presents a world of shared values and assumptions about what constitutes authoritative evidence, in which writers who aim to defend Muhammad and those who seek to discredit him together produce a body of literature that is neither East nor West… Ali’s coverage of historical shifts among Muhammad’s followers and opponents alike challenges our ideas about universal norms… The Lives of Muhammad leads its reader to rethink assumptions about history, biography and the imagined East–West divide… [It] serves to skillfully complicate modern debates over Muhammad’s life and character, and his relevance for modern Muslims.

    —Michael Muhammad Knight, Washington Post


  • Kecia Ali is Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University.

Book Details

  • 352 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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