October 29th was the occasion of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. This occasion cannot pass without us pausing to fully reflect upon the legacy of that great man who gave us the continuing, perpetual and individual revelation of the Qur’an. So many in this world live and die without granting themselves the opportunity of studying the meaning of the presence of that man in their temporal life. The Prophet did not just transmit the revelation of the Qur’an, but embodied the message of the Qur’an itself in his life. He was living proof even before becoming a prophet, before he reached his midlife, when the revelation came to him for the first time. In the first 40 or so years of his life, he was living proof that so much goodness and beauty is known innately. As a matter of natural instinct, as a common man in Mecca, he embodied the natural values of what a decent human being is.
He was known as an impeccably truthful human being, who understood that life cannot simply mean mere existence and physical consumption. From the beginning, he took long periods of reflection and solitude, practicing what was intuitively known to him as a form of self cleansing, connecting with the natural forces that he could sense in existence. He didn't need revelation to tell him that there is a God. He knew long before that revelation that without a maker and owner to this creation, life becomes a form of vanity; it becomes purposeless. A purposeful life must recognize the role of the Maker. He also knew that if human beings listen to their instincts, they will know that they exist as a part of a larger tapestry of realities where their meaning makes sense only in the context of the meaning of everything else.
You cannot presume to have meaning unless you recognize that same value in everyone and everything else. We cannot be meaningful unless every creature and plant that dwells on the face of this earth also has meaning. It is an integrated whole. It is a remarkable system that makes absolutely no sense without a Divine Maker, Overseer and Sustainer. Once you recognize the Maker, you immediately recognize that only by communing with and seeking support from the source of all goodness, truth, and light - the source of all genuine feeling - can you fully recognize the meaning of existence.
It is remarkable that the Prophet Muhammad, long before he became God’s Prophet, was a man that embodied the ethics of humanity. He did not lie, steal or cheat. He exhibited no cruelty. He was a man known for his kindness, compassion and mercy. He was a man that transgressed upon no one, innately, before he became a prophet. He was a valued member of society without ever becoming a competitive player within the society. He was born into an honorable family without ever demanding the privileges of that status. He was born to naturally take his seat in a position of leadership, but declined because power for the sake of power made no sense to him. Before being a prophet, we don't have a single incident of a dispute between him and his loved ones.
He was a peaceful man who seemed to have no problem with anyone, a consistent demonstrator of his ethics through practice. He never participated in anything that he found immoral or unethical, and we know that Qureshi society was contaminated with numerous unethical practices. Yet his response, before he was even a prophet, was to become a living embodiment of the philosophy of the life that he believed in. Once Muhammad received the revelation, he was charged, in addition to his role as a moral human being, with a very difficult role.
The Qur’anic prophets, who are more or less the same as the biblical prophets, were charged with leading nations, winning the hearts of thousands, and setting an example for generations to come. But in addition, the Prophet Isa (Jesus) was sent as a prophet to the Israelites in order to reform many of the corruptions that had crept into the beliefs and practices of the Israelites. Jesus’ prophecy was very short lived; he died very young. So he is not the typical prototype of Biblical or Qur’anic prophets like Abraham, Moses or Joseph (Yousef).
The Prophet Muhammad, like those prophets, was given a very heavy role. He was not to simply live as an individual moral example within a specific historical context, but he was to lead a nation. In order to lead a nation, you have to master the art of changing the hearts, minds and souls of human beings; as well as have the ability to inspire human beings to change from being mundane creatures to becoming something great, because that greatness was needed to meet the challenge of the historical moment in which they existed.
At the time, Arabia had not had a major civilization in centuries. Then there was this man in the heart of the desert, where the last civilization existed no less than 1,000 years before, in the persona of prophets like Saleh. If this man, the Prophet, lived and died incapable of discharging his teaching mission, he would have been quickly forgotten. In order to achieve what the Prophet did, he had to be able to inspire greatness in human beings. He had to be able to take ordinary people, with all their psychological hang-ups and emotional complexes, with all their vanity and egoism, and transform them into people who were fully aware of their covenant with God; people who were fully aware that they cannot leave this earth without having left a great imprint.
He inspired these people to become the bearers of a mission to humanity. Not only that, but he also had to possess the energy to resonate within them long after he was gone, so that his message could be carried over to generations onwards. This is what true greatness is. You are not simply a teacher, who had a few disciples and then you die, and we know far more about your disciples than we know about you. No, in the case of the Prophet Muhammad, there are hundreds of people who were inspired, animated and activated enough to change the face of this earth because of their encounter with this man. How many people that came to humanity can claim this level of honor? How many people were able to transform those around them? People of all ethnicities, races, of all social status and class, and of all different languages? So many that they literally changed the face of the earth.
Part of the reality of our tradition is that, like all great men in history, there were those who followed Muhammad because they truly believed in his message, and those who followed Muhammad because it was the fashionable, popular thing to do. Both of these sets of people left us reports about the Prophet. We have reports that talk about a great man who did great things, whose life after becoming a prophet is remarkably consistent with his life before becoming a prophet. But, we also have reports that sit awkwardly with the notion of a great man who changed the course of history. The latter reports are what I often call the axiom reports - reports that were transmitted by people who might have been nominally Muslim, but who understood next to nothing about the actual message of the Prophet.
Today, it is up to us modern Muslims to study the legacy of this great man with rigor, and to possess the comprehensiveness to decipher the truthful reports from the fictitious reports. Remember, this is a man who lived 40 years anchored in moral virtue and, according to the true converts to Islam, continued to be anchored in moral virtue. He held the qualities to transform generations of people. Yet, we get strange reports transmitted by strange, suspicious individuals that tell us something about the Prophet that doesn't sit well with his ethical and moral legacy.
The Prophet cannot tell us which reports are truthful. But the Prophet left in us a trust; a trust that there are some of us who will study his legacy so comprehensively, so intimately that when someone asks, "Why was this man able to change the face of the earth and the course of history?" they would be able to explain it; that there would be some who know the Prophet so intimately that they would be able to explain what is truly authentic to his character, versus what seems to be an outlier that is inconsistent with his moral and ethical legacy.
Once again, we are visited with the occasion of his birth, and every time this occasion comes, you would be remiss if you did not ask, ‘Have we lived up to the trust that the Prophet left with us?’ This is a man that came at a time when the prophets of Judaism were well known and when the apostles of Christianity were well known. He came at a time when the Christian church was dominant and arrogant. This is a prophet that represented the moral virtues of the dispossessed and the powerless. He did not come to live like people who lived in the palaces of Byzantia or Persia. He didn't come to kiss up to rich, powerful people. He came to empower the disempowered, and to humble the powerful. If you study the way he lived, you would understand why he transformed the face of humanity, because his followers saw that he was the best living example of what he taught. When he spoke about the evils of materialism, he was the living embodiment of someone who rejected materialism with all of its temptations. When he spoke about the importance of giving up your wealth and living a life where you put all of your investments in the life hereafter, he was the living embodiment of it.
In the midst of this memory of the Prophet's birthday, we see the controversy going on in France, and the rest of the Muslim world. Years ago, a French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, published obscene pornographic cartoons that turned the Prophet into a pornographic stud. These cartoons represent the favorite narratives of Islamophobes. If you read what Islamophobes write about the Prophet, their go-to themes include the Prophet's sexuality and representing the Prophet in a very racist way, in the way that Arabs have typically been represented in Orientalist and colonial literature as dirty people who rape women, rob people and fulfill all carnal desires without moral refrain or ethics.
Recently, a Muslim girl in France came home from school, crying. When asked why by her parents, she said, ‘At school today, the teacher showed pornographic drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. Now the non-Muslim kids in school are bullying me, telling me, ‘You are the follower of a pedophile and a rapist.’’ Her parents complained to the school, who did nothing. Other Muslim parents in the school then become outraged.
These parents are paying taxes so teachers can teach obscene material about our prophet that leads directly to the bullying of Muslim students. The school recommended that the parents talk to the teacher directly, and when they did, it became clear that the teacher was not a defender of freedom of speech, but an Islamophobe. The teacher told them, ‘I'm sorry, that's the prophet you follow. If you Muslims don't like it, I can excuse your kids from the class where I show these cartoons - the bullying is not my problem. That's your problem, because you follow this prophet.’
A 16 year old boy, traumatized from the persecution he suffered in Chechnya as a Muslim, decided to take matters into his own hands and killed the teacher, and then is killed himself by the police. Now, there is a lot that can be said. Should a public school not be responsive to the complaints of an already marginalized minority in France? Should the school have taken more vigilant steps in attempting to be responsive to a sensitive situation? Should there be standards for Islamophobic teachers when they deal with concerned parents? Did the school fail when they noticed that a 16-year-old Chechen kid suffered from PTSD, was troubled, and had many disciplinary problems -- and failed to respond?
No one talks about France's direct responsibility for the genocides committed against Muslims. No one talks about the fact that, to this very day, there is a museum in France filled with the skulls of Africans and Muslims that France executed. No one talks about the segregationist, racist policies of France. The only place that I ever visited in Europe where I felt the oppressive sting of racism was France. I once stayed in a motel in France that had instructions that Arab or Muslim guests of the hotel, including myself, could not sit in the front lobby because this motel did not want to be known as a motel that accommodates Muslims. I left that motel and went to another, only to find the second motel was no less racist.
France is the only place in Europe where I tried to rent an apartment, only to discover that it is difficult to find a landlord willing to rent an apartment to a Muslim. I was told to my face, ‘You are a Muslim, we're not going to rent to you.’ When I finally rented an apartment, I was told by the landlord that Muslim tenants - only Muslim tenants - could not have guests. France is the only place where I would have to walk 24/7 with my passport because I could be stopped at any time by police simply because I look like an Arab. Muslims in France live in ghettoized sections of Paris that are economically disadvantaged and that suffer from regular transgressions by the police force; including the notorious vans of Paris police, where you can be taken off the street, insulted, humiliated and slapped around by the police and released without any explanation.
No one is interested in talking about that, or about the fact that France, which banned the hijab in all public establishments, has no problem with people wearing religious insignia like crosses or with Catholics covering their hair. No one is interested in talking about the fact that Islamic schools have a very hard time getting licensed, so many of them have to work under the radar. Yet Catholic and Jewish private schools don't encounter the same problems.
You already have a thoroughly racist society with a horrible colonial legacy. Suddenly, what became the end-all is that a Muslim 16-year-old kid killed a school teacher because of ‘freedom of speech.’ Actually, it was freedom of obscenity, because if you have seen the images, they are pornographic images. The French government did not just condemn the criminal act of killing this teacher. Instead of dealing with it in a professional manner as, ‘How can we avoid this happening again?’ it became a typical Islamophobic rant about how Islam is suffering a crisis, and about how Muslims do not understand freedom of speech, civic virtues or civil society. What follows is even worse: The French government officially reproduced the pornographic cartoons slandering the Prophet.
The government that Muslims in France support with their tax dollars is not standing neutral, but is actually reproducing the pornographic representations of the Prophet. Not only that, all their focus is on how Muslims do not understand the values of the French Republic.
You want Muslims to understand the values of the French Republic? Why don't you explain to Muslims how the French Republic committed the genocide against Muslims in Africa? Or, till today, how the French Republic continues slaughtering Muslims in Mali? How is it that the French Republic, with its great values, continues being in bed with the most disgusting autocrats, like Sisi of Egypt? Equipping them so that they can dominate Muslims in the name of the French Republic? Maybe you could talk to Muslims about the fact that thousands of Muslims fought with the French army against the Nazis in World War II. Thousands of Muslims were killed and buried in the desert, fighting against Nazi Germany, yet Muslims received absolutely no pensions or even any type of acknowledgement for the thousands of Muslims that gave up their lives fighting against Nazi Germany in WWII.
What is even worse is the Muslim response to this horrendous debacle. The Prophet raised great men and women that changed the face of history. They understood that life is about meaning, that if you live and die without meaning, then you failed as a human being. But what about us, responding to something as simple and straightforward as a crime? There are multiple failures on many levels, by a number of parties, and yet so many Muslims could not see beyond the apologetics, defending Islam against the charge of terrorism. Sure, we condemn what this kid did, but he’s a minor. How about the responsibility of the adults in positions of power that failed to see the danger, and failed to prevent it before it took place?
The French have a long history of Islamophobia. Just recently, a Muslim woman who covers her hair, not even hijab style, auditioned for The Voice in France. And just because she's a Muslim and she covers her hair, she was attacked so viciously that she dropped out of the competition. There is a young woman named Maryam Pougetoux, who was elected president by the student association in the Sorbonne. But because Pougetoux was a muhajabah, she was attacked so viciously by the French media she was forced to resign.
The problem of Islamophobia in France is that it is precisely what legitimated the genocides that France committed and continues to commit against Muslims all over Africa. France has not apologized or acknowledged the thousands that were killed by Napoleon's invading armies. Regarding their genocide in Algeria, the French said, ‘We didn't kill seven million in Algeria. We just killed two million.’ Not even an apology.
In France, a journalist that worked for Charlie Hebdo drew a cartoon of the son of the French prime minister, mocking the fact that he converted from Christianity to Judaism. He was promptly fired, because how dare you mock a conversion to Judaism? There was an Italian journalist who worked in a French publication. He mocked the French prime minister, drawing an image of him as a snake, and he was promptly fired. ‘You can't insult the Prime Minister in that way.’ In France, if you insult the French flag, it's a criminal offense punishable by prison. You can't insult Jews; it’s a criminal offense. But, you can mock and insult Islam as a religion or Muslims as a race, and there is not a single criminal prosecution for doing so.
I am not surprised when I find disgusting, immoral behavior, like someone who does not know the legacy of the Prophet picking up a knife and going to Nice to stab a couple of ladies in front of a church. The least that can be said about this behavior is that it is un-Islamic, immoral and unethical. But as far as I am concerned, those who perpetuate racism and Islamophobia in France, are, at a minimum, as equally culpable as that criminal who stabbed innocent people in front of a church. Does Islam say to defend the Prophet by stabbing innocent people? Of course not. I think it is intuitive to all Muslims that what the 16-year-old did in killing his teacher is un-Islamic and immoral. But so is the behavior of the school administration and the entire French government.
There was a strong response from Turkey, but Saudi Arabia, the so-called guardian of the two holy sites, was absolutely silent for days before delivering an extremely weak condemnation, one that was not even officially released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry. At the same time, the governor of Mecca met with the French ambassador to assure the ambassador that Saudi Arabia supports the French government. The Emirate met with their French ambassador to express the Emirate’s unequivocal support of the French government. Saudi Arabia and the Emirate both oppose any form of economic boycott directed at French products. Even Al-Azhar, when they spoke on the occasion of the birth of the Prophet, condemned terrorism and Islamophobia, but said not to drag Islam into political conflicts that Islam has no role in. Al-Azhar failed to support an economic boycott of French products, despite, in addition to everything else, the official position of the French government supporting the pornographic obscene images and representation of the Prophet.
Ironically, these same governments, at the same time that they oppose the economic boycott of French products, they appeal to Muslims all around the world to boycott Turkish products. Why? It is “justice”, because the Turks are the enemies. Saudi Arabia has lost all legitimacy as the guardian of the two holy sites. Islam will not be freed until Mecca and Medina are taken away from the authority of Al-Saud. Islam will never be in a good shape in the United States as long as American Muslims continue to embrace those on the payroll of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Hamza Yusuf has a great deal to say about the evils of pornography. But when it is the Prophet who is represented in pornographic images, because the Emirates did not say a word, Hamza Yusuf remains silent.
May God bless and honor the Prophet Muhammad. We do not deserve him. He amongst a handful of men that truly transformed the shape of this planet with their ethics, morality and virtue. When we as Muslims fail to recognize the greatness of this man and to honor his memory, we do not deserve him. It is as simple as that.