Asserting that "Muhammad has always been at the center of European discourse on Islam," Tolan finds that "Muhammad occupies a crucial and ambivalent place in the European imagination ... alternatively provoking fear, loathing, fascination, or admiration." Indeed, views of him are "anything but monolithic," ranging from the satanic to the most positive.
Tolan's nine chapters look at instances of this phenomenon over eight hundred years, starting with Crusader stories and ending with such twentieth-century scholars as Louis Massignon and W. Montgomery Watt. Tolan, a professor of history at the University of Nantes in France, makes no attempt to sketch a complete account but offers separate case studies, some thematic (Muhammad as idol or as fraud), others geographical (Spain, England) or varied in outlook (Enlightenment, Judaism).
As the author of many other books on the subject of European responses to Islam (indeed, he calls this study "the fruit of a career"), Tolan ably and elegantly steers the reader from one insightful example to another to build a convincing case for the "anything but monolithic" views of Muhammad. One favorite example: the extraordinary 1856 passage written by Heinrich Graetz in his 11-volume History of the Jews: If Muhammad was "not a loyal son of Judaism ... he appreciated its highest aims, and was induced by it to give to the world a new faith, known as Islam, founded on a lofty basis. This religion has exercised a wonderful influence on Jewish history and on the evolution of Judaism."
That said, there is something unsatisfying about examples not tethered together into a cohesive account. How are we to be sure that Tolan's exemplars are representative or significant? For example, while Massignon and Watt definitely epitomize the school of Christian scholarship of those who "tried to reconcile their Christian faith with the recognition of the positive, spiritual nature of Muhammad's mission," how do they compare in importance to those Christian scholars who rejected such a reconciliation? What is the relationship between the schools, and which had more importance? Why discuss only the one and not the other?