100 Years Ago… – Stanley Edward Lane-Poole: ‘A portrait of Muhammad and a unique instance of forbearance’


The Review of Religions [English], September 1922

Stanley Edward Lane-Poole (1854-1931) was a renowned historian and a British orientalist. He was born in England, worked as a researcher on Egyptian archaeology and also had a chair at Dublin University as a Professor of Arabic studies. He wrote the following about the great personality and character of the Holy Prophetsa in 1922:


A portrait of Muhammad

We know very little about what Muhammad[sa] did, but we hear only one voice as to what he was. Up to the age of 40 (forty), his unpretending modest way of life had attracted but little notice from his townspeople. He was only known as a simple upright man, whose life was severely pure and refined, and whose true desert sense of honour and faith-keeping had won him the high title of El-Emeen, “The Trusty”. 

Let us see what fashion of man this was who was about to work a revolution among his countrymen and change the conditions of social life in a vast part of the world. 

The picture is drawn from an older man that we have yet seen; but Muhammad[sa] at forty and Muhammad[sa] at fifty or more were probably very little different. He was of the middle height, rather thin, but broad of shoulders, wide of chest, strong of bone and muscle. His head was [large], strongly developed. Dark hair, slightly curved, flowed in a dense mass down almost to his shoulders. Even in advanced age, it was sprinkled by only about twenty grey hairs – produced by the agonies of his revelation. His face was oval-shaped, slightly tawny of colour. Fine, long, arched eyebrows wore divided by a vein which throbbed visibly in movements of passion. Great black restless eyes shone out from under long, heavy eyelashes. His nose was large, slightly aquiline. His tooth upon which he bestowed great care, were well set, dazzling white. A full beard framed his manly face. His skin was clear and soft, his complexion red and white, his hands were as silk and satin, even as those of a woman. His step was quick and elastic, yet firm, and as that of one “who steps from a high to a low place.” In turning his face, he would also turn his full body. His whole gait and presence were dignified and imposing. His countenance was mild and pensive. His laugh was rarely more than a smile. 

In his habits, he was extremely simple, though he bestowed great care on his person. His eating and drinking, his dress and his furniture, retained, even when he had reached the fulness of power, their almost primitive nature. The only luxuries he indulged in were, besides arms, which he highly prized, a pair of yellow boots, a present from the Negus of Abyssinia. Perfumes, however, he loved passionately being most sensitive of smell. Strong drinks he abhorred. 

[…] He was gifted with mighty powers of imagination, elevation of mind, delicacy and refinement of feeling. “He is more modest than a virgin behind her curtain,” it was said of him. He was most indulgent to his inferiors, and would never allow his awkward little page to be scolded, whatever he did. “Ten years,” said Anas, his servant, “was I about the Prophet[sa], and he never said as much as ‘uff’ to me.” He was very affectionate towards his families. One of his boys died on his breast in the smoky house of the nurse, a blacksmith’s wife. He was very fond of children. He would stop them in the streets and pat their little cheeks. He never struck anyone in his life. The worst expression he ever made use of in conversation was, “What has come to him? – May his forehead be darkened with mud!” When asked to curse someone, he replied, “I have not been sent to curse but to be a mercy to mankind.” 

He visited the sick, followed any bier he met, accepted the invitation of a slave to dinner, mended his own clothes, milked his goats, and waited upon himself, relates summarily another tradition. He never first withdrew his hand out of another man’s palm, and turned not before the other had turned. 

He was the most faithful protector of those he protected, the sweetest and most agreeable in conversation; those who saw him were suddenly filled with reverence; those who came near him loved him, they who described him would say, “I have never seen his like either before or after.” He was of great taciturnity, but when he spoke it was with emphasis and deliberation and no one could ever forget what he said. He was, however, very nervous and restless withal, often low-spirited, downcast as to heart and eyes. Yet he would at times suddenly break through these broodings, become light-hearted, talkative, jocular, chiefly among his own. He would then delight in telling little stories, fairy tales, and the like. He would ramp with the children and play with their toys. 

He lived with his wives in a row of humble cottages, separated from one another by palm branches, cemented together with mud. He would kindle the fire, sweep the floor and milk the goats himself. Aisha[ra] tells us that he slept upon a leathern mat, and often clouted his shoes, with his own hand. For months together, he did not get a sufficient meal. The little food that he had was always shared with those who dropped in to partake of it. Indeed, outside the Prophet’s house was a bench or gallery, on which were always to be found a number of the poor, who lived entirely on his generosity, and were hence called “the people of the bench.” His ordinary food was dates and water or barley bread; milk and honey were luxuries of which he was fond, but which he rarely allowed himself. The fare of the desert seemed most congenial to him, even when he was sovereign of Arabia. 

An instance of forbearance

[…] The final keystone was set in the eighth year of the flight (AD 630), when a body of Quraysh broke the truce by attacking an ally of the Muslims; and Muhammad[sa] forthwith marched upon Mecca with ten thousand men, and the city, defence being hopeless, surrendered. Now was the time for the Prophet[sa] to show his [alleged] bloodthirsty nature. His old persecutors are at his feet. Will he not trample on them, torture them, and revenge himself after his own cruel manner? Now the man will come forward in his true colours? We may prepare our horror and cry shame beforehand. 

But what is this? Is there no blood in the streets? Where are the bodies of the thousands that have been butchered? Facts are hard things; and it is a fact that the day of Muhammad’s greatest triumph over his enemies was also the day [… when he]freely forgave the Quraysh all the years of sorrow and cruel scorn they had inflicted on him, he gave an amnesty to the whole population of Mecca. Four criminals, whom justice condemned, made up Muhammad’s proscription list when he entered as a conqueror the city of his bitterest enemies. The army followed his example, and entered quietly and peaceably; no house was robbed, no woman insulted. One thing alone suffered destruction. Going to the Kaaba, Muhammad[sa] stood before each of the three hundred and sixty idols and pointed to it with his staff, saying, “Truth has come and lying has been undone”; and at these words, his attendants hewed it down, and all the idols and household gods of Mecca and round about were destroyed. 

It was thus that Muhammad[sa] entered again his native city. Through all the annals of conquest, there is no triumphant entry like unto this one. 

(Transcribed by Al Hakam from the original published in The Review of Religions, September 1922)

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