The brilliant comedian Trevor Noah, presenter of the American satire program The Daily Show, recently said:
There are some people who make religion look bad. That is what Muslims are struggling from all over the world. – Trevor Noah
One does not have to look too far to come across stories of Muslims behaving badly, in ways that would make the Prophet Muhammad feel ashamed. Over the past few years I have openly blogged about how Muslims need to change their behaviour, of how they need to stop making their religion look so very bad. I have also tried to blog positively about Islam, be it through links to scholarly lectures or stand-up comedy clips, or quoting from various books and articles.
Two such positive blog posts have involved quotes from biographies of the Prophet Muhammad. The first (indeed my very first blog post) quoted from the book The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography by Barnaby Rogerson. More recently I quoted from Tariq Ramadan’s excellent book The Messenger: The Meanings Of The Life Of Muhammad.
I guess you could say this is the third blog post in this unofficial series, as it features a lengthy extract from the book Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction by the esteemed scholar and academic Professor Jonathan Brown. Brown’s book, whilst concise, covers many aspects of the life of the Prophet, which is why it is well worth reading. It begins with the following:
As the founder of Islam, Muhammad is one of the most influential figures in history…for the past fourteen centuries, Muhammad has been the intimate companion of the believers. In the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, he lies buried in the earth behind an ornately wrought grill. Muslim pilgrims grasp furtively at the metal bars, hoping to inch closer to their Prophet. Their words ring out: ‘May God’s peace and blessings be upon you, O Messenger of God!’, an Egyptian man cries out to the grave. An elderly Indian man in a wheelchair struggles vainly with the guards and family members; he calls out to God to take his life here and let him be buried in Medina, ‘the City of the Messenger of God’. One man mutters emotively, ‘I am here, O Messenger of God. Are you proud of me? I am one of your followers…’.
…His image is inscribed in the hearts of the believers by the spirit of faith and bonds of community. He is a light kindled in a Muslim’s heart from a young age through family and education, regardless of the tremendous diversity of Muslim cultures and lifestyles. Like all light, the Prophet’s indispensability is only realized when it is gone, and Muslims’ need for it only heard when someone reaches to take it away. – Jonathan Brown, from the Preface of his book Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction
The book goes on to describe various details of the life and times of the Prophet, as well as a look at what he means in the modern world. The main quote presented below is generally very positive, similar in many ways to the ‘hero’ quote from Barnaby Rogerson. There is however one crucial difference: Brown’s quote ends with reference to incidents where the Prophet ordered certain satirists to be assassinated.
Without going into historical details and analysing the fog of 7th century tribal warfare, what I would say is that each religion has to deal with its own harsh realities at any given time. In our world today Hinduism has to deal with the negative effects of the caste system, Christianity has to deal with child abuse allegations amongst clergy, Judaism has to deal with oppression of Palestinians, and Islam has to deal with groups like ISIS (and many other issues too numerous to mention).
Islam in its infancy had to deal with the issues it had to deal with, and propaganda at wartime was one such issue. The Prophet Muhammad dealt with this issue in the way he thought best. Let it always be stated that the truth can indeed leave a bitter aftertaste. Despite this the quote below overall is a good, honest overview of the character of the Prophet Muhammad. In the light of that endeavour, I hope you enjoy!
Muhammad: The Beloved of God and Goodly Example
One Muslim woman in Medina lost her father, husband, and brother in the Battle of Uhud. Yet when the army returned from the field, she broke into tears of joyous relief to see the Prophet alive and well. She had boundless love for the man whom God had singled out with His words: ‘Indeed God and His angels send mercy down upon the Prophet. O you who believe, send your blessings and bountiful peace upon him!’ (Quran 33:56).
To his followers, Muhammad was ‘The Messenger of God and the Seal of the Prophets’ (Quran 33:40). He was the font of blessings and sole point of contact with the divine. God commanded the Muslims to obey His Messenger Muhammad, for he was ‘possessed of an awesome character’ and ‘a goodly exemplar’ for the Muslims (Quran 68:4, 33:21). Muhammad’s teachings, words, and behaviour were a living implementation and illustration of the Quran’s teachings. As his wife Aisha said, ‘His character was the Quran.’ Muhammad’s precedent and the totality of his lifestyle became known as his Sunnah, which Muslims believed was inspired by God – a veritable second revelation. As Muhammad once said, ‘I was given the Quran and its like along with it.’
Who was this leader whom the Muslims loved so dearly that they prized him above their own parents and children? Who was this man whom they venerated so clearly that they imitated his every action, how he ate, slept, and dressed (later people would remark to the Muslims that ‘your prophet has taught you everything, even how to defecate’)?
Muhammad was of medium height and build, with olive skin and shoulder-length, jet-black hair, which he often wore in two braids. He had a beard long enough that it could be seen upon his cheeks from behind him, and he had a slight gap between his top front teeth. He owned only two pairs of clothing, long blouses pulled on over the head, and a cloak to protect him from the cold. Although he was often presented with ornate robes as gifts, he gave them away to his followers. Like everyone in the desert, the Prophet covered his head with a turban, either black or green. He wore a simple ring with the inscription ‘Muhammad the Messenger of God’. Like his Arab people, he wore kohl around his eyes.
It was Muhammad who taught the Muslims how to perform their five daily prayers, when to begin and end their fasts, and how to undertake the various rites of pilgrimage to Mecca. In such rituals and practices, Muhammad preferred to adhere to the ways of the People of the Book unless God ordered some change. His Companions followed the Sunnah obsessively. Later, when Umar bin al-Khattab was leading the Muslims in their circumambulation of the Kaba, he stopped to kiss the black stone as Muhammad had taught him. ‘I know you are but a rock that cannot hurt or harm me’, he scoffed at the stone, ‘and I would not kiss you if I had not seen this done by the Messenger of God.’
In Muslim tradition, the devotion that Muslims should feel towards Muhammad is seen as a reflection of the magnanimity of his character. Even Abu Sufyan could only admit that ‘I have never seen someone who was as loved as Muhammad was by his Companions.’ To be near him, to hear him speak, was to draw near to the bridge between the divine and the earthly realm. Muhammad’s person was so imbued with baraka, or blessing, that to touch him felt like brief contact with God’s grace. Companions would fight over the water left over from Muhammad’s ablutions, collect his hairs and fingernail clippings. ‘Abdallah bin al-Zubayr, the first Muslim born in Medina, once even tasted some of the Prophet’s blood after he had been bled when sick.
Muhammad was infinitely wise, always aware of the virtuous course of action as a father, a friend, a judge, and a leader of men. ‘I have been sent’, he said, ‘to complete the virtues of character.’ He said that God had granted him ‘encompassing words (jawami’ al-kalam)’, or the ability to speak profound truths succinctly. ‘The best of affairs are those of moderation’, he said one day; ‘Happy is the man who heeds the lessons learned by others’, he said on another.
Arabs respected courage and wise council, and Muhammad exemplified both. He fought in nine battles during his career, always sharing the risks taken by his men. But he also knew the central importance of alliances, even with unbelievers.
His mercy and patience were inexhaustible. When a coarse Bedouin came to Medina from the desert and began relieving himself in the mosque courtyard, Muhammad’s Companions wanted to kill him for his disrespect. Muhammad told them to let the man finish. He then told the Bedouin, ‘The mosque is for praying.’ When he was injured at Uhud, the Muslims urged Muhammad to curse the Meccans. He replied, ‘Truly I was not sent to curse, but rather to call people to religion and as a mercy. O God! They are my people, but they know not.’
Muhammad was incredibly charitable in his judgement of other Muslims’ sincerity. His close Companion Usama bin Zayd killed a man in battle despite the fact that right before he swung his sword the man had cried out ‘There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is His messenger’– presumably becoming Muslim to save his skin. But the Prophet rebuked Usama: ‘Did you split open his heart [to know what he truly believed]?’, Muhammad asked.
Muhammad was exceptionally frugal and pious. He never ate his fill of bread or meat without sharing it with others. ‘Food for one will suffice for two’, he said, ‘and food for two will suffice for three’. When Aisha was asked how he acted at home, she said, ‘He was a man like any other, he would delouse his clothing, milk his own sheep and tend to his own needs.’
Muhammad always mentioned God in his every action. When he ate, he would pray, for example, ‘Praise be to God who feeds us and gives us drink and has made us among those who submit to Him.’ He prayed for at least a third of every night, and fasted every Monday and Thursday. This despite the fact that God had revealed to him that he was guaranteed paradise. When a Muslim asked Muhammad why he continued to worship and fast so frequently, Muhammad replied, ‘Should I not be a grateful servant of God?’ But Muhammad was attentive that he did not set too difficult a standard for his followers; in any new situation, he would always take the easiest option if it was not a sin.
The fear of God and concern for his community weighed heavily upon Muhammad, but he was a man of exceptional good humour. One of his Companions said that he had ‘never seen anyone smile as much as the Messenger of God’. Although he instructed his followers, ‘Do not lie even if you’re joking’, Muhammad was not above a hearty laugh. When Ali had a spat with his wife, Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, and fell asleep outside his house in the dust, Muhammad named him Abu Turab, the ‘Father of Dust’, a nickname that stuck.
Muhammad never spared himself criticism. A man who was riding next to the Prophet during a campaign accidentally struck Muhammad’s foot, and the pain led Muhammad to strike the man’s leg with his whip. The next day, the Prophet sought the man out to apologize and compensate him with eighty camels. But if Muhammad felt that someone was belittling him in his capacity as God’s Messenger, he was uncompromising in his response. When a man accused Muhammad of nepotism when he ruled in favour of his cousin al-Zubayr in a matter of splitting irrigation water, Muhammad stripped the man of all his water rights.
Muhammad’s authority amongst the Muslims was two-fold: that of a political leader and that of a religious guide. Although Muhammad was ultimately the decision-maker in Medina’s political and judicial affairs, as we have seen, he consulted with his advisors such as Umar and frequently yielded to their council.
As a religious leader, however, Muhammad brooked no dissent. To break with his delivery of God’s message and definition of Islam was to leave the Muslim community – the testimony of faith said to become a Muslim was ‘There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.’ A Medinan man named Abu Amir had been a hanif following the religion of Abraham before Muhammad’s arrival in the city. But Abu Amir accused Muhammad of adulterating the Abrahamic faith, to which Muhammad replied, ‘No, I have renewed it pure and white.’ As a result, Abu Amir was exiled from Medina and eventually joined the Meccans. The Quran reminded the Muslims that ‘It is not for a believing man or woman that they should have any choice in a matter when God and His Messenger have decided it’ (Quran 33:36).
Insulting or attacking the person of the Prophet was an attack on the core of Islam and Muslim identity. Within Medina, Muhammad was merciful. After the Prophet was wounded at Uhud, the arch-hypocrite ‘Abdallah bin Ubayy had claimed that no true prophet could be injured in battle. When Umar and other Companions wanted to kill the hypocrite for his calumny, Muhammad responded that he did not want anyone to say that Muhammad kills his own Companions. Even the Jews who mocked the Prophet within Medina were left unmolested.
Satirical poetry, however, was a political weapon. In Arabia, poets were the propagandists in times of conflict. A Medinan poet named Ka’b al-Ashraf joined the Meccans after the Battle of Badr and later composed vicious satires of Muhammad. Muhammad ordered his followers to find and assassinate him. Later, the Prophet also ordered the assassination of a female poet from a desert tribe who was slandering him in verse.
– Jonathan Brown, from Chapter 1 of his book Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction, pages 36-41