The transformative power of the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh)
By Zafar Bangash
The noble Messenger (saws) was sent not only to inform but also to transform humanity by bringing it out of darkness and into light. Muslims ought to pay attention to this aspect of the Sirah in this month of Rabi al Awwal.
The birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh) falls in the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal, third month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Because of their love and attachment to the noble Messenger (pbuh), Muslims celebrate his birthday with great reverence and respect. There are elaborate programs at which eloquent speeches are delivered as well as nasheeds being recited to honor the Prophet (pbuh). At the international level, the Majma‘ al-Taqrib bayn al-Madhahib of the Islamic Republic of Iran organizes a week-long unity conference to bring Muslims of different schools of thought together. The conference is attended by hundreds of ‘ulama, academics, and activists from all over the world.
Given human nature, it is not difficult to understand why such activities often become routine and the larger purpose — of learning from the example of the noble Messenger (pbuh) — recedes into the background. Celebration of the event itself becomes the objective. While there is nothing wrong with such celebrations since they reflect the deep love that Muslims have for the noble Messenger (pbuh), it is important to keep in mind what the Sirah of the Prophet should mean for every Muslim. The noble Qur’an says, “You have in the Messenger of Allah the most beautiful example to emulate” (33:21). There are other ayat in the noble Qur’an that highlight his lofty personality. He was sent as a “mercy to all the worlds” (21:107), and as “a witness, bringing glad tidings, and as a warner” to humanity (33:45). Also, the noble Messenger (pbuh) was sent not only to inform but to transform humanity by bringing it “out of darkness into light” (65:11).
It is to the transformational aspect of his noble personality that we must turn our attention since some Muslims appear to have lost their way in the jungle of sectarianism and crude tribalism (aka nationalism). It is akin to going back to the state of jahiliyah that the noble Messenger (pbuh) had confronted in Arabia when he received his first revelation from on high in the solitude of the Grotto of Hira’ 1,450 years ago.
There are two attitudes that dominate Muslim thinking about the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh) today. The first is that Muslims see his example applying in their personal but not collective lives. Thus, this group emphasizes the Prophet’s example in dress, personal hygiene ,and even the manner of his eating — holding the glass in right hand and taking three sips at intervals as well as squatting on the floor to eat — but overlook the much more important aspect that the Prophet (pbuh) never ate a belly full, for instance.
The use of miswak — the twig used to brush one’s teeth before the start of every salah (prayer) — has virtually been turned into a part of salah but it is largely forgotten that the early Muslims also used the miswak before going into battle; for Muslims today, however, miswak itself has become their jihad! This group of Muslims has confined the Prophet’s Sirah to the bedroom and washroom. They fail to see the Sirah’s relevance on the broader canvas of life.
The other group of Muslims comprises those who have gone on a militant tangent. They have turned the Prophet’s Sirah into endless wars. Much worse; they have become so extreme in their attitude that they think they have the right — nay a duty — to kill others they disagree with. The takfiri groups that have erupted in places like Iraq and Syria whose ideological moorings are anchored in the literalist interpretations of Wahhabism are running amok and have caused great damage to Islam and the Prophetic Sunnah and Sirah.
Is there any example from the Sirah that the noble Messenger (pbuh) ever acted in such a manner? There is clearly not a single ayah in the noble Qur’an that allows such behavior and we know that he (pbuh) embodied the teachings of the Qur’an in his blessed life. As Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an, “We have not sent you except as a mercy to all the worlds” (21:107). Where is the aspect of mercy in the conduct of the takfiris?
Let us consider the Prophet’s (pbuh) treatment of his longtime foes at the time of the liberation of Makkah in 8ah. When the vanquished Quraysh had assembled around the Ka‘bah, the noble Messenger (pbuh) asked them, “Tell me, how should I treat you?” Even his enemies knew of his compassionate and merciful nature, “We know you are a noble person; you are the son of a noble person. We expect kindness and mercy from you.”
The Prophet’s (pbuh) response to his enemies that now stood trembling before him was, “I say to you what Yusuf said to his brothers, ‘There is no blame on you this day. I forgive all of you and Allah is the most merciful’ (12:92).” This was a reference to what Yusuf (a) had said to his brothers after they stood trembling before him in the royal court. They had tried to get rid of him by throwing him in a well hoping that he might either die or some caravan might pick him up. Sold into slavery, Yusuf (a) ultimately rose to become the chief administrator (akin to the rank of prime minister in today’s terminology) in Egypt with full powers to decide as he pleased. When the same brothers came before him, he did not seek revenge; instead he forgave them. The Prophet (a) did exactly the same with his now-vanquished Makkan foes. Have the takfiri terrorists, who claim to be Muslims, not read Surah Yusuf in the noble Qur’an, or do they not know about this aspect of the Prophetic Sirah?
During the Prophet’s (pbuh) time, nearly 1,500 years ago, Arabia was steeped in jahiliyah in which idol-worship was the basis of religious, social, and cultural behavior. Injustice, oppression, tribal arrogance (and tribal warfare borne of such arrogance), female infanticide, and slavery were other practices that characterized Arabian society at the time. Today, Muslims are afflicted by many of the same problems and challenges, even though the worship of idols has been replaced by the worship of nationalism, money, and class interests. Thus, in order to bring about a “total transformation” of their societies — to echo the phrase memorably used by the late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui — Muslims will first have to understand the nature of the zulm and darkness that surrounds them. Their success in transforming their societies will be determined by the proximity of their conduct to the Prophetic Sunnah and Sirah.
The Prophet’s (pbuh) example is applicable at all times and in all situations because he is the “seal of all the prophets” (33:40); no more prophets will come after him. Yet contemporary Muslims have failed to derive appropriate lessons from the Sirah to guide them back to a position of dominance in conformity with Allah’s (swt) promise. The Prophet’s Sirah demonstrates a complete and perfect model for humanity covering all aspects of life, personal, family, and community life, as well the ordering of society and state. The application of the Prophetic method in its entirety is, therefore, the only way to break out of the present state of darkness to transform Muslim societies. The Muslims’ present predicament confirms their deviation from the divinely prescribed path as exemplified by the Sirah: Allah (swt) commands the committed Muslims to “obey the Messenger” (4:59) who is “the best of exemplars” (33:21).
While Muslims accept the validity of these principles and even present them with passion, in practice they appear to have accepted the de facto separation of din from politics and other aspects of societal activity. There is a long history behind such schizophrenic behavior, which has affected not only the socio-political and economic outlook of Muslims but has also made its impact on the study and understanding of the Sirah itself.
For instance, Muslims spend endless hours arguing about the number of miracles the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) performed and whether the mi‘raj was a physical journey or merely a vision. While there may be merit in discussing these at some level, the Muslims’ present plight hardly allows for such indulgences. It would be far more relevant to consider the circumstances in which the Prophet (pbuh) was rewarded with mi‘raj. He had to endure 12 years of extreme hardship and when the worldly prospects for his mission appeared bleak, there was an explosion of divine mercy, culminating in mi‘raj. So the mi‘raj must not be viewed merely as a phenomenon that occurred in isolation but as the culmination of a long process of struggle to establish Allah’s (swt) din. The secularization of Islam through the dark period of history has clearly taken its toll, freezing many vital issues out of Muslim consciousness. The study of the Prophetic Sirah, for both historical and contemporary reasons, has also fallen victim to this phenomenon.
The Sirah literature is a goldmine of primary information that has to be sifted, analyzed, and applied to contemporary issues and problems. Why Muslims have failed to derive any lessons from the Sirah to solve their current problems, especially relating to their collective existence and governance, is a question that needs careful consideration.
Few Muslims have risen above their emotional attachment to the Prophet and appreciated the larger significance of the Sirah. They are accustomed to reading a “sanitized” version of the Sirah, oblivious of the Prophet’s (pbuh) role in dealing with such issues as state and politics. Some recoil in horror from the idea that the Prophet (pbuh) had anything to do with politics. The corruption of politics and abuse of power and authority clearly have much to do with this, but it also reflects the distorted view some Muslims have of the Sirah itself. Since crookedness and lying have become the norm, indeed an essential part of modern politics, Muslims have assumed that politics per se is bad. Similarly, the reduction of Islam to merely a “religion” like so many others has resulted in Muslims overlooking many important aspects of Islam and the Sirah.
Another misconception common among some Muslims is that the Prophet (pbuh) was sent merely to convey the message; he had no responsibility beyond that. These Muslims may agree that rectifying people’s morals was also part of his mission, but little else. According to this line of thinking, if the people of Makkah had stopped worshipping idols there would have been no conflict in society and no need for the Prophet’s (pbuh) migration to Madinah to establish the Islamic State. There are some Muslims who even go so far as to argue that there was no Islamic state, merely a Muslim community in Madinah. Is there a difference between the two? What then of the Qur’anic ayah, “Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you” (4:59)? Who are the people placed in authority and what is their role? Do they have any power? Do they exercise authority, or is their role merely to advise people to behave, without any mechanisms of enforcement to ensure compliance?
In Makkah, the noble Messenger (pbuh) and his small group of followers faced great hardships. They did not pose a physical challenge to the prevalent system of inequality and oppression. Even the Makkan mushriks knew this, so why then did they inflict so much harm on the Muslims? The Makkan period can be characterized by the Prophet’s (pbuh) struggle not only to detach people from idol worship but also uplift their moral character. With guidance from on high, he forbade them from stealing, lying, oppressing others, and mistreating the women and slaves. He encouraged the emancipation of slaves. This was a blow against the entrenched system of injustice.
The performance of salah was meant to inculcate the spirit of equality and develop a sense of communal responsibility. Again, distinctions of high and low, rich and poor, and might and weakness were obliterated at a stroke. Similarly, zakah was emphasized so that those in need could be looked after. At the same time, simplicity was enjoined. The Prophet (pbuh) led by example. He did not ask others to make sacrifices without first doing so himself.
The migration to Madinah, forced upon the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions, led to the establishment of the Islamic State. The principal of equality and fair dealings with all the constituent parts — Muslims, ummiyun, and Jews — was the cornerstone of this policy. In Madinah, we find the socio-political and economic principals of Islam coming into play.
Clear political principals were laid down. Leadership was on the basis of bay‘ah (willing consent of the people); no coercion was used nor imposed through the sword. Mutual consultation in all affairs became the norm and after due deliberation, the decision of the leader (the Prophet) was accepted as final.
At the economic level, not only the giving of zakah was instituted for those with surplus wealth, the bayt al-mal (treasury) was established to address the needs of people in a fair and equitable manner. The poor were sought out and given help. At the end of the Prophetic mission in Madinah, following many battles against the enemies of Islam, riba (usury) was abolished. The divine revelation came in the form of very strong condemnation of those indulging in it. The Prophet (pbuh) forbade hoarding to prevent people from raising prices to exploit others.
Today, the global financial system is based entirely on usury. It serves the interests of those with wealth and power while continually impoverishing the already poor and destitute. Inequalities have been entrenched leading to immense suffering and oppression. There appears no escape from this web. The overwhelming majority of Muslim countries are also the prisoners of this system. More distressingly, there is not even an attempt to break out of the chains of financial slavery. Politically, too, Muslim societies live in bondage.
This need not be the case. Both the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sirah offer a clear path out of this state of misery. The first requirement for this, however, is the willingness to seek change. “Allah does not change the condition of a people until they are willing to change themselves,” says the noble Qur’an (13:11).
The transformative power of the Sirah is available at all times. Muslims need to put it into practice in order to bring about the change in their lives. This will not happen as long as Muslims indulge in rituals and think that these are substitutes for action.