lester LectureThe Religious Studies Department presents "Contesting Muhammed: Contemporary Controversies in Historical Perspective" with Dr. Kecia Ali (Boston University) on September 13, 2018 at 5 PM in the Center for British and Irish Studies, Norlin Library.

The Prophet’s life story has been told from the earliest days of Islam to the present, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, in myriad ways. Since the nineteenth century, hagiographic and polemical writings have merged into a single, contentious, story, usually devoting substantial attention to Muhammad’s relationships with women, especially his first wife, Khadija, and his young favorite, Aisha. Modern Muslim accounts of these marriages arose in tandem and in tension with Western depictions, and were shaped by new ideas about religion, sexuality, and marriage. Exploring these contested images of Muhammad as a husband illuminates key forces at play in contemporary thinking about this vital figure and serves as a corrective to simplistic depictions of a timeless clash between Islam and the West.


The Lester Lecture is an annual activity of the department, and each year, the talks keep getting better and better.  The Lester Lecture is an annual activity of the department, and each year, the talks keep getting better and better. 40 of 75 attendees were students.

The talk addressed depictions of Muhammad, especially his relationships with his wives Khadija (a much older woman) and then after Khadija’s death to Aisha (a nine-year old girl), and how biographies of Muhammad treat his relationships.  Dr. Ali argued that Muhammad biographies are really mirrors for the societies that produces them.  She ranged over time and place, covering 167th century English-language biographies of the prophet to 20th century Pakistani ones. She opened by showing a note that Dr. Ali received at her office recently with a bull’s eye and horrible words scrawled upon the note including calling Muhammad a “pedophile.”  The end of her talk circled back to this story as she argued that today, when there are Amber alerts on highways and Catholic priests going to prison (or not) for pedophilia, that older people have sexual relations with younger people is considered one of the gravest sins.  But she also pointed out that Muhammad’s ‘pedophilic’ relationship with Aisha has only recently become of interest to Muhammad biographers.  In other words, western society’s new obsession with pedophilia appears in Muhammad’s biography about his marriage to nine-year old Aisha, but earlier biographies hardly mention her age as a factor at all.  Earlier biographies extolled Khadija’s virtues as a wife and focused their attention on that.  The talk was broadly based, pitched perfectly to an educated but lay audience, and she supported her argument with a vast array of scholarship.  It was an impressive talk.

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