Muhammad's Personality and Islam Muhammad's Essay

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Shadid characterizes the Turabi-led Islamist program -- achieved through a military coup -- as the attempt to establish Islamic politics in a viable modern way without division between political and religious life. Islam is seen as an encompassing identity, not just a belief set. Shadid gives its aims: "a revival of the umma, adoption of sharia, social and economic development and trepidation about the West's cultural, economic and political influence" (Shadid168). It can bring about the end of war, famine, and poverty independent of the West. The key is that the system relies on interpretation of Islam through the Qur'an and traditional law. It only secondarily references the model of Muhammad when it talks about how the social community is built. Muhammad's example in Mecca and Medina are cited for this (Shadid 171). At the same time, political power usurped by the elite came through a critique of the religious scholars and their legitimacy. Shadid writes, "The result is a fragmentation of authority and, at another level, the democratization of the faith as more people decide the meaning of Islam for themselves" (Shadid 173).

What actually happened, however, was a top-down imposition of the leadership's will using repressive tactics. Amongst the population, the government was perceived as intolerant. The originally tolerant Islam of Sudan turned into extremist force that alienated its own people and produced student opposition. According to Shadid, the failure was not Islam, since the devout people desired that religion shape their lives. Rather, the failure was in cultural imposition and the government's dictatorial approach. Only one view of Islam was allowed. He says, "The idea behind the vision was that only one Islam held the key to God, that only one Islam was proper and correct" (Shadid 184). This example shows how ideology and authoritarian power fails despite a history of tolerance, diversity, and rights, when it tries to monopolize God and works out of limited images of the Prophet. It demonstrates further that Islamic practice and belief are in dynamic interaction within a particular context from which it cannot be separated.

Another example of the cultural formation of Islam that has little to do with Muhammad is Iranian discourse on its diaspora citizens. The case of speech in Iran about its own exiles dispersed in the West shows the complexity of the culture-religion interaction. According to Shahidian, within Iran Muslims abroad are represented in a way that reflects dominant governmental values such as East vs. West, nationalism, and the correct gender relations. The diaspora is given no voice. Opposition is censored. Those of the diaspora are portrayed as alienated in a corrupting foreign place. The issues of class and gender are emphasized without reference to nationality, religion, age or sexual orientation (Shahidian 100). The entire point of this discourse is to show the West as a mirage where exile is dysfunctional, and to preserve the notion of Iranian cultural purity with respect to women's roles over against the corrupting influence of the West. In other words, it wants to discredit exiles, persuade people to stay in Iran, convince people to repatriate, and show migration as a danger to family, women, and nation (Shahidian 101). Expatriates are characterized as helpless and homeless. The opportunities given by migration are downplayed or ignored. The reasons for migration are not treated, like political repression and excessive governmental and family pressure as frustrating and alienating. Shahidian says, "The nuances of diasporic lives are not visible in the mirror that is supposed to reflect us. This is a mirror that obfuscates factors leading to diaspora, as well as the changes in the diasporas' conception of 'home', 'hostland' and 'diasporic life'." (Shahidian 104)

The Iran of many exiles is not nostalgic or euphoric. Shahidian says, "The 'Islamic kindness' that most exiles experienced included daily harassment, purges, persecution, imprisonment, torture and mass executions, memories vividly recorded in diasporic accounts of their lives" (Shahidian 105). The exiles see suppressive violence and gender domination as integral to an Islamic state. The point is that in Iran's contemporary government, apart from images of Muhammad, false images of exiles and women are manufactured that do not connect with diasporic recollections. Patriarchal representations of expatriate women hold women responsible for destroying family life. Exiles are deemed deceived by Western values and pursuing baseless dreams: "Life in the West is presented as a mirage, an illusory paradise, particularly detrimental to family life and 'female virtues'" (Shahidian 111). This whole tension of Iranian insiders and Iranian exiles signifies how important cultural and social contexts influence religious ideas and practice. There is a kind of complex mutual interpenetration between issues of religion, morality, gender, and nationality that far override the personality of Muhammad and point more toward the overarching belief system. Islam in Iran faces the challenge of revision and multiculturalism in this way because of its ex-patriot community.

Turkey can serve as a final example of the cultural complications of religion and politics. Islam is one of the defining characteristics of the Turkish people. Turkey's social and political attitudes are different than most other Islam-influenced places, yet it cannot be said to be "western" either. Esmer has made a fascinating study of gender attitudes in Turkey that underscores the paradoxical relationship between conservative gender religious values and democracy. Traditionally, women's status in Islamic societies places them below men in terms of socio-economic and political power. Gender equity is rare. For example, women possess far less political power and have less access to education in Islamic countries (Esmer 277). There is a larger divide on gender than on politics between Islam and the West. It is Islam that profoundly affects these gender attitudes. Esmer finds the same attitudes are present in Turkey, even while the government is modernized, secular, liberal, and democratic. There seems to be in Turkish society a line between secular/Western values and Islamist values. Most attend the mosque but oppose religious leaders influencing government decisions (Esmer 283). Turkey is a devoutly religious country, but religion and politics are separated.

When it comes to attitudes on gender equality, Esmer shows that it is religion that influences values away from gender equality even in a secular state. His scale, for example, shows that university education is more important for boys than girls, wives should always obey their husbands, men are better political leaders, the husband is the head of household, and men make more money (Esmer 289). The point seems to suggest that the system of values generated by Islam makes gender equality difficult. These values have been determined by the Qur'an and cultural traditions as well as by Muhammad's model of family life. The former is probably the more significant. Yet this might be for a whole constellation of historical and political reasons not obvious. It is simply hard to know whether Turkey's democratic values come from religion or culture, or whether they exist despite the conservative strain in Islamic morality regarding women.

What is indisputable in these three examples from Sudan, Iran, and Turnkey is that different visions of the figure of Muhammad are possible based on different sources, cultural traditions, and perspectival emphases. Some give more emphasis to specific figures of Muhammad and his historical personality. Yet more significantly, it is the teaching and system he gave that is more determinative for notions of political and social life, as culturally complex as these may be. Political and social leaders take their stance from the Qur'an more than from Muhammad's personality, and they fit their visions of Islam into contemporary socio-cultural contexts. It is never true that Islam is confined to the past. The community that the Prophet began in Medina has not remained static in some kind of authoritative and unbroken tradition. Rather, Islam as a normal religion is constantly changing and adapting to new cultural circumstances in different geographical regions that elaborate in culturally specific ways on the themes that emerged out of Muhammad's life and teachings. In Sudan, religion is merged with politics, but the Islamic citizens find it intolerant and oppressive. In Iran, discourse about exiles reinforces negative stereotypes about women and the West. In Turkey, Islamic attitudes about women's inequality coexist in a strange paradox with democratic political values. In each case, a different vision of Islam and of Muhammad is implied. Muhammad's personality is important, yet it is not necessarily definitive for contemporary Islam. If one looks at contemporary Islam from a cultural studies perspective, one notices that many other social, historical, and political factors influence the religion of people besides the person of Muhammad.


Ernst, Carl W. Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Esmer, Yilmaz. "Islam, Gender, Democracy and Values: The Case of Turkey, 1990-2001." In Changing Values, Persisting Cultures: Case Studies in Value Change, eds. Thorleif Pettersson and Yilmaz Esmer, 275-301. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Gabriel, Richard a. Muhammad: Islam's First Great General. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

Khalidi, Tarif. Classical Arab…

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