As Muslims all over the world celebrate the birthday of the noble Prophet Muhammad sall’Allahu alaihi wa sallam, ZAFAR BANGASH, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), discusses the Prophet’s role in bringing about change in society.
Muslims throughout the world celebrate the birthday of the noble Messenger of Allah with great veneration. Elaborate programmes are held every Rabi al-Awwal, the month in which the Prophet was born, when na’ats and qasidas are composed, recited and memorized. This year has been no exception. While this reflects the deep love and reverence Muslims bear the Prophet, it also highlights the Muslims’ lack of understanding or appreciation of the role he played in bringing about change in society. Surely the Prophet was not sent merely so that we could celebrate his birthday without understanding the purpose of his mission in life?
Two factors appear to be responsible for our faulty perception of the Prophet’s Seerah (life-history): since only a few of the estimated 124,000 Prophets exercised worldly authority and power, Muslims have assumed that such affairs are outside the domain of Prophetic purpose. Second, since politics has come to be considered for the non-pious, indeed for the biggest crooks, many people ask how the Prophet, who brought Allah’s final message to mankind, could be involved in politics. This reflects Muslims’ lack of understanding of both politics and Prophetic history. True, few Prophets, with the exception of Prophets Yusuf, Daud and Sulaiman (a.s.) ruled anywhere, but this does not mean that ruling a people falls beyond Prophetic responsibility.
Even if most Prophets did not acquire power, they exercised authority which was conferred upon them by Allah’s divine writ. Such authority was not conditional upon validation by the people; they exercised it under divine command despite lacking the means to impose it. Since the Prophet Muhammad (saw) is the last and final Messenger of Allah with whom the deen of Allah was perfected and completed for mankind (al-Qur’an 5:03), it had to encompass all aspects of life. Politics is not and could not be separated from other aspects of life. In fact, the political dimension was an essential part of the Prophet’s message because Allah did not want any field of human endeavour to be without a practical example. In this as in all other fields, the noble messenger of Allah was singularly successful because Allah wanted to present a model (33:21) for his servants for all time.
Throughout history societies have undergone change; some were dramatic, such as the French and communist revolutions, but in almost all cases the balance of political and economic power merely shifted from one class of people to another without addressing the underlying injustices that brought about the revolution, or affecting people’s social and moral values or priorities. The change that the noble of Messenger of Allah (saw) effected was both profound and comprehensive: it transformed individuals as well as societies.
In bringing about such transformation the Prophet, however, promised neither wealth nor power to attract people to his mission, as is customary with many political parties and groups these days; nor did he instigate class warfare despite great disparities in wealth, nor launch a movement merely to rectify people’s personal, marital or familial morals, although Arabian society was steeped in immorality and corruption. For 13 years in Makkah, he emphasized one point above all others: the Oneness of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. The kalimah may seem a simple statement, but in that idol-ridden and materialistic society it signalled an ideological challenge that had profound implications. This explains why it aroused so much hostility from the Makkan aristocracy.
The Prophet (saw) transformed the whole of the Arabian Peninsula in the relatively short period of 23 years. The hopelessly divided warring tribes and clans he organised into an Islamic state that not only defeated both superpowers of the time but also went on to dominate the world for more than a thousand years. What methods and processes did he employ to bring about such profound changes at the individual as well as collective levels? These are questions we need to address by studying the Seerah from a new, more dynamic perspective. The Seerah must not be viewed merely as a series of disjointed events with earlier actions having no discernible relation to subsequent developments but as part of the divine scheme to transform humanity by bringing it into conformity with Allah’s Purpose and Laws.
The Qur’an says that the noble Messenger of Allah (saw) was sent not only to inform but to transform humanity by bringing it “out of darkness into light” (65:11). Clearly, the Prophet’s role 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, as Dr Kalim Siddiqui has observed in his ground-breaking paper, “Political Dimensions of the Seerah” (ICIT, 1998, p.1). The Prophet’s method is applicable to all times but, as Muslims consider transforming their societies by applying the Prophet’s Seerah and Sunnah (life-example), it may be argued that we face a very different historical situation, the greatest difference being the absence of the Prophet himself. His presence at the advent of Islam was a source of inspiration and an enormous advantage that the Muslims are deprived of today.
There are other differences as well: the Arabian society of the Prophet’s era was small, comprising a few thousand people in Makkah and a similar number in Madinah. The Arabian Peninsula as a whole had several hundred thousand inhabitants; today, the world’s population is more than six billion, with Muslims comprising about one-fifth of this total. Should Muslims be required to transform their societies in 23 years as the Prophet, starting with a handful of followers, did in Arabia? Is there a time-constraint within which change must be achieved?
These differences — the Prophet’s physical absence, and the much larger scale today — should not overwhelm us, however. We enjoy certain advantages as well; the Prophet had to convince the mushrikeen at a time when the Qur’an was gradually being revealed to him; today there are already 1.2 billion Muslims, in possession of the entire Qur’an, as well as the Seerah and Sunnah of the noble Prophet. True, the Muslims are disconnected from Islam and the Seerah, but this is precisely the challenge to us today. We have to make the Seerah relevant to our lives by understanding it as it was meant to be understood and followed. There are other impediments as well: kufr has not only become globalized but it has also penetrated the House of Islam. Yet the Seerah as a model is the divine prescription for humanity and it must be extendable to every situation, regardless of different historical time periods.
The process of transformation, however, requires first a clear understanding of the nature of the environment in society, and of what is to replace it. During the Prophet’s time, Arabia was steeped in jahiliyyah (primitive savagery) in which idol-worship formed the principal mode of religious, social and cultural bahaviour. People believed in Allah but associated partners with Him, hence their designation as “mushrikeen” in the Qur’an. Injustice, oppression, tribal arrogance (and therefore tribal warfare born of such arrogance) and female infanticide as well as slavery were other practices that characterised Arabian society at the time. Today Muslims are afflicted by many of the same problems; idol-worship has been replaced by the worship of nationalism, money and class interests. Injustice and oppression are as rampant and widespread in Muslim societies today as they were in Arabia at the advent of Islam. It is therefore imperative for Muslims to understand the nature of the dhulm and darkness that surround them as they embark on the process of transforming their societies. Their success or failure will be determined by their proximity to the Prophetic Sunnah and Seerah.
The Muslims’ present attitude can be compared to an episode in early Islamic history. Before the Treaty of Hudaibiyya (6AH), the mushrikeen of Makkah sent a number of emissaries to negotiate with the Prophet. One of the Quraish delegates, Urwa ibn Masood Thaqafi, noted his companions’ reverence for the Prophet: they would not let even the water he used for wudhu fall to the ground; they rubbed it on their bodies as a way of asking for blessing. When Urwa returned to his fellow chiefs, he advised them against fighting a people so dedicated to their leader. There was also somthing else that Urwa did not witness that is relevant to our discussion: with the exception of one man, each of the 1,400 companions of the Prophet gave bay’a (described in the Qur’an as Bay’t ar-Ridwan, 48:18) that they would fight to the last man if war were imposed on them. This they did because of a rumour that Uthman ibn Affan, the Prophet’s emissary sent to Makkah to negotiate with the Quraish, had been murdered.
The situation facing the Muslims was grim: there were only 1,400 of them, far away from Madinah and armed with only a sword each; there was no prospect of help from any quarter, nor the possibility of escape if they were defeated. Yet their commitment was so great that they were prepared to face every eventuality. The difference in attitude between the early Muslims and today’s is that today’s Muslims would readily splash the Prophet’s wudhu water on their bodies, but would refuse to make their own Bay’at ar-Ridwan! So why does it surprise us that Allah’s promised help (47:7) does not come to us? Is following the Prophet’s Sunnah and Seerah nothing more than splashing perfume on our bodies, vigorously doing miswak and gobbling large amounts of halwa, as some of us have come to believe?
Allah declares in the noble Qur’an: “He [Allah] it is Who sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the Deen of Truth so that it becomes dominant over all other systems, however much the mushrikeen may oppose it” (9:33 and 61:11). Islam became dominant during the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah (saw) when he had only a handful of followers; despite there being more than 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today we are humiliated and oppressed. The darkness that prevailed in Arabia at the time of the Prophet has once again engulfed the world, on a much greater scale. If we really want to emerge from this total darkness, then the only option available to us is to follow the Prophet’s example, beginning by understanding it in all its dimensions.
To begin with, Islam was spread only among the Prophet’s close relatives and friends. Then Allah commanded him to proclaim it openly (surahs 73 and 74). Thereafter, the message was announced in public meetings, market-places and the Ka’aba, despite the clear risk to the Prophet’s person and life, and those of other Muslims. The declaration of Islam was necessary in order to challenge the socio-political order of Makkah and pave the way for the implemention of the Islamic order.
The terror unleashed by the Makkan aristocracy was also to be expected because their vested interests were threatened. The Prophet’s 13 years in Makkah were spent under extremely harsh conditions. He and the small group of Muslims not only suffered ridicule, persecution, torture and exile but also a three-year embargo in which they were isolated in Sh’ab Abi Talib. Why did the noble Messenger and his followers have to suffer so much? Was it merely for preaching a spirituality devoid of worldly relevance, or for inviting people to participate in sessions of transcendental meditation to escape the drudgery of life (as so many gurus are wont to do these days)? This would hardly have caused the Makkan aristocracy to feel threatened. It is ironic that while the mushrikeen in Makkah clearly understood the true import of the Prophet’s message and viewed it as a direct challenge to their way of life, the vast majority of Muslims today have failed to grasp its real meaning. Muslims continue to lead a jahili existence even while openly professing the faith of Islam.
Why Muslims have developed such a warped understanding of Islam and why they have failed to derive any lessons from the Seerah with which to solve their problems, especially relating to their collective existence and governance, are questions that need careful consideration. After all, Allah says in the Qur’an that the Prophet is the “best of exemplars” (33:21) and that Muslims must “obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (4:59). Most Muslims have not been able to see beyond their emotional attachment to the Prophet to appreciate the larger significance of the Seerah. This must now change.
Muslims also suffer from another misconception based on a faulty reading of the situation in Makkah. Since the Prophet and his companions did not physically resist the onslaught of the mushrikeen, it is argued that they did not resist at all. Does the absence of physical resistance automatically mean no resistance at all, or even acquiescence to the established order? What about the ideological and psychological challenges posed by the proclamation of the kalimah, La ilaha il-Allah, Muhammadur Rasool Allah (There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah)? Such stalwarts of the jahili system in Makkah as Abu Lahab and Abu Jahl were roundly condemned by the Qur’an itself (surah 111; 96:9-18). Islam was not silent in the face of ridicule from the mushrikeen.
Then there was the challenge to the social system, in which the aristocracy was split right down the middle. The sons and daughters of leading figures entered the fold of Islam, repudiating the existing order and their own privileged positions in it. We find Abu Sufyan’s daughter Um Habiba, Utba ibn Rabi’a’s son Hudhaifa, Suhayb ibn Umair, Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas, Zubair ibn al-Awwam, Uthman ibn Affan and others accepting Islam and repudiating the prevalent system even though they were its beneficiaries. What made them give up their privileges and choose a life that meant suffering and persecution?
These are questions that Muslims need to consider as they hold milad celebrations in this month throughout the world. The Seerah must mean more than rituals and spiritual exercises; Muslims must follow the Prophet in all activities in order to make a meaningful difference to their lives as commanded by Allah.