Assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida, Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of almost a dozen books about Islam, both fictional and nonfiction. In his latest book, Muhammad: Forty Introductions (Soft Skull, Jan.), Knight uses reported sayings of Muhammad that have been passed down through Islamic tradition, known as “hadiths,” to introduce the prophet in new and sometimes controversial ways.
What inspired you to write this book?
I just finished my dissertation from UNC Chapel Hill that was all about the prophet and highlighting the different ways that the people who knew him translated his memory to later generations. The next year, I was at Kenyon College in Ohio, teaching a seminar about Muhammad and trying to find that perfect intro book that does everything I want it to, and that book just wasn’t there. I thought about the different ways in which people introduce Muhammad, and reintroduce him, and reintroduce him, and reintroduce him. That led me to the forty hadith literary genre and then I started to think about, what if there are forty ways to introduce Muhammad?
Can you give an example of some of the numerous and diverse understandings Muslims have of Muhammad?
There are many hadiths in which people are describing Muhammad’s body as having transcendent powers. That there were miracles associated with his body—that his body had these really amazing qualities like that his hands were softer than silk. I found some companions [of Muhammad] to be more prolific reporters of that than others. Even within the generation that knew Muhammad there is complexity. There are people who would prioritize Muhammad as a state builder, who think of Muhammad in terms of social justice aspects, as a shaman kind of figure, or as a template for the life that they have in their own home.
Out of the 40 introductions, which one were you most excited to write about and why?
There are different hadiths in there that do different things, so there are hadiths that were interesting to me because they were really challenging and provoked tensions. There are hadiths that are exciting because I thought I could have some fun and go off the chart with them. And then there are hadiths that paint Muhammad in a way that people don’t expect to see. One of the hadiths that really personally touched my heart the most was when one of the earliest Muslims performs the migration from Mecca to Medina and then later takes his own life. Muhammad is praying for God to heal him in the next world completely. I’ve shared this story with people numerous times and they are always surprised to hear it because everyone knows about the hadiths where people who take their own life are condemned with some sort of punishment in the next world, but they don’t know this hadith in which the prophet affirms God’s mercy on someone who has taken their own life.
Do you consider this book to be controversial, like many of your past books? Why or why not?
When I was younger, I wrote like a younger author, so there was a certain tone that would have been controversial no matter what I was saying. But some of the content really will be challenging for people. I write about artistic representations of Muhammad. It’s kind of a trope that no Muslim would ever make a picture of Muhammad, and Muslims themselves often believe [that it’s forbidden], but historically, we have a really deep and rich tradition of making pictures of Muhammad as devotional art. I use one of those pictures as a hadith. I present that as another way of imagining Muhammad, and some people will find that threatening.