In Praise of God - The Prophet’s Birthday. BBC World Service
By Sheikh Hamza Yusuf
Twenty-six years ago I became a Muslim largely because I fell in love with a beautiful human being. “I was only sent to perfect noble character”, said the man declared as “a mercy to all the worlds”.
As time passed, this love grew as my knowledge of him increased. I painfully watched his religion hijacked by some for their own ends – distorting his message and forgetting that he was indeed a mercy to all the worlds. I am troubled by the media’s portrayal of him sometimes in the worst of lights. How could the man I came to know and love be so vilified and maligned by those who claim to represent him and also by those who aim to be unbiased interpreters?
Mohammad, Peace be upon Him was a shy, reticent man who lived among his people with such high moral character they called him ‘al-amin,’ the trustworthy.
The Prophet of Islam was born in the city of Mecca, Arabia, into a poor but noble branch of an aristocratic clan known as Koreish, a people who despised treachery, lies and stupidity, while honoring bravery in battle, generosity in partying, and cleverness in poetry.
Some families, were so ashamed of their baby girls, that they would bury them alive instead of suffering the possible indignity of future dishonor. The religion of the Arabs at the time was a hodge-podge of superstition, divination and idolatry. To them, man’s life ended with his death and his afterlife was based on his military exploits might be immortalized by a poet’s tongue.
The Prophet Muhammad Peace be upon Him was born into ‘this’ world on April 9th, 570, Christian era in the lunar month of Rabi’a al-awwal. His father, Abdallah died during his mother’s pregnancy. And for the first four years he was raised in the relative purity of the desert by a Bedouin woman named Halimah. After which he returned to his mother, Aminah. But in his seventh year, his mother died leaving him in the care of his grandfather.
At the age of twenty-five, he was employed as a commercial agent by Lady Khadijah, a successful widow from his own clan. She soon recognized his honesty and good nature and proposed marriage. Although fifteen years younger than she was, he accepted her proposal, and fathered six of his seven children with her.
At the age of forty, it had become his custom to escape the idolatry of Meccan society by seeking solitude in a cave on the mountain known as the “the mountain of Light.” In the solitary confines of his small cave a voice pierced his consciousness declaring: Recite! Quran: iqra bismi rabbika.
Alarmed and shivering he fled to his wife, begging her to wrap him in a cloak. He feared for his sanity, concerned that a desert spirit or poetic muse might be pursuing him. More revelations soon followed and Muhammad came to the understanding that he was not only a prophet in a long line of prophets, but that he was the last of them who was sent with a universal message.
As the days passed his revelations increased and they were powerfully rhythmic punctuated with intoxicating messages that challenged listeners to reflect on everyday miracles such as the alternation of the night and day:
Wa layli idha saja/ The Forenoon. These revelations revealed to Muhammad came to be known as the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
For thirteen years he invited his clan to worship one God, sit with slaves in spiritual solidarity, respect women as soul-full equals and the source of human mercy, care for the widow, the orphan, the weak and the oppressed.
At first people ridiculed his message and accused him of “attempting to make the gods one.” His message threatened his people’s financial control of the markets of Mecca where pilgrims from all over Arabia came to spend their wealth.
When his clan failed to stop his preaching they plotted to kill him in his sleep. But he was warned by the Angel Gabriel and told to flee in the cover of darkness to Madina with his beloved friend and lifelong companion Abu Bakr.
Setting out, the two sought refuge in a cave to escape the skilled trackers of Mecca hot on their trail. The bounty hunters quickly came upon the cave, but a spider’s web had already covered the entrance and a dove with her young rested in a nest above it.
The poet Busiri celebrates this incident in the most celebrated Arabic poem: the Burda
When the posse left and the two felt safe again, they continued their journey to the city of Yathrib. And as they entered it the young girls and children of Bani Najjar came out chanting lines of poetry which is still sung all over the world in remembrance of this auspicious occasion: Tala’ badru alayna
The name Yathrib was changed to Medina, city of hope. It became a city founded on the brotherhood of virtue. The Prophet enacted a treaty uniting the once warring groups. He secured the rights of the Jewish minority by granting them full citizenship and freedom to practice their religion without constraint.
Days after his arrival in Medina he began the construction of a mosque, a sanctuary of prayer and meditation, in the center of the city. And he had his companions; the Muslims create their own marketplace in order to insure economic strength.
The Meccans, sensing that a rising power was now emerging in the peninsula, plotted ways of subverting the prophet and his growing community of believers.
And the prophet, who had practiced a strict pacifism in Mecca for 13 years and disliked the use of coercive force, was now given permission by God to defend against any attacks by his enemies. The Quran declared, “Fighting has been prescribed for you and you detest it, but perhaps you detest something and in it is much good. And perhaps you love something and in it is much harm, and God knows and you do not know.” (Quran 2:216)
The prophet said, “Never desire to meet your enemies, rather ask God for peace and well-being; but should you be forced to meet them, then act courageously.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Muslims are not ashamed of their Prophet’s teaching about war. On the contrary, for us it is a great source of pride. He was courageous as a great lion against the strong and oppressive yet gentle as a shepherd with the weak and the oppressed.
The true object of war fought for God should always be peace. What the Prophet taught is that Muslims fight for a just cause only. In this world, there are only two choices: two sides, truth and justice or falsehood and oppressions. You don’t have to be a Muslim to understand that.
After years of conflict between members of his clan and his followers, the Prophet had a revelation that he should visit the sacred mosque. In the eighth year after his migration to Medina the Prophet set out for Mecca but his adversaries refused to allow him in. They sent out an arbitrator to strike an agreement that would bring the stand-off to an end. And on every point of this treaty the Prophet compromised his own position in pursuit of peace.
On the journey back to Medina some of the companions were deeply troubled by what had just taken place and disappointed that they were thwarted from visiting the sanctuary. When asked to explain, the Prophet replied, “Did I say it was going to be this year?”
And so the following year, in accordance with the treaty, the prophet and his followers performed a pilgrimage completely unmolested. But soon his clan the Koreish broke their end of the deal, massacring another clan with alliance to the prophet, attacking them even in the sacred precinct. Abu Sufyan, the head of the Prophet’s enemies, attempted to restore the truce but it was too late. News of the massacre enraged the believers and the prophet summoned all of the Muslims capable of bearing arms to march on Mecca. When the nearly ten thousand Muslims arrived on the outskirts of the city, the Koreish realized they did not stand a chance and people either fled or stayed in their homes.
And so it was, after years of persecution, the Prophet marched triumphant into the city of his birth at the head of the largest army ever assembled in Arabian history. With his head bowed in humility he declared a general amnesty and granted war criminals refuge.
His overwhelming magnanimity of character led to a mass conversion among the citizens of Mecca. Even Abu Sufyan, his archenemy, embraced the religion of the Prophet. In the months that followed, almost all of Arabia dispatched representatives to swear allegiance to this Prophet, and to enter in the faith of Islam.
You can hear the love of the prophet so wonderfully in the music of the Fez singers of Morocco.
In a period of twenty-three years Muhammad, Peace be upon Him, had succeeded in uniting a feuding people trapped in cycles of violence into one people with a sense of destiny and a mission that would transform the world.
He elevated the low, and he lowered the elevated that they might meet in that middle place known as brotherhood. He infused in them a love of learning unleashing a creative power that would lead to some of the most extraordinary scientific breakthroughs in human history. The spirituality he inspired in his people led to the construction of seven hundred mosques in the Spanish city of Cordoba in the West, and a restoration of the temple mount of the Jews in the East. Upon it his followers built the Dome of the Rock, a testimony to the Unity of God.
He died on the same day he was born, in the same house he had lived in for ten years in Medina, on a small bed made of leather stuffed with palm fibers, in the arms of his beloved wife Aishah. His dying words were, “Treat your women well, and do not oppress your servants, the prayer, the prayer, don’t be neglectful of the prayer. O God, my highest companion, O highest companion.”
But the Prophet was more than just a great historical person, he was a father and friend, a husband, a companion and above all he was a human being. The prophet’s unique physical appearance, his high character and willingness to sacrifice for others, are often at the essence of any description of him.
He was once described by a contemporary in the following words:
“The messenger of God was imposing and majestic.
His face was luminous like a full moon. He was taller than medium but not excessive in height. He had wavy hair which he parted and it never went beyond his shoulders. He was light-skinned with a high brow. He had full eyebrows and a small space between them. He had a fine, aquiline nose. His beard was full, his eyes black. His physique was supple and lithe, with a full chest and broad shoulders. When he walked, he was determined and his pace was as if he was walking down hill.When he spoke he was always brief and reflective. He spoke when he saw benefit and spent long periods in silent contemplation. His speech was comprehensive being neither wordy nor laconic. He had a mild temperament and was never harsh nor cruel, coarse nor rude. He expressed gratitude for everything given to him no matter how insignificant. When he spoke, his companions lowered their heads as if birds were perched upon them. When he was silent, they felt free to speak. He never criticized food or praised it excessively. He never swore, nor did he find fault in people. He did not flatter people but praised them when appropriate.
People entered his gatherings as seekers and left enlightened. He would ask about his companions when they were absent often making inquiries about people’s needs. He never stood nor sat without mentioning the name of God. He never reserved a special place for himself in a gathering and sat where space provided. He gave each of those who sat with him such full attention that everyone felt that he was the most important person in that gathering. Voices were never raised in his presence. The aged were respected for their age and the young were shown compassion for their youth.”
The Quran reminds Muslims that when they are slandered by those who reject them they should bear it patiently and be forgiving. I yearn for a deeper understanding of this man, his gentleness toward children, his love of animals, his concern for the weak and oppressed, his sense of justice tempered always with mercy.
I personally love his humor and his sense of tomfoolery. He said once, “I joke but always tell the truth.” His wife Aishah said, “He was always making us laugh in the house.” One of his names is ad-dahhak, the smiling one. His humor and cheerfulness even in the face of the most difficult of times is so needed today in our troubled world. I imagine him telling those of us who don’t laugh enough to lighten up, to show more gratitude even in what appears to be difficulties. And as for those who laugh too much and do so inappropriately, I imagine that he would ask that they reflect deeper on the condition of humanity and nurture compassion in their hearts.
“Those who sin while laughing enter hell crying,” he once said.
Once an old woman asked him if she would enter paradise and he replied, “Old people don’t go to heaven!” The woman was crestfallen with the answer he had provided, to which he added with a smile, “You shall enter paradise in the prime of your youth.”
The Arabs believed dates made eye infections worse. His companion Suhaib was eating dates one day while his left eye was infected. The prophet said, “Suhayb do you eat dates and your eye is infected?” To which Suhayb said, “I am eating with my right eye only O messenger of God.” To which the prophet laughed heartily”
And once a gruff desert Bedouin came into the mosque and prayed out loud saying, “O God forgive me and Muhammad and don’t forgive anyone else.” Hearing this the prophet laughed and said to him, ‘You are limiting the vast mercy of God.”
I feel so incredibly grateful and blessed to have come to know him and to learn from him. A day of my life has not gone by that I haven’t felt indebted to him for the wisdom he has given me in making sense of my life and my world.
Every day my love for Muhammad, Peace be upon Him increases. Like the vast majority of my fellow believers across the world and through times he is, indeed, the Beloved – the Praised one.
To the solace of his name, simply saying Muhammad, has an incredibly soothing effect on me.