Two months before the International Seerah conference to be held by the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) in South Africa (September 21-23, 2001), a major conference on the Seerah took place in Ottawa, Canada. ZAFAR BANGASH, director of the ICIT, was there.
As the last and final Messenger of Allah, the Prophet (saw) had a many-sided personality: he was both a Prophet and a statesman, a ruler and a commander, a judge and a diplomat. All these qualities were combined in him in such balance as to provide a complete example for humanity in all fields of endeavour. He was, as the Qur’an states, “the best of exemplars” (33:21). There is also another part of the Prophet’s personality that demands our attention: his spirituality.
All Allah’s Prophets were men of great spirituality, but the noble Messenger had the highest station in this as well. But we need to have a clear understanding of the concept of Islamic spirituality. For many, spirituality has come to mean self-denial and isolation from all worldly activities and concerns. From the Islamic point of view this is not acceptable. In Islam, spirituality does not mean isolating oneself; on the contrary, it means interacting with the world but without being possessed by it. This was what the noble Prophet demonstrated in his own blessed life so strikingly; it was also the subject of a one-day seminar in Ottawa on July 21. Organized by the cultural section of the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it was held in the Canadian parliament building, attracting a number of academics, students and activists, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The embassy’s cultural attache, Rahim Najafi Barzegar, set the keynote by emphasizing the dual nature of human existence: spiritual and material. Today there is too much emphasis on material things and spiritual aspects have been neglected, resulting in much suffering and confusion in the world.
A number of speakers referred to the inherent understanding of good and wickedness given to the nafs (spirit) by Allah. This is stated in surah ash-Shams (91): “By the soul and the proportion and order given to it; and its enlightenment as to what is wrong and what is right. Truly, he indeed is successful who purifies it [the nafs]; and he indeed fails who corrupts it” (91:7-10). Both Dr Gamal Manan Solayman, imam of the Ottawa Mosque, and Maulana Seyyed Muhammad Rizvi, imam of the Bayview Masjid in Toronto, developed their talks around these ayaat. Imam Soleyman gave examples of the Prophet’s spirituality and how it illustrated a model for practical living, while Maulana Rizvi addressed the Prophet’s spiritual and social status.
The much-misunderstood concept of jihad in Islam was addressed by Dr Karim Karim, professor of communications and journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. Explaining first that jihad does not mean “holy war” only, but a long process of struggle to implement justice which includes self-purification, use of speech and good exhortation, ultimately the use of force, he compared it to the western Christian concept of “just war”, a concept that can be traced back to St Augustine. Dr Karim gave a detailed account of how revelation gradually progressed from restraint to permission to wage war. His suggestion that conditions that obtained during the time of the Prophet for waging jihad no longer exist was challenged from the floor, however. It was Imam Soleyman who explained the conditions in which jihad is permissible. He outlined five conditions: for religion, for self-defence, for the protection of honour, for the defence of territory, and against aggression.
Notre Dame University (US) professor Fred Dalmayer’s talk was to be about “Gnosis and Agape in Islamic and Christian spirituality” but because of lack of time he only addressed Islamic spirituality. His was a theoretical presentation, touching on a number of subjects, explaining that ‘spirituality’ is from the word ‘spirit’, which in Arabic is ruh. This is what is given to us by Allah but it has to be understood in the context of an inspiration from Allah, not, as Hallaj proclaimed in his spiritual journey, that he was God (astaghfirullah), for which he was executed.
This writer addressed the Prophet’s role as a model for transforming society, pointing out that from the Islamic point of view spirituality means getting closer to Allah. This can only be achieved by interacting with Allah’s creation, not by isolating oneself from it. In the Prophet’s Seerah, we find that he used to pray and meditate in the cave of Hira before receiving revelation, but after that did not return to the cave; instead he went to the marketplace to interact with the people. Quoting Imam Ali, he pointed out that Islam’s concept of zuhd is not that one does not possess anything of this world, but that nothing of this world should possess us. He also emphasized that the Seerah must be studied from a new perspective in which Muslims are able to derive lessons from it to transform the present state of the Ummah and to offer hope to all people in the world.
Two other papers were given by Reverend Canon Chris Carr, director general of the chaplaincy branch of the correctional services of Canada, and Hujjatul-Islam Mohammad K. Misbah Mousavi. Reverend Carr talked about “restorative justice” and compared it with the prevalent legal justice system, whose emphasis is on following rules, punishment as an end in itself, and the infliction of pain. Restorative justice is neither neutral nor impartial, it is fair and partial and is based on mercy and love, he pointed out. It is defined by its outcome and making right what is wrong, and therefore seeks to change the status quo.
Hujjatul-Islam Misbah Mousavi, who studied at McGill University and is currently imam at the Imam Ali Centre in Toronto, drew upon the statements of a number of western sociologists, pointing out how and why western man feels alienated and depressed, sometimes even driven to suicide. In the modern world, the human being has no real identity because the social glue that binds the individual to society is gone. Quoting western sociologists, he pointed out that many have come to the conclusion that the way out of this crisis is through collective prayer.
This idea is familiar to Muslims, as Islam lays great emphasis on praying together. In fact, prayer in jama’ah has a far greater reward than individual prayer: one prayer in Masjid al-Haram brings 100,000 times more reward than a prayer elsewhere; this is because the entire Ummah gathers in Makkah. He also pointed out that Islam attaches great importance to the necessity of thinking about knowledge. “Thinking for one hour is better than worship for 70 years without understanding,” reads a well-known hadith of the noble Messenger of Allah.
By focusing on spirituality, the organizers helped to bring out other aspects of the blessed personality of the Prophet (saw) as well. His Seerah is a model for all times and all situations, and it is imperative that Muslims begin to address this issue in much greater detail, instead of reading the Prophet’s Seerah merely as a means to entertain one’s self, however well meant that might be.