by Prof Hamidullah Marazi
We need to acquaint the world with the teachings of the prophet (SAW). In his teachings, there are really good solutions to the problems that the modern world is facing.
How to present the seerat of our Prophet (SAW) before the adversaries in the best manner? The Quran says: “And who is better in speech than someone who calls to God, and acts with integrity, and says, ‘I am of those who submit’”? (41:33)
The problem is not of substance or the stuff but of the style. We have the best substance in the form of the Quran and the seerah of the Prophet (SAW). But our style of engaging our adversaries is not good.
We were told: “Invite all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and kind advice, and only debate with them in the best manner. Surely your Lord alone knows best who has strayed from His Way and who is ˹rightly˺ guided”. (16:125).
They Do Not Know
Instead of getting infuriated on the actions of the unscrupulous elements and enemies of Islam and the prophet [SAW], we need to explain the teachings of the Prophet (SAW) to the world as the prophet (SAW) did with his enemies of Makah. The Prophet (SAW) has related a story to this effect:
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: “I remember seeing the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, tell the story of a prophet who was beaten by his people and he wiped the blood from his face, saying, “My Lord, forgive my people for they do not know.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6530, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 792, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi (authenticity agreed upon) according to Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
The Taif Instance
The supplication he (peace be upon him) said at Taif should be memorized by all Muslims and repeated by us every time we are in a difficult situation or have been wronged or when calamity strikes: “To You, my Lord, I complain of my weakness, lack of support, and the humiliation I am made to receive. Most Compassionate and Merciful, You are the Lord of the weak, and You are my Lord. To whom do You leave me? To a distant person who receives me with hostility? Or to an enemy, You have given power over me? As long as you are not displeased with me, I do not care what I face. I would, however, be much happier with Your mercy. I seek refuge in the light of Your face by which all darkness is dispelled and both this life and the life to come are put in their right course against incurring your wrath or being the subject of your anger. To You, I submit until I earn Your pleasure. Everything is powerless without your support.”
At that moment, angel Jibreel came to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and told him that if he wished, Allah could order an angel to collapse the two mountains surrounding the people of Taif and crush them.
How did Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) react to those who had insulted him and threw stones at him? He (peace be upon him) opted for mercy not violence towards them. He was not overcome with rage or hate. Instead of seeking revenge against the people of Taif, he said to angel Jibreel, “I rather hope that Allah will raise from among their descendants’ people who will worship Allah the One, and will not ascribe partners to Him”.
The Quran tells about the same fact: “Good and evil cannot be equal. Respond ˹to evil˺ with what is best, then the one you are in a feud with will be like a close friend…”(41:34).
We have the best stuff and message and case but our advocate is very incompetent.
The Cartoon Controversy
During the Danish Cartoon controversy a few years before, the books of Karen Armstrong were distributed there in Denmark along with the books of Wahiduddin Khan written on the sublime and noble character of our beloved Prophet (SAW).
Thus there can be three reactions at all such occasions. One by the Muslim governments that they can pressurise the governments of the countries where such Islamophobic activities take place by protesting and banning their imports in their countries and at the second level the scholars and ulama can write scholarly books and engage the members of other religions in inter-religious dialogue and the common people will not take law in their hands and indulge in arson and disturbances but educate them more and more and their offspring about the beautiful precepts of the beloved Prophet (SAW).
Let me tell you something about the non-Muslim scholars, who wrote throughout the history of Islam books on the life of the Prophet Muhammad [SAW] and we need to know that there have been three classes among them:
The Christians: They wrote on Seerah with the Christian missionary prejudice against Islam. Some of them, however, have acknowledged the truth and sincerity of the Holy Prophet (SAW). However, the general attitude remained the same. Muir, Maracci, Sprangler, HG Wells, Buhl, Margoliuth, Caclanca, Tor Andres are the Orientalists of modern times who have indulged in the vilification of Islam.
The Jewish scholars decided to launch their intellectual campaign against Islam. Joseph Schacht represents this category.
Secularists: This category comprises of the scholars like the British historian Arnold Toynbee, Voltaire, Alexander and Embrico. They were influenced by the works of their predecessors and they have also made onslaughts on the Prophet (SAW). A glaring example, however, is of Dante’s widely acclaimed Divine Comedy “which contains certain passages about the Prophet[SAW] which smack of calumny”.
Some important 17th-century Orientalists like W Bedwell (1561-1632), wrote on Seerah and his book published in 1615. He vilified the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in this book.
G Postel was the father figure of European Orientalists. He established French College in 1539 and was the first Arabic Professor in France. His linguistic studies were carried ahead by his disciple Joseph Scholagar. After about 45 years of preparation, the Arabic books started to appear from 1586 under the supervision of Duke of Tuscany.
During 17 and 18th century new attempts at mastering Arabic were made. Erpenius (1584-1626) published first Arab Grammar. Jacob Golius (1596-1667) followed him. E Pococke (1604-1691) was made Head of the Oxford Arabic Department. LE Maurnstie, an Austrian scholar prepared a Lexicon in 1680.
The Medival Scholars
More than 457 Orientalists belonging to various parts of the west, French, German, American, Russian and British have written extensively on the life of the Prophet [SAW] during last 300 years, starting from 1727 till date. It was Haladi Bert (1139) who started writing on Islam.
It was in seventeenth-century that Islam was studied on the basis of original Arabic sources. The important writers of this period were Arpheneous, Margoliuth, Edward Pokak, and Hastings.In the 18th Century: Holland established in its captured Islands in 1778 an Asiatic society.
The writings of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) may be looked upon as the starting point of the Orientalists approach to Seerah in modern times. The Prophet [SAW] is included by Carlyle among the great figures in world history, though quite reluctantly.
However, here Weil’s Mohammad der Prophet and Percival’s Seim Leben und Sein Lehre Essai Su’l histoire der Arabas deserve special mention as these were used constantly by Muir and other writers. Both of these writings project Islam as a heresy of Christianity. Sprenger set in motion a new trend in the literature on Seerah.
Tor Andrae’s Mohammad, The Man and His Faith, Marguliuth, Mohammad and the Rise of Islam, Dibble, Mohammed, (London) and such other modern Orientalists have continued this legacy of attributing political, economic, social and personal motives to the purely prophetic career of Muhammad (SAW).
However, in a recent period, some exceptional developments have taken place in the Western scholarship on Seerah.
A notable feature of the works on Seerah, carried out in the period from 1800 to 1900, is the editing and translation of the primary source materials such as that of the writings of Ibn Hisham, Waqidi and Ibn S¢aad done mainly by Van Kremer and Sprenger. John of Damascus began the long tradition of attacking Muhammad. He was followed by many of the hostile medieval missionary Orientalists. William of Tyre, Peter the Venerable, Ricold and Sam Pedro were some important medieval Orientalists who wrote on the Seerah of the Prophet (SAW), and their attitude was not hostile.
In compliance with the directive of the emperor Basil I, Nicetas, a Byzantine writer wrote Refutatio Muhammadis. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the West had established trade links with the Islamic world. Moreover, the Orientalists had been able to gain proficiency in the Arabic language and English and French translations of The Holy Quran appeared in 1649.
Nonetheless, even this first-hand knowledge did not help the West shed off its aversion to Islam. Nevertheless, the prejudice against Islam, expressed overtly in the pre-Victorian writings persists even today, though not so vigorously.
Despite this overall hostile and inimical attitude towards the Seerah of the Prophet [SAW], some healthy developments also took place. A host of Orientalists have acknowledged the marvellous and epoch-making influence and role of the Prophet [SAW] as well. Though it has taken centuries to reach this appreciation.
Lamartine, for example, wrote: “As regards all standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may well ask, is there any man greater than he” [Muhammad, SAW].
Edward Gibbon and Simon Ockley, wrote: “… The same pure and perfect impression which he engraved at Mecca and Medina is preserved, after the revolutions of twelve centuries by the Indian, the African and the Turkish proselytes of the Koran.”
Bosworth Smith wrote: “He was Caesar and Pope in one, but he was Pope without Pope’s pretentious, Caesar without the legions of Caesar…”
Annie Besant, maintains: “It is impossible for anyone who studies the life and character of the great Prophet of Arabia [SAW], who knows how he taught and how he lived, to feel anything but reverence for the mighty Prophet [SAW], one of the great messengers of the supreme.”
There are few accessible biographies of Muhammad [SAW] for the general reader, which have been authored of the Orientalists. The two volumes of W Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca and Muhammad at Medina are very informative. But these are for students who have a basic knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Moreover, these two volumes make a difference in the prophetic career as a preacher in Mecca and the prophetic career as an administrator at Medina, thus creating confusion. However, Watt strikes a very important note when he says about the western scholarship on seerah after denying the charge levelled by some Orientalists that the Prophet (SAW) was an impostor, (Nauzubillah).
“Moreover, none of the great figures of history is so poorly appreciated in the West as Muhammad [SAW]”.
Martin Ling’s, Muhammad – His life based on the earliest sources gives a wealth of fascinating information from Muhammad’s biographers of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. But Lings is writing for the converted.
Perhaps the most attractive of the biographies currently in print is Maxime Rodison’s Mohammad. Rodison wears his considerable erudition lightly, but he writes as a sceptic and a secularist concentrating as he does on the political and military aspects of the Prophet’s life, he does not really help us to understand Muhammad’s spiritual vision.
A very remarkable book by Karen Armstrong, Muhammad A Biography of the Prophet, (Victor Gollancz, London-1995) attempts to study the nature of the religious experience, the prophet had, in a sympathetic and meticulous manner. She says: “My own approach has been rather different. We know more about Muhammad than about the founder of any other major faith so that a study of his life can give us an important insight into the nature of the religious experience.”
She gives a sympathetic and balanced account of Islamic jihad, polygamy, and politics and exposes the ulterior motives behind Salman Rushdie’s Satanic campaign against the Prophet (SAW).
It was perhaps for the same reason that an attempt was made by the Orientalists like Karen Armstrong to rectify some of the misgivings and maligning of the Orientalists. She has shown rather the superiority of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to Jesus Christ even. She says “In the Quran, therefore, we have a contemporaneous commentary on Muhammad’s career that is unique in the history of religion. In contrast, we know little about Jesus.”
She says further: “New Testament scholars point out that the Gospel accounts of Jesse’s passion and death are hopelessly confused, facts have been changed”. … Very few of the actual words of Christ have been recorded”.
On the other hand, according to Karen Armstrong: “Muhammad comes over very differently from the idealized, numinous person of Christ in the Gospels… they (Muslims) have never claimed that he is divine. Indeed, he is a very human figure in earlier histories.
“Muhammad had great spiritual as well as political gifts – the two do not always go together… and he was convinced that all religious people have a responsibility to create a good and just society,” she said. “If we could view Muhammad [SAW] as we do any other important historical figure, we would surely consider him to be one of the greatest geniuses the world has known…”
Jesus Versus The Prophet
To appreciate his genuineness to the full, we must examine the society into which he was born and the forces with which he contended. When he descended from mount Hira to bring the word of God to the Arabs, Muhammad [SAW] was about to attempt the impossible.
While comparing Jesus [AS] and Muhammad [SAW], Karen Armstrong says: “Instead of wandering in unworldly fashion round the hills of Galilee preaching and healing, like the Jesus of the Gospels, Muhammad [SAW] had to engage in a grim political effort to reform his society, and his followers were pledged to continue this struggle.”
She compares the Christians and Muslims and says: “Just as Christians have developed the practice of the initiation of Christ, Muslims seek to initiate Muhammad [SAW] in their daily lives in order to approximate as closely as possible to this perfection and so as to come close as they can to God Himself. As one might expect, this process of initiation has been more practical and concrete than the initiation of Christ”.
She says that while Christianity is a religion of love, Islam is a religion of social justice. “Loving your neighbour seen by Christians as the best of true religion; the Quranic definition of the religious spirit is less ambitious but arguably more practicable.”
This rectifying attitude towards the subject of Seerah seems at its peak in Michael H Hart. The author has given an objective statement of the contribution of the Prophet (SAW) while comparing Jesus with Muhammad, he says:
“A striking example of this is my ranking Muhammad higher than Jesus, in large part because of my belief that Muhammad [SAW] had a much greater personal influence on the formulation of the Moslem religion than Jesus had on the formulation of the Christian religion.”
Because, according to Hartt, St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles was instrumental in shaping and spreading Christian religion and not Jesus [AS]. He says: “No other man played so large role in the propagation of Christianity.”
In the introduction of his essay on Muhammad [SAW] Michael Hart says:
“My choice of Muhammad [SAW] to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels”.
Comparing Jesus and the Prophet, Hartt says: “… It may initially seem strange that Muhammad [SAW] has been ranked higher than Jesus [AS]. There are two principal reasons for that decision first, Muhammad [SAW] played a far more important role in the development of Islam than Jesus [AS] did in the development of Christianity. Although Jesus [AS] was responsible for the main ethical and moral precepts of Christianity… St Paul was the main developer of Christian theology, its principal proselytizer, and the author of a large portion of the New Testament.”
“Muhammad [SAW], however, was responsible for both the theology of Islam and its main ethical and moral principles. In addition, he played the key role in proselytizing the new faith, and in establishing the religious practices of Islam.”
“Furthermore, Muhammad (unlike Jesus) was a secular as well as a religious leader. In fact, as the driving force behind the Arab conquests, he may well rank as the most influential political leader of all time.” Concluding his essay, Hartt says: “We see, then, that the Arab conquests of the seventh century have continued to play an important role in human history down to the present day. It is this unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence which I feel entitles Muhammad [SAW] to be considered the most influential single figure in human history.”
The New Book
Penguin published a new book authored by Barnaby Rogerson in 2003 on the seerah of the Prophet [SAW]. In this book, Muhammad [SAW] has been treated as a ‘hero for all mankind’ who in his lifetime established first united Arabia, and a new literary language, the classical Arabic of the Quran, for the Quran is believed to be the word of God revealed to Muhammad [SAW] by the angel Gabriel.
A generation after his death he would be acknowledged as the founder of a world empire and a new civilization. This book is “an accessible and elegantly written general biography of the man who is arguably the most influential in the history of the world–his sole rival to this claim being Jesus Christ”.
Wensinck (1881-1983) wrote seven volumes under the title of Al-Muajam Al-Muffaris Li Alfaz-I-Hadith Al -Nabawi and about 30 years were spent to prepare this Hadith Index of Winsinck and his associates.
Thus, we need to write scholarly books on the life and message of the prophet (SAW) and should take a clue from the writings on seerah, matching the scholarly writings produced by European writers, as mentioned above, and make literature available on seerah in all the world languages.
We need to acquaint the world with the teachings of the prophet (SAW) as there lies the solution to various problems world is facing nowadays and in the teachings of the Prophet (SAW) there are really good solutions to the problems like corruption, pollution, environmental degradation, moral crises, oppression and violence towards women and other vulnerable sections of the society. His teachings are thus panacea for the modern world and we need to work with other sympathetic counterparts together to make the world to realize this reality sooner the better.
The prophet of Islam [SAW] is the mercy for all the worlds and as his followers, it is our duty to present him in the pristine pure colours his seerah and precepts indicate and demonstrate in very unequivocal parlance.
(This is the talk that the author delivered in a Webinar International Discourse on Maulidur Rasul (SAW) on the theme ‘Loving Our Prophet across Continents’ on November 12, 2020. The author is the Head Department of Religious Studies, Central University of Kashmir.)