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Today marks the death anniversary of Prophet Muhammad. It is an appropriate time to ponder over the man and his message.
The edifice of Islam is built upon the basic belief that ‘there is no god save Allah, and Muhammad is His apostle’. It is a statement that is whispered into the ears of every new-born and the dying and uttered on all possible occasions by Muslims all over the world. It is part of the call for prayers five times a day.
Allama Iqbal, thinker and poet, sings the glories of the Prophet in the following words:
“ ‘Tis in the forests and the hills,
And on the tranquil plains,
On the seas, in the arms of the waves,
In the roar of hurricanes;
A music heard in China’s towns,
Morocco’s desert song,
And hid within each Muslim’s heart
It makes his faith grow strong
How I have made this glorious name
Beyond all thought sublime.”
Not a learned man
The Prophet was not a learned man. Indeed, there is no evidence that Allah chose his prophets from among the learned. It does not mean he was illiterate, as is frequently said about him. The Prophet, if he was illiterate, could not have engaged in the transaction of business and managed caravans. The Prophet admonished every Muslim to seek knowledge even if it meant having to go to China. It is hardly unlikely that he did not practice what he preached.
Allah did not send the Quran to be understood by the learned only. A book that is sent for the guidance of all mankind cannot be the preserve of the few. Nevertheless, men of learning- the ulema- have tried to appropriate the role of interpreting the Quran and to intermediate its meaning to the uninstructed. It is easy to forget the truth that Allah would never have revealed its truths only the learned. The message of the Quran requires no priesthood for its intermediation.
Did not work miracles
Prophet Muhammad did not claim to have the healing touch of Jesus nor turn water into wine as Jesus did; nor did he have the magic staff of Moses. He worked no miracles. In his own words, the greatest miracle he brought with him was the Quran.
Mercy and compassion central to Islam
The first principle of his message is the belief in one God. The message of humanism is inseparably bound together with his message of monotheism.
The Quran has numerous verses which refer to Allah and his attributes but it is directed at man and his behaviour. The Quran acknowledges pluralism.
There is no compulsion in religion. Allah has created different communities on purpose, to try and test human beings in what has been given to them. It is His will that the people shall live in peace and harmony with each other.
The message of the Quran is one of hope but not of despair. Compassion and mercy are an ever present theme in the Quran. Hopelessness and the lack of trust in His mercy are condemned in the Quran. Even the sinners are assured not to be in despair of His mercy because Allah forgives all sins. Allah says in His Book: “My mercy encompasses all things.”
Mercy is also a quality of His Prophet, for we are told in the Quran that “to the Believers is he most kind and merciful”. Even a believer should aspire for, if not possess, mercy. The believers are those who are “compassionate amongst each other”, and “exhort one another to mercy”. Man is required to believe in Allah’s mercy and also practise it himself.
Socially relevant message
The Quran deals with the relationship between God and man and also between man and man. Social and economic justice is an essential component of the Quranic message. The Quran condemns the exploitation of the poor and the weak in the strongest of terms. Orphans and the vulnerable, the poor and the weak find a strong voice in its verses.
Islam arrived in Arabia at a time when it was deeply afflicted by a social malaise created by changes engendered by the transformation from a nomadic to a mercantile economy. The new economic conditions bred new values, and caused divisions in society which had been glued together by tribal solidarity and kinship.
The accumulation of wealth and power became the new credo in life, and greed replaced kinship and solidarity as the governing principle of society. The new conditions led to the exploitation of the weaker sections of the society, including widows and orphans.
Even before he attained prophethood, Mohammad displayed a passion for justice and a commitment to fight for the under privileged. He was in his twenties when he joined a league of Meccans who had entered into a pact known as Hilf al-fudul for the suppression of violence and injustice. They took an oath allegiance to go to the aid of the oppressed and seek restitution for the victims of injustice.
Social and economic justice formed an important component of his message. Social and economic justice is to be achieved by the distribution of wealth by those who have to those who are in need. To achieve this, zakat is made obligatory to all Muslims, requiring them to give away annually a portion of their wealth. Property and wealth are given as trust to man and accumulation of wealth for private use only is condemned. Allah has a share in what man owns and earns, which he is required to give away to the needy and the deserving. The Quran repeatedly warns that Allah despises those who do not honour the orphan, or neglect the needy.
He challenged the power of the oligarchy that controlled Meccan society which was getting increasingly oppressive. The Quran addressed the prophet thus: “we have not sent the Quran to you that you may live in anguish”.
The prophet was sent not merely to preach His message but also to change the oppressive social structure. The prophet could have lived the life of a fellow traveller and enjoyed the comforts that were on offer in Mecca. However, in his determination to fight an unjust and oppressive system that existed then, the Prophet voluntarily travelled to Medina. The Hijra- as this event is called- was an act of protest by the Prophet against the oppression, injustice and misery inflicted by the powerful mercantile clans of Mecca upon the vast majority of the people of Mecca.
The people of Yathrib invited him to be their leader. The two main tribes of Yathrib- as Medina was called then- had been at each other’s throat, but being fed up with their mutual rivalries and fighting, they decided to bury the hatchet. Preparations were well underway way to crown Abdulla ibn Ubayy as their leader and a diadem had been ordered for the purpose. The Yathribites changed their mind and decided to crown the Prophet as their leader and king. The Prophet could have easily got himself crowned as the King of Medina but he chose not to. He preferred to govern with the consent of the people. The Islamic state that he strived for he is not only one that is ruled with the people’s consent and for their welfare.
Though written in Arabic and sent to a man who spoke only Arabic, it was not sent to the Arabs alone. In Sura al Jumuah Allah says: “This message is also for those who will come after these people. In other words, the Rasool has been sent to humanity at large, the present as well as future generations.”
Prophet Muhammad was the Seal of His prophets. Despite the putative claims made by some, Allah sent no messengers after him. The Quran is intended to speak to every generation that came after the Prophet. It continues to speak to us through its pages and its meaning can be ascertained only by reading through its pages.
After he settled down in Medina the prophet went about the task of teaching his followers the task of building a community together. He set an example in every way. He worked as a labourer, cleaned his own house and mended his own clothes. Membership of the community was not based on one’s affiliation to a tribe or being an Arab.
In his address made at his farewell pilgrimage, the Prophet said: “Oh people! All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, … also a white has no superiority over a black, except by piety and good action.”