Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Muhammad Matters

Seeing prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons again, I am reproducing here in full a chapter I wrote for the book Mystics, Scholars and Holy Men (Edited by Troy Southgate), first published in 2014 by Black Front Press, London.

Reforms to the UK school curriculum since the 1970s changed the teaching of history from a focus on facts about people and events to one of concepts relating to socio-economic processes and societal conflicts. This deconstruction of history has sometimes been taken to an extreme where it is claimed that historic developments could be simulated and predicted provided all the right input variables were known or available. Reality, however, does not match those expectations. In fact, in spite of the curriculum shift, history itself tends to cling very closely to the inherent meaning of “his story”, in other words, events are shaped by people, and individuals matter well beyond the circumstances in which they were found. Looking at history through the people who shaped it therefore remains a valid approach.
An individual’s reach or realm of influence differs both in geographic extension and in time. Some have made more of an impact on the wider world than others. I would argue that as religion is a key ingredient of human identity and frequently overrides other aspects of an individual’s personality, leaders of religion, in particular their founders, have had more of an impact on the lives of people than their secular political leaders, although the roles do frequently overlap. The influence of the founders of major world religions extends over centuries and even millennia, whereas that of secular political leaders, even the greatest military conquerors or strategists, often struggles to leave a mark for more than a few centuries beyond their own lifetimes.
Some religions have tribal, some have regional and a few have global appeal. A universal claim is more often found amongst monotheistic traditions which, due to their common unification of the godhead share a principal understanding as well as many derived features. Their leaders are often seen as having come in succession of each other at different stages during human historical development.  Of those traditions, prophet Muhammad is the last chronologically, but his influence exceeds that of his predecessors. For those who follow his teachings, his relevance needs no further elaboration, but why should followers of other religious paths, or those who claim to be able to do without religion, be interested in his words and actions?
The religion he brought, Islam, literally translates as finding peace through submission, and does not claim to be a new religion as such but a continuation of the call for exclusive devotion to the one god. What is unique in its call is that from the outset it has been addressed to mankind at large rather than a tribe, nation or region. This universal call meant that the spread of Islam was not limited by any boundaries of race or territory. Of the monotheistic traditions only Christianity has a similar universal claim, but it was the result of political events after the lifetime of its founder, Jesus Christ, who himself only claimed to have been sent to the Israelites. The claim of Islam to universality was pronounced by Muhammad himself and within the scripture he brought, and the rapid spread of the Muslim empire during and after his life bears witness to this understanding by him and his followers alike.
A world religion which is two billion strong and gaining even after one and a half millennia since the death of its founder deserves serious investigation by any historian or person wanting to have a deeper understanding of human development. Its two key ingredients are the Qur’an and the life example of the prophet Muhammad; thus it cannot be understood without a study of his life. Irrespective of the religion itself, however, if the case  made above holds true that people shape history, then this individual has shaped the history of mankind for longer and more deeply than any other to this date. In any comparison between influential historic personalities, he will come out on top on more than one count. Thus in Michael Hart’s 100 ranking of the most influential persons of history he tops the list.
Hence, a study of his life is not only of benefit to religious followers, but ought to be instrumental to anybody who wishes to understand the ingredients and dynamics of lasting success with relevance for both the understanding of human society and psyche as much as for, let’s say, leadership training. After all, we study the methods of successful scientists even if we want to apply them to a different scientific discipline than their own, or the war strategy of successful campaign leaders even if we profoundly disagree with their objectives or politics. There are, of course, numerous aspects to the prophet’s success, and thus his life can usefully be studied from several angles, be it religious devotion, temporal leadership, oratory and power of persuasion, military strategy and so on. Hence it should not come as a surprise that amongst the disciples of Muhammad are some of the greatest minds of our time who confessed to having learnt from his teachings without having followed him religiously, such as Goethe, Kant or Napoleon, to name only a few.
This short contribution is no place for an extensive analysis of a complex biography. Nor is it intended as an exemplary list of achievements of my chosen hero. Rather, I would like to pick specific traits of his personality and events in his life from which I believe important lessons or even universal truths can be derived.
Let me start with his birth. Although of good lineage, Muhammad was born an orphan – proof that “misfortune” of birth or even the lack of a standard stable family setup is no impediment to subsequent success and greatness. Out of the window goes the lament of those who wish to continually put their lack of achievement down to the social conditions of their birth.
Good upbringing, on the other hand, matters. To protect him against disease and in order to learn a good standard of Arabic, Muhammad was sent out of town as a baby to be nursed by a desert tribe famed for their skills of teaching eloquent speech and good manners. And good character as well as polite speech is what the prophet was known for throughout his life. Before opposing him for his message calling to good morals, justice and a rejection of all kinds of idols and corrupt practices, the inhabitants of Mecca valued his honesty and nicknamed him the Trustworthy (al-Amin). Even when they had declared war against him and his followers, some still entrusted their property to him for safekeeping.
Let me list some of the character traits which made this man a great example for humanity of all times:
First and foremost, modesty and humility. Even as the leader of the largest army hitherto known in Arabia he did not live in pomp, did not put any distance between himself and his people and continued to do his own domestic chores. A stranger once came to the mosque of the prophet where he was sitting amongst his companions and had to be directed to who he was as he could not distinguish him from the rest by his clothing or by virtue of any special position within the mosque.
He taught by example. Never did he issue an instruction which he did not also comply with himself. As a result, his followers loved him dearly and were prepared to sacrifice everything for him. He was known to spend long periods in prayer and reflection, often praying all night, yet another important aspect of good leadership was that he never asked of anyone more than they could reasonably do. When he led prayer in public he often kept it short if women or children were among the congregation. He also taught that the sermon during congregational prayers on a Friday should be kept short and to the point, a lesson sadly not adhered to by many preachers of our time.
Nor was he a leader who would simply give orders. When the Muslims were digging a trench around Medina to fortify the town against attack, he was digging with them. When decisions were to be made, he consulted them. In battle, he was within their midst, not ordering them from behind.
Rarely did he get angry, and never without cause, nor did he indulge in frivolous pastime and excessive laughter. He was serious at most times, but always welcoming and offering a smile. He had a listening ear and time for people in spite of huge responsibilities. Naturally, he did not drink, gamble or waste time with other trivial pursuits. Most people with great potential today are prevented from developing it because of “killing time” with useless entertainment.
Muhammad was not interested in power or wealth. He did not seek to advance his own family at the expense of others. He did not use the office of state to enrich himself personally. His key concern was to build a just society and leave a legacy of having taught his followers thoroughly in the knowledge of the Divine and the practice of good conduct.
Justice and fair treatment were important to him. When it came to judging disputes, he did not automatically give preference to the adherents of his own religion over those who rejected his message. He decided cases on merit, irrespective of whether the antagonists were Muslims, Jews, Christians or polytheists, and with no regard to their social standing or possessions. The bias of many a judge or jury today was alien to him.
The city state of Medina was the first in history which gave legally protected status to minority communities through a contract between the dominant Muslim and the remaining other belongings. Long before Magna Charta, which was issued by a ruler under duress, Muhammad gave his new state a written constitution voluntarily. The rights of citizens of all types were subsequently further detailed in the ninth chapter of the Qur’an.
Islam also, for the first time in history, insisted that all business dealings ought to be recorded in writing rather than be trusted to the reliability of a handshake alone. And, of course, the revelations of the Qur’an and the teachings of the prophet were also written down, leaving no room for dispute of their authenticity, and they have since formed the basis of a complex legal system governing all aspects of life, known as the Sharia, a term sadly misunderstood due to the ignorance of anti-Muslim polemics.
The prophet was an exemplary family man. All his family members were full of adoration for him, both during his life and after his death. It is those we live with, who know us best, and their testimony speaks of a kind and caring husband and father. Domestic violence had no place in the prophet’s household.
He taught to respect the elders and be merciful to children. Yet even here, he put right before status. In today’s Muslim societies, leadership is held by people due to their age, excluding the youth. Contrary to that, in the second battle against the Romans dispatched to Syria the prophet put a young man, the twenty-year old Usama bin Zayd, in charge of a large army which included some of his long-standing companions more than twice his age, purely on account of his excellent leadership qualities. On another occasion, whilst he was having a meal with some people, there was an elderly man sitting to his left and a young boy to his right, and as it was customary to pass food to the right and not wanting to offend the person senior in age, he asked the young boy’s permission to pass the food to the older person first, and when the boy declined the request, he observed the correct custom and passed the food to the youth.
A lot has been said about Muhammad’s polygamous marriages. Leaving aside that multiple marriages were nothing unusual at the time – and nobody seems to want to chastise the old testament prophets for the same practice –, the fact is that he was married to a single woman, senior in age to him, for most of his life, and for the most part his marriages after her death were for strategic reasons to make peace between certain tribes or to take care of widows without support. His youngest wife, Aisha, was chosen to be a teacher of the nation through her attentive observations on their domestic life, since the teachings of Islam were not only to govern the public domain but also the private conduct of Muslims within their homes. Notwithstanding all the outrage uttered by orientalists and other polemicists against Islam, she was happy in her marriage according to her own testament, something that cannot always be said for many emancipated women of the modern age.  And, of course, he gave all his women the security of marriage, none of them being short- or medium-term or even casual relationships as is the order today.
Much can be learned from Muhammad’s skills in nation building, the way he formed alliances, the way he fostered unity of the state, the way he provided his people with aspirations to do their utmost for the common good and to focus on the future, indeed the life hereafter, rather than on the status quo or temporary affluence and success. He did not create a personality cult around himself, he was first amongst equals. Nor was he vindictive. When his army conquered Mecca, from which the Muslims had been exiled for many years and by whose inhabitants they had been fought viciously, he forgave them wholesale once they had offered peace and support.
Another outstanding quality of the prophet’s character was his generosity. Whatever he had, he shared. When anybody asked from him, he gave without fear of poverty. He taught his followers that the upper hand is better than the lower and encouraged them to give openly in charity even if they were often needy themselves. He also taught only to give what is good, as simply discarding unwanted goods does not count as charity.
Muhammad’s prophethood commenced when he was forty years old. He died at the age of sixty-three, so in the short span of twenty-three years he so completely transformed a whole nation that within another two decades they became a dominant global force on the planet, supplanting the long-established and mighty Persian and Byzantine empires and spreading rapidly into the Far East, Africa and Europe. This amazing achievement was founded on revelation and exemplary character. About the prophet, the Qur’an testifies that “you are of an amazing character”, and he himself stated that he was sent to perfect good conduct as well as that his mission was that of a teacher. For anybody wanting to succeed, in this life or the next, there are valuable lessons to be learned from him during all the varied situations life confronts us with. There are brilliant teachers and role models in all walks of life, but as a perfect all-rounded role model for how to become a good, successful, beneficial and content human being with the correct balance of the mundane and the spiritual, Muhammad, God’s final prophet stands apart like a lighthouse in a dark, stormy sea. To see its light, which has remained undiminished through the ages,  and to follow it implies salvation, and in that Muhammad matters not only to me, or fellow Muslims, but to mankind at large.