The Prophet Muhammad (sal) as a Hero
Allâhumma salli wa sallim alâ sayyidinâ Muhammadin, wa alâ âlihi wa sahbih
In discussing the Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) as “the mercy to all the worlds,” one frequently hears comments about the Prophet as an ideal role model. But the concept of “role model” is rarely explored in depth. Today, I would like to dive into this concept, specifically in the context of contemporary American society.
Throughout history, human beings have been drawn to stories of heroes. From Biblical figures to Beowulf, from historical models such as the early prophets to the latest media creations, heroic individuals have touched a chord in people, because they have affirmed the highest human ideals.
When I was a child, I used to listen on the radio to Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. They punished the bad guys in ways that were just, courageously upheld good in the face of evil, and dedicated themselves to serving others. Every society has similar heroes of its own, many of them far more real than the radio cowboys of my youth. I had the privilege and honor to march with Martin Luther King, Jr.; I spent time in India with the followers of Ghandi and Khan Ghaffar Khan, and with Mother Teresa. We have all watched heroes and heroines like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walensa, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela help their communities and countries emerge from oppression, poverty, apartheid, and other hardships. In the midst of prejudice, violence, despair, and corruption, they have remained committed to justice and the well-being of others, without personal gain as their incentive or motive.
We find ourselves today in a society that is sorely in need of such heroic direction. Just look at the news of recent months: the random violence, promiscuity, hollow materialism, addictions, breakdown of families. We seem to be living in the days of the de-construction of the value base of society. Even our heroes have changed in the past twenty to thirty years. The just, mannerly, respectful, and peace-loving model of the Lone Ranger has given way to lawless, crude, and destructive models such as Rambo and Robocop. Now is the time to reach back to the positive heroic models of real values. It is time to launch the re-construction of a values-based society, by revivifying our heroic ideals.
As Muslims, we have the best possible heroic model right in front of us, in the Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) tells us in the Holy Qur’an:
- Laqad kaana lakum fii Rasuulil-laahi ‘Uswatun Hasanatul-liman kaana yarjullaaha wal-Yawmal-Aakhira wa zakarallaaha kasiiraa.
Verily in the messenger of Allah you have a good example for one who looks to Allah and the Last Day, and remembers Allah much (33:21).
The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is a perfect example of the loving, compassionate, and merciful hero. Yet, from the years following the khulafah rashidoon (radiy Allaahu ‘anhum) until the present, we have not seen this model fully reflected in Islamic communities.
One of the most notable, but least successfully emulated, qualities of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was his capacity to infuse an ancient culture with new models. In a society of fierce tribal competition, he fostered cooperation (as, for example, when he enabled all the tribes to participate equally in lifting the Black Stone into the Kaaba). In a society where revenge was customary, he chose to forgive Abu Sufyan, Hind, and many others. In a society where slavery was acceptable and the rights of women were disregarded, he advocated the freeing of slaves, and honored women’s rights.
To create, sustain, and pass on evolutionary models has always been the role of the hero. It must be our role, too, as the khalifas of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa), and those who stand in the line of the Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). Each of us can participate in the construction of a more ideal environment. What is needed is a counterculture movement: a new kind of counterculture movement that is positive, as opposed to always criticizing.
Abu Hurairah (radiy Allaahu ‘anhu) reported that someone said to the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), “O Messenger of Allah, supplicate against the polytheists.” The Prophet replied:
- I have not been sent to curse, but I have been raised up as a mercy. (Karim 325).
To follow the example of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) as a mercy, we must set aside our inclinations to curse. By “curse,” I mean not just to say bad words or have negative thoughts, but to blame, attack, or become hostile and psychologically defensive towards non-Islamic influences.
Yes, we need to defend the rights of Muslims. We must support organizations that are upholding the right of Muslim women to wear hijab at work, the right of Muslim employees to have time to do their prayers, the right of Muslim children to have their holidays off from school. Yes, we must act together to overcome the bias directed towards Muslims. (For example, we need to work for the repeal of the Anti-Terrorism Act.) These are critical issues, and we are grateful to the courageous and committed people who are addressing them — people in whom we find some touch of heroism.
But our lives as Muslims should not revolve around “anti-” activities: anti-Western, anti-materialism, anti-technology, or any other anti- stance. Rather, we should infuse society with new models, based on the values taught by Nebi Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). These values are positive and “pro-” — pro-active, pro-ductive, pro-found. Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) guided the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) in the Holy Qur’an:
- …wa qul ‘aamantu bimaaa ‘anzalallaahu min-Kitaab; wa ‘umirtu li-‘a’-dila baynakum. ‘Allaahu Rabbunaa wa Rabbukum. Lanaaa ‘a’-maalunaa wa lakum ‘a’-maalukum. Laa hujjata baynanaa wa baynakum….
…say: “I believe in whatever Scripture Allah has sent down, and I am commanded to be just among you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord. Unto us our works and unto you your works; no argument between us and you…” (42:15).
Think about the vast wealth of values expressed by Islam. Think about new and old faith and commitment to the values of justice, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, patience, love, and respect that have been brought to the United States by Muslim immigrants, in recent centuries and — as research now suggests — even prior to European settlement. Think about the values that have been re-affirmed by native-born Americans who have embraced Islam. These values exist in your home, and in my home; in your Muslim community here, and in our small Muslim community in Virginia. But on a larger scale, the unfortunate reality is that these values and the individuals who exemplify them are not the dominating force in the American Muslim society today. They are not the predominant voice and face of Islam that is being put forward to non-Muslims.
Why not? Because there are still those among us who stir up feelings against Islam among both Muslims and non-Muslims, by their intractability, negativism, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, misunderstanding and mis-construed understandings of Islam. Most of all, they marginalize the American Muslim community through their fear of assimilation. Of course, we should not be assimilated into a materialistic, non-Islamic thinking, non-Islam-respecting society. On the other hand, retreating into Islamic ghettos only reinforces non-Muslims’ ignorance and fear of Islam.
What is mercy? The opportunity to be merciful. Asking, “What is the mercy of the Prophet?” or “Why is the Prophet merciful?” is less important than addressing how that mercy manifests.
There is no better way to express the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) “as a mercy for all the worlds” than to translate those teachings into real-life experiences and values. There are countless opportunities to exemplify these teachings through programs, activities, schools, professional leadership, and other forms of community participation that are fully acceptable to mainstream secular society, yet at the same time are purely, sincerely, and effectively Islamic.
Some might say that it is contradictory to have a purely Islamic program and make it acceptable to American society. It is not. More than twenty years ago, I founded two non-profit organizations in Bedford. One is overtly Islamic; the other is not overtly Islamic, but operates on the basis of Islamic principles. According to its by-laws, mission statement, and constituency, it is a secular organization; but it is solidly grounded in our Islamic way of thinking and serving others.
Ali ibn Hasan (radiy Allaahu ‘anhu) reported that the Messenger of Allah (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
- The main part of wisdom after deen is love for human beings and doing good to everyone, pious or sinner (Karim 326).
This Hadith is not just a statement of an ideal, but a pointer towards a scientific process. If our activities reflect the deen of Islam, then they will be vessels for the fayad (effulgent energy) that flows from Allah, through the Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), to all Muslims and believers.
- Yaaa-‘ayyu-hallaziina ‘aamanus-tajiibuu lillahi wa lir-Rasuuli ‘izaa da-‘aakum limaa yuh-yiikum; wa’-lamuuu ‘an-nal-laaha yahullu baynal-mar-‘i wa qalbihii….
O you who believe! Respond to Allah and the messenger when He calls you to that which quickens you; and know that Allah comes between the man and his own heart…(8:24).
Any believer — whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other faith — will feel and respond to the attractive power of this fayad.
Consider two of the most famous Islamic role models in the U.S. today: Muhammad Ali and Hakeem Olajuwon, the basketball player. Some might object, “But those are sports stars; they aren’t really models of people out there representing Islam.” To this I would say, “Perhaps that is the point.” How many people ever thought about the religion of the Lone Ranger? Presumably, he was Christian, given that he was a mainstream role model in a predominately Christian society. But he and the other heroes of that era were not advertising their religion in ways that fostered “us” versus “them” divisions. Rather, they were standing for certain values: the protection of women, good against evil, justice for even the perpetrator of wrong doing. (The bad guy was not shot hundreds of times with an automatic gun and then blown up for the thrill of it.) They were even standing for multi-culturalism. At a time when the term “cultural diversity” had yet to be coined, the best friend of the Lone Ranger was a Native American.
Heroes of all times and places have stood up for values that resonate with human beings’ fitruh. To the extent that Muhammad Ali is a model of courage and continued service in the face of physical disability, and to the extent that Hakeem Olajuwon exemplifies good sportsmanship, humility, and piety, they are touching the core values and aspirations of all people. It is their life of Islam, not their label of Islam, that makes them effective role models.
There is a natural attraction (jethbah) towards these kinds of exemplary individuals. This attraction can later open the heart to be drawn towards the greater Truth, which is the foundation of life and of our fitruh, called Islam. Herein lies a very pure da’wa, based on the experiences and observations of Muslims by non-Muslims. Is this not the way Islam spread through most of the world?
In the early centuries A.H., as Muslim and Sufi merchants, scholars, and (in some cases) soldiers lived and worked in non-Muslim societies, the people who met them accepted Islam as a valid model. From Spain to China, people accepted the Islamic model because it made sense. Their cultural conditioning did not block the ability of Islam to reach deep into their hearts and fulfill their essential needs and aspirations.
Today, via satellite and e-mail, we can transmit the message of Islam to people of totally different backgrounds all over the world in an instant. Ironically, however, we have trouble getting the message across in our own homes. A significant number of Muslim children in the United States are leaving Islam, at least for a period of time.
The solution to our children’s disaffection does not lie in more didactic lessons in Islamic studies. Whereas didactic lessons may work well in an Eastern environment, in a Western environment, young people are accustomed to interactive educational approaches. They are not “nailed to chairs” and lectured to in school. If they are lectured to about Islam in their homes or Islamic schools, they may tune out.
Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) states in the Qur’an Sharif:
- ‘An-Nabiyyu ‘awlaa bil-Mu’-miniina min ‘anfusihim….
The Prophet is closer to the believers than their selves… (33:6).
The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is always standing between ourselves and our heart, but if we do not turn our young people’s attention towards the heart and towards the place of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) and the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) in the heart, then they will conceive of Allah as being distant, and the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) as being merely historical, and Islam as being philosophical, instead of spiritual. As their role models, we must set the example by infusing our knowledge of Islam and the Shariah and Sunnah with spirituality. For us and for our children, standing for prayer, doing recitations, fasting and all the other facets of Islam need to be more than merely “religious” experiences. They must be spiritual experiences. This is exactly why we are here today, praising the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
While exemplifying the spirituality of Islam, we also must model its broadness and flexibility. We come from diverse national and ethnic backgrounds; but most of our children are Americans by birth. From the start, they are meeting, influencing, and being influenced by people of all the many races, religions, and cultures that make up the American tapestry. It may be tempting to try to create mini-Pakistans, mini-Malaysias, or mini-Lebanons here in the States, to replicate an environment where Muslims are a majority and everyone shares the same culture. In culture, we find comfort and familiarity, nostalgia and security. But cultural isolationism is out of synch with the reality of our children’s lives.
We have all seen the limitations and the lamentations of focussing first on culture, and second on our relationship with the Almighty. At the center of our children’s upbringing must be their personal relationship with Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa). This relationship unites all Muslims, giving us a sense of community and family far greater than our ethnic borders.
Our young people need heroic role models of Muslims who are fully contributing citizens of the United States. They need examples of how to find their place as Muslims in American society, instead of Muslims outside of the decision-making aspect of that society.
Our young people are well aware of the shortcomings of this culture. They are the ones that see the violence, drugs, smoking, and sex all around them. What they need from us is not just warnings and rules, but tools. They want to know how to make a difference.
For this, they need good models. Let me return, then, to the necessity for heroes. Whether fictional or real, all heroes represent values that are practicable. Each of us must demonstrate what it means to put spiritually-based values into practice. We must prepare our children to express justice, tolerance and patience, kindness and self-confidence, so that they can go forth into society, proud that they are Muslims and with the skills needed to build a better world. We must give them our blessings to become the educators, journalists, television producers, scientists, architects, and civil servants of the future.
Many of us are first, second, or third generation immigrants, whose families were drawn to the United States by hopes for personal and financial security, or who were forced to leave their homes as refugees. As new arrivals in the West, our families wanted little more than adequate food, housing, incomes, and opportunities for education, so that their descendants could enjoy a better life. They naturally guided their children towards the most secure and remunerative professions, often as doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and engineers.
But times have changed. The majority of Muslims in the United States today did not just land. Most of us have the personal freedom and financial security that our predecessors dreamed of. Now it is time to diversify our roles in American society, so that we can positively affect that society to the benefit of all its citizens.
If the children of so many immigrants from Iran, Somalia, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and now Bosnia and Kosovo, and elsewhere — and if the children of so many African American Muslims — can excel in school (as they are doing), and graduate with high degrees, and become doctors, engineers, and lawyers, then we owe it to them to expand our own horizons. We as their elders need to release ourselves from the materialistic world view that says that our children must pursue affluence and prestige. Let our young people become public school teachers. Let them become social workers, urban planners, and contributors at all levels of society, and let us be equally proud of them, whether they make $200,000 a year or $25,000 a year. In the Holy Qur’an, Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) states:
- ‘Al-maalu wal-banuuna ziinatul-hayaatid-dunyaa: wal-baaqiyaatus-saalihaatu khayrun ‘inda Rabbika sawwaabanw-wa khayrun ‘amalaa.
Wealth and children are an ornament of life of the world. But the good deeds which endure are better in your Lord’s sight for reward, and better in respect of hope (18:46).
If we and our children are embodying the teachings of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) through a wide range of venues, then we will be in a much better position to effect the re-construction of American society.
Herein lies a plan of action for Muslims to become integrated on a values basis, not assimilated on the basis of compromising their beliefs. Mohammed will stay Mohammed, and will not become Mike. Da’oud will be Da’oud, and not David.
The point is not just to keep Islamic names. The point is for Muslims in America to have their own distinctive voice and role, while being respectful of and able to interact constructively with all other cultures.
Respect for cultural and spiritual diversity has been a cornerstone of the ideological infrastructure of the United States since its inception. As Muslims, we can take the lead in promoting this American ideal, for our way of life has accepted diversity for 1420 years. Umar ibn al Khattab (radiy Allaahu ‘anhu) reported:
- I heard the Messenger of Allah say: “I asked my Lord about difference of opinion among my companions after my death. Then it was revealed to me: ‘O Mohammed! Verily your companions in My sight are in the position of stars in the sky: some of them are stronger than others, but for every one there is a light. So whoso takes recourse to that upon which they stand, inspite of their differences of opinion, is upon guidance in My sight’…” (Karim 546-47).
Unfortunately, within our own midst we find cultural prejudices, biases, and inabilities to talk to one another across philosophical differences.
- The Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “…my ummah will be fragmented into seventy-three sects, all of which will be in hell-fire except one.” His companions asked, “O Allah’s Messenger, which is that?” The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) replied, “It is one to which I and my companions belong.”
Nebi Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) sought to guide humanity to a better understanding of our purpose in Allah’s creation and beyond; to find ways to achieve that purpose; and to transmit that purpose in each generation, using all that Allah has given us, all that the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) enjoined us to find when he said, “Seek out knowledge from cradle to grave.” We are not to stop in the 12th century, or the 14th century, or even the 19th, 20th, or 21st century. We have to find new and better ways to fulfill the purpose of Islam. What is that purpose? Subhaanallah: to praise Allah — to find every way, every means to remember Allah.
We come to subhaanallah through Islam, meaning that which is fulfilling, that which makes us safe and secure, that which leads us to always have the security of others in our minds and hearts, that which causes us to bring forth our mercy and our compassion. (Mercy is found in humility, and the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was a humble man.)
In his Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, Imam al-Ghazali recounted the story of a Muslim man who said to his Jewish neighbor, “Allah has sent a Prophet amongst us, who has summoned us to Islam, and we have submitted. He has also revealed to us a Book, which confirms the Torah.” To this, the Jew astutely replied, “You speak the truth, yet you cannot carry out what he has brought you. We find his description and that of his community in the Torah; he does not allow a man to cross the doorstep with hatred in his heart for his Muslim brother” (Al Ghazali 41).
If we really aspire to be of the rightly-guided sect (not the 72 others!), we must acknowledge the degree to which we hold on to petty enmities among us. Why should differences of opinion mar our capacity to love one another? Umar ibn al Khattab (radiy Allaahu ‘anhu) once said,
- Whenever [the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and Abu Bakr (radiy Allaahu ‘anhu)] consulted with me, I expressed my opinion. Sometimes, they accepted my opinion; and sometimes, they rejected it. But thanks to Allah, Rasulullah (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was pleased with me and so was Abu Bakr… (Al Ahsan 25).
Within the overriding unity of Islam, there can be multiple approaches to the truth. We may be Shi’a, Salafia, Sufi, adherents of this or that madhab. But (as Shaykh Noorudeen pointed out at this gathering last year) we all believe in Allah, we all affirm that Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is Allah’s Messenger, we all pray, we all do wudu, we all believe in all the prophets.
The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
- Two brothers are likened to a pair of hands, one of which washes the other (Holland 21).
Note that he did not say, “One of which slaps the other.” He certainly did not say, “One of which makes obscene gestures at people who are not brothers to scare them away,” or, “One of which lashes out at non-Muslims who enter our mosques without hijab.”
Like two hands, we can be more effective working together than singly. As the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) observed on another occasion:
- Allah will not gather together my followers over misguidance, and the hand of Allah is upon the united body… (Karim 307).
Working in harmony, striving to be role models and to contribute creatively to our societies according to the example of Nebi Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), we can have a profound effect on the culture of this country. As we become more effective in American society, we will become more effective globally, as well, for the United States is the world’s leading exporter of culture, attitudes, and values.
The Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,
- A group of my community will remain constant to the truth, conquering their enemies until the command of Allah comes to them while they are still in that condition.
In conclusion, let us understand that the Prophet Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was sent as a mercy more than 1420 years ago, but the mercy still extends to us today. As Allah states in the Holy Qur’an:
- …Fallaziina ‘aamanuu bi-hii wa ‘azza-ruuhu wa nasa-ruuhu wattaba-‘un-Nuural-laziii ‘unzila ma-‘ahuuu ‘ulaaa-‘ika humul Muf-lihuun.
…those who believe in [the Prophet], and honor him, and help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him: they are the successful (7:157).
As we hear the praises of Nebi Mohammed (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), sing his praises, and listen to poetry of his praises, we should remember clearly the goal of all that praise, and carry it with us as we leave this gathering.
Wa Llahu lahu ul-haqqi wa huwa yahdis-sabil.
Hasbuna Llahu wahdahu wa ni?mal-wakil.
Wa salli ?ala sayyidina Muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi ajma?in
wal-hamdu li-Llahi rabb il-?alamin.
Truth belongs to Allah; it is He who shows the way.
Allah, alone, suffices us, and what a fine guardian is He!
Blessings upon our Master Muhammad
and his family and Companions altogether
and praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.
Asalaamu aleikum. Jazak Allaah khair.