Muhammad: The Perfected Human Being
Muslims see Muhammad, born in 570 CE, as recapping the messages of all the previous prophets, just as the conclusion to a book recaps the themes of the whole book. He manifested the absolute submission and monotheism of Abraham, the dream-interpreting ability of Joseph, the spiritual warrior-kingship of David, the wisdom of Solomon, the law of Moses, and the spirituality of Jesus. He was tested by adversity and the need to be patient by a temporary loss of contact with God, like Job. He traversed the path from being not aware of God to enlightenment and God-discovery, a path most spiritual seekers tread. He was a prophet and spiritual guide; a head of state and leader of a community; a supreme judge and arbitrator of dispute; a reformer of society; a family man, loving husband, and father. In the way that Muhammad discharged these roles, Muslims see their exemplar, one who shows common men and women how to fulfill these roles in their own lives in a manner in keeping with divine intent. He was the perfected human (insan kamil), who journeyed to the utmost stage of human development and therefore is able to teach humanity how to journey through those stages as well.
Muhammad did not see himself as establishing a new religion. Rather, he was reinstating the primordial religion of God, the religion founded by Abraham, in a manner that would be accessible to all of humanity. The values that Prophet Muhammad taught were not intended to be new, but preexisting, eternal values expressing eternal truths.
The Arabs had a concept of proper humanness (muruwwah), which meant a complex of attributes such as generosity, courage, honesty, being true to one's word, the ability to right wrongs, protect the weak, and so forth—akin to the German menschlichkeit and the Yiddish sei a mensch. Muruwwah is what makes one a decent human being. In the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims find their definition of the perfect mensch, or the prefected human (insan kamil).
Muhammad's father, Abdullah, died before he was born, and his mother, Aminah, died when he was six. Uncommon in the Arab world, he was an only child, tenderly and lovingly cared for by his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib until he died—Muhammad by then barely eight years of age. Then he was cared for by his uncle Abu Talib, who loved him as dearly as his own.
When Muhammad was twenty-five, his employer, a wealthy forty-year-old widow named Khadijah, was deeply attracted to Muhammad's character and the honesty and efficiency with which he conducted her business affairs. She proposed marriage; Muhammad accepted her proposal and enjoyed almost twenty-five years of happy married life with her until she died in the same year as his uncle Abu Talib. Khadijah was the first woman he married, and she bore him six children, four girls and two boys. The boys died in infancy.
Muhammad's honesty, modesty, trustworthiness, good character, and gentlemanly conduct became proverbial so that he became known by the nickname al-Amin ("the trustworthy one"), so much so that travelers would deposit their money or other valuables with him for safekeeping. His wisdom in arbitration is shown by a charming story that took place when he was thirty-five and the Ka'bah had to be rebuilt. When construction reached the point where the Black Stone (the surviving part of the original structure, which sits in the southwestern corner) had to be put back in place, a fierce argument broke out among the Meccan clans, each wanting the honor of placing the cornerstone. Muhammad was asked to arbitrate the matter. He called for a piece of cloth, took the stone and placed it at the center of the cloth, and requested each clan's representative to hold the cloth. Together they lifted and lodged it in place, thus dividing the honor among all the clans.
Disturbed by the paganism of his people, Muhammad (by this time around forty) would retreat from Meccan society to meditate, frequenting a cave on the outskirts of Mecca, spending as long as several weeks at a time. The archangel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad during one of these retreats and embraced him three times, each time commanding him, "Recite!" Frightened and bewildered, Muhammad responded each time, "I don't read." Gabriel then recited the first verses of the Quran: "Recite: By the Name of your Lord who created—created Man from a clot. Recite: And your Lord is the Noblest; who taught—via the Pen—taught Man what Man knew not" (Quran 96:1-5). This event evokes the archangel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary; Gabriel cast the Quran into Muhammad's heart, just as he cast the spirit of Jesus into Mary's womb; Mary was a virgin, and Muhammad was unlettered (ummi). In a later visit, Gabriel informed Muhammad that he was to be a prophet and messenger from God to his people.
Fearing for his sanity, Muhammad ran trembling home to Khadijah, crying, "Wrap me up! Wrap me up!" Convinced of her husband's sterling character and his sanity, she consoled him. To further reassure him, Khadijah took him to her aged cousin Waraqah Ibn Nawfal for a consultation. Ibn Nawfal was a Christian who was closely acquainted with both the Torah and the Gospel. Upon hearing Muhammad's story, he declared, "By the One who holds my soul in His hand, you are the Prophet of this people. The same Great Spirit has come to you that came to Moses. Your people will reject you, abuse you, and drive you out and fight you." Sighing, he wished he were young enough to stand by Muhammad's side.
Khadijah was the first to believe in Muhammad's message of faith in the one God, and until the end of her life she remained a tower of strength for the Prophet, a comforter and a steadfast supporter through all difficulties. After Khadijah, his cousin Ali (then ten years old) and his closest friend, Abu Bakr, were the next to accept Islam.
Fearing the wrath of the pagan Meccans, the new Muslims practiced their faith discreetly for three years while Islam quietly spread among the Meccans. After this period the Prophet was commanded to openly proclaim God's religion to everyone: "Warn your clan, your nearest kin, and be compassionate to those of the believers who follow you" (Quran 26:214-15).
The Meccan unbelievers regarded this new religion as a threat to their way of life and their economy, which was based on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. They tried to dissuade Muhammad, offering him anything he wanted—money, wives, even leadership over them—if he desisted from preaching. His response was, "Even if they placed the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left hand, I could not cease until I succeeded or died trying."
After thirteen years of persecuting the Prophet, the Meccans tried to assassinate him, and he escaped with his followers to Yathrib, a town some two hundred miles north of Mecca, later called "the Prophet's City" (medinat un-nabi, or Medina for short). Another ten years of battle ensued with the Meccans until the Prophet finally returned victorious. On the day of his entry into Mecca, he addressed his previous enemies with the words "This day there is no vengeance against you, and you are all free," thus winning them over with his generosity.
The Prophet worked hard to eliminate class, gender, and economic distinctions, and Islam's message of equality, goodness, and freedom drew many of the poorest among the Meccans. He strongly encouraged the freeing of slaves—a companion of the Prophet and first person to call the daily prayers was Bilal, a freed Abyssinian slave—and he defined the measure of a man's piety on how he treated women: "The best of you are those who are best to their women," he said.
Because Muslims do not pictorially represent the Prophet Muhammad, they prefer to describe him by the classical description given by his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, often written up as a beautiful calligraphic piece called the hilya:
He was neither too tall nor too short. He was medium sized. His hair was not short and curly, nor was it lank, but in between. His face was not narrow, nor was it fully round, but there was a roundness to it. His skin was fair. His eyes were black. He had long eyelashes. He was big-boned and had wide shoulders. He had no body hair except in the middle of his chest. He had thick hands and feet. When he walked, he walked inclined, as if descending a slope. When he looked at someone, he looked at them in full face.
Between his shoulders was the seal of prophecy, the sign that he was the last of the prophets. He was the most generous-hearted of men, the most truthful of them in speech, the most mild-tempered of them, and the noblest of them in lineage. Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him. And whoever associated with him familiarly, loved him. Anyone who would describe him would say, I never saw, before him or after him, the like of him.
Peace and blessings be upon you, O Messenger of God.
Since he had enriched the lives of his people in so many ways, when the Prophet died the shock was so momentous that the Muslim community could not bear to hear it. On hearing the news, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, went to the mosque, hushed the crowd, and addressed them with these words: "Whoever worshiped Muhammad, be informed that Muhammad is dead. But whosoever worshiped God, be informed that God is alive and never dies."
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