“O People, lend me an attentive ear, for I know not whether after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you very carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today.”
“Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners”….“Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you”…“You will neither inflict nor suffer any inequity.”
“O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.
“A white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” And “it is forbidden you to take usury (interest); therefore all interest obligations shall henceforth be waived.”
Who spoke these words? A President? Gandhi? Nelson Mandela? Martin Luther King Jr? Surely, these are profound statements in any context, but perhaps most surprising is the fact that these words belong to none other than Muhammad (pbuh) the Prophet of Islam. It was nearly 1400 years ago amidst the searing heat of the Arabian Desert that a man (arguably the most misunderstood in human history) delivered these provocative and timeless statements regarding social and moral conduct- a blueprint, no doubt, that would rapidly transform the entire Arabian Peninsula and ultimately spark the beginnings of Western Renaissance.
Since 9/11, a great many people have become familiar with the religion of Islam and its final ambassador to mankind- Muhammad (pbuh.) Still, very few- including Muslims themselves truly understand the complete and magnanimous legacy of a mere mortal who in the span of just 23 years managed to do what no man or woman in human history neither has ever nor will ever accomplish.
Raised an orphan in a society rampant with murder, vice, tribalism, shamelessness, and idolatry, it seemed unlikely that anyone could rise from these conditions to ultimately deliver freedom and liberty to a people starving for revolution.
An honest man indeed, Muhammad (pbuh) was known as Al-Ameen (the truthful one.) He never associated himself with the pagan rituals of his contemporary tribesmen, rather he spent much of his early life as a shepherd and merchant reflecting on life and its purpose. His diplomatic and just qualities often resulted in disputing parties referring to him as an arbiter- for everyone knew Muhammad (pbuh) would always give his injunctions fairly and equitably.
In his private life, Muhammad practiced modesty and moderation. The most famous example of this was manifested in his marriage to Khadija (pbuh) his first wife. Although twice his elder, Muhammad (pbuh) nevertheless accepted the honorable marriage proposal sent forth by Khadija. Working as her personal merchant during trading expeditions, Muhammad (pbuh) proved an invaluable business asset; however, it was indeed his beautiful character and tremendous affinity towards peace and justice which made the most profound impact to Khadija.
It was not until the ripe age of 40 that Muhammad would begin his life as Prophet. Similar to the Prophets of old, and just as Moses, Jesus, and, Abraham, Muhammad (pbuh) emphasized the singularity and complete oneness of God. As the first words of the Holy Quran were revealed to him by the Angel Gabriel, he knew his life would never be the same henceforth…
And Allah said to mankind: “Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists), He has created man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood) Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who has taught (the writing) by the pen. He has taught man that which he knew not.” (19:1-5)
Terrified by the the moment of revelation, Muhammad sought solace in his wife. Khadija reassured him in the most gentle and kind manner, telling Muhmmad (pbuh) that a man like him who possesses such characteristics need not fear for his life. Indeed, he was chosen as a Prophet by God (Allah.) And so it wasn’t a man that accepted the teachings of Islam and the Prophet initially, but rather a woman- a testament and example of the status of women in Islam, no doubt.
What many claim to be a new religion is quite the contrary. Islam is simply the submission of one’s will to the will of Allah. It begins with the understanding that there is no God but one God, and “to him belong the best of names (59:24.)” But because the Quran was revealed in Arabic, Muslims refer to God as Allah. Muslims believe this concept to be consistent throughout the history of all Prophets sent to mankind- among them, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus (peace and blessing be upon them all.)
As Muhammad (pbuh) began preaching Islam, his first and most critical task was reshaping the hearts and minds of the people of Mecca. The existing understanding of faith was that of polytheism and the attribution of sons and daughters to the Almighty. Islam came to rectify this flawed understanding and to restore true monotheism as Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael understood.
Similar to any Prophet that preceded him, Muhammad (pbuh) quickly transformed from friend to foe in the eyes of his people. Since Mecca was a central economic city due to the yearly pilgrimage, it was in the best interest of tribal leaders to crush any possibility of religious reform or social liberation. In spite of being an orphan and having only his Uncles as remaining kin, most still declared Muhammad as a threat and conspired to kill him.
Nevertheless, Muhammad (pbuh) courageously declared with complete firmness: “by God if they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left on condition that I abandon this course (Islam,) until God has made me victorious, or I perish therein, I would not abandon it.”
And so he began a 23 year long struggle in Allah’s path. Out of these 23 years it is important to note that 13 of them were spent in Mecca wherein most Islamic laws and jurisprudential considerations were not yet enforced or revealed. This is why Muslims today commonly describe the life of Muhammad (pbuh) in two segments. The latter segment began with the event in Islam known as Al-Hijri which means migration. Due to the unbearable and oppressive conditions faced by the early Muslims of Mecca, it was sanctioned by Allah through revelation in the Quran that the Muslims should migrate to Medina.
The 13 years spent in Mecca have become a shining example for Muslims and non-Muslims alike in that these years were spent only emphasizing the Oneness of Allah and softening hardened hearts. In a society where it was common to bury newborn daughters out of shame, where tribal warfare could be sparked by the smallest of disputes, and where the rights of people were neglected if not considered at all- simply emphasizing accountability to One God was indeed a small yet weighty task.
Early Muslims faced incalculable suffering and pain. Everything from starvation to boycotting and open torture were some of the tactics used to quell the rising Islamic populous. During these times, Muhammad’s dear wife and most beloved companion Khadija passed away. Shortly thereafter, his beloved Uncle and childhood guardian Abu Talib also passed away.
Muhammad’s (pbuh) early preaching was met with strict and fierce backlash. In a famous narration of his journey to At-Taif- a neighboring city to Mecca- was known to be one of the most painful moments in Muhammad’s (pbuh) life. As he approached the city enthused to relate the message of Islam, all the men, women, and children gathered outside its borders and pelted him with stones. It is described that he was injured to the point where blood ran from his head down to his slippers. But in spite of the people of At-Taif rejecting his message, Muhammad magnanimously refused to curse such a people. He said “if perhaps these people do not accept Islam, then perhaps their children or grandchildren will.” And so he left in peace leaving his trust in Allah.
Heavy hearted, Muhammad (pbuh) sought refuge in Allah and indeed found comfort. As the situation deteriorated in Mecca & surrounding areas, there seemed to come no help to Muhammad and his companions; however, just before all hope was lost, a group of emissaries from Medina reached out to the early Muslims- offering their allegiance to the Prophet. They cited problems within their city and requested Muhammad (pbuh) serve as arbiter to lead their people out of conflict.
Medina in its earliest form was a plain, bordered by ancient volcanic beds approximately 300 miles north of Mecca. The city’s original name was Yathrib due to the mix of Jewish and Christian residents living therein; however, the inhabitants renamed the city to Al-Madina in honor of the Prophet (pbuh.) One of the most famous and timeless illustrations in Islam was the arrival of Muhammad to the city wherein all the men, women, and children gathered to greet their new leader in peace. A far cry from the events witnessed in At-Taif.
It was a great relief to Muhammad and the early Muslims to finally secure a place of refuge and a place to openly and freely practice Islam after 13 years of oppression. It was declared that the people of Medina were of two groups. One was known as Al-Muhajirun (the immigrants) and the second Al-Ansar (the native residents.) The purpose of doing so was to foster an environment of brotherhood and sisterhood wherein each citizen would help the other in building a strong and lasting society based on the principles of love, sharing, and fear of God. Since Mecca was primarily a commercial center and Medina an agrarian society, it was beneficial to have residents form each environment work together to contribute knowledge and resources productive for all.
Muhammad (pbuh) immediately formed a written constitution wherein all the rights of the residents and religious and tribal groups were fairly apportioned. The Muslims did not impose Islam on any other party; rather an early form of separation of church and state was established- centuries before the Magna Carta was even conceived.
It was during these 10 years spent in Medina did Islam root itself firmly into the fabric of society. Quranic revelations increased in length and today we witness the longest chapters being attributed to the Medinan period. Laws of marriage, finance, charity, inheritance, and defense were mostly legislated in this period because the environment permitted such advancements. Islam was and always would become a way of life rather than simply a theology, and Muhammad’s (pbuh) purpose was to serve as a tangible living example who applied these teachings for mankind to follow. Muslims believe judgment will be carried out based on human intention & action. Furthermore, each people shall be judged according to how well they followed their Messenger. For Muslims today this example is Muhammad (pbuh.)
Muhammad (pbuh) was more than just a loving husband, Prophet, statesmen, and companion. He was also a father. With his first wife Khadija he had 6 children and later when he married Maria al-Qibtiyya he had another son. Of his 7 children all his sons passed away in infancy and only from his daughter Fatima (pbuh) did he bear grandchildren. He always showed affection towards his family and it is narrated that he said “The best among you is he who is treats his family the best.”
Muhammad (pbuh) re-married many times during his life. Though seen controversial from a Western perspective, it is important to note the purpose therein. Arabian culture often centered around tribal affiliation and often times a marriage could be a means to bring distant groups together. Islam permitted multiple marriages under the condition that men treat their wives equally and justly, otherwise men were commanded to refrain. Muhammad emphasized proper family conduct and treated his spouses equitably. In fact, it was by his marriages and the life he lived therein which serve as a productive example for Muslim and non-Muslim men alike. Where Muhammad (pbuh) was able to succeed in his multiple marriages, others were able to apply these lessons in their monogamous lives.
A man who spent his days preaching Islam, receiving weighty revelations, and constantly remembering Allah would be no man if he neglected his family and self. Muhammad was a champion of living a balanced life. He ate moderately, dressed moderately, and in spite of carrying the burden of all these societal roles- he still managed to set an example of living an active and fulfilling life. It is recorded that he loved archery, horse riding, and wrestling. He would often smile and his companions would swear they had never seen any other man smile so much as did he.
His manners and generosity were second to none. In one narration, Muhammad (pbuh) declared the obligation of every Muslim to his neighbors (regardless of race or religion) extends up to 40 homes in any direction. In addition, he made it clear to all Muslims that a person cannot be a true Muslim unless the people are safe from his or her words and actions. It was by his example and firm dedication to demonstrate a beautiful and noble character did a great many people accept Islam. Muhammad (pbuh) also rejected the notion of extreme tendencies often characteristic of monastic lifestyles. Where others would abstain from food, marriage, and sleep out of devotion for God- Prophet Muhammad reprimanded such actions and emphasized balance. Islam it seemed had not come to remove human desires but rather organize them into a discipline.
In spite of these years being prosperous for Muslims, they continued to face threats from Mecca. As it was already difficult for the early companions to forsake all their possessions to start anew in Medina, word quickly spread that Meccan caravans were selling their goods along key trade routes. And of the few Muslims that remained in Mecca, the weak and old among them were still being persecuted in unimaginable ways.
By this, Muhammad’s multifaceted life progressed into yet another arena. Muslims soon found it necessary to defend themselves from attacks and to ultimately liberate the people of Mecca from tyranny. Quranic injunctions revealed by Allah gave Muslims permission to practice defense and legislation concerning warfare and its limitations were soon established. Muhammad (pbuh) found himself at the commanding helm not only as statesman but now also military general.
It is critical to understand that among all the military campaigns recorded during the lifetime of the Prophet none were executed except out of defense or rightful re-possession of personal goods. In fact, among all the major battles none took place offensively in Mecca and its surrounding areas. All were indicative of defending the city of Medina and its residents. The Muslims found it obligatory upon themselves to protect not only themselves, their families, and goods but also the people represented within the written Constitution of Madina. This was one of the early manifestations of what a true Islamic State went on to signify in the coming centuries.
Muhammad (pbuh) may have been a statesman, but his courage was forthright. It is narrated that outside the battlefield he was soft-spoken and gentle. Yet, when the time came to defend justice and uphold God’s law, he would be the first to engage his enemy. However, this should not be confused with brutality. Muslims were commanded to engage in defense but even in war, Islam carried itself with dignity. In a very famous narration, prisoners of war captured by the Muslims were allowed free by Muhammad (pbuh) should they agree to teach 10 unlettered Muslims how to read and write- a testament and shining example wherein education is preferred over war and destruction.
The climactic battle wherein Muslims faced the greatest test in the early years of Islam came in the year 627 A.D. The campaign was known as The Battle of the Trench, primarily due to the military strategy devised by the Muslims. Muhammad (pbuh) had attempted to bring his followers to Mecca one year prior so they may perform pilgrimage; however, the people of Mecca denied their entry and instead a treaty known as the Treaty of Hudaybiah was agreed upon by both parties.
Within this treaty, Muslims and the tribal leaders of Mecca agreed to cease military campaigns against each other for many years. In addition, the leaders of Mecca, in spite of their repeated attempts to assassinate Muhammad (pbuh,) drafted openly unfair stipulations within the document. The companions of Muhammad (pbuh) urged him not to sign such a treaty in fear of a loss; however, Muhammad reassured his companions that Allah would indeed help the Muslims in the end. After signing the treaty, the Muslims retreated to Medina only to return the following year.
The genius of Muhammad (pbuh) was demonstrated in the treaty of Hudaybiah because he was able to anticipate the political ramifications of diplomacy. A breach of constitutional agreement by local Jewish tribes living around Madina was a major catalyst leading up to The Battle of the Trench. Under the constitutional agreement of Madina, Jewish tribes living in Khaybar were required to support the Muslims in defending the city state. Strategically, the Muslims faced tremendous pressure to defend the city because from the south, Mecca and her allies could attack, and from the north the Jewish tribes would also conspire. However, because Muhammad (pbuh) agreed to the treaty of Hudaybiah one year earlier, it was impossible for the Meccans to attack the Muslims by cooperating with rebel tribes from the north. Therefore, Muhammad and his companions were able to successfully defend the city by balancing diplomacy with ground level strategy. By digging a trench around the city & utilizing the city’s natural landscape as protection, it concluded as a tremendous victory for the Muslims.
In spite of the odds being 3 to 1 against the Muslims, they stood victorious in the face of extreme hostility from rouge Arab and Jewish tribes wishing to conspire against the fledgling Muslim society. This battle also came to be known as the battle of the wits because of the amazing diplomatic strategy employed by Muhammad (pbuh.)
Two years following this battle, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions returned to Mecca to perform pilgrimage as previously intended. As they marched into the valley 10,000 strong, the residents of the city feared for their lives and worried the Muslims would enact revenge for all the years of suffering endured prior; however, Muhammad himself declared to the people that no one should fear, stating:
“There is no God but Allah. He has no associate. He has made good His promise that He held to his bondman and helped him and defeated all the confederates. Bear in mind that every claim of privilege, whether that of blood or property is abolished except that of the custody of the Ka’aba (house of God) and of supplying water to the pilgrims. Bear in mind that for anyone who is slain, the blood money is a hundred camels. People of Quraish, surely God has abolished from you all pride of the time of ignorance and all pride in your ancestry, because all men are descended from Adam, and Adam was made of clay.”
By this, Muhammad openly declared and bestowed amnesty upon the people of Mecca. Such was the extent of mercy that even the most ardent of enemies was granted protection by Muslims. And so on that day, no blood was shed, but instead, only mercy was enacted. Through this act alone most of Mecca accepted Islam and what seemed a grand vision 23 years prior, culminated in the success of removing idols from the Holy Ka’baa thus purifying the house build by Abraham centuries earlier. This event became known as the Conquest of Mecca; however, the most lasting image continues to remain Muhammad’s (pbuh) magnanimous character and awe-inspiring feat to achieve so much in such a short period of time.
The introduction of this article commenced with some words spoken by Muhammad (pbuh,) but these were no ordinary words. Muhammad narrated this speech to the thousands of Muslims who had journeyed for pilgrimage that year and has since come to be known as “The Final Sermon.” Standing at the top of the mountain known as Mt. Arafat, he spoke those immortalized words with which every Muslim and non-Muslim ought to be familiar.
In a single sweep, Muhammad (pbuh) summarized his life’s message for his people present and absent-declaring freedom henceforth for mankind. He broke the bonds of racism, ensured a system of financial integrity, and paved the way for justice and equality among man and woman, employer and employee, parent and child, and brother and sister. But above all, Muhammad related to us all the greatest truth accessible- that there is only One God free from partners, need, or want and that He alone deserves to be worshiped, that all things belong to Him alone and to Him is the final return, and that we are all accountable for our actions and our judgment is deferred to Him. Muhammad (pbuh) taught us to love one another, but he also taught us how to be human, and being human requires us to recognize the one who made us in the first place.
Following his first and final pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad (pbuh) returned to Medina to live out the rest of his days. He continued to preach and spend his nights in prayer, often asking Allah to have mercy upon his creation. When the final verses of the Quran had been revealed soon thereafter, he passed away (age 63) at the side and comfort of his then wife Aisha (pbuh.) His final words being “Ummati! Ummati! Ummati! (my people! my people! my people!)” An amazing life indeed for an orphaned and unlettered boy who went on to become a man responsible for more than a billion followers worldwide today.
Islam proceeded to liberate the entire Arabian peninsula shortly after the Prophet’s death and in the years and decades following, managed to extend its reach as far east as North Africa and as far West as Persia. It was inconceivable only a few years prior that such a small brotherhood would go on to encompass the mighty empires of Persia and Byzantium.
Looking forward centuries more, we find Islam spreading up to Middle Spain barely reaching France. It was an 800 yearlong era in recent history that marked advancements in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and technology- all of which forever transformed our modern world. Muslim consideration for Christian, Jewish, and other communities living within its borders allowed these progressive times to cultivate an open and democratic society.
Similar to the way Muhammad (pbuh) practiced justice, freedom, and moderation Muslims of this period flourished by living his example. Unfortunately, it also means the decline of Islam following this period was marked by Muslims defecting away from Muhammad (pbuh’s) practice. It is indeed a lasting reminder for all who wish to achieve great things in this life and the next, that they take note of this man’s great life. Indeed there are lessons therein to be learned.