Armstrong, 'Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time' When the Pope spoke of jihad, and when Danish cartoonists published caricatures of a violent prophet Muhammad, Karen Armstrong blamed "Islamophobia." The author talks about her second biography on the prophet, entitled Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time and warns against what she calls the "myth of Islam as a chronically violent religion."
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Armstrong, 'Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time'

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Armstrong, 'Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time'

Armstrong, 'Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey today, amid heavy security, on his first visit to a Muslim country as pontiff. The trip follows angry protests over comments the Pope made a couple of months ago.

Back in September, he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor who characterized the prophet Muhammad's teaching as evil and inhuman. The Pope later expressed his regrets, but at a joint appearance today, Turkey's chief of religious affairs Ali Bardakoglu, made an indirect reference to the controversy. He said, quote, the so-called conviction that the sword is used to expand Islam in the world and growing Islamophobia hurts all Muslims.

Since 9/11 there's been intense debate about the tolerance, the militancy, and the goals of Islam. Yet many of us know little about the religion and the man who founded it.

Religion writer Karen Armstrong has just published her second biography of Muhammad that places the life of the prophet in the context of his times, and that's our main focus today.

Later in the hour, we'll talk with NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly about terrorism, the Taliban, and America's uncomfortable alliance with a military dictator in Pakistan.

But first, Muhammad. Who was he? What do we know about him? And how can our understanding of his life help us better understand the world today? If you have questions for Karen Armstrong, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

Karen Armstrong now joins us from our New York bureau. Her new book is “Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time.” It's part of the Eminent Live series from Atlas Books. And, Karen Armstrong, always nice to have you on the program.

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, “Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time”): Thank you very much indeed. Good to be back.

CONAN: And I guess we have to begin with the point that a cleric raised today in Turkey, what he described as the so-called conviction that the sword is used to expand Islam in the world. And I guess that goes back to our perception of Muhammad himself, who was both a prophet and a warrior.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, he was a warrior rather against his will and inclinations. He was a merchant by trade and came from Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz. And the people of Mecca, because they were engaged in traded, actually abjured warfare. They were not warriors, and the Koran shows that when warfare became part of the scene in the early days of Islam, many Muslims found this extremely distasteful and disturbing.

Muhammad, however, found himself after he'd been preaching in Mecca for a number of years, having made very little headway - the subject of persecution, his - and eventually the people of Mecca, the Meccan establishment, attacked him, and their vowed intention would have been to exterminate the Muslim community.

And so for about five years, Muhammad was engaged in a war of self-defense. The Koran makes it quite clear that the preemptive strike or any form of aggressive warfare is always an awesome evil. Muslims may only fight to preserve decent values. And the moment the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down their weapons immediately and negotiate and take whatever terms are offered in order to preserve normal relations again.

CONAN: As you know, that's a subject of some controversy, exactly how militant Islam is and indeed how militant Muhammad was. He did unite his country Saudi Arabia, as it's known today - it was not known as Saudi Arabia then, but the Arabian Peninsula - but with the sword.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, actually he found after five years of this defensive warfare that warfare has an awful momentum of its own and that, as we found in our own time, that when you go for war to make peace, very soon both sides are committing appalling atrocities that go against the principles for which they were fighting. Mohammad found this, too.

And so in 628 he started a campaign of nonviolence. He announced to his followers that he was going to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, during which a pilgrim is not allowed to carry a weapon. So, 1000 Muslims went unarmed right into the lion's den, right into enemy territory.

The Meccans came out to kill him, but Muhammad managed to elude them. And then he sat down in the Meccan sanctuary and negotiated with the Quraish and took terms that his followers thought were shamefully weak. He seemed to give away every advantage that they'd gained.

But then the Muslim historians insisted that this was the turning point. After that point, the Arabs were so impressed by this show of nonviolence really that they started to convert in far greater numbers. And two years later, Muhammad entered Mecca, which had opened its gates voluntarily to him, with no bloodshed, and nobody was forced to convert to Islam.

CONAN: The Quraish are the tribe that was in control of Mecca at the time.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, I should have explained.

CONAN: Interestingly, though, you present one of the things that is - a lot of people would find surprising about the life of Muhammad, that things such as the, you know, the annual march to Mecca existed before Islam did.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, yes, it was a very ancient pilgrimage made by all the Arabs to the Kaaba - that square, cube-shaped granite shrine in the middle of Mecca. And it was dedicated very early as people thought it belonged to Allah, the high God of Arabia. And by the time Muhammad came along, many Arabs were convinced that Allah, that their high God, was identical with the God of the Jews and the Christians, so much so that Christian Arabs used to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca alongside the pagans.

CONAN: And the context in which you place Muhammad's life, as you mention, a successful businessman, yet that is - there was an unusual profession. The cities of Arabia, including Mecca, were newly born, and in fact there was a great deal of discomfort, as you describe it, between the lifestyle of the Bedouin, in which warfare was constant, and indeed the city lifestyle, where it gets in the way of business. War is no good for business.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Indeed, and so the Quraish - which are Muhammad's tribe who were in control of Mecca and had become spectacularly successful in business and commerce - they gave up violence because Mecca had to be a place where all the Arabs could come and trade regardless of tribal warfare or regardless any enmity they might incur from neighboring tribes. And so Mecca was the most adventurous city in the Hijaz.

But not only was there a conflict about violence, but also because of the infant capitalist economy, some people were getting richer, some tribes were getting richer, and some people were getting poorer. And the tribal ethos demanded that everybody look after all the weaker members of the tribe. And the Koran shows that there was great disturbance about this.

The bedrock message of the Koran is not a doctrine. The Koran is very scathing of metaphysics and orthodoxy. But it's a message that it's wrong to build up a private fortune selfishly and good to share your wealth fairly with other people and to create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people are treated with respect. That is the criterion of Islam. That's the message that came out from the very first of the revelations that Muhammad received from God.

CONAN: Our guest is Karen Armstrong. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And let's see if we can get Bennett on the line, Bennett calling us from San Antonio, Texas.

BENNETT (Caller): Yes, it's interesting to know about Muhammad, but the practice of Muhammadism in many countries is highly discriminatory. It's very - almost impossible in Saudi Arabia, other countries, to have churches, for clergymen to walk the street carrying crosses, or Buddhist to practice, whether it's Pakistan or Iran or formerly Iraq and whatever. Some of the more moderate countries permit it, but only not too much exhibition. And I think the practice is more important than the theory.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely, Bennett, is it, from San Antonio. You're absolutely right that practice is always more important. For centuries, for generations, Muslims, the Muslim world, was far more tolerant and friendly towards other religious traditions than Christianity was in Europe. There was nothing in - until the 20th century - that resembled the Christian anti-Semitism that raged for a thousand years in Europe, one of the great shames of Christianity.

So - but - and now, unfortunately, as you quite rightly say there are some countries who under the pressure of modernization and the pressure of politics have adopted a harder line.

I would sort of question Pakistan, however. I was in Pakistan earlier this month, and I know in England Pakistan, I'd probably hear, too, is acquainted - someone said to me in Pakistan, what do you think in England when you hear the word Pakistan? And I said, trouble. You know, we usually think of it with terrorism and the Taliban. But an utterly delightful people with a lot of thriving Christian community and a very, a very different picture of Islam from the Arab countries into which I visited.

BENNETT: Yes, there are Christian churches, but they have to operate at a low key. They cannot be too public. When American soldiers were in the Middle East, they couldn't have church service.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, indeed. As I say that there are some countries that have turned away from the old practice that prevailed for about 1500 years in Islam of being extremely supportive of - if you look at Christian Spain, for example, in Europe under Islam, there Christian and Jews were allowed full religious liberty, and there was nothing else remotely comparable to it in Europe at that time, where Jews were persecuted and where Muslims were slaughtered in Crusades.

BENNETT: Would you say that perhaps the European influence in Muslim countries turned the whole thing around in the 20th century?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I think the intervention of colonialism by the - first of all, by the British and the French, the Italians, Germans, and others - has certainly affected things. Though even so, you can't make a hard and fast rule here because many of my Muslim friends who grew up in the colonial period used to - they were Muslims, but they'd go to convent schools or Jesuit schools because they were the best schools around. It's only recently, as things have halted up, perhaps more with the United States that has given Christianity a bad name.

CONAN: We're talking today with Karen Armstrong about her new biography of Muhammad. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us, I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Today we're talking with Karen Armstrong about her new book, a biography called “Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time.” Of course you're welcome to join the conversation. If you have questions for Karen Armstrong about Muhammad, give us a call. Who was he? What do we know about him? How can our understanding of his life help us better understand the world today? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

And one of the curiosities of studying a life of Muhammad, Karen Armstrong, is that you don't know very much about it until he's about 40 years old.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, indeed, because until that time he was a relatively obscure citizen of Mecca and nobody bothered to make a record of his life. Legends grew up, pious legends grew up - as they do around any great man about his infancy - showing that he was immediately marked with divine favor from the cradle.

CONAN: Even then he knew, yes.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Even then. But these really have not much historical value. And our primary source for Muhammad's life are first of all the Koran, which doesn't of course tell the story of his life, but which often refers to events and problems that he was encountering in the early Muslim community.

And also quite early, four Muslim historians tried to find an objective way of describing and telling the story of their prophet's life, and they weren't hagiographic. They showed the prophet sometimes in a quite critical light and were honestly attempting to find - to do history, modern history. It wouldn't - they - these wouldn't satisfy a modern historian. Of course, they're eighth, ninth century, but they do nevertheless give us more information about Muhammad than we have about the life of nearly any other founder of a major world faith.

CONAN: And is there any way - even when you get into the historical period where people were - to separate out legend from fact?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, these people were men of their time, and they sometimes include events of a miraculous nature that we would interpret differently today. But by and large, they're pretty factual. They give us - they go into enormous detail about the circumstances that each revelation was revealed to Mohammad.

And they did this for a reason. Because as the Muslims moved out of Arabia into a much more wider, complex, larger world the legislation and the Koran was no longer really applicable. It was too - first, too simple, too small a society.

And so by looking at what the prophet had done in certain circumstances, helped them as they created Muslim law to say what would the prophet have done now by applying the principle of what they called analogy. So the history was done in considerable detail, so you know really what the prophet was doing, what he was thinking, what he worrying about, when each of the revelations came down to him.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Mike is with us from Staten Island in New York.

MIKE (Caller): Yes, hi. Comparing the Koran to the Bible and the Torah, did Muhammad himself write the Koran? Did he make it up? Is it poetry? And the other thing is what about the scientific aspects of the Koran, comparing also to the other scriptures? Thank you very much. I'll listen off the air.

CONAN: Thanks, Mike.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Well, Muslims would say that Muhammad did not write the Koran. The Koran was revealed to him, but that didn't mean he was a just a sort of telephone receiving passively divine messages. The early sources show him agonizing. He'd sweat and grow pale, and even on a cold day, he would be sort of - he would sweat and be - need to be covered up or he'd shiver with the effort of trying to bring peace to his people, a religious and spiritual solution that would bring peace to war-torn Arabia.

And you hear him almost listening for the Koran rather as a poet listens to the words of a poem as they gradually declare themselves to him, rising up from his subconscious to his conscious mind. And the Koran is extraordinarily beautiful poetry. Now that doesn't come over in translation anymore. I mean Shakespeare sounds rotten in French, for example.


Ms. ARMSTRONG: But it's meant to be listened to. The word Koran means recitation, and it's chanted and still has the power to, when listened to, to bring about a sense of peace and awe and wonder. The language was astonishing to the Arabs of that time, and many of them were converted by the sheer beauty of the Koran.

CONAN: Let's get a call in from David, David calling us from Sacramento, California.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, good morning.

CONAN: Good morning where you are. Good afternoon here.

DAVID: Oh, thank you. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to - I'm a student of Islam as well, and I've studied in great detail. Karen, you mentioned earlier that much of the warfares and fights that Muhammad had involved in them were kind of in self-defense. That's what I got from you.

But I want your comment, while I do agree with you that first 10 years that Muhammad was in Mecca, he was not involved in violence - physical violence at least. But immediately, once he immigrated to Medina, very first seven or eight months that he was there, he sent his groups - a number of people, ranging from 10 to 50 people - to raid some (unintelligible), to raid other communities and get booties and those kind of thing. And in those - one of them - I believe it was Naclar(ph), as it is written in biography of Muhammad by Alwakati(ph) or (unintelligible), that first they started killing and taking the booties. And then of course, Meccan merchants, his own tribe, came to defend their trade (unintelligible) to get basically rid of him. Then they...

CONAN: And that'll - David, I'm afraid we're going to have end the question there. Let Karen Armstrong reply.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: OK, right. Thank you very much. This certainly, the Hazu(ph), the acquisition raid, was part of the economy of Arabia. Nobody thought it was bad, because there simply were not enough resources to go round. One tribe were - it was a sort of national sport - one tribe would raid another, taking great care as far as possible not to kill anybody so as not to cause a vendetta, but taking off camels or produce or other bootie because it was a way of ensuring a rough and ready distribution of wealth.

When Muhammad went to Medina, he had no means of livelihood. There was no - very little possibility for trade up there in Medina. And he was not - they were not, the Meccans, were not farmers. They didn't know anything about date farming. So he started acquisition raids against the Meccan caravans. And the first lot, the first eight or nine raids, were utterly unsuccessful because the Meccans were no good at this. They were extremely inept. And finally they got to Naclar and, as you say, unfortunately one man was killed.

Now the justification Muhammad gave for this was that they had been persecuted in Mecca. Before they were forced to leave their homes, go leave their tribe - an unthinkable catastrophe in Mecca - in Arabia at this time, because they had been - the Meccans had tried to starve them out, they'd attacked their more vulnerable people, they'd expose some of them to the sun and laid stones upon them. I mean it had been a very ugly scene indeed. And there had been several attempts to assassinate Muhammad.

So he was saying this is - it's bad to raid your own people, but it's also bad to persecute others and drive them from their home. Now my point is, and I mentioned this earlier, that Muhammad found that he was on a very slippery slope. Once you start doing that kind of thing and start using violence, then, as I say, warfare acquires its own ugly momentum. And the warfare then began. And on both sides atrocities were committed, and as we found that in our day when we've gone to war to make peace and look what's happened on both sides.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: So - and it was at that - finally, I think after a particularly appalling atrocity, Muhammad suddenly realized something's got to cut this cycle. And that's when he initiated his non-violent policy after five years of this warfare.

CONAN: Among the atrocities is one that sort of rings down through history, and that is the extermination of the Qurayza tribe who were Jews. And this has obviously had resonance throughout time.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, it hasn't had resonance throughout time, actually. It's an appalling act and it was this act that made Muhammad give up warfare and go for peace. But there were 17 - there were 20 tribes, Jewish tribes in Medina. Three of them were found to be a security risk at the height of the war with Mecca. They sided with Mecca.

And Qurayza had tried to let the Meccan army into Medina during the siege, in which case they would have slaughtered the community. And this would have been - you know, the killing of the men, the selling of the women into slavery, this would have been regarded as Arab practice.

But the other 17 tribes who had not attacked Muhammad continued to live in Medina alongside the Jews in peace. And anti-Semitism, until the 20th century, has been a Christian vice. Muslims did not, until the 20th century - until the middle of the 20th century, after the creation of the state of Israel - they did not use this story to say we've always been against Jews. Jews were welcome in the Muslim empire.

And, indeed, when Khalif Omar conquered Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines in 638, shortly after Muhammad's death, he invited the Jews to come back and live side-by-side with the Muslims in Jerusalem. The Christian Byzantines had not allowed the Jews permanent residence in the holy city of Jerusalem. The Muslims brought them back.

And in the 7th century some Muslims called the - some Jews called the Muslims the precursors of the Messiah because they got a better deal under the Muslims than they got under the Christians.

Now so this was an appalling act, the killing of the Qurayza tribe, but it was not anti-Jewish. It was one of these exigencies of warfare. This was the standard punishment for treachery. And as I say, the other 17 tribes continued to live in peace.

CONAN: Karen Armstrong's new book is “Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time.” You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Andrew on the line. Andrew calling from Kansas City.

ANDREW (Caller): Hey. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ANDREW: Very interesting program. Thank you.

CONAN: Sure.

ANDREW: I'm a Coptic priest. This means I'm an Egyptian priest, Christian priest. And I have seen a rather harsh side of the Islam in the last 50 years, as your guest is saying. And there is a claim that the Prophet Muhammad is the best man ever born or walked on Earth, but his practices with women are really put (unintelligible) to shame.

He - Muhammad married a six-year-old girl and had unusual sexual practices with her until she was nine years old before he consummated the marriage. Can you please speak to that?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. First of all, no - not one of the great world religions has been good for women. They've all sort of fallen down on this. But this story about I think - I presume you're referring to Aisha. He did marry the child, but this was common practice in the pre-modern world and it continued in Europe well into the early modern period.

Dynastic marriages were made between minors often in absentia. And Aisha continued, the historian Tabary(ph) said, because of her youth to live in her parent's home until she was into puberty. And then she moved in with the other wives.

Muhammad actually was very, very keen on the emancipation of women. He liked women. He liked their company. He did his own chores. He mended his own clothes. And he took - used to take women along with him on his military campaigns and would ask their advice and listen to them very seriously.

He - the Koran introduced legislation on women's behalf that women in the West wouldn't get until the 19th century, giving women rights of inheritance and divorce; that certainly wasn't the case in Europe at that time. But he couldn't take all his followers with him.

He - most of his followers were typical Arab chauvinists and they thought that he was mad to allow women so much leeway. And so there was great tension between them. The Koran, like the New Testament indeed, has a rather mixed message for women. Some passages are very positive, others are rather sort of backward peddling.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks for the call. We appreciate it. And we just have a few seconds left with you Karen Armstrong. This is your second biography of Muhammad. The first one I guess about 15 years ago. Why a second biography of Muhammad?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I was invited to abbreviate the first biography for the Eminent Lives series, which are short biographies - 50,000 words. And when I started to abbreviate it and cut it about, I thought, you know, this isn't working very well.

Furthermore, when I wrote my first biography of Muhammad all we had to worry about in those halcyon days was Salman Rushdie, and now things have got -obviously we're in a different world. We need to look much more closely at questions like warfare than I did in the first one, and women. And so I thought it's no good trying to salvage the old one. Chuck it out and start again.

CONAN: The new book is “Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time.” It is part, as Karen Armstrong mentioned, of the Eminent Lives series published by Atlas Books. And Karen Armstrong thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Karen Armstrong was in our bureau in New York.

When we come back from a short break, Mary Louise Kelly, NPR's senior intelligence correspondent, joins us. She's just back from a reporting trip to Pakistan. If you have questions about her trip or about the Taliban, al-Qaida, nuclear weapons and the politics of Pakistan, give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail:

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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