PROPHET’S mosque in Medina is one of the prettiest architectural marvels of modern age. The dome, the tall gold coated pillars inside the compound, which is spread over thousands of square of feet takes one breath in awe. I performed my Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage) in the spring of last year. While being continuously mesmerized by the beauty of the mosque and its surroundings, my mind kept wandering back to 7th century Hejaz when Prophet migrated to this oasis town from Mecca. Medina was Yathrib then.
The mosque was nothing but a structure constructed by Prophet and his companions, made primarily of mud bricks and palm thatched roof. Prophet had a tiny room within the precincts of this modest structure, where he lived.
Who would have imagined that from this self-effacing structure, an idea would emerge that changed the course of history. Perhaps, like never before, one man had influence enough to change not just the geography of Hejaz but also start an Arab social reform movement which transformed into a universal religion. And that in my eyes is Prophet’s biggest legacy. His life itself. We have omitted the essence of his life. We have rather dwelled on easier lessons from it.
Prophets before him had powers which attracted people to them. Moses had the gift of magic, Jesus could bring dead back to life, and Dawood had a mellifluous voice. Muhammad, at least in well documented narratives, had none of such miraculous powers. Yet he won over people.
To think of it, if God’s plan was to spread only His message of truth, He could have given powers to the Prophet very soon. Why did God wait for 40 years of Muhammad’s life, before sending the divine message? If Muhammad was destined from start to be the messenger of God, then there is no story to it. That is, it becomes a matter of the inevitable unfolding of divine will, and thus devoid of all conflict or tension.
The answer to the dichotomy lies in reading about Muhammad, especially his early life — an epic roman-fleuve of hardships and struggle.
A man who is loved by billions of people across the world was born an orphan. By the age of 8, he had lost his father, mother and grandfather. Raised by his uncle Abu Talib, the tradition lays great stress on the fondness for young Muhammad. But many suggest the hagiography may be twisted here.
Muhammad was expected to perform menial jobs and many times denied things which a child could have yearned for. Later, in his adulthood, he asked for the hand of his cousin for marriage. He was denied because a better a suitor had proposed. The point is that hardships, struggle, deprived childhood could have made him bitter to the world he existed in. Yet it didn’t. In fact, his heart was full of love and kindness for everyone.
After marrying a wealthy merchant Khadija, Muhammad’s life took a turn. He was rich, surrounded by affection, and respected by all. He could have gone living like this — quietly and happily. Everything was in favor of it. Yet, he was not satisfied by this humdrum existence, day in and out. The appalling injustice around made him restless.
Mecca, where Prophet was born, was a barren, craggy and unbelievably bare valley with no scrap of soil. The life generally was hard especially for the poor Meccans. Socially and culturally, the high-desert steppe had fallen into deep piths of darkness and superstitious beliefs. The rich Quraish ruled over the poor. There was no visible system of justice. Women were treated abominably, with no tradition of inheritance and individuality. A tribal society which was not kind to widows and orphans. Where marginalized had no system to fall back on.
The traditional Muslim hagiographies of Prophet have unfortunately failed to decoct Muhammad’s life; concentrating rather on divine will. To the pious believer, the innate exceptionalism of Prophet is enough and everything else is irrelevant.
To the questions of morals and purpose of life, which have mystified mankind since the cosmic explosion; Muhammad’s life removes the abstract virtues in it. His life brings reality into it. His life is a living example of how one should treat his neighbors and how one should behave with people who are considered socially below us. The lessons of Muhammad’s life are not to be read only in terms of appearance — growing a beard and following a ritual.
On the contrary, Muhammad’s life story is an extraordinary confluence of man, ideology, struggle and time. His life is extraordinary not just because of the divine message but because of the humanly possible. His life is one of those rare ones which is more dramatic in reality than in legends.
To read and understand about his life is a means to clearly see Muhammad’s message, and to understand how he accomplished his journey from powerlessness to strength, from anominity to renown, from insignificance to significance. For a better world, we must free Muhammad’s life from constructs of legends to practicable everyday interchange.
Author’s note: To send blessings, ‘Peace be upon him’ should be read wherever Prophet is mentioned.
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