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Thursday, October 29, 2020
Discrediting The Prophet May Seem Freeing Oneself From Engaging His Followers In Serious Theological Or Rational Discourses
By Hafiz Saif Al-Rawahy, New Age Islam
29 October 2020
Last week the world witnessed an attack on Islam and denigration of its Prophet in France, under the pretext of “freedom of speech.” This is despite the fact there is no absolute freedom of speech protected by law anywhere in the world. In France, there might be some things that cannot be said in the public space without getting into trouble with the law. However, vilification of the Prophet of Islam is not something new in the European elites’ mind-set. There is a long history of hostility toward Muslims and their faith, and indeed, much of that hostility has always been directed at their Prophet.
It shocked the Muslims more this time because it is seemingly State-sponsored. Whether from the mouth of Voltaire, Pope Benedict or Macron, the European discourse about Islam, as symbolized always by the distorted narratives about Prophet Muhammad’s life and teachings, tend to be an indirect discourse about the self.
It may be said it is an attempt to define the elusive European identity by incorporating the abuse of Islam and denigration of the Prophet as an integral part. At first, the attacks on the Prophet were seen as an easy defensive strategy in order to preserve European exclusive Christian identity against what was seen as an existential threat from Islam. With modernity, the strategy has become denial of religion and protection of secular liberalism. Considering Islam’s long presence in Europe, its positive contribution to the European cultural identity cannot be denied.
Discrediting the Prophet may seem freeing oneself from engaging his followers in serious theological or rational discourses. What is stunning is that these medieval hostile distortions and stereotypes of Islam, Muslims and their Prophet seem to have survived all the intellectual transformations of the last three centuries.
European elites have always found it difficult to see Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in a more objective light. Thus, the current attack is not an outlier; it’s merely a continuation of the eternal tradition of hostility toward this Prophet, whom the Almighty God honored as the “Seal of the Prophets” (Qur’an 33:40) and He describes him in the Qur’an as the “mercy to the worlds” (Qur’an 21:107), an “illuminating lamp” (Qur’an 33:46), and an “exalted standard of moral character” (Qur’an 68:4). Indeed, he was the best of all human beings who ever walked on this earth. Today, with nearly two billion Muslims across the globe, of which over 50 million are living in Europe, our contemporary view of the world will not be complete without a fair and balanced understanding of Islam and Muslims. Therefore, to know Muhammad (pbuh) is 2 critical. The one man who changed the course of history, and still continues to inspire billions of lives across the world. One very important lesson from Karen Armstrong, is “If we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslims and the Western World must learn to appreciate one another. A good place to start is with the figure of Muhammad” (Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, 2007). As a Muslim, I will attempt to articulate in this article how the perception of Muslims towards the Prophet from a very broad perspective.
Muhammad (pbuh) was born in Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, a town known as a hub of trade and pilgrimage; it was visited by people from Yemen in the south and the Levant in the north. Arabs are descendants of Prophet Abraham (pbuh) through his firstborn child Ishmael (pbuh). Prophet Abraham (pbuh) made a supplication for the Arab guardianship of the sacred house of Ka’bah, and for a Prophet to be sent to guide them and the worlds. Arabs had solid characteristics of bravery, generosity, altruism, trustworthiness, and sharp memory to receive, preserve and propagate God’s last message. Arabia was an isolated piece of land from the rest of the world, but at the same time laying between two rival powers of its time, the Byzantines in the west and Sassanids in the east. Due to geographic location of the Arabian Peninsula and being isolated from the rest of the world Arabs, were not influenced or assimilated by either culture or civilization – a perfect condition for maintaining the last message in its pristine form.
The political culture of Arabia consisted of tribal laws where clans formed alliances to defend each other and their territories, resources and land. Tribal rulings and customs were the only laws, and were enforced with no mercy, and in accordance with the whims and caprices of the rulers. Verbalized history, poetry and verbal literature of tribal story telling helped tribes to protect their identity. The majority of Arabs were unlettered, and for that reason verbal tradition was common. Poets from different tribes would attempt to outshine one another at public poetry forums. Poetry was something that could trigger conflicts and violence; but it could also be the cause of peace. For this reason, the highly sophisticated eloquence of the Qur’an with its rich meaning in its verses, beauty in its expressions, and greatness in its style posed a big challenge to the Arab pagans. They knew that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was unlettered and was not a poet, yet they could not explain why suddenly he became eloquent in literature. The Qur’an itself poses a challenge to anyone who thinks that it did not come from the Almighty God to produce something similar, and because Meccan pagans could not fulfil the challenge, they resorted in discrediting the Prophet – a pattern that has since been repeated throughout history.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, the concept of human rights was non-existent. The strong would crush the weak, and tyrants were celebrated. It was an extreme patriarchal society where women had no rights, and new-born baby girls were buried alive. Idolatry was the dominant faith and people worshipped all kind of idols. There were few Arabs that called themselves “Hanifs,” who worshipped one God and could be traced back to Prophet Abraham (pbuh). While in general Arabs of that time had some good qualities, they were also characterized by extremely unpleasant morals and values that had become norms within their society – in particular with regard to women, orphans, slaves, the poor and the vulnerable, and in relation to their religion. The Qur’an refers to this pre-Islam period as Jahiliyyah, or “the age of ignorance.” But Jahiliyyah is a state of mind that breeds injustice, corruption, violence and terror, not an historical era. Therefore, the events of 7th century Arabia that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had to grapple with have much to teach us about the events of our time, in any geographical context.
Muhammad (pbuh) challenged three core matters that upset the status quo in Mecca. First, the irrational idea that material things are worthy of worship; and instead, he invited people to worship one true God who created and sustains the universe and everything in it. Second, the social hierarchy that maintained the superiority of certain tribes and families at the expense of others; and instead, he proclaimed that no human being is superior to another because of race, gender, or any physical quality. He rejected all forms of racism and he argued that the only superiority among people is that of moral excellence or piety. Third, he demolished the system of injustice, corruption and harmful practices of society; and instead, he built a society that was based on social justice, charity, respect for others, and with a strong spiritual and moral foundation.
The Prophet propagated his message in Mecca for 13 years, but as Islam began to make impacts in the society, he and his followers were perceived by the Meccan elites as a direct threat to their social, economic and political privileges that came with their control of Ka’bah. The Prophet was met with strong opposition, hostility, anger, intense hatred and slander, as well as violence, torture and boycott. The Meccan elites began with the strategy of physical violence and torture on Muslims of the lower social status, who could not be defended by their clans. For the nobles, they would reproach and ridicule them, oppose their views, and treat them with contempt. When this strategy did not deter the Prophet and his followers, they widened their campaign of terror and maximum pressure to cover all individuals. Throughout the Meccan period, the Prophet forbade Muslims to respond in kind. Instead, he nurtured them away from hatred, violence and extremism. The Prophet established Dar al-Arqam as a center of learning, to educate and develop his followers both intellectually and spiritually, and to keep them away from the conflict zones. The Prophet knew he was sent as a mercy to all humanity, and he asked Muslims to be patient and persistent in their suffering to overcome the short-term challenges so that the last message of God could reach all people. When the pressure became unbearable and some Muslims complained to the Prophet, he reminded them of previous believers who suffered more, but did not turn back from faith and reassured them that the Lord will accomplish His purpose.
After 13 years of persistent suffering, the Prophet and his followers received an invitation to migrate to Medina. The Arabs of Medina pledged to take the Prophet as their leader and to defend him and his message. The migration or hijrah took place in 622 CE when close to 200 Muslim families from Mecca migrated to Medina with the Prophet. This marked a shift for Muslims from persecution to nation building. Moving away from tribalism, the Prophet established the first civil society in Medina. A civil treaty was signed by all community members of Medina that laid out the framework for a political constitution that had never been seen before in Arabia, and for that matter, in the world, until the publishing of the Magna Carta in 1215 CE. The document is referred as the “Constitution of Medina” and it defined the reality of a city nation-state with a common citizenship, consisting of Meccan Muslims migrants, Medinan Muslims hosts, Medinan Jews, and Medinan polytheists. These groups made a unified community (Ummah), having equal rights and responsibilities, as distinct from other peoples. The treaty provided a federal structure with a centralized authority on matters of public finance, security and national defence, while at the same time, the distinct tribes in various districts enjoyed autonomy in certain matters of a social, cultural and spiritual character. The Prophet as the leader and arbiter of the community based his actions on the common law, negotiated in this legally binding civil treaty. Medina became a paradigm of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, pluralistic society, with a rule of law, and where each member of the community was guaranteed protection and religious freedom – a forerunner of a contemporary nation-state.
In Medina, the Prophet introduced many other political, social and economic reforms. Medina, as a city nation-state, was modelled on Islamic values of human rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities and peaceful co-existence. It was governed by a civil constitution and a system of consultation (Shura), with full respect, tolerance and acceptance of other religions and cultures. This level of pluralism and tolerance would be the hallmark of Muslim governance – something that was scarce in Europe at that time. Medinan society moved away from tribalism, and into a centralized political system abiding by the rule of law, diplomacy and international relations, as well as a national army for maintaining peace and security. The diplomacy of the Prophet was exceptional, especially his effort to reach out to the Christian communities.
He negotiated and signed treaties of peace and friendship with the Christians of Najran, the Monks of Sinai, the Christians of Persia, the Christians of the world, the Assyrian Christians, and the Armenian Christians of Jerusalem. The Prophet established public treasury or Baytul al-Mal and introduced reforms on commercial ownership, contracts, social security, distribution of wealth through institutions of charity and endowments. He also redefined economic activities and factors of production free from usury and moral hazards. In the social sphere, reforms were introduced on rules related to marriage, inheritance laws, and child support. There was also a lot of emphasis on education and learning.
For the 13 years of struggle in Mecca to eradicate idolatry and corruption, the Muslims were violently persecuted. On more than one occasion, Muslims had asked for permission to fight back, but the Prophet replied that the Almighty God had not given him permission to fight back. The Prophet knew that aggression breeds further aggression, and the holy city would have turned into a nightmare of violence. He was trying to teach them forgiveness, tolerance, and mercy.
The Meccan elites did not leave the Prophet alone in Medina. They waged many consecutive aggressive battles against the Prophet for about six years until they signed the peace treaty of Hudaybiyyah, before the opening of Mecca. In Medina, the Almighty God granted permission to fight back for those who had been attacked or wronged or driven out of their homes, on the condition not to commit aggression and to always opt for peace. All the battles fought during the Prophet’s lifetime adhered to those divine commands, and he set the standard and rules of engagement for those who followed him. They were defensive battles, not aggressive battles, which is contrary to frequent European misrepresentation and distortion of these battles. During these defensive battles the Prophet ordered moral rules of engagement that are unknown in any civilizations, east or west, ancient or contemporary. For example, he ordered to fight only those who started fighting you; not to fight or kill women, children, older people, or people who are engaged in worshipping from any faith; not to cause collateral damage; not to destroy places of worship; not to kill animals or to cut trees; not to mutilate and disrespect dead bodies; and not to torture or harm of prisoners of war.
The opening of Mecca was the greatest conquest in the history of mankind, through which the Almighty God honoured His religion, His Prophet and believers in general. The opening of Mecca was preceded by the peace treaty of Hudaybiyyah that was signed between the Prophet and Meccan elites two years earlier such that there would be no aggression and fighting from both sides for 10 years.
The treaty proved to be the turning point in the Islamic history by giving the Prophet the needed breathing space to propagate the message of Islam freely. Due to the Meccan elites’ tough negotiations, the terms of the agreement were perceived not favourable to the Muslims by his Companions, yet the Prophet opted for peace and was farsighted enough to see it as a great victory, as the Qur’an describes it. The Meccan elites broke the treaty two years after its enforcement, and the Prophet responded by marching to Mecca with a large army which entered the city peacefully, without any resistance or bloodshed.
It was here also where the Prophet exhibited great acts of graciousness, benevolence, and peace. As he entered the gates of Mecca, his head looked down with humility. He then proclaimed a general amnesty to all the people of Mecca. He also gave a special privilege to his archenemy, Abu Sufiyan, the Meccan leader, by declaring that whosoever took refuge in Abu Sufiyan’s house was safe, whosoever confined himself to his house was safe, and whosever entered the Ka’bah was safe.
Muhammad’s Prophethood took place in the “daylight of history” where almost everything about him is known: the place he was born; the places where he lived, died and buried. His lineage and his descendants are fully known. The names of his friends, companions and adversaries are also known. What he liked, what he ate, how he dressed or even how he grew his hair and beard is known. There are details of what he looked like, without images, and what were his mannerisms.
The chronicles of his practice and his sayings (Hadith collections) have been extensively documented, separate from the revelation he received (the Qur’an). These chronicles are supported and authenticated by documented unbroken chains of communication handed down and leading up to a source among the Prophet’s companions and contemporaries. Hundreds of Prophet Muhammad’s biographies have been written, both in classical periods and contemporary. Many of these biographies have been translated and are available in different languages.
More recently, there are Western scholars who are more sympathetic to the figure of Muhammad, who have also written biographies that are more objective than the traditional Western distorted view of the Prophet. To name a few: Karen Armstrong, Craig Considine, Lesley Hazleton, Juan Cole amongst others. There is no reason for anyone to remain ignorant about this great Prophet of Islam and open oneself to manipulations of polemics and propaganda that have coloured all discourses of Islam.
A prophet is a unique person - a human being, yet he speaks for the Almighty God. The difficult task has always been that of dealing with the human being as a prophet. It is easy to go to one extreme of making him a divine (as the Christians did to Jesus) or to make him an ordinary person as we saw last week’s event in France. One must contrast the delicate balance offered by Islam. Muhammad (pbuh) is presented as a servant, messenger, and “perfect example” of a human being, but he is not a divine or ordinary person. He speaks for God, but he is not God. He is the object of our gratitude, ardent love, devotion, and unswerving allegiance, but he is not the object of our worship. The testimony of faith, “There is no god, but God; Muhammad is God’s servant and messenger,” prevents Muslims from making him divine. Muslims are also asked in the Qur’an to invoke God’s blessings and peace on Muhammad, which also protects the Muslims from treating him like an ordinary person. It is not possible for those who invoke God’s blessings and peace to the Prophet to degrade him to the level of just an ordinary person.
Muslims, thus, find in Muhammad (pbuh) the perfect example to follow and a mighty servant of God and messenger to love and respect. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) left behind a rich human legacy, and to love him and to follow him is tantamount to love God and obey Him as per the Qur’anic injunctions (Qur’an 4:80). It is also to set upon a lifelong journey of aligning oneself to the divine will. He was an orphan and a father; a husband and a widower; a shepherd and a trader; a commander and a spiritualist; a ruler of his people and among the poorest of them; a father who suffered the heartbreak of burying his children, and a grandfather who relished the delightful time with his grandchildren. He embodied and exemplified truthfulness, justice, forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, restraint, perseverance, thankfulness, gratitude, cleanliness, modesty, and many more characters and etiquette of beauty.
Hafiz Saif Al-Rawahy is the head of Dawah centre in the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, Muscat, Oman.