The Relevance of Prophet Muhammad's Life
and Teachings in a Fragile, Fragmented World
Professor A. R. Momin
Prophet Muhammad (may Allah shower His boundless blessings upon him!) has the unique distinction of being the most influential person in recorded history. His teachings continue to inspire hundreds of millions of Muslims across the globe. More than one-sixth of humanity swear allegiance to his faith and hold him in the highest of estimation and reverence. His message remains as relevant and meaningful today as it was more than fourteen centuries ago.
This article, which seeks to focus on the universal and eternal relevance of the Prophet's message in the context of our globalising world, is divided into two broad sections: (i) The global scenario (ii) A perennial legacy.
I: The global scenario
The contemporary global scenario is characterised by massive and widespread inequalities, an unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty and vulnerability, extensive social and cultural fragmentation, growing existential discontent, and accelerating environmental crisis.
An unequal world
Undoubtedly, the global economy has steadily grown over the past few decades. In 2007, the global economy experienced its fifth year of over 4% annual growth, the highest since the early 1970s. At the same time, however, this growth has been accompanied by widening asymmetries of wealth, resources and power. Much of the world-most parts of Africa and Latin America, Russia, nearly all of the Middle East (except Israel and perhaps Dubai)-has been left out of the process of globalisation. The noted economist and Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, has observed that "even though the world is incomparably richer than ever before, ours is also a world of extraordinary deprivation and staggering inequality".
The richest 10% of the world (living in Western countries and in Japan) consume more than 58% of the world's total energy, 84% of all paper, 45% of all meat and fish, and own nearly 87% of all vehicles. An average American consumes energy, water and other natural resources equivalent to the consumption of 140 people in Afghanistan or Ethiopia. In the late 1990s, 20% of the world's population living in the industrialised countries accounted for 82% of export markets, 74% of all telephone lines and 97% of all patents worldwide. Nearly 80% of the world stock of foreign direct investment is located in the industrialised countries of the North. The bulk of global trade occurs within three regions, namely, Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific. Contrary to Thomas Friedman's facile assertion, the world is not flat; only parts of it are.
The scourge of poverty and deprivation continues to afflict hundreds of millions of people across the world. In 2004, 980 million people across the world still lived on less than US$ 1 a day. Almost a third of the world's people still live on less than US$ 2 a day. The spectre of food insecurity is looming over mankind. Today, in over a hundred countries agricultural production is not sufficient for the needs of the local population and they are forced to import grain. There have been food riots in many countries, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Hungary and Mexico. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), nearly 854 million people go hungry every day around the world. It is estimated that just 0.7% of the GDP from the industrially advanced nations could eliminate extreme poverty.
The digital divide-the technological gap between the industrialised countries and the Third World-is all too glaring. Nearly 80% of the world's population living in the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America still lack access to the most basic communication technologies. There are more telephone lines in Manhattan than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In the industrialised countries, one person out of three owns a computer as compared to one out of 130 in Africa. The information superhighway seems to have passed by most of the world's population.
In its 40th anniversary report, the Amnesty International pointed out that "globalisation has led to enormous economic expansion, but has also been accompanied by debt, poverty and inequalities". The World Bank Report 2000 pointed out there is a danger that many of the developing countries most in need of economic growth would be left even further behind as globalisation progresses. In many countries of Africa and Asia real incomes are falling, with disturbing consequences for people's health, life expectancy and education. More than 60 countries have seen incomes per capita fall in the past decade. Even though the global economy continues to grow, earnings have fallen when adjusted for inflation.
The UN designates a certain category of nations as the Least Developed Countries. The criteria which push a country into this blighted category include a low GDP per head, a low Economic Diversification Index, and a low Human Resources Weakness Criterion (based on life expectancy at birth, per capita calorie intake, adult literacy, and school enrolment). According to the UN, 49 nations fall into the category of Least Developed Countries-about a quarter of the world's countries. These countries-most of them located in Africa--have 10.7% of the world's population but only 0.3% of world trade. In 18 of these countries, GDP per head declined on average more than 1% per year from 1980 to 1998.
The fragility of the global scenario is conspicuously reflected in the shocking state of human development in the developing countries. There is a group of countries (including Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria) the World Bank labels as "fragile". Fragile states contain roughly nearly half the developing world's childhood deaths. About a third of the population in these countries are undernourished and more than a third do not have access to safe drinking water.
More than one billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water and nearly half the developing world's population does not have access to basic sanitation. In sub-Saharan Africa, the absolute number of people without access to adequate sanitation has actually increased. Unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation are associated with six main diseases, including diarrhoea, trachoma and guinea worm. About half of the global population suffers from these diseases. According to World Health Organisation, they result in nearly five million deaths worldwide every year.
According to a major new research, carried out by the NGO Save the Children, more than 10 million children still die every year before their fifth birthday, mostly from preventable diseases. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest child mortality rate in the world at 166 per 1000. UNDP statistics calculate that more than half of the babies who die in oil-rich Angola could be saved if the country's wealth were to be more evenly distributed.
South Asia has the highest incidence of annual maternal deaths in the world. Every year around 188,000 women die from complications in pregnancy and child birth. The majority of births in the region occur at home in rural areas without qualified medical help or adequate health care facilities. The region's high maternal mortality rates account for almost half of all maternal deaths worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, a woman's risk of dying from complications during childbirth in her lifetime is 1 in 16, compared with 1 in 3,800 in the developed world. Some studies suggest that children who are left motherless are 10 times more likely than their peers to die within two years of their mothers' death.
The lengthening shadow of insecurity and vulnerability
The shadow of uncertainty, insecurity and vulnerability is looming large over the global scenario. The modern world is bedevilled by a host of formidable problems, including the steady stockpiling of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the horrifying spectre of a nuclear war, global terrorism, violent ethnic and religious conflicts in large parts of the world, the forced migration and genocide of hundreds of thousands of people, the disquieting consequences of a runaway technology, and the growing marginalisation of large numbers of people across the world. Mankind seems to be drifting, aimlessly and almost blindfolded, into an uncertain and fearful future.
The 20th century has the dubious distinction of being the most violence-ridden era in the annals of human history. The Nobel Laureate William Golding has observed that the 20th century has been 'the most violent century in human history'. Z. Brzezinsky, in his thought-provoking book Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century (1993), has pointed out that during the twentieth century more human beings had been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before in history. He calculates the century's death toll, as a result of wars, genocides, displacements and man-made disasters, at an estimated 187 million.
The end of the Cold War era was followed by the emergence of the United States as the lone superpower. US unilateralism and interventionism and its brazen disregard for international law, as exemplified by the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, pose the most formidable threat to global peace and security. In September 2002, the US announced the Bush administration's National Security Strategy, which stated that the US had become the world's most powerful country and that it would use force if necessary to eliminate any challenge to its global hegemony. "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States. We must build and maintain our defences beyond challenge," says the document.
The frenzied stockpiling of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is growing apace. Intercontinental ballistic missiles can carry large quantities of smallpox virus to target destinations and release them.
Growing evidence points to the fact that the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq was part of a calculated geopolitical and economic strategy. The former US president Jimmy Carter accused the US and the UK of waging the war in Iraq that was based on lies and misrepresentation. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, including women and children, have died as a result of the brutal occupation of the country.
Ethnic and religious conflicts and violence continue to take a heavy toll of life in many parts of the world, especially in Sudan, Congo, Sri Lanka, Nepal, East Timor, Nigeria, Lebanon and Palestine. Sudan's western province of Darfur has been the site of intense ethnic conflict and violence involving the black Africans and Arabs for the past four years. Hundreds of villages have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to migrate to neighbouring countries. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the violence and more than two million terrified people are living in camps after fleeing from their homes.
Thomas Homer-Dixon, Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, has done a great deal of research on the poorest countries of the world and has shown that there is a strong correlation between growing scarcity of water, cropland, forests and fish, and the spread of ethnic and civil strife and dysfunctional government.
As a human invention, technology can be used for good or evil. As technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and powerful, its potential for both good and evil becomes greater. There is a growing realisation that we are becoming increasingly unable to control the forces unleashed by technology. Genetic modification (GM) has given rise to genetically modified crops, fruits and vegetables, raising fears about their long-term consequences for health and the environment. At the beginning of the 21st century, the complete mapping of the human genome has been done. Now scientists are at work to artificially create life by reproducing the chromosome which will result in a living cell. Such experiments are fraught with dangerous, fearful consequences.
Despite unprecedented economic growth and rising prosperity in many countries, million of people, including children, continue to suffer unspeakable hardships. It is believed that nearly nine million children around the world today are enslaved. These child slaves include children who are forced into prostitution, those who are sold by parents for as little as US$ 48, and children who are smuggled and forced into begging by criminal gangs. The International Labour Organisation says an estimated 1.2 million children are involved in child trafficking and prostitution every year.
Understandably, there is a pervasive atmosphere of pessimism and gloom everywhere. Lord Martin Rees, President of the British Royal Society, points out in his thought-provoking book Our Final Century? Will the Human Race Survive the 21st Century (2003) that for the first time since the dawn of history, mankind has acquired the capability to destroy the entire human race and believes that human civilization could experience an "irreversible setback".
A fragmented world
The image of the modern world as a global village, projected by the cheer leaders of globalisation, is highly misleading. Faced with the challenges of globalisation, many societies are experiencing fracture, fragmentation and atomization.
Several Western social scientists and commentators have pointed out that, by and large, Western societies are faced with fracture, fragmentation and atomization and that this fragmentation is evidenced in the lives of individuals as well as in the institutional structure and cultural patterns of Western societies. It is manifested in compulsive consumerism and hedonism, in the breakdown and disintegration of family, neighbourhood and community, in the falling apart and decomposing of human relationships, in the growing feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and uncertainty, and in a pervasive existential vacuum. In Britain, for example, a fifth of all people aged 25 to 34 live with a partner outside wedlock. Perturbed by the rapid disintegration of marriage and family, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told leading British politicians that saving marriage was a "life and death matter".
The available survey data indicate that remaining single, living together outside marriage, births out of wedlock and rising divorce rates are becoming increasingly common in almost all Western countries. In Sweden, for example, more than one-fourth of all couples are living together outside marriage. Nearly half of all babies in Sweden are born to unwed mothers. In Britain nearly one-third of all births are out of wedlock. It is estimated that by 2012, more than half of all babies in the country will be born to unwed mothers or couples who are cohabiting outside marriage. In the US more than 30% of all births occur to unmarried women.
In addition to the increasing incidence of cohabitation outside marriage, another disturbing trend is what has come to be known as voluntary childlessness. There is a growing belief among young women and men that not having children is the ideal way of life. A recent study conducted by the Federal Institute for Demographic Research in Germany shows that 26% of men and 15% of women aged between 20 and 39 do not want to start a family. In the 1990s nearly 60% of women aged between 25 and 29 in Germany had a baby. The figure has now plunged to 29%. In Britain, a recent report of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys predicted that 20% of women born between 1960 and 1990 will remain without a child. In the US, 20% of women in their 30s are expected to remain without a child.
The growing tendency in Western countries to remain childless or to have just one baby has led to a drastic fall in fertility rates. Italy, for example, has the lowest fertility rate in the world-1.2 births per woman. Demographers point out that in order to maintain the population at its present level, a fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman is required. The alarming decline in fertility rate in Italy is expected to result in a drop in population from the present 57.3 million to 51.3 million over the next 25 years. Germany's population is set to plummet from the current 82 million to 70.8 million by 2050. Russia's population is expected to decline by 17% in the next few years. Japan's population-which has the lowest (1.4 births per woman) in Asia-is expected to drop by more than half (from 125 million to 55 million) by 2050.
The increasing fragility of the institution of marriage in Western countries is reflected in the dramatic increase in divorce rates. In Britain, around 40% of all marriages end in divorce. It is estimated that in a few years only 50% of British children will experience a normal, conventional family life. In Sweden and in the US the divorce rate is nearly 50%. In France nearly one-third of all marriages end in divorce. It is estimated that, if present trends continue, nearly 40% of all marriages in Europe and the US will be doomed to failure.
The number of single-parent families (mostly headed by women) as a result of divorce or birth out of wedlock is rapidly increasing in all European countries. There are more than 1.6 million single-parent families in Britain. In the US nearly 25% of all households are single-parent. The consequences of divorce and living in single-parent families are traumatic for women and children. Several researches indicate that the primary causes of impending nervous breakdown in Western countries are separation or divorce, inter-personal problems, marital strife or problems with members of the opposite sex. Generally, children from single-parent families do not perform as well in school as children from normal families. Such children often have behavioural and psychological problems, including drug abuse, delinquency and propensity to violence.
Remaining single, voluntary childlessness, delayed pregnancy and avoidance of breastfeeding, which are increasing across large parts of the world, have adverse consequences for women's health. Researches reveal that upper middle class and wealthier women are more at the risk of breast cancer because they tend to delay marriage and motherhood, have no or just one child, prefer not to breastfeed the child, and are likely to have hormone replacement therapy. All these factors have a positive bearing on the onset of breast cancer.
One of the significant features of the era of globalisation is the unprecedented pace and scale of technological and social change. An unusually faster pace of life invariably brings about cognitive and behavioural disorientation and stress and creates problems of coping and adjustment. As a result of the increasingly fast pace of life, many people are becoming desensitised to the importance of continuity and wholeness in their lives. The power of speed undermines the value of those experiences which require time and slowness to develop: experiences such as psychological maturity and insight, genuine love and sympathy, creativity, the nurturing of meaningful and enduring relationships, and the cultivation of moral and aesthetic sensibilities. An important feature of our globalising era is the increasing geographical and occupational mobility which is occurring not only across different cities but also countries and even continents. This increasing mobility makes it extremely difficult for people to know their neighbours, let alone establish any enduring relationships. The problem of identity in the context of the new spaces created by migration, globalisation, cultural diversity and the accelerated pace of life has become extremely acute in the metropolitan cities.
In 1993, the former US Secretary of Education, William Bennett, produced a study called the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, suggesting that economic growth in the US and other industrialised countries has been accompanied by social and cultural decline-as manifested in growing divorce rates, crime, serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, and mental illness.
Since 1985 Fordham University in the US has been publishing every year the Fordham Index of Social Health, based on 16 indicators affecting children, teenagers, adults and the elderly. These indicators include infant mortality, child abuse, poverty, suicide rate, drug abuse, dropout rates, average salaries and health insurance coverage. The Fordham Index shows steady decline in these indicators from 73.8 (out of 100) in 1970 to 40.6 in 1993.
Racism and xenophobia
Racist sentiments and ideologies and intolerance of immigrants and foreigners are widespread across large parts of Europe. This is reflected in the growing popularity of far-right political parties, in the discrimination against minority groups, and in racist attacks on foreigners and immigrants spearheaded by neo-Nazis and other extremist groups.
The 2004 annual report of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia pointed out that the record of most European countries in combating racism and xenophobia is at best mixed. The report says that some European countries are either too slow to enact anti-racism legislation or take measures which in effect curtail the rights of immigrants. The report reveals that the British police received nearly 53,000 complaints of racist attacks on immigrants and foreigners in 2004, followed by Germany with 6,474 complaints. Ethnic and religious minorities face discrimination and exclusion in many different forms, from inadequate access to education and meagre employment opportunities to poor housing and ghettoization and stigmatization.
A recent report of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain has pointed out that racial discrimination is still a reality in the country and that Britain continues to be racially divided. The report notes that Britain remains a place of "inequality, exclusion and isolation". The report points an accusing finger at health, education, home and foreign offices of the government and says that they have failed to meet their own obligations in tackling discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The report warns that continuing discrimination and marginalization might lead some people from the minority communities to follow the path of religious and political extremism.
In Western societies, social institutions-family, neighbourhood, church, community-that once provided common bonds and a sense of belonging and served as a bulwark in the face of life's inevitable uncertainties and crises, have nearly disappeared and have not been substituted. As Zygmunt Bauman has perceptively observed, Western society no longer guarantees, or even promises, a collective remedy for individual misfortunes. Living in the abstract spaces of late modernity and globalisation-characterised by gigantic, impersonal structures-the individual inevitably feels diminished, alienated, depersonalised.
Edward Said has spoken about a "generalised condition of homelessness" in the context of modern societies. Pierre Bourdieu observes that precariousness, fragility, instability and vulnerability are a widespread and conspicuous feature of contemporary life conditions. Alan Bullock has used the term "autistic society" to characterize modern Western societies in which men and women tend to shut themselves up in their own private worlds and become so afraid of communicating with each other that they nearly use the habit of it. Zygmunt Bauman observes that men and women in modern society are tormented by "the dearth of recipes for a decent life, firmly fixed and steady orientation points of a predictable destination for the life itinerary".
The tenet of radical individualism, which has been an essential part of Western consciousness and cultural ethos since the 18th century, has brought about baneful, socially disruptive consequences in Western societies. Many Western observers have pointed out that the root cause of the cultural crisis in the Western world is exaggerated individualism. The real threat to the stability and cohesiveness of Western societies comes from a growing deterioration in human relationships. This is reflected in the fragmented social fabric and in atomized relationships, in family disorganisation, in stressful lifestyles, and in the impersonal, suffocating environment at the work place. Exaggerated individualism has a strong bearing on social apathy and lack of social commitment which in turn have contributed to the breakdown and disintegration of family, erosion of social bonds, loss of faith in public institutions, drug abuse and the spurt in teenage crime in many Western societies.
A German philosopher and social commentator Georg Carlin has perceptively brought out the predicament of contemporary Western societies in the following words:
The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings, but shorter
tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We have split the atom, but
not our prejudice. We spend more, but have less; more knowledge, but less time;
more experts, but more problems. We have been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour. We have more
medicine, but less wellness. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.
These are the days of throw-away morality, one-night stands, over-weight bodies,
and pills that do every thing from cheer to quiten to kill. We drink too much, smoke
too much, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry too quickly and pray too seldom.
Growing social and cultural fragmentation and the atmosphere of alienation and rootlessness have affected large numbers of adolescents in Western countries, which is reflected in growing drug abuse, teenage alcoholism, crime and delinquency and the increasing use of antidepressants. Thousands of children and teens under 18 are being given antidepressants, despite warnings over their use. The sales of antidepressant drugs are soaring across large parts of Europe and the US. In the UK, more than 31 million prescriptions for antidepressant drugs such as Prozac and Seroxat were used in 2006-a 6% rise on the year before.
The environmental crisis
One of the biggest challenges facing mankind today is unprecedented climate change brought about by human activities, especially deforestation, over-grazing and carbon dioxide emissions. In the past few decades the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 25%. The US has 4.5% of the world's population but generates 23% of the global carbon dioxide emissions. It generates 18 times as much carbon dioxide per person as India and nearly 100 times as most parts of Africa.
Dense tropical forests produce around 40% of the world's atmospheric oxygen and are home to an estimated 50% of all species on earth. They are being cut down at the rate of 17-20 million hectares a year. One-third of the world's forest areas have disappeared in the past half century and the destruction is accelerating. Large areas around the world are being turned to desert as a result of over-grazing, deforestation and salination caused by extensive irrigation. The soil in north-west China is drying out, leading to vast and frequent dust storms, which often cover villages and roads. Once fertile parts of north-west China are turning to desert. The Gobi Desert is spreading close to Beijing.
It is estimated that in the last half century, the earth has lost a fourth of its top soil and a third of its forest cover. Every year, 100 million acres of farmland and 24 million tons of topsoil are lost, resulting in 15 million acres of new deserts around the world. Fresh water is being lost at the rate of 6% every year. Today, we are using about 160 billion tons more water each year than is being replenished by rain. In many countries tap water has been contaminated and poisoned by insecticides, fungicides and herbicides that seep into ground water and wells. In many parts of the world, acquifers or natural underground water are being run dry, largely as a result of the increasing use of powerful diesel and electric pumps which drain the acquifers faster. Much of the cropland that is fed by rain water is being destroyed by salination or soil erosion.
Deforestation has profound and worrisome consequences for ecosystems and biodiversity. Innumerable forest habitats have been destroyed as a result of extensive deforestation, endangering many forest-dwelling species, causing soil erosion and leading to land barrenness, flooding and atmospheric pollution. It is estimated that every month about 2,000 species disappear from the planet.
Climate change, caused by human activities, has resulted in altering the earth's biophysical and ecological systems. This is manifested in ozone depletion, biodiversity losses, stress on terrestrial and marine food-producing systems, depletion of fresh water sources and the global dissemination of persistent organic pollutants.
As a result of climate change, the concentration of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and CFCs, in the atmosphere has increased to several billion metric tons and has resulted in the greenhouse effect. During the 20th century, the world's average surface temperature increased by approximately 0.6 centigrade and nearly two-thirds of this warming has occurred since 1975. Climatologists warn of further warming in the years to come. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the global average temperature will rise by seven degrees centigrade during the 21st century. Nearly a third of all plant and animal species face the risk of extinction if temperatures rise between 1.5-2.5 degrees celcius. Climate change has aggravated infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and dengue fever.
Million of people around the world face the consequences of climate change in the form of frequent flooding, earthquakes, tsunami and shortage of food and water. The Asian tsunami of 2004 killed a quarter of a million people. Poor people are likely to be the worst affected by the havoc brought about by climate change. Leading meteorologists predict that climate change will force nearly 125 million people-75 million in Bangladesh and 50 million in India-to leave their hometowns and migrate to other places by the turn of the century.
The effects of climate change include warmer days and nights, more warm spells and heatwaves, more heavy rainfall, droughts and tropical cyclones. The 2007 report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change points out that 75-250 million people across Africa will face water shortages by 2020. Crop yields could decrease up to 30% in Central and South Asia. Agriculture fed by rainfall could drop by 50% in some African countries by 2020.
According to the first detailed global map of human impact on the seas, only about 4% of the world's oceans remain undamaged by human activity. Climate change, over-fishing, pollution and other human factors have exacted a heavy toll on almost half of marine waters. According to a major scientific study, there will be virtually nothing left to fish from the seas by the middle of the 21st century if current trends of over-fishing continue. Stocks have collapsed in nearly one-third of sea fisheries, and the decline is accelerating. Scientists estimate that in order to have sustainable fish population, at least 20% of the oceans need to be marine protection areas. At present the figure is less than 0.01%.
II. A perennial legacy
Prophet Muhammad completed the course of his life in the full light of history. He witnessed the accomplishment of his mission in his own lifetime. He was a man of many parts: preceptor, family man, ruler, jurist, administrator, commander. The events of his biography, down to the minutest details, were meticulously observed, recorded and disseminated by his Companions and those who came after them. An incredibly detailed account of his life and teachings has been preserved in his original language-Arabic. It can be said without fear of contradiction that no biography of a prophet or religious leader can match that of Prophet Muhammad in respect of its volume, detail and authenticity. One of the comprehensive biographies of the Prophet, Subul al-huda war-rashad fi seerah khayr al-ibad, by Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Salihi al-Dimashqi, runs into more than ten volumes and encompasses over 4000 pages. This voluminous book was published from Cairo a few years ago.
Prophet Muhammad's teachings are characterised by a remarkable comprehensiveness as they cover all spheres of life, including moral, spiritual, social, economic, political, legal and military. His teachings reflect a refreshing harmony and balance; they eschew the extremes of asceticism and self-mortification, on the one hand, and excessive materialism and self-indulgence, on the other.
Prophet Muhammad exerted a profound and enduring influence on his followers and on successive generations of Muslims. Since the inception of Islam, he has remained a perennial source of guidance, enlightenment and inspiration for hundreds of millions of Muslims. More than any other person, he changed the course of history.
Prophet Muhammad's message enshrines an unmistakable universalism. He regarded man as God's vicegerent and the world as His family. He emphasized the golden path of moderation and exhibited remarkable tolerance and accommodation in his utterances and behaviour towards non-Muslims. One of the most remarkable features of his life and mission was that he led by personal example.
Islamic principles and ideals are inherently universalist and inclusionary. In the Islamic view, God is not a racial or parochial deity who is only concerned about Muslims, but the Lord of all mankind, regardless of racial, social and cultural distinctions. The presence of the divine is not confined to specific sites and modes of worship. Thus the Quran says: "Had God not checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure" (22:40).
Islam's universalism is also reflected in its view of prophecy. The Quran says that God has sent down prophets to all peoples and to all regions of the world (35:24). The Quran mentions about two dozen prophets by name (including those of Noah, Abraham, Moses (who is mentioned in 136 places) and Jesus Christ) but adds that there are no people in the world who did not receive divine guidance through prophets. A Tradition of the Prophet says that there have been as many as 124,000 prophets at different points of time. It is significant to note that the Prophet often spoke of "Abraham's legacy".
Muslims are required to believe not only in the prophecy of Muhammad but in that of all other divine messengers. Likewise, they are required to believe not only in the Quran as a divinely revealed scripture but also in all other religious scriptures. Though Islam is against idol-worship, Muslims are advised not to revile those who worship idols or images (Quran 6:108).
The universalism of the Islamic faith is exemplified in the use of Arabic as a liturgical language of worship and prayer across the Islamic world during the past fourteen centuries. It is also evidenced in a shared corpus pf beliefs and doctrines, rituals, institutions and cultural patterns.
The followers of Semitic religions, especially Jews and Muslims (who are described in the Quran as People of the Book), share some fundamental doctrines, notably monotheism, with Muslims. The Quran emphasizes that the tenet of monotheism can provide the cornerstone of dialogue and reconciliation between Jews and Christians and Muslms (3:64). The special affinity between Muslims and the followers of Semitic religions is reflected in the permission accorded to inter-marriages between them and the permissibility for Muslims of the flesh of animals slaughtered by Jews and Christians (5:5).
The Quran approvingly mentions several anecdotes relating to figures who are a part of Christian history and legend, such as the People of the Cave. Similarly, it mentions figures, such as Zulqarnayn (who is identified with the Persian king Cyrus), who are a part of the Jewish and Persian traditions.
The inclusiveness of the Prophet's teachings is reflected in his view of knowledge and in his adoption of foreign cultural items. He is reported to have said: "Wisdom is (like) the lost animal of a Muslims; wherever he finds it, he catches hold of it". The Prophet regarded the acquisition of knowledge and learning as an obligation on every Muslim and exhorted his followers to carry the torch of learning far and wide. He warned against concealing or withholding knowledge. Islam opened the portals of knowledge and learning to one and all: men and women, rich and poor, king and slave.
The Prophet sometimes wore Roman and Persian attire and advised the use of Indian medicines. Once, Sa'ad ibn abi Waqqas, a Companion of the Prophet, complained of chest pain. When the Prophet was informed about this, he suggested that the patient be taken to Harith ibn Kaldah, who was a Christian physician at Madinah.
Man as God's vicegerent
The Islamic view of man offers a balanced and realistic picture of human nature. The Islamic perspective on human nature is marked by four distinct characteristics. In the first place, Islam offers an ennobling view of human nature. Man, according to the Islamic view, has been created in the best of moulds and given dominion over all that is in the universe. Man is not the product of a blind process of evolution, but a self-conscious being who has been created by God Almighty with a purpose. All humans are born innocent, untainted by original sin or guilt. All human beings have descended from Adam, the primordial man, and are therefore equal in God's sight. Furthermore, man has been designated as God's vicegerent on earth. The equality and brotherhood of mankind is one of the cardinal principles of the Islamic faith.
Secondly, human nature is characterised by a certain duality or polarity. On the one hand, man has been created from clay, a lowly substance (Quran 23:12; 32:7). On the other hand, God has breathed His soul into him (Quran 15:29). Thus, man possesses two rather contradictory potentialities: sublime and divine-like, on the one hand, and base and demonic, on the other (Quran 95:4-5). Man tends to be impatient and greedy (Quran 70:19). Furthermore, he has a tendency to be ungrateful, niggardly and contentious. He is prone to acting in an unjust manner and often surrenders to his desires (Quran 45:23). The dual nature of man is illustrated in the story of Abel and Cain (Quran 5:23-31).
Thirdly, Islam eschews a deterministic view of human nature. It takes due cognizance of human agency and emphasizes that man has been endowed with self-consciousness and the capacity for reasoning and moral choice. Man has the freedom to choose between good and evil (Quran 8:53; 13:11; 15:29). The Quran says: "We did indeed offer the trust (amanah) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains but, being afraid, they refused to take it up; but man took it up…. .." (Quran 33:72). The commentators of the Quran point out that the word trust (amanah) refers to the capacity for reasoning, self-reflection and moral choice.
Fourthly, Islam recognizes the role of the social environment and education in unfolding, as well as in stifling, human potentialities. The Prophet is reported to have said: "There is not a newborn who is not born in a state of nature. (But) his parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian." He is also reported to have said: "A man follows the ways of his friend. Therefore you should be watchful about the person you befriend." The Islamic view of human nature is not confined to an explication of its nature and dynamics; Islam also suggests a normative framework and an ethical code to facilitate the flowering of man benign potentialities and to check and control the destructive tendencies in his nature.
The notion of divine vicegerency not only bestows an exalted status on man but also entails certain obligations. As God's vicegerent on earth, man is responsible to Him for all his actions and deeds. The Prophet is reported to have said: "All of you are (like) shepherds; and all of you are accountable for your sheep". Man has a moral responsibility to safeguard God's bounties, including the planet's resources, its biodiversity and its climate.
The world as God's family
The equality and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of birth, class or caste, is one of the cardinal tenets of the Islamic faith. According to the Islamic view, all humans have been created from a single primordial pair and are therefore equal (49:13). The Prophet categorically declared in his Farewell Pilgrimage: "O people! Verily your Lord is One and your father is one. All of you have descended from Adam, and Adam was (created) from dust. The most honoured in the sight of God is the one who fears Him the most. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, except in respect of piety".
The Prophet greatly emphasized compassion and kindness towards people. This emphasis is reflected in the following utterances of the Prophet.
- God has no mercy on a person who is unkind to other people.
- All of mankind is (like) God's family and the dearest of them in the sight of God is the one who is the most kind towards His family.
- None of you can become a real Muslim unless he likes for his brother what he likes for himself.
- A person who eats to his heart's content while his neighbour remains hungry is not a Muslim.
- One who is devoid of kindness is devoid of virtue.
- The best amongst you is one whose demeanour and manners are good.
- A person who cares for widows and the destitute is like one who is engaged in jihad in the path of God or like one who spends the whole day in fasting and the whole night in prayers.
- It is not the height of righteousness and courtesy that you treat someone, who has been kind to you, with kindness, and that you are unkind to someone who has been unkind to you. Real virtue and courtesy lies in treating every one with kindness and courtesy, regardless of whether he has been nice or discourteous to you.
- The core of wisdom, after faith in God, is being kind to human beings.
Soon after the Prophet's migration to Madinah, Makkah was in the grip of a severe drought. Since Makkah was a desert, food grains had to be brought from other areas. Najd was the only area at that time which was unaffected by the drought and could therefore send food grains to Makkah. A group of Muslim soldiers happened to capture a wealthy and influential person, named Thamama ibn Athal, from Najd. He was brought to Madinah and taken to the Prophet. The Prophet invited him to Islam but he refused and said that he was ready to pay some ransom for his release. The Prophet ordered that he be tied to a pillar in the mosque. On his instruction, Thamamh was given food and water. After a couple of days the Prophet invited him again to the fold of Islam but he refused. A few days passed and finally the Prophet ordered his release. He was so overwhelmed by this gesture that he fell at the Prophet's feet and embraced Islam.
Thamah told the Prophet that food grains from his land were sent to Makkah and if the Prophet permitted, he could block the supply to the city. The Prophet agreed to the suggestion and Thamamah blocked the supply of food grains to Makkah, which caused a great deal of hardship to the people there. Faced with the spectre of starvation, they sent an emissary to the Prophet, who told him on their behalf that he had always preached love, compassion and kindness, but the people of Makkah were on the verge of starvation. The Prophet immediately dispatched a letter to Thamamah, asking him to lift the blockage and to restore the supply of food grains. He then sent 50 gold coins for the poor and destitute people in the city.
The Prophet's compassion and kindness was not confined to humans alone. Aware that animals have been created by God and as such deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion, the Prophet emphasized that treating animals with kindness pleases God and causing distress or injury to them results in His displeasure. Once he happened to see a donkey which had been branded with hot iron and was bleeding from its nose. He was distressed to see the poor animal and said, "Accursed be he who has branded this innocent animal."
The Prophet forbade playful games involving animals like cock fighting and bull fighting. A Companion once visited the Prophet with the young one of a bird in his hand. When the Prophet inquired about it, the Companion replied, "While I was passing by a bush, I heard the sound of some young birds. When their mother saw me taking them away she began encircling over me." The Prophet expressed his displeasure and told him, "You have caused distress to the mother by taking her young ones away. Go and keep them back in the bush."
The Prophet once saw a camel whose stomach had been flattened due to hunger. He sent for the camel's owner and told him to fear God in respect of animals and to feed them properly. One day the Prophet saw a man riding his camel, which was laden with a heavy burden and looked sick. The man was continuously whipping the poor animal so as to make him walk faster. The Prophet told him, "Have pity on your animals. The camel looks weak and sick. Don't torture it."
The Prophet once narrated the story of a traveller to his companions. The traveller, who had covered a long, arduous journey, was overcome with thirst. He happened to spot a well and stepped into it and quenched his thirst. When he came up, he saw a dog who was wagging his tongue and tail because of extreme thirst. He again climbed down into the well and filled his socks with water and gave it to the dog to drink. God was highly pleased with his compassion and kindness to the dog and forgave all his sins.
The Prophet narrated another story of a heartless woman who lived in earlier times. She had kept a pet cat but was so cruel that she would always keep it tied up and would not give her anything to eat. Ultimately the cat died. God was so displeased with the woman that He sent her to hell.
Once the Prophet was on a journey along with some of his companions. He halted at some place on the way to rest. He went away for a while and when he came back he saw that the companions had lit a kitchen fire close to an anthill. He told them to immediately put out the fire so that the ants may not be harmed. He then asked them to shift the fireplace elsewhere.
One day a camel came running towards the Prophet and knelt down before him. The camel's eyes were filled with tears. The Prophet sent for the owner of the camel and, when he arrived, asked him why the animal was looking sick and distressed. The man replied that the camel used to carry heavy water bags, which were used for watering his garden. Now that the camel had become old and weak and was unable to carry the water bags, he had decided to kill the animal and distribute its meat among relatives and friends. The Prophet was distressed to hear this and asked the camel's owner to either sell it to him or give it as a gift. He agreed to gift the camel to the Prophet, who sent it to the animal shed attached to the state treasury where it would be well looked after.
The golden path of moderation
Prophet Muhammad's teachings reflect a remarkable sense of balance and moderation. He eschewed the extremes of world-renunciation and excessive hedonism and self-indulgence. He said, "There is no asceticism in Islam".
According to the Islamic view, all resources have been created by God for the sake of humans (Quran 31:20; 57:7). These resources are for the benefit of all mankind and not for just a few individuals, families or groups (Quran 2:29). Man is therefore urged to partake of God-given resources and bounties (7:32; 28:77). Livelihood is described in the Quran as God's bounty (2:198; 17:66; 28:2; 62:10). The Prophet is reported to have said: "Seek for your family legitimate means of livelihood, for this is jihad (holy war) in the path of God". The Prophet condemned indolence, dependence and begging and emphasized that one should earn his livelihood through his own effort. One of the comprehensive prayers in the Quran says, "Our Lord! Give us what is good in this world and in the Hereafter" (2:201).
Islam is not against the ownership of private property or the accumulation of wealth. However, the whole range of economic activities from agriculture to trade and commerce is subjected to two basic regulations. First, one should employ legitimate means in earning one's livelihood. Trade and other economic activities are subjected to a system of moral checks and balances. All unethical means of acquiring wealth, including unfair trading practices, bribery, hoarding, black marketing and usury, are strictly forbidden. Second, being the vicegerent of God, man is required to act as the trustee of economic and other resources. He should neither squander them in an unbridled manner nor use them as a means of exerting control and domination over others. Islam is highly critical of ostentation and conspicuous or wasteful consumption (Quran 9:35; 17:26; 25:67). Imam Abu Hanifah, one of the greatest jurists of the first century of the Islamic era, is reported to have said that even if one were having a wash by the river Tigris he should be economical in the use of water.
Karl Polanyi has argued that one major pitfall of classical and neo-classical economic theory is that they regard the economy as an autonomous, self-regulating domain. In actual practice, however, economic processes are always regulated by social relations and moral values. Islam takes due cognizance of this reality and accordingly subjects economic activities to a system of moral checks and balances. In Islamic perspective, ethics and economics are indissociable. It is note-worthy that the bearing of ethical norms on economic behaviour is now increasingly recognized by eminent economists like Amartya Sen.
Islam is against the concentration of wealth in a few individuals or families (Quran 59:7). Islamic economy is guided by the notion of all-round human well-being (falah), which entails a fair distribution of resources, social justice, fellow-feeling and philanthropy. In Islamic view, poverty and destitution result largely from an inequitable distribution of resources and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. In addition to the emphasis placed on charity and philanthropy, two important mechanisms facilitate social justice in Islamic society: an obligatory tax on well-to-do Muslims, and the law of inheritance.
The Islamic law of inheritance stipulates that after death the assets and property of the deceased should be distributed among his heir and the nearest relatives. A person can bequeath only one-third of his property to any one he likes. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that he does not give away all of his wealth, through testamentary will, to someone according to his whims, leaving his legitimate heirs and descendents destitute.
Tolerance and peaceful coexistence
The Quran categorically maintains that there is no place in Islam for compulsion (2:256). The Prophet is advised to the unbelievers: "for you, your religion, and for me, mine" (109:6).
The Prophet is advised to invite people to the path of righteousness and guidance, not through intimidation and coercion, but in a gentle and amiable manner. Thus the Quran says: "Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in the best of ways" (16:125).
Following the conquest of Makkah, the Prophet entered the city with his Companions. The people of Makkah were terrified and apprehensive about the likely prospect of their summary execution on the orders of the Prophet, for they had subjected him to the cruellest kind of humiliation ad torture and had finally driven him out of the city. They stood before him in fear and trepidation. "What do you say now, and what do you think?" They answered, "We say well, and we think well: a noble and generous brother. It is time to command". He then spoke to them in the words of forgiveness which, according to the Quran, Joseph had spoken to his brothers when they had visited him in Egypt: "Verily I say as my brother (Joseph) had said: This day there shall be no upbraiding of you nor reproach. God forgives you, and He is the Most Merciful of the merciful". They could scarcely believe their ears and fell at his feet, overwhelmed as they were by his magnanimity and compassion.
Following the forced migration of Muslims from Madinah, their properties had been seized by the Makkans. When Makkah was conquered, the Prophet announced that the confiscated properties would not be taken back but would remain with the Makkans. He did not claim his own house, which had been seized by the Makkans following his migration to Madinah.
On several occasions, the Prophet gave his ruling in favour of a non-Muslim and against a Muslim. A Jew had once lent some money to a Muslim. After some time the Jew demanded his money back. The Muslim asked for some time but the Jew refused. When he sought the Prophet's intervention, he asked the Muslim to pay back the Jew's money and said that if he failed to pay the Jew would be free to take away some of his clothes.
Following the battle of Hunayn, nearly 6,000 prisoners of war were captured by the Muslims. According to ancient practice, prisoners were treated as slaves. The Prophet set them free without any conditions.
The behaviour of the Prophet towards Jews and Christians in Madinah exhibited remarkable tolerance, broad-mindedness and compassion. Some Jewish families lived in the neighbourhood of Madinah. If one of their children happened to be ill, the Prophet would make it a point to visit the distressed family as a gesture of good will.
In the Battle of Badr, Muslims scored victory over the unbelievers and more than 70 prisoners-of-war were captured by them. Umar, who later became the second caliph, suggested that they should be executed. (Incidentally, the Bible says that if the enemy is defeated in war, their men, women, old persons and children should be put to death.) However, Abu, Bakr, who succeeded the Prophet as the head of the Islamic state, disagreed with this opinion and suggested that they should be set free in lieu of some ransom. The Prophet accepted this suggestion. A ransom of four thousand dirhams or a hundred camels was fixed as ransom for each of the captives. Those who paid the ransom were set free. In the case of those who could not afford the ransom money, their relatives and friends came to their rescue and arranged for the ransom amount.
Some of the captives had neither the ransom money nor friends or relatives who could pay the ransom money on their behalf. However, they knew reading and writing. The Prophet declared that a captive who is unable to pay the ransom money but knows how to write could secure his release by teaching ten Muslim children how to write. It was from one of these prisoners that young Zayd ibn Thabit, who later acted as the Prophet's scribe and secretary, learnt writing. Imam Bukhari has reported this incident under the caption: sanction accorded to the appointment of pagans as teachers of Muslims. Interestingly, a few of the prisoners had neither the means to pay the ransom money nor the ability to read and write. They were set free on the promise that they would not wage a war against Muslims in the future.
After the conquest of Makkah, Safwan ibn Umayyah, who had been a sworn enemy of Islam, visited the Prophet and told him that he did not wish to immediately embrace Islam but would need two months' time to ponder over his decision. The Prophet acceded to his request and granted him four months' time.
Leading by personal example
Prophet Muhammad had a profound understanding of human psychology. He inspired and motivated people not only by his teachings but also through his own example. In other words, he practiced what he preached. His character and life exemplified the highest moral qualities.
During the Battle of the Ditch, the Prophet participated along with his companions in digging a wide ditch around the city of Madinah. Likewise, he took an active part in the construction of the main mosque in the city.
The Prophet once travelled with a small group of his companions. On the way they purchased a sheep from the owner of a herd in the desert. One of the companions volunteered to slaughter the sheep while a second offered to skin it. A third companion said that he would prepare the meal. The Prophet said, "I would go around and collect some dry firewood". The companions said that they would do whatever needed to be done, but the Prophet insisted on collecting the firewood. "It is not proper that you all toil and I do not give a helping hand," he added.
One day a bedouin visited the Prophet. The Prophet treated him with kindness and said that he could spend the night in his house. During the night he soiled the Prophet's bed and left very early in the morning without even informing him. After a while he remembered that he had forgotten his sword in the Prophet's house. He returned to his house to collect his sword and saw, to his utter amazement, that the Prophet was cleaning and washing the bed with his own hands. When the Prophet saw him he pointed to his sword in a corner and told him to take it. He then returned the bedouin's sword without a word of reproach. The ill-mannered bedouin was deeply touched by the Prophet's magnanimity, asked for his forgiveness and embraced Islam.
One day the Prophet was resting on a coarse mat, which left marks on his body. One of the companions asked him, "If you permit us, we will get a soft bed for you". The Prophet replied, "What have I to do with this world? I am like a traveller, who rests for a while under the shade of a tree in a burning afternoon, and then resumes his journey".