“Faces of Muhammed: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today” by John Tolan— The Contradictory Western Visions of Muhammad

Tolan, John. “Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

The Contradictory Western Visions of Muhammad

Amos Lassen

In European culture, Muhammad has been  seen and vilified as a heretic, an impostor, and a pagan idol. But there are other images of the Prophet of Islam that emerge from Western history. Some commentators have portrayed Muhammad as a visionary reformer and an inspirational leader, statesman, and lawgiver. Here in 
“Faces of Muhammad”, John Tolan gives a comprehensive history of the changing, complex, and contradictory visions. The book starts with the earliest calls to the faithful to join the Crusades against the “Saracens” and from there he traces the evolution of Western conceptions of Muhammad through the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and up to the present day.

We see the lengthy tradition of positive portrayals of Muhammad that many will find surprising. Reformation polemicists and the spread of Islam proved the corruption of the established Church and prompted them to depict Muhammad as a champion of reform. In revolutionary England, writers on both sides of the conflict saw parallels between Muhammad and Oliver Cromwell and asked whether the prophet was a rebel against legitimate authority or the bringer of a new and just order. Voltaire saw Muhammad as an archetypal religious fanatic but later claimed him to be an enemy of superstition. To Napoleon, he was simply a role model— a brilliant general, orator, and leader.

We see that Muhammad was a man of many faces in the West “because he has always acted as a mirror for its writers, their portrayals revealing more about their own concerns than the historical realities of the founder of Islam.”

John Tolan shows us the historical Muhammad and Muslim portraits of God’s beloved Messenger and focuses on Mahomet as European men have depicted him over the centuries. We see how varied versions of Islam’s prophet come into being and how they make sense within their own social, intellectual, and theological contexts. It becomes completely clear that there is no single, monolithic view of Muhammad in European culture.

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