Muhammad: the man who transformed Arabia

Peter Cotterell


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Muhammad: the man who transformed Arabia. The man whose life in some measure determines the everyday behaviour of more than a billion of his followers across the world. And yet a man it is difficult to know. As the author of this book points out, biographies of Muhammad have tended to present him either as a man who could do nothing right or else as a man who could do nothing wrong. Somewhere in between is the real Muhammad.

Dr Cotterell has taught and lectured on Islam for more than 30 years. For more than 20 years he lived and worked in Ethiopia. This book is the result of those years of struggling to understand Islam and Muhammad, its central figure.


An extremely timely and helpful book on Muhammad for the general reader. If you have ever felt a need to study Islam more deeply, then Peter Cotterell’s latest book on Islam is just for you! Expressing the fruit of 30 years of research and teaching, Dr. Cotterell takes us to the heart of Islam and opens to non-Muslims the life of Muhammad. An important and rivetting study of Muhammad. A MUST for those wanting to understand Islam more deeply.
George Carey, 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury

Peter Cotterell has drawn on his extensive scholarship to write this very readable, academically balanced and well-researched biography. He also highlights the importance of studying the life of Muhammad, as he and Jesus are two men who, more than any others, have shaped history to such an extent that, in his words: ‘From our twenty-first century viewpoint, we are forced to recognise that we shall never understand our present until we understand their past’.
Baroness Caroline Cox, Founder and CEO, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), UK.

Much controversy has surrounded the person of Muhammad down the centuries. In this book Peter Cotterell engages skilfully with Islam’s most charismatic figure, drawing on primary sources to paint a portrait that is faithful to the Islamic materials but that nevertheless asks important hard questions about the prophet of Islam. The result is enlightening and serves as a significant work of scholarship.
Professor Peter Riddell, Melbourne School of Theology, Australia.

Peter Cotterell wears his deep learning and wide reading very lightly. It is difficult to be concise about the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, as there is so much material available. This, however, is exactly what Dr Cotterell has done. Naturally, this is at the cost of detailed discussion and description but, on the other hand, he has made it all very readable.
He has struck a balance between the tendency to hagiography in Islamic history and the, sometimes, hysterical polemics in the West. He has not avoided mentioning the strengths as well as the weaknesses of his subject nor has he ignored the difficult questions which face the student in understanding a very complex person and his context.
We have here the portrait of a remarkable man utterly committed to his vision, implementing it with every method available to him. He not only transformed the Arabia of his day but the rest of World History as well. The movement he began continues today and it is by its fruits that people will have to evaluate the events that occurred in the far-off Arabia of the 7th Century.

As Peter Cotterell suggests, the significance of the figure of Muhammad as a religious leader and his influence and that of those who embraced the religion of Islam both during his lifetime and subsequently, are such that he may indeed be regarded as one of the most important figures of the world’s religious history. In this well-written and closely researched volume, which demonstrates a mastery of the subject gained from his lengthy experience in research and teaching, the author, while deliberately limiting himself to the historical person of Muhammad and his Arabian context, seeks to present an accurate depiction, shorn of the excesses which characterise much Muslim hagiography (and to which not all non-Muslim writers have proved immune) and of the vitriolic polemic emerging from the pens of his religious opponents. While not written for an academic audience, the book contains much that will interest those with some knowledge of Muhammad and the rise of Islam: the pre-Islamic function of the Ka’ba and its deities, the centrality of an ‘option for the poor’ to Muhammad’s religious message, and issues regarding the revelation of the text of the Qur’an. The chart demonstrating the relationship between Sunni and Shi’a Islam is helpful, as are the maps of the region. For the general reader, the book provides a balanced, readable and well structured introduction to the personal, religious and political life of Muhammad, and will serve as a useful basis for further reading on the subsequent development of Islam and the complex history of its relationship and dialogue with other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity, the beginnings of which are sketched by the author.


Muhammad is revered by a quarter of the world’s population who are unquestioning of the stories that have accumulated around him. Some sceptical scholars have questioned his very existence. For many the man is an enigma. Peter Cotterell falls into none of these categories. He retells the story of Muhammad’s life against the backdrop of the political realities of his contemporary Arabia. This means that questions about his role as a prophet are discussed in the context of his actions as a political leader who brought the warring tribes of Arabia together into a united umma confessing the oneness of God and recognition of Muhammad as his messenger and their political leader. Cotterell places the Sura in their historical contexts that show the development of Muhammad’s actions as he responds to events. This makes sense of the trajectory of the development of the Qur’an and shows the political necessity of the doctrine of abrogation. He courageously discusses the significance of the ‘Satanic verses’.
For the person who knows little of the life of Muhammad, this book is a good introduction which makes the reader aware of the areas of academic debate. Those with more advanced knowledge will appreciate Cotterell’s tackling of some of these issues and his wise judgements.


Peter Cotterell has provided an engaging, accessible biography of the founder of Islam that is at the same time respectful and critical. In addition to the sparse Qur’anic material and the Hadith, the account closely follows Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat al-rasul (as translated by Guillaume) and if the book lacks one thing it is a critical evaluation of this source which is not universally accepted by Muslims as being reliable. In the book Muhammad’s qualities as a leader and man of forceful personality are appreciated but at the same time his perceived weaknesses are not excused as being a product of his historical context. For Cotterell this will not do for one whom Muslims hold up as ‘the perfect example of manhood for all time’. Whilst he is more sympathetic of Muhammad’s politically motivated marriages than many Western observers have been, he is concerned about the levels of violence in the Medinan period and what he sees as the serendipitous nature of some of the later ‘claimed’ revelations. Ultimately he is critical of Muhammad’s legacy in the ‘backward-looking social code’ of Islam. Whilst not extensively footnoted, this book will serve as an entry level study book for students if read critically as well as a good starting point for those interested in thinking about the origins of Islam.


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