deepak chopra’s new book about the prophet muhammad is unusual. there is a certain rawness and roughness to it that i have not seen in chopra’s books before. as i was reading it, i felt a strange insistence on the part of chopra – not an insistence that the content of the book or islam or the story of the prophet were “true” or “right”, but an insistence on the importance of muhammad’s story. “you gotta know about this!” chopra seemed to be urging, “you can’t really understand the world or your history if you don’t know muhammad’s story.”
perhaps this feeling of insistence comes from the book’s structure. while all events unfold chronologically, each one of muhammad’s 19 chapters is told from a different perspective, by a different player in the prophet’s life. only some of the voices are pious, like bashira the hermit, who is visited by a young muhammad and who foresees his importance, mulling over a mysterious sentence he had found scribbled on a few old bible pages: “when the sun’s face is hidden, god will bring his last prophet.”
chopra brings out the chaos of religions and cultures in muhammad’s arabia of 1,400 years ago. christians and jews and a multitude of deities surround muhammad everywhere he goes and like his forefathers, he tries to carve some sort of sense into this jungle of ideas and beliefs by adhering to the idea of one god. against the very pragmatic religious stance that the constantly bickering tribes around him take, this proves quite absurd and unrealistic but muhammad quietly persists in his belief. the people in his world grudgingly allow this persistence because early on, he demonstrates a wisdom and calm beyond his years – and he is wealthy. in his twenties, he marries khadijah, a rich widow much older than he. this union is a linchpin in his worldly and spiritual success.
the different voices surround muhammad like a spiral. many of them are from people on the margins – a beggar, a slave, a nameless jewish scribe, a prostitute. khadijah does not have a turn at her version of the events until chapter 8 – in the beginning, the spiral feels loose; the more the book moves on, the closer the spiral draws; more and more weighty voices show up, the story becomes heavier, sadder, louder. before his enlightenment by an angel who demands he “recite” (literally: “koran”), the narrative drifts a bit. following this, part three of the book is entitled “the warrior of god” where muhammad brooks no more nonsense. muhammad introduces the idea of the jihad – the holy war – and becomes an influential warlord. muhammad clearly prefers peace over war, but he also prefers his people’s and his god’s survival over peace. towards the end, chopra portrays muhammad’s terrible and wonderful greatness. after muhammad decides to kill his prisoners of war, a friend of his, after a difficult conversation about this decision, concludes:
i listened. i understood. i accepted … the prophet has become his revelations. he sees beyond life and death, and his mind cares only to be part of god’s mind.
muhammad is a novel, explains chopra. not all of what he relates is historically accurate. and
i didn’t write this book to make muhammad holy. i wrote it to show that holiness was just as confusing, terrifying, and exalting in the seventh century as it would be today. …
among all the founders of the great world religions, muhammad is the most like us. …
the most remarkable fact about muhammad is that he was so much like us, until destiny provided one of the greatest shocks in history …
the message he brought wasn’t pure; it never is. as long as our yearning for god exceeds our ability to live in holiness, the tangled mysteries of the prophet will be our own mystery too.