Book Review: Deepak Chopra’s Muhammad
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m lying low online for awhile as I migrate this blog to the full WordPress platform, and finish up some other projects. But I was asked to participate in a blog tour for Deepak Chopra’s new novel, Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet, several months ago, and I jumped at the chance. This is mostly because I have read both Chopra’s Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment and Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment, and they are actually two of my favorite of his books.
Chopra is not a great fiction writer, but I think he has done something very interesting by writing these three books, and I appreciate it. As religions, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have one key thing in common – they were all begun by individuals, and the founder’s own life stories are an integral part of the teachings. Chopra has based his novels on the traditional legends, but then of course fictionalized many parts, attempting to explore these individuals as living, breathing human beings, going through intense spiritual experiences. Considering the ways these three religions have shaped – and continue to shape – history, I think this is a fascinating and worthy endeavor.
Chopra has been pulled into the culture/religion wars for writing these books, and taken his lumps, particularly for Jesus and Muhammad. I have witnessed a little piece of the unfolding battle surrounding Muhammad through the Amazon reviews for the book. I posted an abbreviated version of this review there last week, and since then have seen all the positive reviews of the book, including my own, receive an unusual number of unsupportive votes (I am a frequent Amazon reviewer.) In addition, after one of the negative reviews received several unsupportive votes, thereby moving it off the front page, the review author deleted his review, and reposted it as a new review, to get back on the front page. Battling through Amazon reviews, who would have thunk it!?!
But books are power. This is especially true in religion, and Islam is, in fact, one of the the three ‘religions of the book’, along with Judaism and Christianity. The creation of the Koran (or Qur’an), Islam’s holy book, is itself a critical part of Islam’s teachings. As Chopra notes in his Afterward to Muhammad, “Muhammad didn’t see himself like Jesus, called the son of God, or like Buddha, a prince who achieved sublime, cosmic enlightenment.” Muhammad saw himself as an ordinary man, called upon by Allah through the angel Gabriel to ‘recite’ the teachings that became the Koran. He was, according to Islam ‘the last prophet.’ The Koran represents the final word of the ‘one God’ (whether referred to as Yahweh, Lord, Allah, or any number of other names), after the Torah and New Testament.
The unique structure that Chopra uses in Muhammad allows him to explore Islam’s complex relationship to Judaism and Christianity. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different individual in his life, 19 in all. They range from his nurse-maid to family members, from slaves in Mecca to early converts, from his children to his worst enemy. Both Christians and Jews of the time, along with early Islamic converts, are included. This makes the novel read almost like 19 separate short-stories, which can feel disjointed at times, but the episodes they tell from Muhammad’s life are sequential, so this provides a through-thread. In his introduction, Chopra states that he chose to do this in order to “lessen the impact of our modern-day judgments”. As he puts it, “The first people to hear the Koran had as many reactions to it as you or I would if our best friend collared us with a tale about a midnight visit from an archangel.”
This structure also allows Chopra to offer differing views on some of the aspects of Islam that Westerners have the most difficult time understanding. Muhammad’s own daughter Fatimah struggles to understand the first jihad – battles against those who have persecuted the early Muslims, asking her father “Why does God want blood?” To which Muhammad answers,
“God doesn’t want blood. He wants warriors when the unjust persecute the just. The faithful are made strong by defending their faith. Otherwise they will scatter like leaves when the next storm comes.”
But Chopra’s Muhammad himself struggles with his role as a seer and prophet. At one point he shares the story of having foretold his own wife’s death to a Jewish scribe working for him, sharing forlornly:
“Because God tells me the secrets of life and death does not mean that I am the master of life and death. These are great mysteries. By God’s mercy I am closer to them than ordinary men. That is just as much a cause for grief as joy.”
It is the very human struggles that Chopra’s Muhammad undergoes that most intrigued me. After his initial encounter with the archangel Gabriel, he is terrified, and goes mad for a time, before accepting his role. He lives in harsh desert climate, full of physical hardships and tribal rivalries, and over the course of his lifetime experiences the death of many loved ones. How he struggles to understand human pain, within the context of his relationship with Allah, is what makes the book spiritually powerful, I feel.
For those looking for a more academic introduction to Muhammad and the teachings of Islam, Chopra does provide a basic life chronology, and an Afterword covering the 5 pillars and 6 core beliefs of Islam, along with other teachings. He also provides some more details on Muhammad’s life, and how Islam evolved after his death.
Overall, I think this is an important book, if for no other reason than it will introduce many people for the first time to Muhammad and Islam. Of course, no one should read this and consider themselves fully informed about Islam. This book is one author’s fictional take on Muhammad – although it is an author who has spent decades immersed in spiritual and religious studies. And as I said above, I actually think it has the most value when read as an account of one man’s spiritual journey. Seekers will recognize the humanity of Chopra’s Muhammad, his own spiritual longings and fears, and the complexities of his own reactions and those of people around him. To me, this seems to be Chopra’s main goal in writing all three of these novels – Muhammad, Jesus, and Buddha – and I recommend all of them.