Prophetic Love: A Look At Obedience to Prophet Muhammad

Love.  There are so many synonyms, so many names and inflections in this one little word.  We are encouraged to extol the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم.  And yet despite this, I see an increasing disconnect between Muslims and what and who the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم represents.  As a Muslim educator for over a decade (approaching two!), it would seem that the most neglected “science” amongst Muslims is the biography of the Prophet (referred to as the sirah) صلى الله عليه وسلم in particular and history in general.  The result has been a notion, not of a man who lived a real life with real pain (and love), real wins and real losses, but that of an abstract figure whose emulation remains elusive, like the remembrance of a dream upon waking: the harder you struggle to concretize that memory the more it fades away.

In observation it is clear that we as a community need to re-establish the humanness of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم: to re-assert that he lived and died, that he ate and drank, laughed and cried, married and buried spouses and children.  In order to do so, I will share some observations from the opening of Surah al-Hujarat, the Forty Ninth chapter of the Qur’an:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تقدموا بين يدى الله ورسوله واتقوا الله إن الله سميع عليم

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not put yourselves forward in front of God and of His Messenger; and have taqwa of God. God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” – Qur’an, 49: 1.

Here, I have noticed a tendency that when we as Muslims discuss the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and his legacy, we have lost a sense of reverence for his station. How quick are we to battle one another (let alone those outside our faith) about this or that point from his Sunnah.  Far too often we “raise our voices” as means of browbeating or intimidating others into accepting our provincial points of view regarding this or that argument.  But development of love for the Prophet عليه الصلوات والسلام starts with recognizing the space, rank, and station that his voice still retains to this day, one thousand four hundred and thirty two years after his demise صلى الله عليه وسلم.

God continues in the Qur’an with:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا ترفعوا أصوتكم فوق صوت النبي ولا تجهروا له بالقول كجهر بعضكم لبعض أن تحبط أعملكم وأنتم لا تشعرون

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet and do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another, lest your actions should come to nothing without your realizing it.” – Qur’an, 49: 2.

Developing a love and appreciation for who God’s Final Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم is starts with humbling yourself to his legacy.  This should not be confused with taqlid*, or “uncritical imitation” in matters that demand us to think.  It may be a great struggle to accept the primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم I one’s life; we all have different struggles.  But if one accepts that God sent Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم as the only infallible source of guidance, then perhaps from here we can lower our voices, not simply out of disrespect (hence the “do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another”) but also so we can hear what it is his Sunnah is saying to us.

Though obvious to some, I believe it bears repeating: the Prophet’s legacy/Sunnah صلى الله عليه وسلم is for our benefit, meaning that its adherence or rejection in no way reflects on the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, nor his status as God’s Beloved and Noble Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم.  We can see this in the next verse, where God says:

إن الذين يغضون أصوتهم عند رسول الله أولئك الذين امتحن الله قلوبهم للتقوى لهم مغفرة وأجر عظيم

“Those who lower their voices when they are with the Messenger of God are people whose hearts God has tested for taqwa. They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.” – Qur’an, 49: 3.

We should never think that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has truly departed from us: as he said, “I have left you two things … God’s Book and my Sunnah.”  It’s this point I want to drive home: Islam is a living religion with a living practice with a living legacy.  While God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم did depart from this life as we know it, nonetheless, we are commanded by none other than God to send salutations on him in every two units of prayer:

السلام عليك أيها النبي ورحمة الله وبركاته

“Peace be upon you!, O’ Prophet, and God’s mercy and blessings.” – Muslim prayer, al-Tashahhud.

So not only is it for our benefit, but with everything in Islam, obedience brings about reward: “They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.

So before we are so sure, so confident about whether this or that thing is simply culture (wearing hijab or growing one’s beard for instance) we need to investigate the Messenger’s relationship صلى الله عليه وسلم to that thing. Nor should we dismiss a thing lightly simply because it is only mustahibb or “loved” by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. This type of assumption can also be a “raising one’s voice above the Prophet” صلى الله عليه وسلم. It will prove extremely difficult for us as Muslims to grow our love the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم if we continue to dismiss what was endeared by him so easily صلى الله عليه وسلم.  It is this assumption, in my opinion, that illustrates the lack of primacy that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has in our lives; our fall from grace if you will.

In closing, consider the follow account by ‘Ubayy Ibn Ka’b رضي الله عنه. To me, it beautifully sums up the station and primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in the life of a Muslim.  It elucidates a type of emotional relationship with God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم that left me personally feeling a bit selfish and self-centered (I’m always asking God about me).  And yet, through putting the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم before myself—may God’s promise be true—I will have all of my needs, all of my wants, all of my anxieties attended to by the One Who Responds as well as forgiven by the One Who Forgives. For me, this is the syllabus for Islam 201.

كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إذا ذهب ثلثا الليل قام فقال يا أيها الناس اذكروا الله اذكروا الله جاءت الراجفة تتبعها الرادفة جاء الموت بما فيه جاء الموت بما فيه قال أبي قلت يا رسول الله إني أكثر الصلاة عليك فكم أجعل لك من صلاتي فقال ما شئت قال قلت الربع قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت النصف قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قال قلت فالثلثين قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت أجعل لك صلاتي كلها قال : إذا تكفى همك ويغفر لك ذنبك

“The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to stand after two thirds of the night had passed and would go out to the people and say: ‘O’ people!, remember God, remember God! The First Blast has already come; the Second Blast is to follow it. Death has come, death has come.’ ‘Ubayy said, ‘I said: O’ Messenger of God, I pray for you often but how many prayers should I make?’ He [the Prophet] said, ‘as many as you wish.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘I said, “a quarter?”.’  He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He said: ‘I said, “two thirds?”.’ He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘If I dedicate all of my prayer to you?’ He said: ‘Then your needs will be satisfied, and your sins forgiven.’ — recorded by al-Tirmidhi in his Sunan.

*Taqlid is a term used to describe many things though usually it refers to imitating or following a practice in Islam. In modern times, taqlid has become something of a pejorative though it is good to remind oursevles that for somethings, we can only follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and not simply make up our own way to pleasing or worshiping God (for this, see Dr. Jackson’s article, Towards Empowering the Common Muslim). An example of taqlid in which we have no choice but to follow exactly what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us are the three units of prayer for Maghrib: as to why they are three and not four, no one can say. But if one wishes to prayer Maghrib (and one must prayer Maghrib in order to complete the five canonical prayers) then one must follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and any deviation from it would be considered unsanctioned innovation (bid’ah).

A Wakeup Call

The last several weeks’ events have showcased the utter dismay, confusion, and chaos that the American Muslim community is operating under.  The recent affairs regarding Colleen Renee Rose, also known as Jihad Jane, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, and Sharif Mobley, present for us a number of disturbing and urgent dilemmas currently facing American Muslims.  It should be staggeringly clear by now that if Muslims in America do not take steps to deal with these issues, the downward slope will only become more and more slippery.

There are many topics or bullet points I can think of when it comes to the aforementioned issues that Muslims face, but I will attempt to list what I have observed to be the most critical ones, as well as hopefully, some ways we can move to address these crises.  First amongst these thoughts is the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community.  In a recent conversation with a brother, we both lamented on the fractured structure of authority in the Muslim community here in the states.  The reason for this is varied and all the sub-points are beyond the aim of this article, but I would like to point to a couple of social factors that I feel have led to this.

The impact of literacy on the modern world has had a plethora of wide-ranging effects and consequences.  The results in the Muslim context had had no less impact than it did for modern Europe and America.  There are, however, a number of delicate points to this observation I would like to briefly illuminate upon.  Amongst them, has been the tendency to view the Muslim world as “behind” [Robinson 233] the Christian world, in terms of literacy, and in reality, technology.  The unquestioned stance of many Orientalist scholars has been to assume for the West and by proxy, Christianity, a tract or trajectory that the West was “a head of the game” if you will.  Seen from the position, Islam and by proxy Muslims, could only be seen as lagging behind.  Robinson, however, eludes to a number of important points that deserve considerable reconsideration:

“…the origin of the negative Muslim response to printing lay much more deeply than this. The problem was that printing attacked the very heart of Islamic systems for the transmission of knowledge; it attacked what was understood to make knowledge trustworthy, what gave it value, what gave it authority.”

The method of transmission of knowledge in the Muslim world has been orally, passed from teacher to student.  This system necessitates and places tremendous weight and value on the presence of learned and responsible teachers.  The first amongst this transmission of knowledge was the Qur’ān itself [Robinson 235].  From here, this transmission of knowledge of the Qur’ān set a precedent for how knowledge would be transmitted period for Muslims:

“The methods of learning and of transmitting the Qur’ān laid their impress on the transmission of all other knowledge” [Robinson 235].

Robinson continues by quoting one of the great Muslim thinkers, Ibn Khaldun, from his seminal work, al-Muqaddimah:

“The Qur’ān has become the basis of instruction, the foundation of all habits that may be acquired later on” [Khaldun 421].

In this light, it is clear to see that traditional Muslim learning placed an equal if not heavier weight on the necessity of a teacher to transmit knowledge, not merely information.  Without the authority of a teacher, the pupil could very well run the risk of reading the work, but not understanding the what the book said.  While the discussion on this part of the topic deserves much greater attention, I am forsaking it for the time being to simply highlight and underscore the role and distinction that Muslim authority, scholarship and thinking played in the development of Muslim thought and behavior.

You may ask how the relates to the initial point above: the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community.  I would venture to say it has been precisely the uncritical adoption of methodologies and modes of thought, both from the Western secular perspective, which desacrilizes knowledge, reducing it to “information”, as well as from the modern Muslim world, which despite its claims to classical scholarship, simply does not deliver on this.

As to the desacralization of knowledge, this to a great extent is what has happened when Muslims have rejected the role of the teacher-student transmission, and have assumed that they would be capable if not better off, to understand Islam by themselves.  This has been facilitated by the rapid growth of literacy, especially in the modern Western context where Muslims are much more likely to be literate in their own respective vernaculars.  With no criterion to hold themselves to, Muslims have abandoned traditional methodologies for modern secular ones.  The result has been the nearly complete dismantling of religious guidance and authority in the Muslim community.  In my opinion, this has been doubly so in America, where Muslims have been living fractured lives, at times best held up through socio-ethnic bonds.  As Muslims have dispersed and assimilated into American society, so has the tradition of attachment to real human teachers as guides.  The result has been a buffet of sorts: pick and choose without any consequence or consideration as to whether what you’re putting on your plate is good for you.  After all, at a buffet, it’s all food, isn’t it?

The recent obsession with American Muslims with “traditional” or “classical” Muslim knowledge can been as both positive and negative.  I cite positive in that some Muslims have come to realize that modernity is not the be-all and end-all solution to their woes.  And while not all systems of knowledge in modernity are fully bankrupt, as some Muslim scholars have contended, it certainly cannot be imbibed without some measure of scrutiny.  The negative aspects have been similar to those cited above, namely, the uncritical acceptance of packaged goods.  If it looks like and sounds like it’s traditional, then it is.  While the contents of the package may indeed included elements of traditional knowledge, the system of delivery is most obviously modern.  I do not use modern here as an epithet, but rather as a critical observation: modernity is not equipped to deliver on the moral, ethical, religious, or spiritual needs of Muslims [for more on this topic, please see Dr. William Chittick’s, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul].  In order to be “traditional”, Muslims in America would have to establish communities in which there are dedicated teachers who can pass on and take responsibility for the knowledge that pass on.  It is this latter part that may have saved our brother Sharif Mobley from his current fate.  Brother Mobley, as do so many other young Muslims feel, out of a lack of fulfillment, that they must travel abroad to learn sacred knowledge.  Not only is it problematic that the assumption that these destinations do in fact contain sacred knowledge simply by proxy of their location in the historic Muslim world, but that such endeavors are not fraught with danger and peril.

In a recent Friday sermon, Mufti Imam Anwar Muhaimin commented on very concerning condition that many young Muslims labor under: a linguistic or cultural inferiority complex.  The American Muslim community, to paraphrase the Imam, has provided woeful substance to our young brothers and sisters; substance to feel that they are and can be legitimately Muslim here in America.  That we have the infrastructure to provide to them the sacred knowledge they wish to learn.  The results from this quietude on the part of the Muslim community in America for the past ten to twenty years, as my wife has put it, has been the development of a linguistic and cultural inferiority complex.  Perhaps if there could be the establishment of more real living and breathing scholars and teachers in America, then perhaps our youth would not have to trek off to the unknown places of the Muslim world, where we cannot assure that what they will be learning will be a of a benefit to them, either in this life or The Next.

It is my belief, that if we do not work to develop a crop of active and legitimate American Muslim scholars, not just rock star imams, but live-in teachers, then what we have witnessed will only be the beginning of a very long and unattractive nightmare.  To my Muslim brothers and sisters: please help to develop authentic Muslim scholarship, leaders and teachers in your own communities.  We are in desperate need of this, not simply doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  We are in need of teachers who will, in exchange for the support and cooperation of their respective communities, teach and lead a new generation of Muslims who are so very desperate for the knowledge of Islam, for their lives here and now, as well as for their lives in the Hereafter.  Living teachers, living examples, who will take the appropriate and responsible track in how they teach and propagate Islam and the next generation of Muslims.

Citation

Francis Robinson, . (1993). Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print. Modern Asian Studies, 27(1), 229-251.

The above photograph was taken by my father, Pierre Manley. It is the Amtrak train station in downtown Detroit, Michigan. © 2010.