The available evidence suggests that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. In a special report in December 2007 on the growth rate and global distribution of Muslim populations, The Economist wrote that during the 20th century the world’s Muslim population grew from 200 million in 1900 to around 1.5 billion in 2000. The magazine also referred to the projection that Islam would become the world’s largest religion by 2050. A report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, an American think-tank, released on 7 October 2009, has estimated that there are now 1.57 billion Muslims living in the world, representing about 23 per cent of the current world population of 6.8 billion. In other words, every fourth person in the world today is a follower of Islam.
Curiously, the growing visibility of Muslims around the world seems to be accompanied by an increasingly negative perception of Islam and its followers. Certain events at the turn of the century, including the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001, the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, the Madrid train bombing in March 2004, the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004, the terrorist attack on London’s public transport system in July 2005, the repercussions of the publication of the controversial Prophet cartoons in European newspapers in February 2006 and the terrorist attack on Mumbai on 26 November 2008, have greatly heightened and intensified the prejudice, hatred and hostility against Muslims. The horrendous acts of violence and wanton killing by a small group of crazed fanatics on the fringes of Muslim societies have evidently widened the gulf between Muslims and the rest of the world and have tarnished the image of Islam. Suicide attacks carried out by misguided Muslim youths in many parts of the world, in which innocent civilians, including women and children, are killed, have heightened the atmosphere of fear and insecurity around the world.
There is a growing perception in Western countries that Islamic beliefs and principles are incompatible with Western values, that Islam is the breeding ground for intolerance, fanaticism and aggression among its followers, that the Islamic faith is inimical to modernity and progress, that Muslims living in the West pose a threat to the security, well-being and prosperity of Western nations. The prejudice and hostility against Muslims have been reinforced and aggravated by racist and xenophobic far-right political parties (motivated as they are by narrow political or electoral gains), the mainstream media and the writings and statements of some prominent Western and non-Western writers and intellectuals. The Western media often portrays a negative, distorted picture of Muslims, which reinforces prejudices and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. By and large, the portrayal of Muslims in the Western media is coloured by demeaning stereotypes, sweeping and unfounded generalisations and half truths. In the US, under the First Amendment, newspapers and magazines have the unfettered freedom to write derogatory or hateful things about any community or religion without any fear of prosecution. The decision to ban minarets in Switzerland, spearheaded by the far-right Swiss People’s Party and endorsed by a majority of Swiss voters on 29 November 2009, testifies to the growing polarisation between Muslims and mainstream societies across large parts of Europe.
The negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims largely stem from ignorance, misunderstanding and misrepresentation. The perception and judgement of most people from amongst non-Muslims about Islam and Muslims are generally conditioned by hearsay, media coverage and historical memories which are sustained and transmitted through the family and uncritically imbibed through the socialization process. In fact, most people tend to form an image of Islam on the basis of what they see and hear about Muslims. It is extremely difficult if not impossible, in a highly polarised society and in an emotionally charged atmosphere, to develop an objective outlook on values and traditions different from one’s own. Very few people from amongst non-Muslims will have the time or the inclination to understand Islam through the prism of its original teachings and the life and precepts of the Prophet. On the other hand, the pronouncements and actions of a small but determined minority of extremist Muslims indirectly feed the negative perception of their religion.
Globalisation is a paradoxical, Janus-faced phenomenon. On the one hand, international migrations, the print and electronic media, international exhibitions, the Internet and video-sharing sites such as YouTube have facilitated greater awareness about the diversity of Muslim populations and the contribution of Islamic civilization to science, art and culture. On the other hand, modern information and communication technologies have also reinforced and legitimised negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. These technologies, especially web 2.0 features such as blogs, social networks, websites and instant messaging, are being used by racist and neo-Nazis groups in Western countries to spread anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and video-sharing sites such as YouTube are being used by extremist groups to spread a message of hate and intolerance towards minorities and immigrants.
There is an urgent need to heal the growing divide between Muslims and the rest of the world and to create and sustain an environment of understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence. The need to clear the cobweb of ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding Islam and the Prophet has never been so pressing as at present times. This short book seeks to fill this gap by presenting an ideational, interpretative biography of the Prophet Muhammad, with a focus on the relevance of his life and teachings in the context of our troubled times.
The book is divided into three main sections: (i) The global scenario (ii) A beacon for mankind (iii) The enduring legacy. The first section presents an overview, in a critical framework, of the contemporary global scenario and focuses on such issues as rising inequalities, deprivation and exclusion in large parts of the world, a growing atmosphere of insecurity and vulnerability, social and cultural fragmentation, violation of human rights and the challenge of climate change.
Section II discusses the historical and social context and the sources of the Prophet’s biography and his teachings, especially the Quran and Hadith, and shows how the Prophet exemplified in his personality and character the noblest of moral qualities, including kindness and compassion, generosity and magnanimity, perseverance and steadfastness, simplicity and humility, justice and fairness, and decency and courtesy. The Prophet’s nobility of character was ungrudgingly acknowledged and appreciated even by his enemies.
The Prophet Muhammad completed the course of his life and witnessed the accomplishment of his mission in the full light of history. There is an amazingly voluminous literature on the biography of the Prophet and his recorded sayings and pronouncements, which has no parallel in the annals of human history. The Prophet 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 world figure, he changed the course of history. His enduring legacy, as enshrined in the cherished ideals of equality, human brotherhood and social justice, in the ennobling concept of human nature, in the framework of human rights and responsibilities, in his humane vision of tolerance and peaceful coexistence and in his emphasis on balance and moderation, continues to inspire millions of Muslims around the world and to draw thousands of others to his fold.
The Prophet’s precepts and teachings had a far-reaching impact not only on Arabia and on Muslims—who now constitute about a quarter of the world’s population—but also on the course of human history. It is no exaggeration to say that he was the most influential person in history and the greatest benefactor of mankind. His espousal of the ideals of equality, justice and brotherhood, his emphasis on the primacy of moral values in human affairs, his concern for the poor and downtrodden, his monumental contribution to the emancipation of women and the wellbeing of slaves and prisoners of war, his humane vision of tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and his pioneering role, despite being unlettered, in the advancement of knowledge continue to have an enduring, universal relevance.
Compassion and Magnanimity
When the Prophet entered Mecca astride a camel following the conquest of the city, he bowed his head, until his beard almost touched the saddle, in gratitude to God. Turning to the Meccans who had gathered in the courtyard of the Ka’ba, he asked, “What say ye, and what think ye?” They answered, “We say well, and we think well: a noble and generous brother, son of a noble and generous brother. It is thine to command.” The Prophet then said, “I will say to you what Joseph had spoken to his brothers: This day there shall be no upbraiding of you nor reproach. Go, you are fee!” The Meccans, who had treated the Prophet in an extremely inhuman and barbaric manner, could scarcely believe their ears. Almost the entire city embraced Islam. The Prophet then declared that the properties of Muslims, which had been usurped by the Meccans when the former had migrated to Madina, would be allowed to remain with them and would not be taken back from them. The Prophet did not ask for the return of his own house from those who had usurped it.
Position of Women in Islam
Islam brought about a fundamental change in the position of women. The Islamic faith does not allow any discrimination between male and female children. The Prophet warned his followers against humiliating their daughters and preferring their sons over them. He described the birth of a girl child as divine mercy and blessing. The barbaric practice of female infanticide has been condemned in the strongest of terms (Quran 6:151, 17:31; 81:9). Islam accorded an honourable and dignified position to women. The Prophet is reported to have said, “This world is an ephemeral thing, of which one takes a temporary advantage. Among the things of this world, nothing is better than a good, virtuous woman”. Caliph Umar once said: “During the pre-Islamic period, we did not consider women to be worth anything. However, after the coming of Islam, when God Himself expressed His concern for them, we realised that they also had rights over us”.
The Islamic view of gender relations and the role of women in society can be said to be based on the principles of equality and complementarity. In Islamic view, men and women are morally and spiritually equal in the sight of God (2:185, 3:195, 4:1, 4:32). The Quran says, “Whosoever performs good deeds, whether male or female, and is a believer, We shall surely make him lead a good life and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did” (16:97). Islam considers men and women equal in respect of the pursuit of knowledge and emphasises that it is an obligation on both men and women to acquire knowledge. One of the earliest biographers of the Prophet, Ibn Ishaq, reports that when the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet used to recite them in the assembly of men and then in the gathering of women.
Under Islamic law, a woman has an unfettered right to acquire and possess property on her own and to dispose it off in whatever manner she pleases. The mahr, which is given to her at the time of marriage, belongs exclusively to her and neither her guardians nor any of her relatives have a right over it. A woman’s marriage has no effect on her legal and financial status. If she is wronged or harmed, she is entitled to as much compensation as a man (Quran 4:92-93). The husband is obliged to take care of his wife’s material and financial needs and she is entitled to inherit his property as well as that of her parents.
Islam views marriage as a means of emotional and sexual gratification, legitimate procreation and inter-familial alliance and solidarity. The contractual rather than proprietory nature of marriage in Islam has a positive bearing on the status of women. The Prophet urged men to be kind and considerate towards their wives. He is reported to have said, “The best amongst you are those who are the most kind to their wives”. Islam is particularly concerned about the honour and dignity of woman. It does not allow her to be looked upon as a plaything or as an object of lust. Similarly, it prohibits sexual promiscuity and licentiousness. Contrary to the popular stereotype, Islam does not confine the role of women to the four walls of the house. It places no restrictions on women who wish to take up an occupation. The Prophet often allowed some women to visit the battlefield, where they offered water to wounded soldiers and nursed them. He did not discourage those women who were engaged in farming, trading and handicrafts. One of the Prophet’s wives, Zaynab, had good skills for handicrafts. Another wife, Sauda, was conversant with the technique of processing hide.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, a man had an absolute and unilateral right to divorce his wife. Islam greatly values the stability of marital ties and permits divorce only when all other means of reconciliation have been exhausted. The Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah lay down a clear procedure for bringing about reconciliation between the estranged husband and wife. The Prophet is reported to have said, “Verily, among all the permissible things the most detestable in the sight of God is divorce”. He is also reported to have said, “Get married, but do not divorce because it makes the divine throne tremble”. Though the right to divorce has been vested with the husband, the wife can take recourse to certain prescribed methods in order to get her marriage dissolved. First, she can offer some money or property to persuade her husband to give her a divorce. This is known as khula’ in Islamic law. Second, the husband and wife may get a clause inserted in the marriage agreement at the time of marriage to the effect that the wife would have a right to demand and obtain a divorce from the husband if she chose to do so. Third, in case the afore-mentioned conditions are not met and the husband refuses to give her divorce, the aggrieved wife can approach a duly constituted arbitration council for the dissolution of her marriage.
A great deal of misunderstanding and controversy surrounds the Islamic notion of jihad, which is often perceived as an aggressive, violent onslaught against non-Muslims. Jihad literally means “striving in the way of God”. Four distinctive features of jihad are note-worthy. First, jihad is to carried out entirely for the sake of God, and should not be tainted by any trace of worldly gain, power or fame. Second, since Islam greatly emphasises peace and harmony and abhors discord and violence, jihad should be carried out, as far as possible, through peaceful means. Third, jihad covers a wide variety of means and methods: it can be pursued by spending one’s financial resources for the glory of God (Quran 9:41, 8:72, 49:15), through self-purification, and by showing courage of conviction in the face of fear and persecution. When the Prophet returned to Madina after the conquest of Mecca and Hunayn, he said to some of his Companions, “We have returned from the lesser holy war to the greater holy war”. When one of them asked, “What is the greater holy war, O Messenger of God?” he answered, “The war against the (lower) self)”. The Prophet is reported to have said, “The most superior form of jihad is to speak the truth in front of a despotic ruler”. Defending one’s family, honour and faith from external aggression has been described as jihad.
Fourth, armed confrontation or combat is one of the forms of jihad, but it is permitted only as the last resort. Islam does not sanction aggression; it only permits a defensive war. The Quran says, “And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely Allah does not like the transgressors” (2:190). It is remarkable that the wars that were fought during the Prophet’s lifetime, which led to the conquest of about three million square kilometres of territory, took a toll of only 300 people from the enemy camp. Armed combat is regulated by wide-ranging conditions and stipulations, including those relating to the avoidance of wanton destruction and barbarities, compliance with treaties with the enemy, the protection of women, children and old persons as well as places of worship (of other faiths) and the flora and fauna in the war zone, and kindness towards the prisoners of war. The Islamic ethic of war is clearly reflected in the instructions issued by Caliph Abu Bakr to Muslim troops who were to embark on a military expedition: “O people! I charge you with these rules; learn them well. Do not commit treachery nor deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate the dead bodies of soldiers. Do not kill a child or a woman or an aged man. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruit trees. Do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food. You will meet people (in enemy territories) who have set themselves apart in monasteries. Leave them to accomplish the purpose for which they have done this”.
In Islamic view, jihad involving armed combat is much less important than combating one’s base qualities. Similarly, the Prophet described humanitarian work as analogous to jihad. He is reported to have said, “A person who takes care of 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”. Likewise, caring and providing for one’s family has been described as jihad. Thus the Prophet said, “Seek for your family legitimate means of livelihood, for this is a jihad in the cause of God.”
Islam recognizes no inequalities based on birth, descent or caste. Social hierarchy, birth, endogamy, hereditary occupations and notions of purity and pollution, which are essential ingredients of the caste system in India, have no sanction in Islam. The pagan Arabs were highly conscious and proud of their lineage and ancestry. They believed that an individual’s nobility of character was entirely determined by his lineage or ancestry. The Prophet sought to eradicate this pagan belief and declared, “Boasting of lineage or ancestry is one of the vestiges of pagan times”. He emphasized that a man’s real lineage comes from his character and moral virtues. Islam recognizes no priestly class with exclusive access to sacred knowledge and other entrenched privileges. Any knowledgeable and devout Muslims can lead the prayers and officiate at rituals and marriages.
One of the priceless gifts of Islamic civilization to mankind is that it flung open the doors of knowledge and learning to all and sundry, men and women, rich and poor, high and low. According to the Islamic view, knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of a priestly class; it is open and accessible to all individuals regardless of the distinctions of race, class, rank or wealth. This revolutionary democratisation of knowledge served as a great social leveller. Slaves and their descendants as well as people of humble social and occupational background emerged as touch bearers of learning and scholarship.
In most societies, there exists a hierarchy or ranking of occupations whereby some occupations are regarded as superior and others, especially those associated with menial tasks, as inferior. The idea of hierarchy and ranking of occupations in terms of superiority and inferiority is alien to Islam. The Prophet is reported to have said, “The best livelihood is one which is obtained through the labour of one’s hands”. In earlier times, prophets and sages followed a wide variety of occupations. Noah, for example, was a carpenter; Abraham was a cloth merchant; David used to make armour; Moses and the Prophet Muhammad tended sheep. The Companions of the Prophet were engaged in different occupations, including weaving, carpentry, farming, gardening, and tailoring.
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 conditions. First, one should employ legitimate means in earning one’s livelihood. Trade and other economic or commercial activities and transactions 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 resources. He should neither squander them in an unbridled manner nor use them as a means of exercising control and domination over others. The Islamic tradition is highly critical of ostentation and conspicuous or wasteful consumption (Quran 9:35; 17:26; 25:67). Imam Abu Hanifa, one of the greatest jurists of the first century of the Islamic era, is reported to have said that even if one were performing ablutions by the river Tigris he should be economical in the use of water.
Moderation and Balance
One of the distinctive features of the Islamic faith is its espousal of moderation and a balanced approach to life. This pervasive sense of balance and moderation is reflected in the Islamic conception of human nature, in worship and prayers, in legal provisions, in the institutional structure and in matters relating to day-to-day living. The Prophet is reported to have said, “The best of all things lies in their moderation”.
Many societies around the world encourage excessive self-gratification and over-indulgence. Some individuals and communities, on the other hand, are drawn to world-renunciation and self-mortification. An unbridled, reckless pursuit of affluence and prosperity contains the seeds of its own nemesis. It breeds some of the worst qualities in human character, including avarice, pride, selfishness, aggression, and jealousy. It leads to the concentration of wealth in a few hands and strengthens economic and social inequalities. It encourages the tendency to exercise domination and control over others and promotes rivalry and unscrupulous competition. It stifles some of the most sublime qualities in human nature such as concern for the underprivileged, selflessness, altruism, sincerity and sacrifice. It undermines the fabric of human relationships. A compulsive drive for prosperity is often accompanied by high levels of stress, which have adverse consequences for health and wellbeing. The ascetic way of life, on the other hand, is against the grain of human nature.
The Islamic faith strikes a balance between excessive self-gratification and self-abnegation and emphasises moderation. “There is no asceticism in Islam,” the Prophet said. The Quran says, “Do not forget (to partake of) your share of the world” (28:77). “Say: Who has forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of God, which He has produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure, (which He has provided) for sustenance” (Quran 7:32). At the same time, Muslims are urged not to waste and squander food, money and resources (7:31, 17:26, 26:27, 25:67). The Quran warns Muslims against becoming too enamoured of worldly comforts and luxuries (31:33, 35:5). Islam’s espousal of a balanced approach to life is reflected in the following verses of the Quran: “There are some who say: O Lord! Give us wellbeing in this world; but these people have no share in the next world. And then there are others who say: O Lord! Give us wellbeing in this world and in the next world, and deliver us from the torment of hellfire. They shall have a portion of that which they have gained; God is swift in taking an account” (2:200-202).
Islam strikes a balance between submission to God’s will and human agency, between determinism and free will and provides sufficient autonomous spaces for human intervention. The Quran says, “That man can have nothing but what he strives for” (53:39). Further: “Surely God will never change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11). A man came riding his camel to the Prophet and asked him, “O Messenger of God, shall I leave my camel untied and trust in God?” The Prophet replied, “First tie your camel and then have trust in God”.
While Islam shares the basic tenets and concerns of the contemporary discourse on human rights, its view of human rights is much broader and deeper in scope. For one thing, the Islamic discourse on human rights encompasses not only issues relating to human relationships but also to animals and the environment. Second, Islam views human rights as inseparable from human responsibilities. The Islamic term haqq (plural: huquq) connotes a fundamental linkage and reciprocity between rights and responsibilities. Third, the Islamic discourse on human rights is embedded in an overarching moral framework. This moral framework is defined by a consciousness of the ontological unity of reality, including cosmic, ecological and human, and a deeply-ingrained sense of responsibility and accountability to God. This sense of responsibility and accountability to God is exemplified in a Tradition of the Prophet: “All of you are (like) shepherds, and all of you are accountable for (the wellbeing of) your flock”. Seyyed Hossein Nasr has rightly pointed out that Islam never allowed the development of the idea of the Promethean man: man freed from any responsibility to a world beyond himself, to the sacred, to God, to humanity at large and to nature. For instance, Islam views the environment not as something out there, unconnected to human existence, but as a vestige or sign of God.
Islamic law recognises two sets of human rights: civil and political rights, and social, economic and cultural rights. The latter category of human rights was not recognised in the Western legal tradition until the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966. Similarly, the right of privacy, which was not recognised in Western legal traditions until quite recently, was recognised in Islamic law since the early centuries of the Islamic era.
An important issue in the discourse on human rights relates to the means or mechanisms or motivational strategies whereby the ideals of human rights could be translated into reality. The process of socialization, education, legal provisions and social sanctions undoubtedly play a significant role in internalising the values associated with human rights. Islam emphasises the cultivation of a sense of moral responsibility and accountability as viable means whereby human rights—and responsibilities—could be ingrained in human consciousness. It is easy to pontificate about human rights but extremely difficult if not impossible to put oneself in the shoes of another person, as it were, and to be as sensitive about his likes and preferences as one is about oneself. This feat requires a good measure of selflessness, sincerity and compassion. The Prophet is reported to have said, “A Muslim cannot be a (true) Muslim unless he likes for his brother what he likes for himself”.
Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence
Pax Islamica included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians and the pagan Arabs, and guaranteed to them religious, cultural, and judicial autonomy. In fact the Islamic state assumed responsibility for the maintenance and even defence of Jewish, Christian and pagan identities. The protection of minority rights under the Islamic dispensation has no parallel in the annals of history. The Prophet exhorted his followers to scrupulously protect the legitimate rights and privileges of the dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state). During the conquest of Khaybar, Muslim soldiers found some copies of the Bible captured in booty. The Prophet ordered that they should be returned to the city’s vanquished Jewish population. Incensed by their defeat at the Battle of Badr, the Meccans sent a deputation to the Negus in Abyssinia, urging him to repatriate the Muslims to Mecca who had taken refuge there, so that they could be persecuted and punished at home. To counter their move, the Prophet sent Amr ibn Umayyah al-Damri, who was not a Muslim, as his envoy to the court of the Negus.
Non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state are exempt from the payment of the surplus property tax (zakah) as well as the tithe-tax, which are obligatory on Muslims. They are also exempt from military service. In lieu of these exemptions, they are required to pay an annual tax, known as jizya, ranging from 12 to 48 drachmas (dirhams), depending on their capacity. During the time of the Prophet, the quantum of jizya was 10 dirhams in a year, which amounted to the household expenses of an average family for about 10 days. The rich were required to pay 48 drachmas, people with average means 24, and those who earned their livelihood by means of handicraft 12 drachmas. Women and minors were exempted from the payment of this tax. Similarly, the tax was not collected from the indigent, the blind who had no source of income, the disabled, the very old, slaves and from monks. In some instances, the tax was waived in recognition of public service rendered by a non-Muslim. In the battle of Yarmuk, when Muslim forces were unable to defend the non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state, they returned to them the entire amount of jizya. Jizya was not invented by Muslims; it existed in Iran in earlier times, where those who did not discharge military duty were required to pay a tax.
Caliph Umar once spotted an old and blind man begging on the streets of Madina. He asked him, “Which community do you belong to?” He replied, “I am a Jew”. Umar then asked him, “And what has constrained you in this condition?” He replied, “I am poor and old, but I have to pay the jizya”. Moved by his pitiable state, Umar took him by his hand and brought him to his house and gave him some money. He then sent instructions to the cashier of the state treasury that he and others like him from amongst non-Muslims who are poor and destitute should be exempted from the payment of jizya. Caliph Umar once came across some Christians who were suffering from leprosy. He gave orders that they should receive stipends for life from the state treasury.
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