Muhammad as human and prophet

For many in the West, Muhammad is still something of a blur even though his name has had sharp resonance since Sept. 11, 2001. Omid Safi, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina and a leading American Muslim intellectual, brings the prophet into clearer focus with his book "Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters," published by HarperOne in November. In the biography, Safi provides a sweeping look at Muhammad's life and explores many of the controversial issues that color modern perceptions. Safi has served for the past seven years as chair of the study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, the largest international academy devoted to the study of religion.

GUEST BLOGGER: Omid Safi

I have spent the better part of the past 15 years speaking with diverse audiences about religious issues. These audiences have been mixed ones, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, atheist, and others.

In order to find out my audience's starting point of understanding, I ask people what they know about Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and the founders of other religious traditions. Most of my audience can always point to specific teachings of Christ ("love", "forgiveness of one's enemies"), as well as very particular narratives and stories ("Jesus on the Cross", "Jesus and the Moneychangers", "The Prodigal Son").

They could remember Moses as bringing the Law, and delivering his people from bondage in Egypt.

However, when it came to the Prophet Muhammad, the response of non-Muslims is invariably one of deafening silence. The overwhelming majority of non-Muslims cannot name a single spiritual teaching traced back to the Prophet Muhammad, and they do not know any stories or anecdotes about Muhammad.

This seems shocking, particularly in light of the fact that Islam has dominated the media headlines at least since September 11th, 2001, and even further back. One would have to imagine a bizarre universe in which Christianity had dominated the headlines for 30 years, and yet most people knew nothing about Christ.

This is precisely where we are about Islam.

It was for this reason that I wrote "Memories of Muhammad." I spent years researching the life, legacy, and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in multiple Muslim contexts. I was reminded time and again of how Muslims are great storytellers. Even when Muslims discuss the spiritual and ethical teachings of the Prophet, they never do so in the theoretical abstract, but always come to see those teachings as illuminated through particular stories of the Prophet's life.

Going back to the Qur'an, Muslims have come to see the Prophet as "a mercy to all the worlds." That quality of mercy is always understood through the lens of specific episodes in the Prophet's life, most of all through the zenith of the Prophet's earthly success, his triumphant conquest of Mecca.

Muhammad was born as an orphan in the city of Mecca. Sixth century Arabia was a tribal society, and a child born as an orphan was already at a disadvantage. He spent a great deal of time meditating in the cave on the Mountain of Light, reflecting on the state of his society, both its polytheism and its injustices.

At age 40, Muhammad heard the voice of God, mediated through the angel Gabriel. As the Prophet, he summoned his community to returning to the message of monotheism that all the previous prophets had preached.

His call was soundly rejected by his community members who saw in it a challenge to their tradition, their religion (polytheism), their social structure (tribalism), and their economic status (Mecca's status as the pilgrimage center filled with the idols of various tribes).

Muhammad and his small group of followers were persecuted, a few were killed, their homes and property were confiscated, and many were exiled.

Muhammad and his followers undertook the risky but successful migration to Medina, where they established the Muslim community. Over the next ten years, the Muslim community in Medina and the Pagans in Mecca engaged in several battles. It was not until the end of the Prophet's life that he was able to summon the forces to return triumphantly to Mecca, and vanquish his former enemies.

This is the highpoint of Muhammad's political career, and this is the moment that the Muslim tradition has always looked back on to illustrate his quality of having been the "mercy to the worlds."

Muhammad inherited two grand traditions: The Arabic tradition and the Biblical tradition. The collective weight of both allowed him at the moment of having conquered his enemies to exact revenge, kill the men, enslave the women, and take the property as spoils of war. Muhammad possessed both the military and political might to exact revenge, as well the weight of tradition to have justified such action.

And yet he did not.

Muhammad declared complete and total amnesty for his former enemies, declaring their blood and property sacred. His actions consisted of marching to the Ka'ba, and cleansing the Temple of Abraham from the icons and idols there, as it were re-enacting Jesus chasing out the Moneychangers in the Temple of Jerusalem. He won his enemies over by kindness, and welcomed them to the community of the faithful.

Many of the future leaders of Islam would come from many of those former enemies. It is a powerful reminder of the power of forgiveness, transformation, and redemption.

It is one thing to speak of mercy, love, and forgiveness when one is in a position of powerlessness and weakness. It is entirely another matter to practice mercy and forgiveness when one has the might and the weight of precedence to crush one's enemies.

It is these types of stories that Muslims tell and re-tell, remember and transmit, to illuminate what they mean by Muhammad as being the Mercy to the Worlds. If we truly wish to understand Islam not through its perversions but rather through its foundation, we need to listen carefully to these well-loved stories of the Prophet's life.

In writing "Memories of Muhammad," I came to see that every faithful Muslim today speaks of returning to the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad. And yet if this is to be more than just a bumper-sticker slogan, we need to ask which understanding of the Qur'an, and which telling of the Prophet we are going back to. Show me your understanding of Muhammad, and I'll show you your Islam.


By Steven E. Levingston |  December 14, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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