Michael Muhammad Knight’s Muhammad’s Body: Baraka Networks and the Prophetic Assemblage examines the construction of the prophetic body using textual evidence from the 8th to the 11th centuries CE that belong to the genres of sīra/maghāzī literature and Sunni Ḥadīth literature (2-3). Knight’s study is inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s understanding of the body as an assemblage that is “characterized by internal multiplicities of forces in changing relations”—forces that construct and reconstruct the body over and over again (9). Here, the author is particularly interested in the extent to which Muhammad’s body has the capacity to enter into relations with other bodies (9-10). With this study, the author aims to initiate a conversation between Islamic studies (and more specifically Ḥadīth studies), religious studies, and theories of the body, as well as to contribute to the emerging research on Muslim masculinities (4).
The study is based on early sources, including the Qurʾān, as the source most reliably associated with the early Islamic community; the sīra/maghāzī literature, including works by Wahb b. Munabbih (d. ca. 730), Ibn Hishām (d. 833), Yūnus b. Bukayr (d. 814) and ʿUmar al-Wāqidī (d. 823), the precursors of the canonical Ḥadīth collections; early forms of Ḥadīth collections in the musnad and muṣannaf genres, such as those compiled by Ibn Abī Shayba and Ibn Ḥanbal; the biographical dictionary Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrā by Ibn Saʿd (d. 845); the six canonical Ḥadīth collections and the Sunan of al-Darīmī (d. 869) from the late 9th century; and Ḥadīth collections from the 10th and 11th centuries by al-Ṭabarānī (d. 971), Ibn Khuzayma (d. 923), al-Daraqutnī (d. 995), al-Ḥākim al-Naysābūrī (d. 1012) and his disciple al-Bayhaqī (d. 1066), as well as Abū Nuʿaym al-Iṣfahānī (d. 1038). Knight reads these works and then presents in chronological order how these traditions construct the various parts of the prophet’s body.
The first chapter introduces the body of Muhammad in terms of his lineage and physical appearance and shows that Muhammad’s body is part of what marks him as a prophet. In the second chapter, Knight discusses traditions that imagine Muhammad’s body as in need of intervention by transcendent entities, with a particular focus on Muhammad’s heart. In chapter 3, Knight addresses the prophet’s bodily by-products, such as hair, fingernails, saliva, sweat, blood, and digestive waste, and asks to what extent Muhammad’s body—or his by-products—can transmit blessings (baraka). In chapter 4, Knight argues that the prophetic body and its ability to connect with others is shaped by gendered powers and limits. Here, he writes about who has access to the prophet’s body and under what conditions. In the fifth chapter, Knight discusses Muhammad’s body after its demise "as a potential facilitator of baraka flows and a connecting node between bodies" (28) and, briefly, the prophet’s only descendant, his daughter Fatima.
By applying the theory of assemblage to the prophetic body, Knight makes an important and worthwhile contribution. The author approaches the Ḥadīth corpus in a new way, attempting to expand the discussion beyond the question of the authenticity of the reports about Muhammad (3). Knight convincingly demonstrates that in the Ḥadīth collections—despite systematization efforts—the heterogeneity of many voices has been preserved over centuries and no unified theory of the prophetic body can be identified. What is particularly interesting is that he recognizes distinct patterns in the traditions, transmitted by certain Companions (contemporaries of Muhammad who met or saw him and believed in him).
Ultimately, however, the question still arises: if we find such a variety of heterogeneous, sometimes contradictory voices in the Ḥadīth corpus, what does that say about their authenticity—or about the subjective nature of the Companions’ reports? Knight deliberately leaves this question aside. Unexpectedly, Knight also remains silent about the extent to which certain voices have higher hierarchical status—and thus, possibly, greater weight in the construction of the prophetic body. All traditions are treated equally, without any hierarchical classification. But how the individual traditions interrelate across collections and construct the prophetic body, possibly with different hierarchical statuses, remains an open question.
Additionally, Knight incorporates perspectives from other sources from the period he examines only in a few places. Demonstrating how the prophetic body and its power to make connections with others was constructed, it would be fruitful to not limit oneself to the prophetic traditions, but to include the perceptions and interpretations of exegetes, jurists, historians, and perhaps even poets. Presumably, this would have been beyond the scope of the study, which is a revision of Knight’s dissertation.
Some minor formal shortcomings could have easily been avoided. Knight does not provide the exact page number of verbatim quotes from the material he cites in several instances, making it nearly impossible to locate certain statements in the original context. What is also irksome are the numerous errors in the transcription of the Arabic letter ʿayn. For example, Knight writes “Ibn ʾArabi” instead of “Ibn ʿArabī.” He deliberately omits diacritical marks and fails to mark long vowels. For an interdisciplinary exchange with experts, especially in the field of Ḥadīth studies, it would have been desirable to give key passages and expressions in Arabic, which is rarely done, and to quote consistently from the original Arabic sources, not from English translations or from a website whose links no longer work.
Nevertheless, Knight’s research question is highly original, and the application of the assemblage theory to the body of the prophet Muhammad is most engaging. Knight has evaluated an enormous number of traditions, which he presents in a stimulating manner. The explanations of the theoretical framework at the beginning are demanding, in places one loses touch with it, but in the conclusion, many threads are picked up and brought together—and one wonders whether one should return to the beginning and start all over again, which this reader answered in the affirmative.
Natalie Kraneiss is a PhD candidate and research associate at the University of Münster.
Date Of Review:
October 31, 2022
Michael Muhammad Knight is assistant professor of religion and cultural studies at the University of Central Florida and the author of several books, including Muhammad: Forty Introductions.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.