Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
I had braced myself to slog through Deepak Chopra’s biographical novel “Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet.” Instead, I was delightfully surprised by the compelling story of Muhammad’s journey from affluent trader to reluctant prophet, and the engagingly lyrical music of the suras (verses) he channeled from Allah.
Story: Although ostensibly a novel, Chopra bookends his story about the Muslim prophet with an author’s note and an afterword, offering the reader a history lesson while reflecting on the current relationship between Islam and the rest of the world. The novel emphasizes that of all the founders of the great world religions, Muhammad is the most like us. Muhammad, a merchant who marries a rich widow and routinely travels in caravans as part of his trade, lives a regular life until the day the archangel Gabriel appears and orders the reluctant 40-year-old Muhammad to recite. (To recite, Chopra reminds, is the root word of Koran.) Using multiple first-person narrators—slaves and merchants, hermits, and scribes—he portrays life (including its brutality) on the streets of Mecca. Each chapter is self-contained. Muhammad’s wife, Khadijah, laments there have been no warnings that this tumultuous, life-changing event is about to occur; Ali, the first convert, explains how the Prophet approached him. Compellingly told, this is not only good storytelling; it also helps readers, especially non-Muslims, better understand the complexities and contradictions surrounding Islam. (From Booklist)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. The book focused more on the man than his teachings, which I found to be less than satisfying. I had hoped to gain more insight into the teachings of Islam, although Chopra does describe the five pillars and six core beliefs of Islam, along with some of his other teachings. However, other aspects of the work delighted me. I expected to learn much about Islam, but what I didn’t expect was the love of poetry that suffused Arab hearts and the attendant lyricism of Muhammad’s suras. I enjoyed the poetry of each sura as much as the message.
Do you not see how he has lengthened the shadows?
the One is He who made the night a garment for you.
He gave you sleep so that you may rest
And the morning sky to be a resurrection.
Lo, I swear by the afterglow of sunset,
And by the night and all it enshrouds.
And by the moon when she is at the full,
You will journey to higher and higher worlds.
Another unexpected delight was the wealth of Arabic sayings that were both pithy and poetic: “Fate … was like a wasp covered in honey. You cannot taste the sweetness without a sting.”
My take: In addition to being a simple and easy introduction to the life and teachings of Muhammad and Islam, Muhammad proves to be entertaining, historically accurate, and relevant to our times. Chopra’s stilted writing style made several of his non-historical novels less than enjoyable to me in the past. However, his short and direct prose works well in the context of this fictionalized biography. By writing each chapter from a different character’s perspective, including Muhammad’s enemies, Chopra offers fascinating perspective and varies what might otherwise be a monotonal story. The actual events of the Prophet’s life provide a thrilling framework fraught with conflict that propels the story forward.
I learned a great deal about Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam. Although much blood was spilled in the evolution of Islam, violence was integral to Arabic life at that time. Muhammad struggled to project his message of peace, acceptance, and submission above the sometimes horrific reality of Arabic life in the 7th century. Chopra’s author’s note, afterward, timeline, and family tree helped clarify the complex history of the times and placed his life in a clearly defined context.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the story was the realization that Muhammad was a man like any other, not a son of God (such as Jesus) nor a transcendent human (such as Buddha). The angel Gabriel chose him as a medium to deliver Allah’s message, and the reader clearly sees how Muhammad was forced into the role of reluctant prophet but also military commander, master politician, and sometimes brutal judge in order to ensure the survival of Allah’s message. As Chopra notes, “I didn’t write this book to make Muhammad more holy. I wrote it to show that holiness was just as confusing, terrifying, and exalting in the 7th century as it would be today.”
Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet, by Deepak Chopra
Published by HarperOne, 2010
Hardcover, 267 pages
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