A new study of the last days of the Prophet Muhammad draws on traditional Islamic sources to paint a poignant portrait of the ailing prophet and his entourage. Published in March by French publisher Albin-Michel, “Les Derniers Jours de Mohamed: Enquete sur la mort mysterieuse du Prophete” (”Mohamed’s Last Days: An Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of the Prophet”) is the work of Hela Ouardi, a literature professor at the University of Tunis-Al Manar. The book has had a warm reception in both Tunisia and France.
By choosing to focus on the time of the Prophet Mohammad’s physical agony and deterioration—and on a moment of great uncertainty in the early history of Islam—Ouardi pointedly places this holy figure within his body and within history. In a written response to Al-Fanar Media, the scholar explained that the trials and tribulations Muhammad faced in his final days made his “personality all the more human and fascinating.” They also presaged issues that would haunt and divide the Muslim community to this day, she said.
In the introduction to her book, Ouardi writes that: “Today, Muslims’ adoration of the Prophet is pushed to such paroxysms that a veritable obsession with blasphemy surrounds the figure. The veneration that surrounds him has in some sense fossilized him.” She argues that the refusal to represent the Prophet is “Islam’s weak point,” writing: “Isn’t the problem of Muslims that their Prophet has become a man who casts no shadow, a dehumanized being, set outside history and representation?”
For her account of the last days before the Prophet’s death, Ouardi draws on the Koran, the Hadith (collections of Prophetic sayings that number in the hundreds of thousands and are classified as more or less reliable by Islamic scholars) and the Sunna (accounts of the Prophet’s acts and words). She includes Shiite as well as Sunni sources.
Ouardi analyzes the many contradictory anecdotes regarding the Prophet’s last days, investigating the cause of his death, his thwarted attempt to make a final written testament, his delayed burial, and his succession. (The fight over who should lead the Muslim community, which pitted his Companions Abu Bakr and ‘Uthman against his cousin Ali, is at the origin of the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims). The portraits of the Prophet’s wives, family members and Companions are fascinating and not always flattering. In his last days, Ouardi writes, Mohammed was “at the center of a whirlwind of passions, jealousies, ambitions and epic domestic fights.”
The Prophet died intestate; his passing put the new religion and state he has founded at risk of collapse. The “genius” of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, writes Ouardi, was “to have understood before anyone else that a hold on collective memory is the foundation of the exercise of power: controlling the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet will constitute, for centuries, a foolproof tool of domination and legitimation of authority.”
Partly to counter this dominant discourse, the literature professor trains “a demystifying gaze that contributes to removing the history of Islam from the grip of religious dogma and of a purely apologetic vision.” Ouardi discusses how historians of early Islam have long been skeptical of the accuracy of Islamic historiography, while nonetheless depending on it as their main source. Recently, “historical criticism of Muslim sources has stopped focusing on researching ‘what really happened,’ to focus on analyzing ‘the intention of the authors,”” she writes. This had led to “very rich works that go beyond the dichotomy between ‘true’ and ‘false’ to pose questions about the mechanisms of production of texts.”
In Tunisia—whose postcolonial state, led by Habib Bourgiba, was staunchly secular—the literary, historical and or sociological analysis of religious texts and figures is not unusual. This academic tradition includes Hichem Djait, who in 1989 wrote a seminal study of the fitna between Sunni and Shia Muslims; Mohamed Talbi, a historian at the University of Tunis, who has advocated Islamic reform based on a return to and re-interpretation of the Koran; and Youssef Seddik, a renowned anthropologist whose book “Nous N’Avons Jamais Lu le Coran” (“We’ve Never Read the Koran”) traces the presence and influence of Greek myths and thought in the Koran, and encourages its readers to overcome “a formidable dogmatic machine warning every potential reader to give up reading and to believe that it has all been already read” for them. In Morocco, the feminist scholar Fatima Mernissi also produced groundbreaking work based on feminist readings of sacred texts. These scholars tend to combine a mastery of Islamic sources with Western academic training; quite a few write in French.
Scholars such as these, and a younger generation to which Ouardi belongs, share “a will to consider Islam also as a sociological phenomenon and, as such, as an object of analysis,” say Yves Gonzales-Quijano, a professor of Arab literature at the University of Lumiere Lyon 2 and the author of an excellent blog on culture and politics in the Arab world. Tackling religious tradition with critical methods from various academic disciplines shows critical spirit and intellectual courage, says Gonzales-Quijano, and the study of Islam is revitalized by this approach—although academics who practice it have faced censorship and intimidation in many countries in the region.
In 1926 in Egypt, the writer Taha Hussein published “On Pre-Islamic Poetry,” a study of early Arabic poetry that also engaged in textual analysis of the Koran. He lost his teaching post at Cairo University and was accused by religious scholars of “impugning the Koran.” He was acquitted, and after some revisions was able to re-publish his book. Seventy years later, the scholar Naser Abu Zayd was less lucky. He was also fired from Cairo University after a controversy erupted over his academic studies of the hermeneutics of the Koran. A court declared him an apostate, he was hounded in the press, and he was forced into exile. It is hard to imagine a book such as Ouardi’s being published or let in by the censors in Egypt today. It has been banned in Senegal. I was unable to find it in the main bookstores of Rabat, where I live, and was told by staff there it might not be allowed into the country.
But in Tunisia, Ouardi has been presenting her book to packed crowds. Asked how she might respond to Muslims who objected to her work, she wrote that: “Only scientific arguments interest me,” and that she feels no obligation to engage with “emotional or irrational reactions” or with criticisms made “in bad faith.” Religious scholars “know full well that all the details in my book (which are sometimes embarrassing) exist in the traditional sources: if they contradict me they are contesting the books that are the foundation of Muslim theology.” A translation into Arabic is already underway.