Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet
I think it’s inevitable that many of the reviews of this book will focus on opinions of Islam, and/or an analysis of how orthodox or unorthodox Chopra’s portrayal of Muhammad is. And as an ongoing discussion, that is certainly valid and interesting. I give Chopra credit for taking on the tale of Muhammad, as he will certainly open himself up to controversy by doing so (and hopefully the controversies will ultimately lead to constructive discussions and new understanding.)
However, I’m going to focus my review of this book on how it is as a spiritual novel, because I think it is first and foremost that. I think it is best read along with Chopra’s Buddha and Jesus, which are my two favorite of his books. In these three fictional (but well-researched) accounts of the world’s most well-known religious leaders, Chopra presents three very different spiritual journeys, but highlights common themes. Each feels himself as different from a young age. Each is a profound and devout seeker, and yet at some point is shocked and frightened by where his seeking leads him. Each grapples with his spiritual calling in a personal way, and then feels compelled – although for different reasons – to share what he has come to understand. And Chopra does a good job of placing each of them within the context of their respective historical times, thereby showing us how and why each of their teachings evolved into the religions that they did.
However, Chopra also recognizes the very key differences between these three individuals, or at least how they have come down to us through history. As he says “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 (or Qur’an.) He was, according to Islam “the last prophet.” And this book does a good job of showing the relationship of Muhammad’s teachings to the Jewish and Christian teachings of the time.
Chopra chooses to tell the story of Muhamad’s life in a unique form – 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. 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.”
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.
Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet