Islam ("submit" in Arabic), is a beautiful religion. If stripped of its ancient tribal elements, it offers rules for life and directs its followers to be compassionate and charitable. Given the blackened reputation of Islam in the West after 9/11, it's crucial that we develop a better understanding of this religion of 1.5 billion people.
Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet (note the "A"), the newest of Deepak's Chopra's "teaching" novels (he has also written Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment and Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment, may spark a necessary dialogue, if it doesn't call down a fatwa upon his head for blasphemy.
A Bedouin wet nurse, Muhammad's best friend, his worst enemy, his wife Khadijah and his children are some of the characters who tell first-person stories about Muhammad. Through their eyes, Chopra constructs a man who is gentle, wise, terrified by the onerous spiritual burden handed to him by the Angel Gabriel, but eventually, equal to the task of uniting the polytheist nomadic tribes isolated by the desert.
Chopra carefully impresses upon us that Muhammad was only a man, not a God, unlike Jesus or Buddha. As such his struggles are more relatable to the faithful, although at times the description of his "fits" when the angel Gabriel or God speaks through him verge on descriptions of a psychotic break. Hindu-raised, Chopra readily inserts his own franchised panentheism into the mix, having Muhammad say: "My secret is that God is not someone you can seek. He is in all things and always has been. He created this earth and he disappeared into it, like an ocean disappearing into a drop of water."
The book excels at contextualizing Islam. It shows that the descendents of Abraham were just another tribe in 600AD Arabia. (In fact, Arabs and Jews have been found to share, not surprisingly, a common genetic heritage. The black stone by the Zamzam well in Mecca predates Islam and housed the pagans before they were driven away by the Muslims. And Chopra does not flinch in his description of the cold-blooded massacre of the Qurayza Jews, an ancient trigger to the hostility between the two religions.
Nor does he shrink from another form of unfathomable violence committed by Muhammad: having sex with his nine-year-old wife Aisha, an event which to this day gives credence to modern-day Arabia as a haven for pedophiles. Today some young girls have managed to use sharia law to get divorces from the old men who rape them, but this tradition is a terrible impediment to respecting fundamentalist Muslim tradition. As Muhammad blurbers Ayaan Hirsi Ali ( Infidel) and Irshad Manji ( The Trouble with Islam) exhort, now is the time for Islam to undergo its reformation, just as Christianity and Judaism did.
As a fiction writer, Chopra wavers between The Celestine Prophecy with a tinge of The Bridges of Madison County. It's a naive, thus very accessible, style that verges on purple prose. At the risk of inviting bad karma, I could suggest that this messiah of New Age wisdom is very, very good at making money from those hungry for spiritual guidance. Chopra himself said he is only a prophet "if you spell it 'profit.' "
His next book? "Believe it or not, God Almighty," he says.
I think it will sell very well, Inshallah (God willing).
Mary-Lou Zeitoun is an author, teacher and journalist. She is a Canadian of Palestinian heritage.