A Review of Mohamad Jebara’s “Muhammad, the World-Changer”
The Story of a Prophet
I have a confession to make as a white, English-speaking, Protestant Christian: I know almost nothing about Islam, except when it involves tales of mosque vandalizations and other examples of Islamophobia featured in the news. Before reading this book, I didn’t know much about the history of the religion and its geopolitical context. I also knew very little about its guiding prophet Muhammad (peace be with him) aside from a possible caricature or two — such as he was a polygamist. Thus, when a publicist from St. Martin’s Press asked if I would be interested in reviewing this book, I hemmed and hawed on the request. After all, I didn’t want to perform an injustice to a subject I knew very little about. In the end, though, curiosity won over and I thought I would take a chance on this book. Besides, my father has read the Qur’an, so I thought this might be a good way to connect with him as he fastidiously reads all my reviews in full. (Thanks, Dad!) I’m glad I selected this book for review as I think I learned and grew from this read.
Mohamad Jebara’s Muhammad, the World-Changer is a book that’s concerned about the prophet as more of a historical figure than a religious one. (It eschews using “peace be with him” after each instance of his name in the text for readability reasons, for which I will do the same.) I cannot vouch for this book’s accuracy owing to my relative ignorance on the subject matter — but there is a detailed and exhaustive list of sources, some only available to Muslim scholars, that takes up nearly 10 percent of the book’s size on my Kindle. I have seen online reviews claiming that the book is inaccurate, but, to my eyes, it may be because the reader/reviewer seemed to be disappointed that there is only one depiction of a supernatural or holy event that occurs in this book, and it is treated as being from a liminal dream state on Muhammad’s account.
So, if you’re looking for a depiction of Muhammad receiving visitations from angels or having direct talks with the Divine Master, you’re going to walk away from this text very disappointed. Instead, Muhammad, the World-Changer reads kind of like a Muslim version of How to Win Friends and Influence People. It tracks Muhammad’s rise from being an impoverished orphan to a respected business leader to a prophet. The book seemingly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the major events of Muhammad’s life. If you think that Muhammad was all about protecting the interests of business leaders, which is another possible caricature, you may refreshingly learn that Muhammad was against slavery and prostitution and did much on the social justice front. In that sense, the book seems to be very well-rounded in ticking off the boxes of what Muhammad stood for.
However, because this is more of a work bound for secular audiences, it is probably going to offend some. To that end, you may note that I’ve been provided a calligraphic image in place of a traditional author photo to be published with this review, and details about the author were not provided by the publisher, probably because the author may feel harm may come to him for this presentation of Muhammad’s life. (That’s only speculation, but I’ll respect the author’s privacy for this possible reason.) No matter how you may feel about this depiction of a holy figure’s life, one thing’s for certain: after a bit of a slow start, this winds up being a wildly entertaining biography. I couldn’t stop reading this and found this volume to be more like a non-fiction version of popular Biblical fiction such as The Red Tent more than being a sober, objective account. Muhammad, the World-Changer is a gripping tale that may even change your mindset about things. You will also learn a lot about Arabic as a language, as Jebara details what each character’s name means in context with the original Arab dialects. There’s much here to learn from and celebrate.
That doesn’t mean the account isn’t without some problems. First, there is seemingly a cast of thousands in the book — and it can be quite confusing to keep track of people at times, despite the author’s best intention to populate the book with reminders as to who’s who. This is especially true as Muhammad was especially fond of renaming his closest confidants when they decided to become one of the followers of his message. Two, this is a very varnished look at Muhammad’s life. While Muhammad does experience trials and tribulations, there’s very little in the way of the author using a critical eye towards the subject matter in terms of exposing flaws — Muhammad faces a challenge, and then finds a way to rise above it. Now, before anyone gets their druthers up, again, I’m a Christian, and I’ll even admit that there are things about Jesus (supposedly without sin) that I find a little unsavoury based on Bible readings: that he was sometimes impatient, especially with his disciples, and sometimes said the wrong things to people who were bereaving (the “Don’t cry” line to console someone who just lost someone special to them being an example). Thus, even Jesus has personal shortcomings to me. So this is hardly a journalistic account of Muhammad’s life — though this is a book that examines the more human side of the prophet. That said, you must admit that Muhammad’s positive personality and world-view shone through, and I found myself at times wondering why I don’t pay more attention to Islam as a religion as a result of the depiction of Muhammad in this book — something I’m hoping to rectify.
Of course, the last chapter of the biography details how the Arabic world plunged into civil war after Muhammad’s death — but that subject is merely a sketch as it could probably fill a book or series of books all on its own. However, this seems to be more a book about rectifying the legacy of Muhammad’s life work for Western secular audiences and goes to show us that Islam has contributed many positive things, including a laudable way of living one’s life. Certain Muslim readers who want to learn more about Muhammad as a mortal may also learn a thing or two. All in all, Muhammad, the World-Changer details a powerful story with a strong moral center that makes it a worthy read for those who want to learn more about Islam. This is an engrossing tale and has helped to recolour my perception of Islam and further my understanding of it. While I wish the book might have been more well-rounded in its portraiture, I think this is a good starting place to learn about a major historical (and religious) figure. It is an enjoyable and illuminating read.
Mohamad Jebara’s Muhammad, the World-Changer: An Intimate Portrait was published by St. Martin’s Press / St. Martin’s Essentials on November 16, 2021.
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