[Personal note: With space and time permitting, I will post some of my earlier commentaries on this website. All my essays up to December 2003 had been published in my book, Seeing Malaysia My Way. Those essays will not be posted here. Instead the essays posted here are those published since January 2004. MBM]
The Man, The Message, and The Miracle
M. Bakri Musa
[Speech given at the South Valley Islamic Community, Morgan Hill, California, on the occasion of Mauludal Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Originally published in Malaysiakini.com’s Seeing It My Way column, June 14, 2004.
As Muslims we are to love, honor, and emulate our Holy Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. As the journalist Abdul Salahi observes, we best demonstrate our love and veneration for our prophet by following his teachings, not by singing his praises.
Today we gather to honor our prophet on the occasion of his birthday, Mauludal Nabi. I am fully aware of the deep controversy in the Muslim world on the appropriateness of this occasion. There are those who feel that in so doing, we are aping the Christians with their Christmas. Many lament the degeneration of that holy day into unbridled consumerism, with the original religious theme all but forgotten.
We have to be careful in our choice of words for the meanings we give them are colored by our culture and experience. I am not “celebrating” the prophet’s birthday, rather, I am honoring this Rasul of Allah by recalling and reminding myself of his many sterling attributes, in the hope that I too can emulate, or at least attempt to, some of those exemplary qualities.
I have read many biographies of the holy prophet, from the most embellished hagiographies by well meaning followers of our faith, to the most cynical accounts viewed through the jaundiced eye of the Orientalists. Regardless, with each reading I learn a little more about our prophet that further increases my already immense admiration and affection for this devoted Rasul of Allah.
Ironically, my greatest appreciation of our prophet comes from reading accounts where he is portrayed as an ordinary mortal. The prophet of course was no ordinary being; Allah in His Wisdom did not choose His Last Messenger randomly. Long before Muhammad s.a..w. received his first revelation, his virtues were already evident. By this I do not mean the numerous miracles attributed to him in some of the hallowed hagiographies. For example, it is said that as an infant, his mother had difficulty finding a wet nurse as his father had died before his birth. Would-be wet nurses rightly felt that they would not be compensated. When one woman, Halimah, finally picked Muhammad, it was because she had no other choice. But her reluctance was amply rewarded, for when she brought the baby to her bosom, her previously dry breasts suddenly became engorged, with enough nourishing milk not only for the infant Muhammad but also for her own baby.
Another miracle has it that when Muhammad was a child, Angel Gabriel seized him, ripped open his chest, took his heart out, and washed it with ice water in a golden basin, before putting it back into his chest. The angel also threw out a black clot.
Such accounts of divine interventions are of course heavy on symbolisms. I consider such accounts interesting if not mildly hilarious, but being miracles they defy rational analysis.
Even dispensing with such celebrated accounts, there are indeed many contemporary records of the prophet’s exemplary life long before Allah selected him to be His Last Messenger. As a young man, he was already referred to as Al Amin – honest and trustworthy.
On one occasion when the Arabs were rebuilding the Ka’aba after it was damaged from an earlier flood, there was much rivalry and jealousy among the various participants as to who would have the honor of putting the final touch. As usual, such trivial differences quickly escalated, and they were ready to come to blows. Finally, they agreed to ask Muhammad s.a.w. to arbitrate. Muhammad immediately sensed the gravity of the situation, being fully aware of the disastrous consequences should he make a mistake.
He quickly devised a brilliant and equitable scheme for sharing the honor. He asked them to spread out a carpet, and he then placed the black stone, the central object of veneration, in the center. He had a representative from each tribe to raise the edge of the carpet and carry the stone to its final resting spot. Everyone was satisfied, as they had all participated in the final rite, with no one tribe hogging the honor. They were most pleased that they had successfully converted a potentially lethal and explosive rivalry into an amicable and cooperative endeavor.
Muhammad s.a.w. intuitively knew the wisdom that honor is never diluted when shared; on the contrary, it is enhanced. Similarly, rivalry can, with ingenuity, be converted to meaningful teamwork, and destructive competition to fruitful cooperation..
Despite his esteemed reputation, the prophet still encountered obstacles – some monumental – in spreading the word of Allah. His divine message of belief in a Supreme Being, equality of man, and social justice threatened the existing order. He understood the vast implications of his mission and was fully aware of the intense opposition. His forcing of the message would only divide his people. He had no intention of destroying his community in order to save it, to borrow a Vietnam-era military maxim. Thus even though he was carrying Allah’s message, he preached initially in secret, and only to his family and close friends.
Lesser mortals receiving smaller mandates from much lower authorities would no doubt have trumpeted their self righteousness and charged right ahead, oblivious of the damages and consequences they would inflict.
The truth inevitably prevailed and the message spread. Still, there were battles to be fought and challenges overcome. The two most celebrated were the Battle of Badr, in which the Muslims won despite overwhelming odds, and the Battle of Uhud, in which the well prepared but over confident Muslims were nearly routed, and with the prophet himself being injured. These exploits attained legendary proportions to instill in Muslims the lesson that victory is not always assured simply because of the justness of the cause, and of the dangers of overconfidence.
To me the genius of the prophet’s military leadership lies not in the heroic battles he won, rather in the conflicts he avoided. The peace treaty he signed with the pagan Meccans at Al-Hudaibiyah is instructive.
It was the sixth year of the Hijrah, and the prophet had declared his intention to lead his followers on their first pilgrimage to Mecca. He publicly demonstrated his peaceful intent by forbidding his followers from carrying arms except their sheathed swords, the traditional accoutrement of desert travelers. To the Meccans, the pilgrimage was a frontal challenge to their authority as custodians of Ka’aba.
The prophet sent numerous emissaries to assure the Meccans of his peaceful intent, but they were unimpressed, and in turn sent an intimidating force to dissuade the Muslims. Neither side backed down, and both were headed for a massive confrontation.
The Muslims encamped outside of Mecca in the plains of Al –Hudaibiyah. Legend has it that the prophet’s camel refused to budge. After yet another series of negotiations with and posturing by the Meccans, the prophet finally agreed to a peace treaty. The Meccans were relieved in not having to fight the determined Muslims, and the prophet in turn was comforted in that he avoided a civil war. He knew only too well his followers would be fighting their kin and kind, and that the wounds of this fratricide would take a long time to heal.
The Muslims were severely disappointed as the treaty was decidedly one sided. They avoided a war all right, but the price was stiff: they had to delay their pilgrimage to the following year and stop spreading the faith. Delaying their pilgrimage was a tough sell as the Muslims were already in a heightened state of religious fervor. To be disrupted in one’s pilgrimage is an event of singular significance to Muslims, then and now.
In the following year when the prophet gathered his followers for their deferred pilgrimage, the crowd was even larger. More significantly, the Meccans were so impressed with the Muslims’ peaceful mission and tolerant gesture the year earlier that many joined the new faith. Thus what had previously been perceived as a defeat for Muslims and victory for the Meccans, turned out a year later to be just the opposite!
It may be counterintuitive, but the power of peace can often overwhelm the might of the military. Mahatma Gandhi humbled the great British Empire not through the show of force – he had none – but through his peaceful gestures. Likewise, Martin Luther King prevailed by shaming America for failing to live up to its stated ideals. Today, far too many, within as well as outside our faith, fail to appreciate what our beloved prophet s.a.w. dramatically demonstrated over 14 centuries ago.
While we cannot emulate the qualities of our prophet’s military leadership – none of us have an army – nonetheless we can apply his principles of generosity in deescalating our disputes. We can begin by being more generous in admitting our own mistakes.
The prophet was no less generous with his family. When his dear uncle and protector Abu Talib died without ever becoming a Muslim, the prophet did not denounce him, did not tell him that he would burn in eternal hell. On the contrary, the prophet s.a.w. was there by his uncle’s side comforting the family. His uncle’s not being a Muslim did not in any way lessen the prophet’s love and compassion for him.
Today we have Muslim parents disowning their children for far lesser offences. In Malaysia, we have Muslim physicians who refuse to examine non-Muslims unless they (the doctors) wear gloves, for fear of being “contaminated” by the infidels. Where in the seerah or the Qur’an they find the justification for such a despicable attitude?
American Muslims and Early Muslims
Without being pretentious (May Allah forgive me if I appear so!), we American Muslims have much in common with those early Muslims. First, we are a minority within our community, and second, we too have undertaken our own Hijrah (migration). While the prophet’s Hijrah was the command of Allah, many like me come to America on our own free choice.
Others come here not by choice but because they are forced out of their homeland because of ethnic cleansing or to escape tyranny. These are truly brave Muslims.
It is the duty of Muslims to move away from evil even if that involves forsaking our homes and properties. In Surah An Nisaa, (4:97) (approximate translation), “When the angels take the souls of those who die in sin, they say, ‘In what plight were ye?’ They replied: ‘Weak and oppressed were we on earth.’ The angles responded, ‘Was not this earth of Allah spacious enough for you to migrate to some other place?’ These people will have Hell as their refuge. Allah spares only the truly helpless men, women, and children who have no means in their power nor any way to leave.”
One special group of immigrants is deserving of our praise – the Islamic scholars. These brilliant individuals often are persecuted and not allowed to develop their talent back in their native land. In America they are welcomed and given every opportunity to pursue their knowledge and spread their wisdom. As a result, America and Islam are blessed with the blossoming of their scholarships.
It has been said that the second renaissance in Islam will arise in America, and that it will be like a second Mecca. I fully agree. English is already the most important language in Islam, next to Arabic. Throughout history, Islam flourishes only where there is freedom; America amply provides that. The losers are the Muslim nations that do not value the gems within their midst.
American Muslims have a splendid opportunity and special obligation to present the pristine message of our faith through our deeds and words, just like our earlier brethrens did. In America we are free to practice our faith. We fast, pray, and pay zakat because we wanted to, and not because some authority out there is checking on us, as in many Muslim countries. America is the embodiment of that Qur’anic refrain that there shall be no compulsion in matters of faith.
America, with its representative government and Bill of Rights encapsulates the enlightened governance commanded by Allah in the Qu’ran. The Declaration of Independence incorporates the very ideals of our faith. In short, to quote Imam Feisal Rauf, America is “Sharia-compliant!”
When Muhammad s.a.w. was asked by his detractors to prove his prophethood by performing some miracles like other prophets before him, he answered, referring to the Qur’an, “This is my miracle!” The message is the miracle. It comes from the ultimate source, Allah. Its verity and wisdom is for all mankind and at all times.
Let us then commit ourselves to learn and benefit from this the greatest of all miracles. Let us live the message and emulate the Messenger. For the best message is the message of Allah as laid down in the Qur’an al Kareem, and the best messenger or teacher is our beloved Muhammad s.a.w.
May Allah bless the soul of our beloved prophet Muhammad s.a.w. and that of his family and his companions.