A history of Muhammad’s life and the beginnings of Islam through the lens of peace.
Throughout, Cole (History/Univ. of Michigan; The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, 2014, etc.) asserts that the fledgling religion was guided by a philosophy of peace, resorting to violence only for self-defense. The author begins by setting the tale of Islam in the midst of “an unprecedentedly savage world war” during the early seventh century, principally between the eastern Roman Empire and Sasanian Iran. This backdrop of conflict between empires and civilizations informs much of the story behind Islam’s beginnings. Indeed, Cole sees Islam as having grown out of an international background, assuming—sometimes perhaps too much—a familiarity and interplay between far-flung cultures, religions, and philosophies. The author portrays Muhammad as a cosmopolitan who traveled widely and absorbed ideas from a range of cultures. As Cole traces Muhammad’s story from Mecca to Medina and beyond, he paints the picture of a humble spiritual leader who was committed to ecumenical dialogue, the peaceful resolution of all conflicts, and the fair treatment of even his most bitter enemies. “Muhammad’s religion,” writes the author, “was triumphant but not vindictive.” Cole views Muhammad’s return to Mecca, often referred to by others as a conquest, as nonviolent in character. The author admits that a culture of violence arose after Muhammad’s death, but he only touches on how the Quran, which he reads as a book of peace and tolerance, could have been so misinterpreted by later believers. The concept of “jihad,” for instance, so charged in modernity, receives little more than one paragraph of treatment. The book is intelligently, if somewhat tediously, written and will require a strong knowledge of Islam and ancient Near Eastern history. The author helpfully includes an appendix, “Qur’an Verses on Peace Relevant to this Book.”
An intriguing yet incomplete portrait of Muhammad.