Muhammad, The Prophet of Islam
Peace Be Upon Him (Salla Allahu 'alayhi wa salaam)
April 1, 2007.
Talk sponsored by the Boston Dialogue Foundation1 in honor of the Birthday of Muhammad, the Prophet
I am honored as a Christian to be invited to talk about the beloved Prophet
of Islam on this special celebration of his birth. I am also mindful that today
is Palm Sunday for Christians and marks the beginning of what we call, Holy
Week. We are entering into the Passion and Death of Jesus that will lead us
to the Resurrection. Since our Muslim brothers and sisters share our belief
in the Final Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus, and the Last Judgement, and
because it is the renewal of life and new birth that Christians will celebrate
on Easter Sunday, sharing this celebration of the birthday of the Prophet, Muhammad (PBUH)
seems apt and particularly special.
We are a prophetic people, we who claim the Prophet Abraham as founder and father. And all three Abrahamic faiths know and love our prophets, even when we fail to listen to them! Despite the fact that we have much in common, my own experience of Interfaith dialogue and relationships has informed my sensitivity to the negative images of Islam, and even of the Prophet himself, that have historically been exploited throughout Islam's one thousand four hundred years of existence, often for purely political or economic interests. And, most painfully, out of extreme Christian religious zeal. I am convinced that we can do better, and that our common humanity with all believers in every faith tradition, as well as our Hebrew and Christian heritage, calls us to do so.
In the first part of my discussion I will address the question, "What is a prophet"? Then I will discuss the historical context for the misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Islam over the centuries. In the third part of my discussion I will try to give you a sense of how the Prophet, Muhammad (PBUH) fulfilled our understanding of what it is to be a prophet, and finally, I will honor this celebration of the Prophet's birth with a few words on the reverence and love that Muslims feel in relation to this beloved person, who Karen Armstrong describes as, "one of the most remarkable human beings who ever lived". (Armstrong, Muhammad:A Biography of the Prophet, p. 2, Harper, San Francisco.1992.)
The English word for prophet comes from the Greek word, prophetes, which literally means, one who speaks for another, especially for the gods. The Greek word can be a translation of the Hebrew word, nabi, which refers to one who communicates the divine will, and identifies the prophet's role as a messenger of God. The experience of prophecy easily goes back thousands of years to the ancient Egyptian religion of Baal, and it is likely that the Israelites were first introduced to it in the land of Canaan one thousand years before the birth of Christ. The ecstatic prophecy of the ancient Canaanites was transformed by the Israelites into prophets who interpreted the covenant and promises of the one God of Israel. The prophets of the early Israelite monarchy, known as "the sons of the prophets" belonged to guilds that formed a community led by a chief prophet, called "father". Aside from these guilds of prophets, who moved from place to place, there were cultic prophets who served in the sanctuaries alongside the priests. They were experts in prayer, and served the community by bringing the people's petitions before their one God. They also served a political purpose by raising the patriotic feelings of the people through their ecstatic dancing and singing, which encouraged the Israelites to fight the battles-of-the-day against their Philistine enemies. These prophetic callings were the ancestors to the great prophets that followed the spiritual heritage of Moses and Samuel, and led to the outstanding major and minor prophets, like Elijah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeramiah, and Zechariah that we know from the prophetic books of the Hebrew Scriptures. We Christians have inherited these voices, calling us back to God and the promises of God's covenant, as have our Muslim brothers and sisters who find many of them in the Sura of the Qur'an.
Leaving this short general description of our Prophets, let us turn now to the historical context for the misrepresentations and misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians. Unfortunately, certain periods of our own history have left us with myths and terrifying fantasies about both Muslims and Jews. These continue to plaque our efforts at Interfaith relations. In the golden age of the Islamic Empire, where both the minority Jews and Christians practiced their faith freely for centuries, Muslims were used to hearing about other religions, and had no objections to them except when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was attacked or vilified. Al-Andalus is the part of Spain where Islam was not only a world power, but also an advanced literary and scientific culture that for centuries overshadowed the barbaric tribes of Europe. There many Christians became fluent in Arabic in order to enjoy the magnificent Arabic literature and poetry, and to read the works of theologians and philosophers. These Christians were known as Mozarabs.
It was here in al -Andalus, that some Christians, threatened by the Mozarabs, as well as by their own apparent loss of a clear Western identity, began to make public statements against Islam and the Prophet. They were influenced by a slanderous biography of Muhammad(PBUH) and his faith, that was produced in a Christian monastery in Pamplona. Their public display challenged the tolerant Muslim authorities until they were finally forced to take action. This minority of Christian fanatics became known as the martyrs of Cordoba. For the next 600 years, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative peace and harmony in al-Andalus. However, as Christian Europe began to reassert its Western identity, these accusations about Islam and the Prophet began to surface again. Islam was imagined as the AntiChrist. Fantasies about the personal life of its Prophet accused him of being a charlatan who used religion as a means to world conquest. And these myths, fueled by fear of the looming Islamic power, helped to rouse the Christian laity on to the Crusades, called for by the Popes to reclaim the Holy Land. As Karen Armstrong points out, these preposterous ideas about Islam, were an attempt to explain the remarkable success and spread of Islam by "denying its independent inspiration and calling it a Christian heresy". She writes,"Some details of this fantasy reflect Christian anxieties about their own emergent identity. Islam was stigmatised as a "religion of the sword" during the Crusades, a period when Christians themselves must have buried their worry about this aggressive form of their faith, which bore no relation to the pacifist message of Jesus! ...It was the West, not Islam, which forbade the open discussion of religious matters. ..and finally, neither Judaism, nor Islam share the Christian conception of heresy, which raises human ideas about the divine to an unacceptably high level, and almost makes them a form of idolatry....It was becoming apparent that Western Christians were not going to be able to accomodate different religious communities, and idealogies, within their own systems, as successfully as either the Muslims or the Byzantines.....Ironically, while Christians were butchering Muslims in the Near East, others were sitting at the feet of Muslim scholars in Spain. Christian, Jewish and Mozarabic scholars, co-operated in a vast translation project, bringing the learning of the Islamic world to the West, and restoring to Europe the classical and ancient wisdom that had been lost in the Dark Ages". (Armstrong Muhammad, p.24-32. Harper, San Francisco.1992.)
Unfortunately, aspects of these Christian legends, these "old medieval mythologies" about Muhammad (PBUH), and Islam, continue to surface in the Western world today, especially after the tragic events of September 11th, and the subsequent crisis-ridden responses to it.
As we move from describing the historic context of Western misinformation about Islam and the Prophet, Muhammad, (PBUH) we might pose the following question: who, in fact, was this Prophet, this "man of spirit, who managed to bring peace and civilization to his people"?
Muhammad(PBUH) was born in Mecca on April 20th, in the year 571 of the Common Era. His first revelation took place on the 17th day of the month of Ramadan, in the year 610, while he was on a mountain retreat. Awakened from sleep by an overwhelming experience of a divine presence, he was given the command, iqra, Recite!. For the first time the Word of God was spoken in the language of the Arabs. At the time when Muhammad (PBUH) began to preach the Word he had received in Mecca, all of Arabia was divided by tribal loyalties and in a state of constant warfare. Twenty-three years later, when the Prophet died on June 8th in the year 632, the tribes of Arabia were united as a Muslim community, and there were over one hundred thousand companions of the Prophet. Surely this man of God was indeed a prophet.
The Islamic scholar and poet, Gülen, writes that prophets were guided by God and waited for God's Revelation. They were trustworthy and sincere human beings, and being compelled to speak to the community on behalf of God, they therefore submitted themselves entirely to God. "The cornerstone of the Prophetic mission was to preach Divine Unity. All Prophets followed this basic principle from the Qur'an:"O my people, serve God: You have no other than He" (11:84) Prophets speak to the minds, hearts, intellect and soul of the people. We might say that God speaks to us through the prophets, who are guided in wisdom to speak words that we can understand. The words of the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) "affect everyone regardless of their apparent intellectual simplicity. As human knowledge increases, we see that these supposedly simple words are, in fact, like an ocean whose depth is only appreciated the more deeply one dives into it, or like a rose with petals, one within the other, each one full of meaning". (M.Fethullah Gulen, The Messenger of God Muhammad p. 91-92. The Light, Inc. New Jersey 2005.)
"Every prophet was sent to guide people to the way of God, and the mission of each was based on mercy. (Gulen, p145)To catch just a glimpse of the greatness of God's Messenger, Muhammad (PBUH), we should consider how, by God's Will and Power, he transformed a savage and backward desert people into the founders of the most magnificent civilization in human history.(Gulen, p.147) The Prophet Muhammad(PBUH), is like a spring of pure water in the heart of the desert, a source of light in an all-enveloping darkness. Whoever appeals to this spring can take as much water as needed to quench their thirst, to become purified of all their sins, and to become illumined with the light of belief. Mercy was like a magic key in his hands, for with it he opened hearts that were so hardened and rusty that no one thought they could be opened. But he did even more; he lit a torch of belief in them".(p.284)
There are many ways that Muslims and Christians share common values and beliefs. One way is by recognizing that the two founders of these inspired faith traditions were both great prophets. In fact, the Prophet, Jesus, is so revered in Islam that he stands second only to the Prophet Muhammad himself (PBUThem). Therefore, the teachings of both these great prophets seems to be founded on the same inspiration of God's vision and hope, for humanity. Because they are the beloved ones of God, we are called not only to love and respect them, but to become the beloved ones of God ourselves. Because they both addressed the inequities and social injustices in their cultures, and embraced the poor, abandoned and marginalized in their societies, the scope of loving one's neighbor was broadened and defined through their words and behavior. They are the model for us of true compassionate charity, of the intrinsic equality of all humanity in the eyes of God. Both these great prophets, the messengers of God, taught us how to pray by their own example, of love for God, and loving submission to the will of God.
At the beginning of these last 40 days of Lent, Christians heard the words of the Hebrew prophet, Joel, "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment". (Joel 2:12-18) The prophets are those who are called to guide us all to return to a merciful God. We Christians, Muslims and Jews are invited by the one God of Abraham to open our hearts and minds and truly listen to them.
The reverence and belief in the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by all Muslims, everywhere in the world, is expressed most beautifully in these few words by Muhammad Iqbal:
A beloved is hidden in your heart....
In the Muslim's heart, there is Muhammad's home, All our glory is from Muhammad's name. (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him).
1 The Boston Dialogue Foundation is a Muslim organization dedicated to Interfaith relations and Interreligious dialogue.