CNN: My Take – Reviewing Deepak Chopra’s book “Muhammad”

Editor’s note: Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of and legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.

By Arsalan Iftikhar, Special to CNN

It was nearly one year ago – in November 2009 – that Deepak Chopra first told me about his upcoming historical fiction novel about the Prophet Muhammad. It was during a coffee meeting of ours at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington right before Deepak’s attendance at President Obama’s first official state dinner at the White House.

Deepak mentioned that his latest fictional novel was part of his desire to complete a “religious trilogy” of such books. He’d previously written about Jesus and Buddha.

I received my advance copy of Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet in the mail during the last days of Ramadan this year. I thought it fitting that I would read and review the book without the distractions of food or water during the Muslim holy month.

Upon reading the first few pages, it becomes clear that the first thing Chopra wants his readers to know is that this novel about Muhammad is not an authenticated biography of the Prophet of Islam. It’s based on an imagined historical narrative as told by those people in 7th century Arabia within close proximity to the Prophet: friends, enemies and family.

The first thing that would strike the average reader is the raw intimacy of those first-person narratives of those around the Prophet Muhammad. Never have the blistering sands of 7th century Arabia felt so close to my skin than in each chapter’s first-person narrative account of the foreboding desert landscape.

Each of the novel’s chapters are written in the first-person. These chapters include perspectives from the daughters of Muhammad, from a Jewish scribe who worked for the Prophet in Medina, from an African slave named Barakah and even from a sworn enemy of the Prophet named Abu Sufyan.

Each chapter offers an insight not only into Muhammad, but also the sociopolitical tensions of a 7th century Arabia, which is beleaguered by drought, famine, war and pagan idolatry.

The novel’s greatest service to our current conversation is its ability to humanize Muhammad to millions of people who may know little or nothing about him.

A recurring theme throughout the book is Muhammad’s own admission that he was not divine, but merely a prophet of God and ‘a man among men.’

In the novel’s afterword, Chopra reiterates the “touching stories about his humility… He admitted his mistakes, and far from being the only one to give orders in times of crises, he stayed in council” with his companions and listened to advisers.

Furthermore, the story reminds us that people who worshiped the one monotheistic god of Abraham (Christians, Jews and Muslims alike) were all considered societal outcasts in 7th century Arabia.

Reinforcing the fact that this book is historical fiction and not a precise biography, my friend Dalia Mogahed (executive director of the Center for Muslim Studies at Gallup and member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) rightfully noted in her review that this “is not a book recounting Muhammad’s life, but a beautiful story inspired by it… There was editorial license and creativity, and while many of the words and events have been recorded in authentic sources, many have not…”

Like many novels, there are parts of the book that made me laugh, cry and reflect. There are certain parts of the book I know are not historically accurate, but that didn’t take away from the humanizing narrative of Muhammad.

Like Chopra’s novels on Jesus and Buddha, Muhammad succeeds in offering a millennial narrative to a gigantic religious historical figure that lived a long time ago and who may not be readily accessible us in the 21st century.

Even though we live in a time where Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with over 1.5 billion adherents, Islam is also probably the planet’s most misunderstood religion.

At a time when people of all faiths (or no faith) need to help in reviving an overall ‘culture of humanity’ for all people of all races, religions, nationalities or socioeconomic statuses, Chopra offers a humanizing fictional novel loosely based on one of the most prominent and most misunderstood religious figures in history.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Arsalan Iftikhar.

Published by CNN Belief Blog