ZAFAR BANGASH, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, suggests another way to mark the birthday in this Islamic month of Rabi al-Awwal of the Last and Seal of all Allah’s Messengers (as).
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala describes the noble Messenger, Muhammad, upon whom be peace, as the "best of exemplars" (al-Qur’an 33:21). His Seerah (life-history) and Sunnah (life-example) are guides for humanity till eternity because he embodied, in his life, all the teachings of the Qur’an. Long before his formal commission by Allah as the last and final Messenger, he led such a pure and clean life that he earned the title of al-Amin ("the trustworthy one") even from the tribalism-ridden, quarrelsome society of Makkah. He was soft-spoken, kind and compassionate. Allahsubhanahu wa ta’ala, in His Infinite Wisdom and Mercy, calls him a "mercy to all the worlds" (21:107). The Creator has also commanded His faithful servants to "Obey Allah and obey the Messenger" (4:59) in all matters. In fact, Allah reminds us that when we obey the Messenger, we are actually obeying Him (4:80).
Muslims are generally aware of these lofty qualities of the noble Messenger because these are repeated in jum’ah khutbas every week as well as in khutbas on other occasions, especially in the month of Rabi al-Awwal, when the birthday of Allah’s Messenger (saw) is celebrated with great joy and fervour. There are elaborate programmes of nasheed and na’at recitals, as well as passionate speeches highlighting the great qualities of the Prophet. The idea is to express love for the Prophet as well as remind Muslims of his qualities in order for us to emulate them in our own lives. By approximating our behaviour as closely as possible to that of the noble Messenger, we Muslims hope to achieve Allah’s Pleasure, and thus nearness to Him.
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says in the Qur’an that He sent His Messenger (saw) to bring those who commit themselves to Allah, and do good deeds, out of darkness into light (65:11). One great Muslim thinker and writer, Syed Qutb Shaheed (d.1966), said that any action or behaviour that does not conform to the command of Allah must of necessity belong to the domain of darkness; similarly, all action and behaviour that is in conformity with Allah’s prescribed path is good and wholesome. Thus a simple act of kindness to one’s family, friends, relatives or even total strangers becomes an act of ibadah (worship) because it is pleasing to Allah. But Rasool-Allah’s Seerah is much more than an aggregate of instructions about individual behaviour. As the last and final Messenger, his example embodies all aspects of human existence, whether it relates to private or public life, to the individual or society and state. Thus the Seerah must be looked at in its entirety and not confined to the aspects of taharah (purity) and najasah, important though these are in the life of a Muslim. The Seerah must be studied beyond the aspects of miswak and perfume.
It is at this level that one finds a huge gap in the understanding of Muslims when deriving lessons from the Seerah. Today the Muslim Ummah finds itself in a cleft stick; Muslims are oppressed, persecuted and terrorised everywhere, yet they are the ones who are blamed for almost all the problems in the world. If there is violence in Palestine, it is the Palestinians who are blamed; there is seldom even a hint that it might have anything to do with the alien occupiers of Palestine. There is an astonishing degree of intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy in dealing with the root causes of the world’s problems, almost all of which affect the Muslims. One can, however, berate the rest of the world for its hypocrisy and injustices, yet that will not help the Muslims unless we also understand what we are required to do with regard to applying the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah of the noble Messenger (saw).
Let us consider two ayaat from the noble Qur’an that clarify the role of Rasool-Allah (saw):
[He is] a Messenger reciting unto you the revelation of Allah made plain, so that he may bring those who make a faith-commitment to Allah and do righteous deeds, out of darkness into light. (65:11)
He [Allah] it is Who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the Deen of Truth, so that it becomes dominant over all other systems and beliefs, however much the mushrikeen may detest it. (9:33).
These ayaat, among many in the Qur’an, establish the centrality of Allah’s Messenger in reorganising and guiding the affairs of Muslims. They highlight his role as the one who brings humanity out of darkness into light (65:11). If "darkness" is that state in which human beings are not in conformity with Allah’s principles and purposes, then light would place them mentally, physically, emotionally and intellectually in tune with Allah’s commands and in a state when they are consciously striving to adhere to them at all times. Allah has also promised that He will make Islam dominant in the world (9:33). This was realised during the lifetime of the Messenger but did not end with his earthly mission; this promise is also made to those who follow the Prophet’s Sunnah and Seerah. As Dr Kalim Siddiqui has observed, the role of Abu-Qasim (saw) as the last and final Messenger of Allah (33:40) and as the "best of exemplars" (33:21) was not confined to a specific time period (KS: Political Dimensions of the Seerah, ICIT, 1998, p.1); his method is applicable to all times and in all situations. This is Allah’s infinite mercy because we Muslims can always hope to emerge from whatever darkness we may have fallen into, provided that we follow the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah and Seerah.
We Muslims must, however, first have a clear understanding of our present situation. While we declare endlessly that we are one Ummah, the sad reality is that the Muslim world is divided into nation-states although there is no provision for nation-states in the divine scheme. Allah says in the noble Qur’an that He has created humankind from a single male and female and spread us into tribes, communities etc, "so that they may recognise each other" (49:06); this does not mean that people should then divide themselves along cultural, linguistic or racial lines or consider one group superior to another. There are many ayaat in the Qur’an referring to Muslims as one Ummah; this imposes certain obligations upon us but, far from living up to these, we accept our division into nation-states, like cages in a zoo, and then wonder why Allah’s promised help does not come when we face difficulties. Our energies and resources are not only divided but at the disposal of the kuffar, who use them to terrorise Muslims.
The other sad reality is that, for the first time in history, many of us find ourselves in a minority situation under non-Muslim rule. In the past, even as minorities, Muslims were the rulers. This was true in Spain as well as in India, for instance. The Muslim rulers guaranteed the rights of other people, and ensured that they were neither exploited nor molested. One would be hard-pressed to find any parallels to that situation in the world today. In fact, most people who benefited and thrived under Muslim rule, are today the most hostile to the Muslims; the Brahmin rulers of India, the zionist occupiers of Palestine and the Serbs in the Balkans come readily to mind. Their record of barbarism against Muslims is atrocious.
There is one other point from history worth considering. When Muslims found themselves as non-ruling minorities, they made every effort to return to the larger reality of the Islamic state. There is a hadith of Allah’s Messenger (saw) stating that Muslims must either live in the Islamic state or strive to establish one. The option of living in an Islamic state is not available at the moment, because although most of the 1.5 billion Muslims live in states with Muslim majorities, they are not governed there by Islamic law. Similarly, Muslim minorities in other countries have no place to return to because, under the divisive system of the nation-state, nobody will take them in or give them shelter. So we Muslims have to make some painful intellectual adjustments in our understanding of the present reality.
We need, however, to return to the contemporary situation, in which the power of kufr has become so totally dominant that Muslims feel weak and vulnerable. There were instances in the past as well when Muslims found themselves in such a predicament. Even in the life of Allah’s Messenger (saw) there were many years, especially in Makkah, when he was isolated and vulnerable; one is reminded of his lament to Allah after the chiefs of Taif rejected his message and set the hooligans of the town on him: he turned to Allah (swt) to complain of his helplessness. But this was not because he was worried about his personal comfort; his larger concern was that Allah not be displeased with him. Today we Muslims lament our helplessness but fail to consider whether we are striving for Allah’s pleasure or for our own comfort and ease. Although Muslims’ concern for the plight of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq is genuine, we fail to take the next logical step: to support them properly. This is especially true of the attitude of regimes in the Muslim world. Most Muslims know that these regimes are an impediment to our efforts to solve the problems of the Ummah, yet we do not support and help those struggling to remove them from power to usher in responsible Islamic government.
Seldom or never in history has any ruling class voluntarily relinquished power or accepted responsibility for the injustices of the system it has set up (or taken over and reorganised). Whenever the inequities of a system are exposed, the elites of that system react violently to suppress attempts to rectify those inequities. The struggle to transform a society, based on man-made laws, into an Islamic state cannot be without human or material costs. It demands great sacrifices because those who have vested interests in the established order will use every means at their disposal to crush any challenge. But the Seerah shows us that, by sustained effort, change can be brought about. We Muslims need to make the mental leap from passivity to activity, based on a clear understanding of the Seerah.
The Prophet (saw) faced numerous difficulties and challenges in his quest to convey the message of Islam and to establish the Islamic state. A reign of terror was unleashed against him and his small group of followers, including a three-year siege in Shi’b Abi-Talib, leading to a plot to kill him; yet he persisted and eventually triumphed. Much the same thing is happening against committed Muslims today; those who are terrorising and killing Muslims accuse their victims of indulging in ‘terrorism’. The situation is made worse by the fact that almost all means of communication are also controlled by the kuffar. But the Seerah shows that the struggle for truth and justice will not be easy; in fact, Allah points out in the Qur’an: "do people think they will be left [at ease] and will not be tested once they say they have believed?" (29:02). The test of those who are truly committed is precisely to bring out their strength of iman and shed any lingering doubts in their minds. It is like forging steel; it has to go through phases of hot and cold and much beating before its true strength comes out. Our struggle with numerous difficulties is meant to bring out the best in us, not to depress or discourage us.
Just as the Prophet’s declaration of Islam at the popular level was necessary to deconstruct the socio-political order in Arabia, in order to pave the way for the Islamic order with its own ideology and power-base, so too must Muslims go through a similar process today. We will have to mount an ideological challenge to kufr because it has come to dominate much of the world today. Without such a challenge, the true potential of the Ummah will not be realised. Islam requires total commitment, not half-measures. Some Muslims recoil in horror from the suggestion that the Prophet had anything to do with politics, but this is based on a lack of understanding of the Seerah. If we believe that he was sent as an exemplar and leader for all of human history, then his life must encompass every aspect of life, political activity included.
In this month of Rabi al-Awwal, as we Muslims celebrate the birthday of Allah’s Messenger (saw), it would do us immense good to go beyond the ritualistic and formalised representation of his virtues, and to begin to address the struggle that he went through and the difficulties that he dealt with and overcame in establishing the Islamic state in Madinah, and then in extending it to the whole of the Arabian Peninsula.