By Mohamed Harees –
As another birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet of Islam (On Whom Be Peace -OWBP) dawns, there are no signs of the well-orchestrated Islamophobic campaign launched both on a global and local plane abating, with many far right hate groups taking the lead in many countries including Sri Lanka exploiting this trend to make political gains. We have probably heard every kind of naive and uninformed comment that can possibly be made about Islam and Muslims, not just in the West but back home in Sri Lanka as well. The recent explosive discourses of the renown hate monk Gnanasara Thero is the latest example , made more through ill-will rather than ignorance, embroiling himself in the fraught world of Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions to the point where his kind have now become an influential – and many would say dangerous – players in some of the most contentious issues the country is facing; ,they appear to be relishing every moment of it.Thankfully, Sri Lankans have become wiser now.
In these challenging times, what are the apt lessons the world can draw from the great exemplary of the Holy Prophet of Islam (OWBP) – the great man,considered as their role model by Muslims, numbering a quarter of humanity, to effectively fight hatred and defeat the scourge and wounds of racism and enmity towards the ‘other’?
In every society, groups that have borne the brunt of the racist hate virus and dehumanisation are the migrants, minorities, women, older people and those engaged in precarious jobs. In Sri Lanka too, the impact of the virus is being felt in all too familiar ways – reflecting the fault lines the country has been dealing with for the past several decades. The research strongly suggested that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiking, following the ‘so-called Muslim’ terror attack in April 2019 in particular – after all it was the significant common aim of the terror group which carried out these attacks, their political backers as well as the anti-Muslim extremists, to drive a wedge between Muslims and the wider population, which they acheived. With sensationalism becoming an essential criterion in journalism, analysts note that the diversity of voices and opinions that prevail among the Muslims, as well as the rich spiritual and intellectual resources available within the Islamic tradition (both as a religion and civilization), are wilfully ignored. The world is therefore crying out for an order endowed with an unshakeable faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity, to rise above the narrow confines of racism and dehumanisation and to create channels of communication that help establish common ground and inter-religious solidarity,as the life of the Prophet of Islam (OWBP), aptly exemplified.
During his time, the Meccans called the Holy Prophet(OWBP) a poet, a magician, and a madman, among other names. Today, he is insulted with other labels. But perhaps the most invidious insult, designed to undermine the powerful establishment and spread of his message, is that he overcame his foes with terror only to rule them with cruelty. Descriptions of Muhammad (OWBP)’s life, military career, and traditions form the foundation for most judgments about his mission. Islam as a whole, through these depictions, is seen as either a religion of peace or a religion of war, depending on which interpretation of the messenger and message is followed. Modern critiques of some of the Prophet’s undertakings are meant to question the civility of Islam in the ongoing manufactured clash of civilizations that fuel both Islamophobes and extremists. By portraying the Prophet himself as a barbarian, surely his followers must also be treated as an inherently violent political body that will employ any means necessary to achieve global domination.
Michael Bonner notes, “Many of these modern arguments over historiography, and over the rise of Islam and the origins of jihad more generally, began in the nineteenth and the earlier twentieth centuries among European academic specialists in the study of the East, often referred to as the orientalists.” He goes on to note that the motivation of these arguments cannot be disconnected from “their involvement in the colonial project.”.
What is uncontroversial is Muhammed (OWBP) is considered the most influential man and successful in history in both spiritual and secular contexts, as documented by many including American author Michael Hart. He never sacrificed his principles in the pursuit of that success in its consistency,, in varied political contexts. Muslims maintain that the Prophet was the embodiment of the Quran, which is the word of Allah, and that both his character and the prose of the Quran were consistent in their grace.His character was the Quran. This was the description of the Prophet (OWBP) given by his wife ‘Â’isha (RA).
He practiced everything that he preached. He was an embodiment of the message; all of the verses of grace, ethics, and beauty were embodied in his example. When Allah says, “Repel that which is evil with that which is better” [Quran], it is in his example that we find how to rise above every form of evil one may face, particularly at the hands of those who show us hostility. The “evil” is relative—and so is the response. Therefore, each unique circumstance that the Holy Prophet faced required a different response. However, the consistency with which he adopted the noblest course in every situation is what stands out and makes him venerable.
It was the early days of Islam. In Taif, where he went to share his message and seek help for his people, some tribal chiefs employed young urchins to stone him mercilessly. Bleeding from head to toe, battered and exhausted, he was faced with a choice. Should he or shouldn’t he seek from God to destroy the people who had just humiliated him? He chose to pray and ask for mercy amid his bloody wounds, for his tormentors saying that their future progeny will one day heed to his message and they did history proved later. Muhammad (OWBP) clearly directed a policy of perseverance and non-violent response against a backdrop of repeated provocations of his enemies. These provocations increased in severity as they grew frustrated at their failure to stop his preaching; he had an eager and receptive audience that grew steadily despite all efforts to instill fear in it. Despite this, his strategy was a deliberate one: to continue to invite people, choosing to appeal to their sense of morality and reason over the potentially far more destructive use of force.When the Messenger of Allah (OWBP)migrated from Mecca, he had for example, many of his persecutors’ belongings with him for safekeeping. His integrity was never compromised, even though these individuals had expelled his Companions and subjected them to persecution.
He fled the persecution of Mecca and was invited to govern in the city of Madinah. He went from fugitive to governor practically overnight and his strategies changed accordingly; but mercy and justice enveloped his conduct. Some may say that this happened when he was in stages of weakness. But, his character of mercy and compassion was equally or more visible even at the height of power. Some of the most prominent verses of tolerance, such as the verse, “There is no compulsion in religion” [Quran], were also revealed after he became powerful as a ruler in the post-Madinah phase. Almighty God described him as “but a mercy to the worlds” [Quran], and “upon an exalted [standard] of character” [Quran]. The Prophet (OWBP) magnanimously treated his enemies, graciously responded to decades of aggression, and unfailingly transcended insults and injuries. When he established the State of Medinah, his refusal to take up arms against the ruling class in Mecca frustrated even some of his staunchest followers. When a Jewish man insulted him, his wife became infuriated. He simply said “O ‘Â’isha, be gentle! Indeed, Allah is gentle and loves gentleness in all matters. Beware of being harsh and vulgar.” . He entered into the famous Treaty of Medinah with other groups ( Jews, Christians and polytheists) to assure the rights of all,
Remarkably, even being in a position of power did not tempt him to retaliate, or repeat back the same harsh words thrown at him; he did not even let his wife respond harshly to those who insulted him. A Jewish Rabbi after speaking to him remarked, ‘his tolerance overcomes his anger, and that intense abuse only increases him in forbearance’.His prophetic morals did not allow him, even in an extremely vulnerable position, to compromise his principles. Over a millennium before any international conventions or charters, the Prophet of Mercy established that prisoners of war were entitled to humane treatment. This was 1300 years before the signatories at Geneva defined humane treatment of prisoners. After the triumph at the Battle of Badr waged to defend the young State, he even took his enemy prisoners’ economic status into consideration when granting them opportunities at freedom.The practice of freeing literate captives for teaching people how to read was unprecedented. This highlights the emphasis of the Prophet and his message on education as a means of light and advancement. He replaced the then prevailing practice of mutilating captives as a deterrent to continued hostilities with the far more humane practice of prisoner exchange. He used to provide detailed instructions on how to treat parents and children of prisoners humanely by keeping them together.
There are many such instances where he displayed unparalleled compassion to those who insulted him. Thus was the ocean of his compassion, his respect for the humanity of his enemies, and how he empathized with their distress. Even when he caught the Meccans off-guard when he marched victoriously into Mecca which tormented him, less than a decade from his migration to Medinah, standing before him completely powerless with no possibility of resistance, he declared “Today is the day of mercy”. He was indeed an embodiment of justice as the Quran preached ‘Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly”. As illustrated above, the Prophet was undoubtedly inclined to gentleness, forgiveness, and mercy as defaults. Surely, all of the cruelty and bigotry hurled at him , Islam or Muslims, today pales in comparison to the vicious attacks he endured. However, just as it hurts us to see him insulted, it would also hurt him to see his followers responding in ways insulting to his legacy.
Islam however is not a pacifist religion ,but a practical one, and allows legitimate violence in particular contexts. It is not reasonable that the response to an escaping kidnapper or a robber be anything other than pursuing them and use reasonable force to stop them. This will often require an act of legitimate violence. Fighting oppression is also one such area. Quran and Prophetic teachings make it clear that the basis for such violence is not imposing religion, or oppression but defense against oppression and injustice. However, it requires Muslims to be fair and just even with their enemies.
Many times, we as humans—even with good intentions—fail to strike the perfect balance between competing values, and this is just one reason why Quran and the teachings of the Prophet (OWBP) gave definitive guidance to help us regulate and contextualize these values. Some gravitate to an impractical and utopian extreme, where no forcefulness whatsoever is justified; Some gravitate to another extreme, using brutality and terror as means to their “righteous” ends. The majority orbits in the ambiguous middle, each presenting a claim about where a virtue like mercy ends and where another like justice begins. Indeed the life of the Prophet (OWBP) really was a shining example of being an epitome of moral greatness, moderation and balance, who sought not the praise of this world, but its betterment through his example. May God’s endless peace and blessings be upon him.