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Book Review: Deepak Chopra’s Muhammad

October 4, 2010

Deepak Chopra 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.

Namaste-

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Dances With Crayons permalink
    October 4, 2010 5:43 am

    I have been reading reviews for a couple of weeks and appreciate very much.
    Want to read Chopra’s new book at some point, as well as the previous 2 titles you mentioned. A huge thankyou for sharing!

    Love,
    Jane

  2. October 4, 2010 2:08 pm

    Jane, I’m glad you found it useful, and thanks for visiting.

  3. Bess permalink
    October 4, 2010 10:37 pm

    Hi Lisa, Many thanks for this thoughtful review. It reminds me that Nikos Kazanzakis was anathematized (ex-communicated … I had to look up this one!) by the Greek Orthodox Church after the publication of The Last Temptation of Christ.

  4. Nettles permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:25 pm

    I have to admit, until I read your review, I would probably have made a derisive kind of snorting noise about the idea of Deepak Chopra writing fiction. Possibly very unfair I realise, (ok, I can be a total snob), but I’m not a big fan of his or his celebrity packaging of spirituality.

    But I shall drop my prejudices for a moment, and seriously consider reading this – just for another interesting take on the whole thing. Really good review Lisa.

  5. October 5, 2010 1:07 am

    Lisa, I really appreciate this review. I have read several other bloggers express radical disappointment in the book so I am glad to read your perspective – which sounds insightful and is thoughtfully written (as your reviews always are). I also appreciate how you find value in the WAY that Chopra chose to weave the story. It is the author’s prerogative to do so. Yet, author’s often (I know this from experience!) get bashed for following their heart or intuition. Your review honors Chopra’s heart. I will definitely take a look at the book.

    On another note, isnt’ it interesting AND wonderful that we are being invited to see these great teachers (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed) as people, real people? Because they were. They were not gods, but humans with divine callings and human frailties. We can learn much from them….

  6. October 5, 2010 4:28 am

    Bess – yes, and I think of the furor when the movie came out too. It’s a problem that we can’t openly explore and reinterpret these major figures of history, I think. That is part of the purpose of art and culture – the dialog of ideas and all that – and it’s really a kind of repressive control to say that they are off limits. So for that if for no other reason, I support this effort by Chopra.

    Nettles – I share your skepticism about celebrity spirituality, especially living in LA, and am not a huge fan of Chopra’s work. Although some of his later non-fiction I have liked. What has kind of shifted my perception of him though is some of the interviews he has done the last few years. He has become very up front, expressing his views – often controversial – on religion, and the relationship of religion to the public sphere, and American’s misguided perceptions about it, and how that has helped fuel various issues around the world etc., and has taken alot of flack for it. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I respect that he has stood his ground – he clearly is not just out to win a popularity contest in other words. And like I said to Bess, I support 100% his right to reinterpret these religious figures. He’s not a great fiction writer, but he’s got an interesting perspective I think.

    Jan – You know, I purposefully didn’t read any other blogger’s reviews of this book until after I wrote mine, but now I have, and I do see where they are coming from. As I mentioned in the review, Chopra is not a great fiction writer, and choosing to tell the story from so many changing perspectives does make it challenging to follow at times. I think I reacted to it better because I already knew the basics of Muhammad’s life, and because I had read Buddha and Jesus, so I was placing it alongside those in my mind. So perhaps in the end I like the ‘idea’ of the book more than the book itself. And that mostly is because of exactly what you said – because Chopra is re-examining these beings as real people, and that makes their journey something we can relate to, as opposed to placing them in some untouchable, authoritarian role.

  7. October 5, 2010 11:16 am

    It’s really important to understand that an artist is someone who needs to bring into form their view of the world. We either resonate with their view, or don’t, but the important thing is living in a society where it happens.

    Thanks for your thoughtful views. I haven’t read the books yet but I like the premise of each. Adding them to my “to read” list!

  8. October 5, 2010 7:15 pm

    I haven’t been a big fan of Chopra–I suppose I feel that he goes after the populist spiritual crowd, giving them what they want. That’s not fair, and I’m coming around to it. I like the interviews I’ve seen of him and I like Q&A on various sites.

    Your review has helped me be more open.

  9. October 5, 2010 8:43 pm

    Cate – yes, you summed it up nicely! And at this point in our history, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to artists’s being free to express themselves re: religion and certain religious figures.

    Kaushik – I know what you mean (see my comment to Nettles.) He’s grown on me in recent years though – once someone gets controversial, I find them more interesting, lol! I think the other side of it is that different teachers/speakers resonate with different people, at different points in their path. I know a lot of people who resonate deeply with Chopra’s books, and some of his books have really brought certain themes into the mainstream culture – he was really part of the movement to accept natural/holistic health methods, for example. So he has his role, and plays it with gusto. And what he seems to be playing with by writing these three books is asking us to look at the varieties of religious/spiritual experience, and how religion is formed. My interpretation, of course:-)

  10. October 6, 2010 5:25 pm

    haven’t read any Chopra, and this topic isn’t one i’m interested in at the moment. however, your great review makes me at least consider it if the book ever came my way, or if someone else mentioned it i’ll let them know what ‘someone i know’ thought about it. :)

    i’m glad to hear that a book out there like this treated the topic well. i think it a worthwhile topic. more people need to be exposed to Islam. especially in this thoughtful manner.
    crazy about the amazon wars!

  11. October 6, 2010 5:52 pm

    Mon, you know if you ever do read Chopra, considering your shadow work and recent post at Spiral Sisters, the one to start with is probably a recent one he contributed to along with two other major American teacher/authors called The Shadow Effect. I have not read it yet, but I was cheered to find three well-known spiritual authors approaching spirituality from this angle…

  12. October 6, 2010 9:25 pm

    Thanks for being a part of this tour and for such a well-thought-out review. You make a great point about the reviews on Amazon – books that deal with “hot topic” people or issues tend to draw lots of negative attention rather than balanced discussion. Which, of course, makes me appreciate reviews like yours even more. :)

  13. October 8, 2010 11:32 pm

    I love your review of Chopra’s book, Lisa. I like the way you think. It is brave of Chopra to take on these 3 figures as most people wouldn’t. We need to be able to have a discussion about these figures who have been in the middle of every war for the past 2,000 years. I think that’s the only way through to peace is to discuss them openly and see them as the real people they were and to see how these three major religions might be more similar than we originally thought. There are always underlying threads of spirituality within them that can be examined thoughtfully and carefully without dismantling the tapestry. Do you know what I mean?

    Anyway, I applaud Chopra for taking that on. Anyone with less popularity wouldn’t dare. I’m glad you give him kudos for that. I do too.

    Cheers,
    Melinda

  14. October 9, 2010 8:06 pm

    Heather – thanks, I was happy to participate.

    Melinda – Thanks for your support, and yes exactly, if these figures are hands-off, how will we ever learn from the historical mistakes that have been made all too often in their name (wars etc. as you mention), and keep ourselves from repeating them? The more discussion the better…it’s too bad that religion is often used to discourage, rather than encourage, discussion – i.e. faith is too often presented as something that should be unquestioning…I know your Jesus encourages discussion, rather than discouraging it:-)

  15. October 14, 2010 12:00 am

    Hi!
    Tanks for these reviews, I heard Chopra had done some fiction but wasn’t interested for some reason. I have read some really great articles written by him for Resurgence magazine – really good and totally redeemed himself to me as I had always judged him for being that kind of marketed spiritual self-help type figure. I think the great article I read was him writing about quantum physics and healing and science, it was soooo interesting.

  16. October 14, 2010 12:05 am

    p.s, watched The Quantum Activist a wee while back (film). It was fascinating and thought it might be something you would enjoy. x

  17. October 14, 2010 9:07 pm

    Ruth, I think he released a book last year on Quantum Healing, several bloggers I know reviewed it and liked it…I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but sounds fascinating. Just read a little on the Quantum Activist too after seeing your comment and it looks interesting too…I assume you’ve seen What the Bleep Do we Know? I guess since then there are so many interesting films and books that have come out on those themes…XX

  18. October 25, 2010 8:07 pm

    Hey Lisa,
    Thanks for the review. I remember a certain amount of hullabaloo when his Buddha book came out. He is not someone I have ever “clicked” with and didn’t give much thought to the book or the hullabaloo, but your review has definitely piqued my interest in the entire series.

    Thank you!

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