The Qur’an is not a biography of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but Allah (swt) describes His beloved Messenger (pbuh) in the most beautiful terms in the noble Book. He is the “best of exemplars” (33:21), with “the most lofty character” (68:04), and a “mercy to all the worlds” (21:107). He is the one who has “brought glad tidings inviting people to Allah” (33:45) “to bring them out of darkness and into light” (65:11).
His Sunnah (life-example) and Sirah (life-history) are guides for humanity till eternity because he embodied in his blessed life the teachings of the Qur’an. Allah (swt) commands those who have made a faith-commitment to Him to “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (4:59). In fact, Allah reminds His servants that if they truly love Allah (swt), they should express it through their love and obedience to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), ayah 3:31.
Even before receiving the first revelation confirming his mission as the last and final Messenger of Allah (pbuh), he led a pure and clean life earning the titles of al-Sadiq (the truthful one) and al-Amin (the trustworthy one) from the tribal, idol-worshipping, and quarrelsome society of Makkah. He was soft-spoken, kind, and compassionate. Even his enemies testified to his veracity and trustworthiness.
At the beginning of the seventh year of the Hijrah, the noble Messenger (pbuh) sent letters to a number of rulers inviting them to Islam. The Roman emperor, Heraclius, was visiting Jerusalem at the time. When he received the Prophet’s (pbuh) letter, Heraclius inquired whether there was anyone from Arabia present in Palestine. Abu Sufyan happened to be there with a trade caravan. He was called before the emperor who inquired about the character of the noble Messenger (pbuh). Despite being his staunch enemy and steeped in strong clan ‘asabiyah (prejudice), Abu Sufyan was forced to admit that the noble Messenger (pbuh) had the most upright character and had never told a lie.
He was soft-spoken, kind, and compassionate. Even his enemies testified to his veracity and trustworthiness.
Muslims with even limited knowledge of Islam and the Sirah are aware of these lofty qualities of the noble Messenger (pbuh). These are repeated in Jumu‘ah khutbahs as well as in sermons on other occasions. The month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal is special in that the birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh) is celebrated with great joy and fervour and lectures are delivered highlighting his noble character. By approximating their behaviour as closely as possible to that of the noble Messenger (pbuh), Muslims hope to achieve nearness to Allah (swt) and earn His pleasure.
His Sunnah (life-example) and Sirah (life-history) are guides for humanity till eternity because he embodied in his blessed life the teachings of the Qur’an.
There is also agreement among Muslims that the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah and Sirah are guides for us in life. The Qur’an is the eternal source of guidance revealed to the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) who demonstrated a practical example of its teachings in his own life. Thus the Qur’an and the Sunnah and Sirah form an integral part of a Muslim’s quest to understand his purpose as he copes with the vicissitudes of life.
It is imperative to review the prophetic Sunnah and Sirah carefully in light of the teachings of the Qur’an to determine how the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) transformed the jahili society of Arabia in a short period of 23 years into the Islamic State and turned its savage people into the most upright human beings on earth.
In order to understand the nature of this struggle and the challenges he faced, we must first consider the nature of society in Makkah where the noble Messenger (pbuh) was born and proclaimed his message. Arabia was a tribal society that indulged in numerous unjust practices. Makkah was the bastion of idol worship with the Ka‘bah, the first House of Allah (swt) built on earth, polluted by hundreds of idols. Clan loyalty and inter-clan rivalries were other prominent features of life. Slavery and the oppression of women were also common.
People depended on trade for survival. The Makkans’ trade caravans traveled north in summer to Syria and south in winter to Yemen. This is referred to in Surah Quraysh (106:2) of the noble Qur’an. Idol worship underpinned the Makkans’ commercial interests because trade caravans were attracted to the city both for worship as well as trade fares.
It was in these circumstances that the noble Messenger (pbuh) received the first revelations from on high and Allah (swt) ordered him to proclaim the Oneness of the Lord and Sustainer of all the worlds. Viewed superficially, it may appear to be a simple statement but in the idol-ridden society of Arabia, it carried profound implications. The declaration of the shahadah — La ilaha illa-Allah, Muhammadun Rasulullah (There is no deity/authority but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) — was seen by the mushrik power wielders of Makkah as a direct challenge not only to their belief system but also to their economic well-being.
People may tolerate an alternate belief system but they become extremely hostile if their economic well-being is challenged. This was also the reaction of the Makkan elite. They were not prepared to allow the message of Islam to be propagated freely lest it free people, especially the slaves, from the entrenched system. That would sound the death knell of the exploitative system in Makkah.
Extreme persecution of those that became Muslims ensued. This was led by such clan leaders as Walid ibn al-Mughirah (Makhzoom clan and considered the unofficial leader of Makkah until his death in the Battle of Badr), ‘Utbah ibn Rabi‘ah (‘Abd Shams clan), Abu Sufyan ibn Harb (Umayyah clan), Umayyah ibn Khalaf (Jumah clan), ‘Uqbah ibn Abi Mu‘eet (Abd Shams clan) and Abu al-Hakam ibn Hisham, better known as Abu Jahl (Makhzoom clan).
People may tolerate an alternate belief system but they become extremely hostile if their economic well-being is challenged.
Such unremitting hostility forced the small Muslim community to seek refuge first in Abyssinia and later their wholesale migration to Madinah known at the time as Yathrib. The Makkan mushriks were not content with persecuting the Muslims; they also plotted to kill the noble Messenger (pbuh). It was in these circumstances that he had to literally flee Makkah, the city of his birth.
The migration to Madinah provided a secure base that the noble Messenger (pbuh) had been seeking for a long time. While relieved of direct persecution and oppression, the Makkan mushriks did not leave the noble Messenger (pbuh) and his companions in peace. They pursued him there as well and a number of battles ensued. Ultimately truth triumphed over falsehood and Islam was established in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula.
Throughout history societies have experienced dramatic upheavals but no change except the one brought by the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) has been so comprehensive; it encompassed the entire spectrum of human existence. Historically, most changes have resulted in one class of people replacing another; the French and communist revolutions were of this kind. Similarly, the balance of political and economic power merely shifted from one class to another with the injustices that led to change in the first place, remaining largely in place. People’s social and moral values were also seldom affected.
The noble Messenger (pbuh) transformed both the individual as well as society but he neither promised wealth nor power to attract people. He also did not instigate class warfare despite great disparities in wealth in society at the time. Nor did he launch a movement to merely rectify people’s morals even though the Arabian society was steeped in immorality and corruption.
From hopelessly divided warring tribes, he organized the people into an Islamic state that not only defeated the two superpowers of the time (Byzantium and Persia) but also went on to dominate the world for more than 1,000 years. What methods and processes did the Prophet (pbuh) employ to bring about such profound change at the individual as well as collective (societal) levels? The prophetic Sirah (life-history) addresses these questions but it must not be viewed merely as a series of unrelated events. It is part of the divine scheme to transform humanity by bringing it into conformity with Allah’s (swt) laws.
The Qur’an says that the Prophet’s (pbuh) role was and is to bring humanity out of darkness and into light (65:11). “Darkness” must be understood in its proper context: it is any state that is not in conformity with Allah’s (swt) prescribed laws for humanity. Light, on the other hand, means a state in which one is mentally, physically, emotionally, and intellectually attuned to Allah’s (swt) commands and consciously striving to adhere to them at all times.
Allah (swt) has also promised in the Qur’an that He will make Islam dominant in the world (9:33). This was realized during the lifetime of the noble Messenger (pbuh) but did not end with his earthly mission; this promise is available to all those who follow the prophetic Sunnah and Sirah.
The prophetic method is applicable at all times and in all situations. This is Allah’s (swt) infinite mercy because Muslims can always hope to emerge from whatever depth of darkness they have fallen into provided they follow the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah and Sirah.
The Arabian society of the Prophet’s (pbuh) time was quite 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 but today, the world’s population has surpassed six billion and Muslims account for about one-fourth of this total. Would Muslims be able to transform their societies in 23 years as the Prophet (pbuh) did in Arabia, starting with a handful of followers?
Is there a time limit in which change must be achieved? These differences — the Prophet’s (pbuh) direct absence and the much larger scale today — however, should not overwhelm us. The Prophet’s (pbuh) physical presence has not been made a condition by Allah (swt) to achieve success in this world; following the Qur’an and the Sunnah and Sirah have been.
The Prophet (pbuh) had to convince the mushriks at a time when the Qur’an was gradually being revealed; today there are nearly two billion Muslims in the world, in possession of the entire Qur’an, as well as the Sirah and Sunnah of the noble Prophet (pbuh). True, the Muslims are disconnected from Islam and the Sirah but this is precisely the challenge we face today. We have to make the Sirah applicable in our lives by understanding it the way it ought to be understood and followed. There are other impediments as well: the power of kufr has not only become globalized but in the words of Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, it has also penetrated the House of Islam (“Political Thought and behaviour of Muslims under colonialism,” published in In Pursuit of the Power of Islam: Major writings of Kalim Siddiqui: 1996, pp. 257–87). Yet the Sirah as a model is the divine prescription for humanity and is applicable in every situation regardless of different historical time periods.
Today Muslims are afflicted by many of the same problems that the noble Messenger (pbuh) faced in Arabia even though idol worship may have been replaced by other idols such as nationalism, money, and class interests. Exploitation is as rampant and widespread in the world, including the Muslim world, today as it was in the jahili society of Arabia. It is, therefore, imperative for Muslims to recognize and understand the nature of zulm and darkness that surrounds them as they embark on the process of transforming their societies by bringing them out of darkness into light.
Never in history has any ruling class voluntarily relinquished power or accepted the inherent injustices of its system. Whenever its inequities are exposed, the system has reacted violently to suppress such attempts. The struggle to transform a society based on man-made laws into the Islamic state will not be without human or material costs. It demands great sacrifices because those who have a vested interest in the established order will use all means at their disposal to crush any challenge but the Sirah also shows that through sustained effort, change can be achieved.
This year as Muslims celebrate the birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh) in the month of Rabi al-Awwal, they would do well to pay attention to the larger aspects of his life’s struggle. Merely reciting naats and nasheeds in his honour and eating enormous amounts of food would not bring about the desired change in our lives, much less that of the world at large.