Muhammad (Maxime Rodinson)

maximerodinson_muhammadMaxime Rodinson’s Muhammad has long been regarded as one of the touchstones of scholarship on the founder of Islam. Thirty years after its first publication in English, it remains the definitive introduction to the Prophet’s life.Drawing on wide-ranging scholarship and imaginative insight into the Prophet’s personality, family, background, and wider society, Rodinson’s Muhammad offers a vivid account of how he spread the word of Islam, created a sect and state, and defeated his enemies, establishing the first great Muslim military power — a power that was soon to control territory stretching all the way from the Pyrenees to the borders of China.For anyone who wants to understand the historical roots of one of the world’s great religions, Rodinson’s Muhammad provides the ideal guide to a fascinating and timely subject.

Muhammad is a secular biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad written by prominent French non-Muslim Islamic scholar Maxime Rodinson in 1961. It focuses on the Religious, Geographical and Political conditions of emergence of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.

In Egypt, in 1998, censorship controversies forced the American University in Cairo to stop publishing the book.

The author

The writer Maxime Rodinson was born in Marcelice, Paris, France, in the 1915 in a very poor communist family. He received a formal education from elementary school, but continued his studies privately by simply serving his teachers who did not ask him for any kind of tuition.[1] Very hard-working, Rodinson entered professional life, i.e. he began his career as Errand Boy [2]. He was admitted to Ecol Des orientalas in 1932, where he obtained top marks and mastered more than thirty languages, in particular Arabic and Ethiopian. He was admitted to the “National Research Council” in 1937 and studied Islam in depth. Maxime Rodinson was a collaborator in 1940 at the French institute in Damcus, and for the next seven years he was director in Sadoon and Berut (Lubnan).
In 1948 Rodinson was appointed librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, later responsible for the Muslim section at the same institute. In 1955 he was promoted to Director of Studies at the Ecole partique des Hautes Ethdes. In 1960 he was appointed professor of Ethiopian languages, where he served for a long decade, retiring from the same place where he had returned to France, where he died on 23 May 2004 and was buried in Paris. Maxime Rodinson was born into a Jewish family, joined the Communist Party in 1937 and left in 1958, when he criticized Stalen Marshal for his post-war policy. He also abandoned Judaism and later declared himself an agnostic.

[1] Rothschild John, The Persistence of the Jewish Question, Oxford University Press, London, 1981, Cover Page.
[2] A small boy who carries necessities of life from some shop of grocessory or a general store for the people who give some wages to the boy.


Description of the then Arabian Peninsula

Maxime Rodinson was a multifaceted personality and manages to describe the details of Muhammad’s time Arabia in many facets – social, economic, religious, educational and political. He provides information on what trade links and foreign relations the Arabs had with the rest of the surrounding area and further afield. It talks about the rites and customs of the Arabs, their good habits, but also the bad ones, everything has been explained in detail and masterfully written.

Visions and perspectives

Rodinson remained a member of the Communist Party for twenty-one years, so he also studies the Prophet in a social and communist vision.


Maxime writes that he got the information to compile his book from his teachers. Rodinson objects to the Prophet’s Seerah that was written one hundred and twenty years after his death. Goldzehir and Schacht do not believe that this written material (Seerah) is really authentic, Goldzehir and Schacht do not believe that this written material (Seerah) is authentic, while Maxime Rodinson makes more reference to Ibn-e-Haasham, Waqdi and Tabri.

Objections to the Hadith

Maxime Rodinson claims that the sayings of the Prophet (Hadith) were not written during his lifetime and therefore not reliable because they were not written under Mohammed’s supervision.
The writer elaborates on the purpose of writing his book, arguing that it was essentially written for the European reader, and that for Muslim readers it could only be edifying if they read the book and setting aside an excessive admiration for Mohammed:
“The reader should be informed that our sources on Mohammed’s life are abundant and clear, but not very reliable.”

Minutes Details of the desert

He, as a careful portraitist, provides detailed details of life in the desert. One of these concerns water: “The river beds, or wadi, testify to an era of greater humidity, but in ancient times they were mostly dry, punctuated only by occasional scattered puddles. Every now and then, without heating up, a sudden downpour transforms them into rushing streams. These floods”, as the Arabs call them, cause a frightening havoc. But the water continues to sink deep into the earth. Man digs deep wells in the ground to look for it; it is said to reach six hundred feet deep.
He tells of the importance of the camel when during the second millennium before the Christian era, the inhabitants of these regions tamed it. A creature ideally suited to the desert, and from then on, small groups of nomads followed the camels that were their sustenance.
Rodinson writes that the Arabs lived a life without a fixed abode telling the details of the Arabs, the religious conditions, the social, economic, political irreverence, about religion, gives the details of the execution of the Hajj, that is that they had changed the original Manasik of Dine-e-Ibraheemi. Moreover, his favorite author, Montgomery Watt, disagrees with the idea that the Arabs simply led a life without morals, rather he says that there was a tribal humanism in them.

Agnostic thinking

As an agnostic Rodinson questions the nature of the circumstances that favored the Prophet’s preaching. Mohammed was born in a place that was showing a situation of great illegality, and he benefited from the atmosphere and the need of the Arabs to reorganize themselves socially, thus accepting the philosophy of the Prophet. The writer does not want to deny the Prophet of GOD status, but wants to give a historical and social incipit to the theological and Islamic faith context.


Relevant quotes

“Respect for the faith of sincere believers cannot be allowed either to block or deflect the investigation of the historian.”


Nothing is more irritating to a revolutionary or a simple innovator than the sussiveness of the people who hold important positions, their certainty that the good consists in continuing in their present way of being and in the customs consecrated by time, their unawareness of the dangers that mourn that world in which they are inserted, their contempt for the events they receive. Against them, in fact, the oldest revelations are hurled against those who are presumptuous of their own strength, against those who, having amassed wealth, believe that they can do what they want, that they can act as they please.
Then GOD explains to them through Mohammed’s mouth how little they are:

“Truly! We created man in misery:
Is he under the illusion that no one has power over him?
He says, “I have wasted immense substances.
But does he believe, then, that no one sees him?”
(Quran 90, 4-7)

Do they not notice that they are transient beings developed from a drop of sperm, destined for annihilation?

“Curse the man, how stubbornly unfaithful he is!
What on earth has GOD created him from?
From a drop of semen he created him and molded him, then the way cleared him, then he made him die and buried him.”
(Quran 80, 17-219

How miserable is this humanity next to the glory of GOD! And all that wanders the earth perishes and only the face of the LORD remains, full of Power and Glory.


Pag. 48-49

There was to reside the Monophysite bishop who had jurisdiction over the nomads of Arabia, and to the appointment of which the ghassanic philharith al-Harith had in 543 obtained the right by Empress Theodora. In Busra there would have been an accident of which we present here one of the versions handed down by the historian at-Tabari:
“When the caravan stopped in Busra, Syria, there was a monk called Bahira, who lived in a hermitage and was a scholar of Christian science. That hermitage had always been inhabited by a monk who drew that science from a book which, as they claimed, was handed down from one to the other. When that year the caravan stopped near the hermitage of Bahira, he prepared a great quantity of food for them; for, being in his hermitage, he had seen the envoy of GOD that a cloud covered his companions with shadow. They advanced and paused in the shade of a tree near Bahira. He looked at the cloud, but the tree was shading and its branches tilted over the envoy of GOD so that he would remain under his own shadow. When Bahira saw this, he came down from his cell and invited them all. When Bahira saw the envoy of GOD, he began to observe him with great attention, he noticed some physical particularities… When the caravan had finished eating and they were about to separate, he questioned the envoy of GOD about what he felt when he was awake or in his sleep, and found the answer that the envoy of GOD gave him in accordance with the signs he had received concerning his person. Then he examined his back and saw the sign of the prophecy between his shoulders.


But Muhammed still doubted who that creature was that appeared to him? Perhaps a filthy demon or a ghost of his imagination? Wasn’t he the one who despised soothsayers behaving like a typical Kahin? So he confided in Khadigia. This one had a cousin of a certain age, who was looking for GOD being a hanif. His name was Waraqa ibn Nawfal and he was a scholar who knew the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures well. It is also said that he knew Hebrew. Khadigia led her husband to him […] At which point he said: “This is the namus that was revealed to Moses. Ah, if I were young! If you could still be alive when the people cast you out!” “They cast me out?” “Yes. No one has ever carried the message you carry without provoking hostility if your day had come in my time I would have helped you with all my might.” The Muslims ignored what this namus was and saw in it the Archangel Gabriel. It was instead the Greek word nomos la legge. In fact, it was called the Torah, the Pentateuch revealed by GOD to Moses and the Word had passed into the Aramaic dialects. Waraqa meant that it was a continuation of the great series of revelations through which GOD made His Will known to the people.


Sometimes they were even visions of external words that were completely similar to real beings or to the words they uttered, but without the bystanders being able to see anything. Little by little Mohammed became accustomed to receiving these visions and these words, even to the point of striving to call them, to provoke them. In order to receive them, from the very beginning he had them covered with a mantle, according to the custom of the kahin. It seems that at first Mohammed wanted to hasten the expression of what he perceived with confused words and stammering. Perhaps it is due to this disorderly effort the presence of some consonants at the beginning of certain sure of the Koran, on which various hypotheses have been put. In any case, he was reproached by GOD: “And you, do not move your tongue to hasten it, that to Us [GOD plural maiestatis] is picking it up and reciting it. And when we recite it, it is up to Us to explain it.
(Quran 75, 16-19)
Although these words are not very clear, they make it clear that the prophet had to let inspiration follow its tumultuous course before communicating its essence to the outside world.
(p. 77)


Perhaps the group would have continued to lead a peaceful existence without great resonance, would have continued to bring some new ideas into the meccano environment but remaining confused in the masses and increasingly crumbling to the point of disappearing, as happens with so many small sects in history, if accidental events had not once again thrown Mohammed his group into total insecurity. A few days later, Khadigia and Abu Talib died. It was in 619, since now we arrive at the period in which the chronological course of events can be traced with relative security. It is certain that the death of Khadigia grieved Mohammed very much. He was bound to the mother of his children by a common loyalty, by the memory of what she had been for him at the beginning of his mission. She had chosen him even before GOD and had believed in him before anyone else. She had probably maintained a certain authority in the house, given the relationships from clerk to mistress, from poor orphan to rich widow who had presided over their union.


Mohammed returned to Al-Madina, confident of himself and his cause, determined to continue to break all opposition.
He had become rich and powerful. Once again, the great Florentine’s richly experienced affirmation finds confirmation: “All armed prophets were victors and those unarmed were defeated” [Machiavelli]. Mohammed’s superiority, due to the circumstances and customs of his homeland, consisted in being an armed prophet. Little by little the community began to acquire the characteristics of a State. Shortly after Badr, GOD justified the attribution of the fifth loot to Mohammed with the obligation that he had to provide for the needs of orphans, the poor and travellers.


Thus the group of Mohammed’s followers gradually defined themselves. Towards that time the most used name to designate them became definitively that of “submissive” to the will of GOD, in Arabic muslimun (the singular muslim) from which we have taken our Muslim. In Arabic, submission is indicated with the infinite corresponding Islam, a word destined to have immense fortune.
After Ohod, however, the danger hung over their heads. We have already said that the new leader of Quraysh, Abu Sufyan, was very intelligent. He had understood that it was time to destroy the Medina and Muslim threat, then or never again, and he made an effort to achieve the goal. It was necessary to gather a military force superior to that of Ohod and totally destroy the enemy shelters. Only the Bedouin tribes could provide enough men.


Of course, slavery was preserved. It is recommended to treat the slaves well and to promote their release. It is naive to pretend that in the seventh century an institution could be abolished only because today it is bothering us: equally naive is to believe with Mohammed Hamidullah that slavery was in a certain way “a house of humanitarian correction” and to exalt its virtues. Loans have interest, at least in one form, are forbidden. It seems that this prohibition was targeted especially at those who at the beginning of the move to Medina refused free loans to the needy community. It was more about Jews who, acting in this way, refused to consider Muslims as their co-religionists.



They had added to those precepts new things of their own invention; they who had obtained the illustrious honor of being called to monotheism for a long time, they had mortally sinned committing the greatest crime: that of associating with God, as polytheistic meccans, sons and brides. The Jews claimed that ‘Uzayr (Ezra) was the son of GOD, as Christians claim of Jesus. The first assertion is less unjustified than it might seem at first sight, since in a Jewish “apocryphal” of the first century, which is well followed by much diffusion, the fourth book of Ezra, we read these words addressed by an angel to Ezra: “You will be lifted up from the midst of men and you will remain with my son… Leave human thoughts, cast off all human burdens from you, put on immortality” (XIV 9:14).


He was a prophet sent by GOD to the Israelites, an extraordinary prophet who had passed through the world performing many miracles. As a child he molded birds with the earth and gave them life with his breath. He healed the mute and the lepers and raised the dead. The Jews were proud to have killed him, but this was not true because they had been victims of a mirage, of a cunning of GOD: they had believed to crucify him but in reality “GOD elevated him to himself” (IV 158).


Pag. 243

The faithful must also participate in the rites, in the external manifestations with which they will emphasize their submission to GOD and their Initiate and their integration into the community. It has already been seen that he had to take part in the ritual Prayer three times a day, a number which, certainly after the death of the prophet, was increased to five. After Badr, fasting was prescribed in the month of Ramadan. The believer also had to perform, when he could, the rite of pilgrimage to the house of God in Mekka. A similar duty is to pay the zakat tax “purification”, a word which usually translates as “legal porthole”. A contemporary Muslim apologist rightly observes that it is, in reality, a compulsory tax raised to a rite. Still, whoever can do it must pay the tribute of blood in the armed struggle “on the path of GOD”.
In this way the faithful members of the Muslim community find themselves enclosed in that system of commandments and doctrines necessary for the majority of men to live, what was once called religion, and which we designate today with the broader term of ideology. The authorities prescribed to the believer how he should behave and what he should do.

Another Jew was less easy to conquer. Her name was Zaynab, and she had seen her father, her uncle, her husband die; preparing the roast lamb for Mohammed’s lunch, she inquired what her favorite piece was, and knowing that it was the shoulder divided by a powerful poison from which the rest of the meat was also drunk. Mohammed felt a strange taste at the first mouthful and immediately spat it out while a fellow Bishr who had swallowed the meat died shortly afterwards. The prophet questioned Zaynab who said to them, “You know what you have done to my people. I said to myself, “If it is a prophet, he will be informed of the presence of the poison; if it is earthly love, I will take revenge. Mohammed forgave her.

His worst enemies zealously placed themselves at his service; they recognized his superiority, they confessed that he was truly the prophet of GOD, they recognized their wrongs towards him, their blindness before the wonders of GOD.
They lost nothing there. In the state of al-Madina, which now stretched from the Byzantine frontier to at-Ta’if And whose influence overflowed over the whole of Arabia, their first place was recognized and they gained prestige, political weight and material privileges. He wanted a tradition that when in Abu Sufyan, shortly before the conquest of Makka, he saw a parade in front of him in the camp, Where he had come to conduct negotiations, the Muslim troops in large numbers in good order said Mohammed: “How could you gather so many people against your homeland? You should rather direct it against its enemies.” Mohammed would have replied, “I hope God will allow me to do both.” In fact, shortly afterwards, he had subdued the Hawazin and at-Ta’if, enemies of Quraysh. Soon his successors would subdue the common enemies of the Arabs. Everything unfolded as if Quraysh had finally recognized in his misunderstood son his natural leader, and in the nebulous opinions that he expressed the watchwords that would assure him the dominion of Arabia and the world. Persecutions and battles had been nothing but a long misunderstanding and everything was now in order. GOD definitively eliminated al-Lat, al-Uzza and al-Manat while the other Arabs joined the Quarashiti in the ruling class.

Pag. 287

Late in the night, he was designated as the “substitute” (khalifa from which we drew caliph) of the messenger of GOD. Islam continued to live on.


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