Scholar who has walked Muhammad from early Islam to the present day

Early experience in Ireland helped shape Islamic scholar Tarif Khalidi

Prof Tarif Khalidi at the Chester Beatty Library, where he will speak about Ireland and the Irish in medieval and modern Arabic texts. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Prof Tarif Khalidi at the Chester Beatty Library, where he will speak about Ireland and the Irish in medieval and modern Arabic texts. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


As a scholar who has championed the centrality of Jesus to Islamic thought, and whose last two books were Images of Muhammad and a translation of the Koran, Tarif Khalidi cannot be accused of shying away from difficult projects. But even he knows some territory is too charged politically and downright dangerous to explore publicly.

“When Random House wanted me to write this book,” he says of Images of Muhammad , “they wanted a straightforward biography of Muhammad and I said ‘No way’ because that would involve taking in an enormous amount of stuff that is very uncomplimentary to the prophet: there is a lot of it even in the Islamic sources. So you have to make up your mind: do you put this in? Do you balance it with something else? I didn’t want to get into that.”

Instead he produced “a kind of historiography of Muhammad”, tracing how Islam’s most revered figure has been depicted through the ages, from the early biographers who “included everything because they thought the subject was too important” to an age “when the biographers became more canonical”, turning Muhammad into a role model. “And then eventually, when you come to the modern period, Muhammad becomes a model of various ‘isms’: Muhammad the first Arab nationalist, Muhammad the first socialist. . .”

Has he got heat from extremists? “Nobody has challenged me, because most of these fundamentalists in any case are illiterate – so that’s a mercy,” he says, deadpan. Moreover, “as far as I’m concerned I’m sketching traditional biography rather than getting into biography myself, which could be rather nasty: that’s when my life would be in peril.”

A refreshingly informal and cheerful speaker, Khalidi is in Dublin to deliver the Chester Beatty annual lecture on Thursday (which is booked out), and has been invited to stay on for a few weeks for some guest appearances at Trinity College Dublin and a further talk in Cork. It’s a familiar experience for this travelling academic who spent his prime research years in Cambridge and now teaches at the American University of Beirut.

‘Substitute spiritual home’
All his life he has been moving – he spent part of his youth in Castletownshend in Co Cork. “I first came to Ireland aged 14 and it was love at first sight because I had lost my homeland, Palestine, and very shortly thereafter my father and so when I came to Ireland it was a kind of substitute spiritual home.”

His father’s former boss, Wilfred Jerome Farrell – an Irishman who had been director of education in British-mandate Palestine – had invited him to west Cork to be educated in the classics and Greek in preparation for UK entrance exams.

His interest in Ireland has endured and has influenced Thursday’s lecture, which will examine how the Irish were viewed in medieval and modern Arabic texts. In the 19th century and early 20th century Arab writers “felt a genuine empathy with the Irish, and Ireland became a kind of model in the struggle against the British empire,” he says.

The work for which Khalidi is best known is The Muslim Jesus , a collection of Arab sayings and stories relating to a prophet who is regarded in Islam not as the son of God but as the “word of God, lord of the aesthetics, healer, teacher of good manners” and much more besides. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a kind of unique case in world religions where one religion grabs the hero of another religion and uses it.”

Ecumenical debates
Khalidi’s research has brought him into the field of interfaith dialogue, although he admits he has grown tired of ecumenical debates where mere platitudes are exchanged. Similarly, he argues that controversial doctrines in Islam cannot be addressed by glossing over them.

“For instance there’s a passage in the Koran about disobedient wives: ‘Reprimand her and if she doesn’t listen then beat her’, or ‘smack her’ actually,” he says, clarifying the translation.

“Some scholars have tried to modernise this “by saying the word doesn’t mean ‘beat’; it means ‘censor’ or something like that. That kind of thing is artificial because it looks as if one is kind of ashamed of having a scripture which says: ‘Beat your wife’. But look at the Old Testament, there are things that are far worse. You just have to accept that this kind of smacking your wife in Muhammad’s day was socially acceptable.”

While expressing horror at the “demented” fundamentalism that has flared up in Islam in recent years, he warns against generalisations: “I am much more comfortable talking about Islams [plural] rather than one Islam.”

Some Muslim scholars believe there is scope in concepts such as ijtihad, or independent thinking, for a shift in Islamic thought but Khalidi is more circumspect.

‘Higher criticism ’
“It will all have to begin with the Koran. It will have to be something similar to what is called the higher criticism of the Bible which began in the 19th century . . . This is yet to happen in Koranic studies.”

He says “glimmerings” of such a critique have been put forward by German Islamic scholars but “Muslim scholars are way behind. They haven’t yet grasped the techniques and they have not really joined the debate yet.”

As the interview ends, he politely makes a request. “Do please remember to call me a Palestinian. Or I like to be called a Jerusalemite – because the city is claimed as the exclusive property of Israel. My family has been in Jerusalem for about 1,000 years. Or,” he chuckles, “you can call me a Palestinian Irishman.”

Prof Tarif Khalidi will deliver the Chester Beatty a nnual l ecture at Dublin Castle Conference Centre on Thursday at 6 pm.