Friday, September 15, 2006


Books: The Heirs to the Prophet Muhammad and The Creation
(PA Book Round Up #19 Reviews of Reviews)

By Thomas Riggins

THE HEIRS OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD: THE TWO PATHS TO ISLAM by Barnaby Rogerson (Time Warner, 432pp.) reviewed by Anthony Sattin in the Times Literary Supplement, July 7, 2006.

Progressives have a lot to keep up with these days. Besides having to keep tabs on the new and refurbished old theories of the right and left plus keep track of the aggressive misuse of Christian doctrine for right-wing partisan advantage, Imperialism’s assault on the Muslim world now requires us to monitor “political Islam” as well. I am assuming most Americans are more familiar with Christian and Jewish religious thought and can easily, hopefully) see through the hypocritical uses of religion by the ultra-right (waging war and claiming to follow “the Prince of Peace”, or denouncing “terrorism” and turning a blind eye to the genocidal pogrom unleashed against the Palestinian people) than they are with the understanding of Islam and its misuses.

Rogerson”s book, therefore, looks like a good introduction to the history of Islam. The reviewer calls it a “fascinating narrative.” It deals with two important aspects in the rise of Islam. The first deals with the struggle for leadership of the new Muslim community after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD (excuse the Western dating system.) The second deals with the rise of the Islamic empire “one of history’s great epic tales.” The reviewer points out that coming out of Arabia, the Muslims, within 50 years of Muhammad’s death, ruled from the Atlantic Ocean through the Middle East up into Central Asia. Quite a feat. “Yet,” Sattin writes, “rather than attest to the glory of God as revealed by the latest messenger, [the book] shows how the Arab Empire proved to be the rack on which the Prophet’s followers were broken.”

How is this conclusion reached? It is shown that as a young man engaged in the world of trade Muhammad was not so different from his fellow humans. He engaged in trade, as did many others, and “was not adverse to wealth.” But all that changed for him “once he had begun his mission.” As he succeeded in his religious endeavors and his influence grew tribute and wealth began to flow to him. Did he use it to aggrandize himself? No! He used the new wealth to help and benefit the poor and weak members of the new Islamic society.

He also preferred the simple life like “the biblical prophets” before him.

But what did his followers do after his death? Not so much the early followers who knew him personally, but the second and third generation and beyond, what did they do? This is where this second aspect (the rise of empire) is intermingled with the first one-- the leadership struggle right after the Prophet’s death. In brief, two factions began to develop: one formed around people associated with Aisha (Muhammad’s second wife) and the other around his son-in-law Ali. This is the origin of the split between the Sunni and the Shia (the Ali faction).

This split might never have happened but for the immense wealth that began to accumulate as a result of the expansion of Islam. This led to disputes about who should be leading the community as the successor of the Prophet. The wealth now led to “temptation and conflict.”

Finally these tensions led to “a civil war in which Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law, confidant and champion, was assassinated.”

This was a disaster. As has happened too many times before in history, the money and power trumped the true meaning of the message of the religious teacher. With the murder of Ali, Rogerson writes, “ the era of holiness within the Islamic community is over, the scheming politicians, the police chiefs and the old clan chiefs are once again back in power.” Welcome to the club.

THE CREATION: AN APPEAL TO SAVE LIFE ON EARTH by Edward O. Wilson (W.W. Norton & Company, 175 pp.) reviewed by Matthew Scully in The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, September 10, 2006.

This short book is an appeal by the eminent Harvard biologist (emeritus) for humankind to stop the destruction of life on our planet. Half of all species could be extinct by the end of the century due to environmental destruction (such as global warming among others). Matthew Scully, identified by the Times as "a former senior speechwriter for President Bush" seems like a strange choice to review a book by a scientist. Nevertheless, he gives the book a rather positive review while at the same time promoting Christian values at the expense of Wilson's secular humanist world outlook.

This may be the point. Wilson has cast his book in the form of a letter to a Southern Baptist minister suggesting that while they have different metaphysical outlooks (evolutionary biology versus Biblical revelation) religion and science should be able to call a truce and work together to save the planet. Wilson considers religion and science "the two most powerful forces in the world today" (Scully quotes) and he wants to ally them, Scully writes, "in an ethic of 'honorable' self-restraint toward the natural world." This is a strategic error at the heart of Wilson's outlook.

Science and religion are superstructural phenomena and their "force" is derivative with respect to their "powerfulness." Scully should know this. The Bush administration manipulates science for its political ends and is still in denial about global warming. Religion too is used for political ends and is manipulated by the ruling class to further its class interests. So what are the actual "most powerful forces in the world today." There are indeed two, as Wilson thinks, but they are in a dialectical relationship of mutual antagonism and contradiction. They are foundational not superstructural forces.

The first force is that of globalization which represents the real power of the world wide capitalist economic system driven by a structural need to expand and increase its profits by ever more intense exploitation both of the natural environment and the human raw material (in the form of working people) whose labor power it must consume in order to survive. No ethic of "honorable self-restraint" is possible within this type of economic system.

The second force is created by the first in response to it. This is the growing awareness among the working people that globalization must be fought and capitalist exploitation resisted. We see people throughout the world becoming more aware of this and beginning to fight back. Manifestations of this growing power are seen from Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe (rejection of the EU Constitution) and in the US by the mobilization to break up the ultra-right control of the government. If the planet is to be saved the victory of this second force over the first is the only way it will be accomplished.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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