A Genuine Act of Discovery: U-M's Juan Cole on his book "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires"


Juan Cole and his book Muhammad

Dr. Juan Cole has spent his life dedicated to the study of the Middle East, Muslim South Asia, and religion. He’s been at University of Michigan since 1984, quoted in papers from the L.A. Times to the Baltimore Sun, and appeared on PBS Newshour, Nightline, and The Colbert Report. He received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for research on Shiite Muslim thought and history, published translations of Arabic literature by Kahlil Gibran (and later, sponsored an exhibit of Gibran’s paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts), acted as the director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at U-M, served as editor in chief of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and wrote or translated nearly 20 books. 

This past October, Bold Type Books published Cole’s most recent book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. The book’s publication at this particular time is in response to recent events around the world. “Extremist groups are misusing or using religious text in dishonest ways," Cole says. "North America and Europe have seen a rise in Islamophobia and the smearing of the prophet Muhammad.”

Cole originally studied early Islam and its foundations while in graduate school in Cairo and later at UCLA. “I got pulled away from the medieval studies," Cole says, "and pulled into writing about modern and contemporary issues in the Middle East by several events,” including the Iranian Revolution. “Although I had this earlier training, I didn’t put it to use in a whole book until now. I tried to tell the story as a response to this moment that we find ourselves in.”

As an academic, Cole began his research seeking the truth. “I didn’t set out to write a book that was necessarily favorable to Islam," Cole says. "I set out to explore the themes of peace and peace-building in the Quran and in the life of Muhammad. Once I got into it, I was surprised to find how central these themes were because they haven’t been highlighted in the existing literature.”

Cole describes his research as being a “genuine act of discovery on my part. … I didn’t expect to find some of the things that I found,” such as the Quran’s idea of conflict and war that is indistinguishable from the Christian church and parallels their teaching on what a “just war” means.

“The text we have now is badly translated and may give impressions that aren’t warranted," Cole says. "One of the most central misconceptions about the prophet is the view that he was a militant preacher and warlike figure; this image of him appears to be completely wrong. While he did lead some defensive skirmishes later in his life, they were small affairs in the defense of Medina and didn’t account for very much of his life.”

Cole adds that passages in the Quran compare to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, saying, “When taunted or harassed one should wish peace upon one’s tormentors. That seems awfully Christ-like to me. Verses like this are known to Muslims but are not quoted in Western literature.”

The book has received positive reviews and praise from The New York Times and other sources. Cole is understandably pleased with the reception so far. “Anyone who writes about Islam gets pushback, especially on social media where there are specialized websites that attack people like me," Cole says. "But I have not gotten as much [pushback] as I had anticipated." Additionally, he says, "I am very happy that the Muslim-American community seems to be embracing the book.”

Cole hopes readers enjoy the anecdotes in the book, which he defines as "a biography about a prophet and someone who is exhorting people to peace.”

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband.

Dr. Juan Cole reads from "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" at Nicola’s Books, 2513 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor, on Tuesday, February 19 at 7 pm.