The Prophet’s life and the way he translated the Islamic message into real life examples holds continuing and living lessons for us to internalize, as they have the ability to transform our lives into something other than what we have been mired in for a long time. The Quran is the accompanying text to this living example. Although it addressed many of the events unfolding in the life of the Prophet, the discourse of the Quran existed and continues to exist in perpetual relevance with the lessons it taught. Each revelation placed within its proper context can open worlds of meaning and understanding.
Muslims often approach the life of the Prophet, the text of the Quran and the Quranic revelation itself in a casual fashion – not in any seriously engaged way – and their lives suffer as a consequence. Muslims often miss the opportunity to benefit from the remarkable example – what is supposed to be the core example for Muslim life. The life of the Prophet and the way that the Quran interacted with the Prophet – commenting, educating, addressing – in that is an entire philosophy of life, an understanding of the way that we ought to exist.
Often when we approach the Sira (traditions) of the Prophet, we forget that not all reports are equal to one another. There are key moments or events in which the Prophet addresses the Muslim community – the community of believers – in a way that allows us to understand what the entire Islamic message is about. There is a big difference between hadiths reported without any context, or an “off-hadith”; and hadiths reported by hundreds of people in a context of critical importance where the entire message of Islam was being set out.
If you want to truly understand what Islam is about, don’t go and read an “off-hadith,” a hadith without context or an isolated report from someone who saw or heard something. Then your issue becomes something isolated like nail polish or music or drawing. When we try to understand what is critical and what is a critical moral lesson the Prophet taught his followers, we should study what the Prophet said to the first Muslims, for example, at the very first days and weeks and months of the migration.
As we have discussed before, for years Muslims are persecuted in Mecca. They suffer a great deal. Although we as modern Muslims do not spend a lot of time understanding precisely what Muslims went through in Mecca, there is a long story there full of nuances. There is a concerted effort and a lot of work to find a new homeland in Yathrib, the Medina of today. Eventually, Muslims escape persecution by migrating from Mecca to Medina, but a lot of things take place before they do.
In Medina, part of the critical equation is a long civil war between two tribes, Al Aws and Al Khasraj – a jahili, nationalistic, tribal war of ignorance with no principles and no justice. It is simply a war of revenge and counter-revenge, blind affiliations and nationalism. There were also Jewish tribes that had long thrived financially from the commerce and business of selling military hardware to the warring tribes.
A big part of the migration from Mecca to Medina is that the Prophet would bring an end to the civil war as part of a new transformative stage. There would be an end to the ideology that allowed the civil war to exist for so long – ideologies of nationalism, tribalism and classicism. There would be a new paradigm of morality and ethics where no tribe was better than another because of history, accomplishments, lineage or genealogy. Both tribes are declared part of the Ansar (“the helpers”), those who have converted to Islam and who support the Prophet and the new Islamic message. One of the most critical steps is that the Prophet takes the pact of brotherhood and sisterhood from both tribes, from the Meccan migrants (the Muhajireen), and from the native Medinians, all who are now declared to be brothers and sisters. Thus, one’s affiliation as a Muslim – and the substantive requirements of justice and morality – now completely trump any blind affiliation to lineage, class position, national or tribal history.
As Muslims, we often tell this story and move on as if it was an easy thing because we do not know our Sirah and because we do not study the Quran carefully. In reality, it was a real challenge because it required these early Muslims to transform their entire way of thinking. They had to shift their consciousness from associating honor and prestige with money and genealogy, to now identifying honor with ethical things like not cheating, not lying, not going to prostitutes, not drinking alcohol or getting drunk at that stage. What defined you as a human being was revolutionized, and it required a great deal of work.
So when we try to understand the critical moral lesson from the Sirah, we should study that transformative moment – that journey from jahiliyya (ignorance) to morality; from nationalism to ethicism and an ethical existence.
Going back to that critical moment, there is a new reality and huge challenges in Medina. The civil war was declared over, but the memory of war was still fresh; early Muslims and the Prophet worried that the civil war might reignite. If it did, the entire Muslim project would have failed. There was also worry about the business class – the Jewish and Medinian tribes that had sustained huge financial losses from the end of the civil war; and worry about the Medinians who didn't convert to Islam, or those who converted to Islam in name only to accommodate a new political reality, but whose hearts remained non-Muslim.
With all of that, the Prophet arrives in Medina and prepares to deliver his first khutbah, speaking to the new reality. Present in this khutbah are all of the Muslims, persecuted for years who had migrated to Medina; and the entire picture of all the others. What does the Prophet say in this khutbah at this critical historical moment?
Excerpting the most critical points: First, the Prophet reminds Muslims that they have no future as Muslims unless they first learn to value the Quran, the book of God. Second, the Prophet advises this new community is to persist and not get bored with dhikr (the remembrance of God).
Third, and this is critical, is to love God with all your heart. The cornerstone of faith is to love. If you love God with all your heart, you will learn to love each other. Fourth is to be truthful in whatever you do.
After over 30 years in the U.S., attending Islamic centers and conferences, Dr. Abou El Fadl has not once heard an Imam, khatib or teacher talk about the Prophet’s first khutbah given at this critical historical moment to the early Muslim community. At the cornerstone of this khutbah is your relationship to the Quran; your relationship to dhikr; your relationship to love; and your relationship to truth. Would it not stand to reason that if this is what the Prophet was emphasizing at this critical, historical, political moment, with all of the monumental challenges confronting him, that this is in fact, the cornerstone of our faith?
Without learning to love the Quran, to love dhikr, to love love, to love the love of God, and to be truthful, then you don't have Islam. Reflect on it. We can be Muslims all our lives and not learn to love the Quran or be taught prayer but nothing about dhikr. We may learn our entire lives, 'obey God' but never hear anything about 'love God'. We could be Muslims our entire lives and not understand that unless you are a truthful human being, there is no chance for your morality to develop, because if you learn to lie and be dishonest, you will also learn to be false in your love and faith (iman). A dishonest human being does not really know how to love; their love is superficial as is their faith. Because they learn to lie to others, they lie to themselves, and then to God, until you no longer know what truth is. You become addicted to lying.
This a critical moral lesson – the voice of the Prophet reaching out across the centuries, telling us to reorient ourselves. To understand the mess Muslims are in, we need to reorient ourselves to see what excited the early generations about Islam enough to withstand years of persecution, uproot their lives and migrate many miles from Mecca and Medina to then go through more sacrifice. What moved their passion? You find it in moments like this.
Just because the Prophet is present with early Muslims does not mean the challenges suddenly end. The end of the civil war in Medina was a financial disaster for war profiteers. They were very unhappy about honest business practices, love, brotherhood, and the new morality paradigm – many of them pretended to convert in order to fight Islam from the inside. A chieftain from one of the Jewish tribes decided they should fight back using the tools of propaganda of that time – poetry. A few years earlier during a battle between the two warring tribes, each tribe composed poems about their own heroism and bravery; and conversely about the cowardice of the enemy. Poems flowed back and forth as powerful propaganda. The chieftain plotted to send a talented young poet pretending to be a Muslim to infiltrate the early Muslims to reminisce and recite the old poetry in order to reignite tensions and spark the civil war again. It almost works. The Prophet rushes to prevent the battle and in his famous statement asks, “Are you going to go back to the days of ignorance? I am still amongst you.” It is the Prophet’s presence that prevents war from reigniting.
Then remarkably, in chapter three of the Quran in Surah Al ‘Imran, God comes to the Muslims, chiding them about how close they came to civil war and how had it not been for the intervention of the Prophet, they would have returned to the days of ignorance. When the Quran makes its intervention in this event, it underscores the principle of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil; that this could not have occurred if leaders had spoken up against ignorance and for truth at the critical moment when it mattered. God states our moral worth is contingent on our ability to speak up for truth and against what is wrong. The moral lessons for our time are countless.
Learning a moral lesson is impossible unless we allow truth to be spoken and we listen. If we are more interested in entertainment or we have a dictatorship that silences any truth speaker, we learn nothing from moral failures, and our moral failures become more acute.
It is hard to ignore the relevance of this in today’s world. We see Muslims at each other’s throats in Yemen, Syria, Libya and societies built on lies and corruption. We see societies that silence, marginalize and imprison truth speakers. As Muslims are slaughtered and suffer in China, India, Palestine and worldwide, Muslim countries don’t lift a finger. Muslims need an ethical overhaul. Our relationship with the Quran and with Islam itself has become stale.
We judge our tradition all the time, yet we don't know our tradition because there is a huge failure of education and educators. Those who teach Islam in our institutions are hardly qualified to do so. The vast majority would likely have never heard what was in today’s khutbah – that is the heart of the problem.
In the same way that God created the night and day according to logical scientific laws, God also created sociological and historical laws that function with the same logic and consistency. In every society, unless those who have the means and are willing to spend money to support and uphold what is right, nothing advances. For those who have the means and prefer to spend it on your own luxury, can you imagine their accountability in the Hereafter?
Steve Bannon is building another Islamophobic institute, this time in Italy – a Catholic right-wing institute. How does he manage to build an institute like that? Through donations! Rich people give and say go build yet another Islam-hating Institute while Muslims spend their money on “halal” night clubs in Jeddah, DaVinci portraits and the like.
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