– THE SHADOW OF THE SCROLL –
pulpit in Medina the story became embellished over time, and it features in many beautiful miniatures.
These two images of the Prophet – the general and the miracle worker – both have their origins in real history but were exaggerated by Muslims into rival visions. We can see the same divide today between the extremist Salafi and mystical Sufi strains of Islam. We cannot dismiss such quasi-historical documents: they are valuable records of how the Prophet was perceived by Muslims over the centuries.
By openly debating what we can and cannot reliably say about early Islam we will learn more about how the religion was created. This will not be an easy task for Muslims wedded to every detail of the traditional story; but it is necessary. In his lecture series The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, the Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal insisted on the need to ask discomfiting questions: ‘Now since the transformation and guidance of man’s inner and outer life is the essential aim of religion,’ he said, ‘it is obvious that the general truths which it embodies must not remain unsettled.’ The revisionist scholars whose work I have touched on do not write in the hope of revivifying Islam; rather they see faith-claims as obstacles that need to be cleared away. But their work can be used by anyone who, like Iqbal, wishes new life to be breathed into a 1,400-year-old faith. For this Muslims need to be braver than the caliph who dared not touch the Prophet’s pulpit. Western scholars are already removing the