Muhammad/FAQ - Legacy - Other Views - Historical Western Views

Historical Western Views

See also: Medieval Christian views on Muhammad

According to Hossein Nasr, earliest European literature often refers to Muhammad unfavorably. A few learned circles of Middle Ages Europe—primarily Latin-literate scholars—had access to fairly extensive biographical material about Muhammad. They interpreted that information through a Christian religious filter that viewed Muhammad as a charlatan driven by ambition and eagerness for power, and who seduced the Saracens into his submission under a religious guise. Popular European literature of the time portrayed Muhammad as though he were worshipped by Muslims in the manner of an idol or a heathen god. Some medieval Christians believed he died in 666, alluding to the number of the beast, instead of his actual death date in 632; others changed his name from Muhammad to Mahound, the "devil incarnate". Bernard Lewis writes "The development of the concept of Mahound started with considering Muhammad as a kind of demon or false god worshipped with Apollyon and Termagant in an unholy trinity." A later medieval work, Livre dou Tresor represents Muhammad as a former monk and cardinal. Dante's Divine Comedy (Canto XXVIII), puts Muhammad, together with Ali, in Hell "among the sowers of discord and the schismatics, being lacerated by devils again and again." Cultural critic and author Edward Said wrote in Orientalism regarding Dante's depiction of Muhammad:

Empirical data about the Orient...count for very little; ... What ... Dante tried to do in the Inferno, is ... to characterize the Orient as alien and to incorporate it schematically on a theatrical stage whose audience, manager, and actors are ... only for Europe. Hence the vacillation between the familiar and the alien; Mohammed is always the imposter (familiar, because he pretends to be like the Jesus we know) and always the Oriental (alien, because although he is in some ways "like" Jesus, he is after all not like him).

After the Reformation, Muhammad was often portrayed as a cunning and ambitious impostor. Guillaume Postel was among the first to present a more positive view of Muhammad. Boulainvilliers described Muhammad as a gifted political leader and a just lawmaker. Gottfried Leibniz praised Muhammad because "he did not deviate from the natural religion". Thomas Carlyle in his book Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1840) describes Muhammed as " silent great soul; one of those who cannot but be in earnest". Edward Gibbon in his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire observes that "the good sense of Mohammad despised the pomp of royalty." Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt (1851) described Muhammad as "an ominous destroyer and a prophet of murder."

Simon Ockley wrote in his book The History of the Saracen Empires (1718);

The greatest success of Mohammad's life was effected by sheer moral force...It is not the propagation but the permanency of his religion that deserves our wonder, the same pure and perfect impression which he engraved at Mecca and Medina is preserved, after the revolutions of twelve centuries by the Indian, the African and the Turkish proselytes of the Koran. . . The Mahometans have uniformly withstood the temptation of reducing the object of their faith and devotion to a level with the senses and imagination of man. 'I believe in One God and Mahomet the Apostle of God' is the simple and invariable profession of Islam. The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the honours of the prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtue, and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion.

Reverend Benjamin Bosworth Smith in his book Muhammad and Muhammadanism (1874) commented that;

...if ever any man had the right to say that he ruled by the right divine, it was Mohammed, for he had all the power without its instruments and without its supports. He cared not for the dressings of power. The simplicity of his private life was in keeping with his public life...In Mohammadanism every thing is different here. Instead of the shadowy and the mysterious, we have history....We know of the external history of Muhammad....while for his internal history after his mission had been proclaimed, we have a book absolutely unique in its origin, in its preservation....on the Substantial authority of which no one has ever been able to cast a serious doubt.

Alphonse de Lamartine's Histoire de la Turquie (1854) says about Muhammad:

If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and outstanding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad.

Never has a man proposed for himself, voluntarily or involuntarily, a goal more sublime, since this goal was beyond measure: undermine the superstitions placed between the creature and the Creator, give back God to man and man to God, reinstate the rational and saintly idea of divinity in the midst of this prevailing chaos of material and disfigured gods of idolatry.... The most famous have only moved weapons, laws, empires; they founded, when they founded anything, only material powers, often crumbling before them. This one not only moved armies, legislations, empires, peoples, dynasties, millions of men over a third of the inhabited globe; but he also moved ideas, beliefs, souls. He founded upon a book, of which each letter has become a law, a spiritual nationality embracing people of all languages and races; and made an indelible imprint upon this Muslim world, for the hatred of false gods and the passion for the God, One and Immaterial. ... Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of a rational dogma for a cult without imagery, founder of twenty earthly empires and of a spiritual empire, this is Muhammad.

Annie Besant in The Life and Teachings of Muhammad (1932) wrote

It is impossible for anyone who studies the life and character of the great Prophet of Arabia, who knows how he taught and how he lived, to feel anything but reverence for that mighty Prophet, one of the great messengers of the Supreme...

According to William Montgomery Watt and Richard Bell, recent writers have generally dismissed the idea that Muhammad deliberately deceived his followers, arguing that Muhammad "was absolutely sincere and acted in complete good faith" and that Muhammad's readiness to endure hardship for his cause when there seemed to be no rational basis for hope shows his sincerity. Watt says that sincerity does not directly imply correctness: In contemporary terms, Muhammad might have mistaken his own subconscious for divine revelation. Watt and Bernard Lewis argue that viewing Muhammad as a self-seeking impostor makes it impossible to understand the development of Islam. Alford T. Welch holds that Muhammad was able to be so influential and successful because of his firm belief in his vocation. Michael H. Hart in his first book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History (1978), a ranking of the 100 people who most influenced human history, chose Muhammad as the first person on his list, attributing this to the fact that Muhammad was "supremely successful" in both the religious and secular realms. He also credits the authorship of the Quran to Muhammad, making his role in the development of Islam an unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence which entitles Muhammad to be considered the most influential single figure in human history.

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