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Rethinking Muslim attitudes to the Seerah

This month, Muslims all over the world will mark the birth anniversary of the Prophet (saw) with elaborate functions involving na’at recitals and nasheeds. Zafar Bangash, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) asks why Muslims ignore so much of the Seerah.

(March 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There are three essential elements to a Muslim's faith: the tauheed (oneness) of Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala, the integrity and authenticity of the Qur'an, and the flawless character of the Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace. No one can be a Muslim without believing in these three essentials. Associating partners with Allah is shirk, the greatest sin a person can commit. The authenticity of the Qur'an is essential otherwise it cannot be the divine Word if it has been tampered with even slightly: Allah Himself has vouched for its integrity (al-Qur'an 15:09). Finally, the flawless character of the Messenger of Allah is necessary to convey the message as he received it in its pristine purity; he was protected from error by divine intervention.

Some Muslims, regrettably, have a simplistic, mechanical understanding of the absolute Transcendence and Oneness of Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala; while they believe that He is the Creator and He alone is to be worshipped, in their daily lives they indulge in all kinds of activities that border on shirk. Their attitude to the Qur'an and the Seerah and Sunnah of the noble Messenger is equally flawed. The Qur'an is supposed to be our guide from the womb to the tomb, yet most Muslims treat it as a source of spiritual blessings only. The number of Muslims who have memorized the text of the Book without understanding a single word is phenomenal. How are we supposed to receive guidance without understanding, much less implementing it in our lives?

The same flawed attitude prevails with respect to the Seerah of the noble Messenger of Allah (saws). Without doubt Muslims have deep love for and attachment to him (saws). This is evident from the manner in which his birthday is celebrated in the month of Rabi al-Awwal. When his noble personality is attacked, such as through the insulting Danish cartoons (2005-2006) or in books (the Rushdie fitna, 1989), Muslims demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice their lives to defend his honor. This is exactly how it should be; after all, undermining his personality undermines Islam itself. Though most people in the West have abandoned religion, that does not mean Muslims have to follow suit.

But Allah's Messenger (saws) was sent not only to inform but also to transform humanity by bringing us “out of darkness into light” (65:11). This is a point forgotten by many Muslims today. The Seerah of the noble Messenger has been reduced to a few anecdotes about his life, and some rituals. That the Seerah is central to the very ethos of Muslim life is largely forgotten. The Seerah must be looked at in its entirety and not confined merely to the aspects of taharah (purity) and najasah, important though these are in the personal life of all Muslims. Similarly, the Qur'an itself cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Seerah. Sayyida Aisha (ra) pointed out, the Prophet's character was the Qur'an in practice. In a well-known hadith, the noble Messenger himself has said: “Hold to the Qur'an and to my Sunnah and you will not go astray.” There are other versions of this hadith but the point is clear.

During the Prophet's time, Arabia was steeped in jahiliyyah: idol-worship was the basis of religious, social and cultural life. People believed in Allah, but they associated partners with Him. Injustice, oppression, tribal arrogance (and tribal warfare borne of such arrogance), female infanticide and slavery were other practices that characterized Arabian society at the time. Today Muslim societies are afflicted by many similar attitudes and their attendant problems, although idol-worship has been replaced by the worship of nationalism, money and what it can buy, and class or clan interests. Thus, in order to bring about a “total transformation” of our societies, Muslims will first have to understand the nature of the dhulm and darkness that engulf us. Our success in transforming our societies will be determined by our closeness to the Prophetic Sunnah and Seerah in practice as well as in emotional attachment.

For some Muslims, the Prophet's Seerah is a means to attaining greater spirituality; they remain oblivious of its relevance to the world at large. Muslims use the Seerah to seek blessings but not guidance, and individual but not collective salvation. No lessons are derived from it for the arduous struggle of life. Many Muslims quote hadiths of the Prophet (saws) endlessly, but either do not follow them or use them selectively to support their preconceived ideas.

Allah declares in the noble Qur'an: “He [Allah] it is Who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the Deen of Truth so that it becomes dominant over all other systems, however much the mushrikeen may oppose this” (9:33 and 61:09). We know that Islam became dominant during the lifetime of the noble Messenger of Allah (saws), but this is no longer the case despite there being 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today. The darkness that prevailed in Arabia at the advent of Islam has once again engulfed the world, but on a much larger scale.

The Prophet's example is applicable to all times and in all situations because he is the “seal of the Prophets” (33:40) and was sent as a blessing to all the worlds (21:107). Yet contemporary Muslims have failed to derive appropriate lessons from the Seerah to guide them back to a position of leadership of humanity, in conformity with Allah's promise. Instead, Muslims have accepted subservience to the kuffar as their permanent condition in the world. The Prophet's Seerah demonstrates a complete model for humanity, covering all aspects—personal, family and community life as well the ordering of family, society and state. The application of the Prophetic method in its entirety is, therefore, the only way to transform Muslim societies. The Muslims' present predicament confirms our deviation from the divinely-prescribed path on an enormous scale. Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala commands the Muslims to “obey Allah and the Messenger” (4:59), whom He describes as “the best of exemplars” (33:21). In fact, the Qur'an emphatically states: “when you obey the Messenger, it is as if you have obeyed Allah” (4:80).

While Muslims accept the validity of these principles and even argue passionately in their favor, in practice they appear to have accepted the de facto separation of deen from politics and other aspects of societal activity. There is a long history behind this schizophrenic behavior, which has affected not only the socio-political and economic outlook of Muslims but has also made its impact on the study and understanding of the Seerah itself.

For instance, Muslims spend endless hours arguing about the number of miracles the noble Messenger of Allah performed and whether the mi'raj was a physical journey or merely a vision. While there may be some merit in discussing these questions at some level, the Muslims' present plight hardly allows for such indulgences. It would be far more relevant to consider the circumstances in which the Prophet was rewarded with mi'raj. He had to endure twelve years of extreme hardship; when the worldly prospects for his mission appeared bleak, there was an explosion of divine mercy, culminating in mi'raj. So the mi'raj must not be viewed merely as a phenomenon that occurred in isolation but as the culmination of a long process of struggle to establish Allah's deen. The secularization of Islam through a dark period of history has clearly taken its toll, freezing many vital issues out of Muslim consciousness. The study of the Prophet's Seerah, for both historical and contemporary reasons, has also fallen victim to this phenomenon.

Few Muslims have gone beyond their emotional attachment to the Prophet (saws), important as it is, to appreciate the larger significance of the Seerah. Most of us are completely oblivious of the Prophet's role in dealing with such issues as state and politics. Some recoil in horror from the idea that the Prophet had anything to do with politics. The corruption of politics and the abuse of power and authority in the world today clearly have much to do with this, but it also reflects the distorted view some Muslims have of the Seerah itself. Since deception and lying are considered a normal, indeed essential, part of modern politics, Muslims have assumed that political activity per se is bad. Similarly, the reduction of Islam to merely a “religion” has resulted in Muslims overlooking many important aspects of Islam and the Seerah.

Another common misconception is that the Prophet (saws) was sent merely to convey the message; he had no responsibility beyond that. These Muslims agree that rectifying people's morals was also part of his mission, but little else. According to this line of thinking, if the people of Makkah had merely stopped worshipping idols everything would have been all right. There would have been no need for the Prophet (saws) to migrate to Madinah to establish the Islamic State. There are some Muslims who even go so far as to argue that there was no Islamic state, merely a Muslim community in Madinah. Is there a difference between the two? What about the Qur'anic ayah: “Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you” (4:59)? Who are the people placed in authority and what is their role? Do they have any power; do they exercise any authority, or is their role merely to advise people to behave, without any mechanisms of enforcement to ensure compliance?

From this argument follows another misrepresentation: that it was not the Prophet (saws) who challenged the kufr system in Makkah; the challenge came from the kuffar. According to them, the Prophet (saws) was a pacifist who believed in non-violence and shunned all worldly authority. This is based on a superficial understanding of the situation in Makkah, where the Muslims did not physically resist oppression. Does the absence of physical resistance automatically mean no resistance at all, or even acquiescence with dhulm? What about the ideological and psychological challenges posed to the Makkan system by the proclamation of the kalimah, “La ilaha il-Allah, Muhammad al-Rasool Allah”? Then there was the challenge to the social system, in which the Makkan aristocracy was split right down the middle. The sons and daughters of leading figures entered the fold of Islam, repudiating the existing order and their own privileged position in it. Islam also proclaimed the status and rights of women and slaves, in direct and open challenge to the existing social order in Makkah.

But the question remains: why have so many Muslims adopted an apologetic attitude to the use of force to confront evil and oppression? Part of the answer may be found in the anti-Islamic propaganda of our enemies, who allege that Islam was “spread by the sword.” In order to refute such allegations, Muslims have resorted to a pacifist interpretation of the Seerah. The other reason may be found in the vast body of the Seerah literature itself. The early compilers of the Seerah naturally concentrated on an accurate recording of events. Islam's impact on the world was so great that Muslims were anxious to learn every detail, however minute, about the life of the Messenger of Allah who was at the centre of all the great events.

Responding to the needs of early Muslims, and in order to preserve the most accurate record of events, these scholars recorded every detail of the blessed life of the Messenger of Allah (saws). They did not concentrate on his method of acquiring power. Muslims were already in power and their influence was increasing, with new lands coming continually under their sway. There appeared to be no need to discuss issues that were already taken for granted; Islam was the dominant reality and they saw no reason for that to change. In the early history of Islam, Muslims took it for granted that, as recipients of the divine message, they would continue to remain in power because they were following Allah's command. They could not imagine that a time would come when Muslims would be so removed from the message of Islam, the Qur'an and the Seerah of the Messenger (saws) that they would become subservient to the kuffar.

Another reason for recording every detail of his life, especially the moral precepts he enjoined and the great victories he achieved in battles, was that pre-Islamic Arabia was steeped in jahiliyyah. Islam reintroduced the values that had been ordained by Allah through the earlier Prophets but which had since been corrupted. Muslims were anxious to avoid the mistakes of earlier peoples and conform as closely as possible to the Seerah of the final Messenger of Allah. Similarly, narration of the Prophet's conduct in numerous battles was a source of great inspiration for Muslims. This is evident in the brilliant victories they achieved in a short period of time after the death of the Prophet (saws).

Another reason may be that after the Khulafa al-Rashidoon (the four ‘rightly-guided’ successors to the Prophet), rulers started to deviate from the Prophetic example. Muslim scholars felt, quite rightly, that by highlighting the spiritual and moral dimensions of the Seerah, they would encourage the rulers to reflect upon their own conduct, personal as well as administrative, and bring it into conformity with the Messenger's lofty character.
There is another important aspect of the Seerah: though the Prophet (saws) performed numerous miracles, there were no miracles involved as far as the struggle to establish the Islamic state was concerned. This was clearly part of the divine scheme. If the Islamic state had come into existence through miracles and not through sustained human effort, future generations might have used this as an excuse to claim that they could not possibly achieve the same results as the noble Messenger (saws) did because ordinary mortals cannot perform miracles. The Prophet also demonstrated superb mastery of the conduct of state and politics, two fields not normally associated with the Prophetic mission. Of the earlier Prophets, only Yusuf, Daud and Sulaiman (as) acquired worldly power as far as is known.

This led to the assumption that religion has nothing to do with politics. The Prophet (saws) not only established a state where none had existed before, but it became so powerful that it went on to dominate the world for more than a thousand years. It was only because of the deviation of Muslim rulers from the Prophetic Sunnah that Islam lost its power. It is also clear that only by understanding and applying the Prophetic method can these standards be reasserted, and Islamic social order re-established as the natural habitat for Muslims, indeed for all humanity.

Syed Qutb Shaheed (d.1966), one of the great Muslim thinkers and writers, said that any action or behavior that does not conform to the command of Allah must of necessity belong to the domain of dhulm and kufr; similarly, all actions and behavior that are in conformity with Allah's prescribed path are good and wholesome. Thus a simple act of kindness to one's family, friends, relatives or even total strangers becomes an act of ibadah because it is pleasing to Allah. But the Seerah of Rasool-Allah (saws) is much more than an aggregate of instructions about individual behavior. His example embodies all aspects of human existence, whether it relates to private or public life, to the individual or society and state.

It is at this level that one finds a huge gap in the understanding of Muslims when deriving lessons from the Seerah. Today the Muslim Ummah finds itself in a predicament; Muslims are oppressed, persecuted and terrorized everywhere, yet we are blamed for all the problems of the world. If there is violence in Palestine, it is the Palestinians' fault; there is not even a hint that it might have anything to do with the alien zionist occupiers of Palestine. If the Muslims of Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya resist their occupiers, they are branded as terrorists. When Pakistani Muslims sympathize with their brethren, especially in Afghanistan, the army is unleashed against them to please America. Never before in the history of Islam have Muslim rulers fallen to such depths of depravity and corruption. They have accepted the kuffar as their masters even though they probably pray regularly and go for Hajj; some may even fast in the month of Ramadan, but their behavior toward their fellow Muslims is often worse than that of the kuffar.

If Muslims are truly sincere in our love of the Prophet (saws), then we must realize that our salvation lies not in chasing such alien notions as “national interests”, nor our hope of finding salvation in fraudulent elections among corrupt elites, all of whom are subservient to the kuffar. Our first task must be to understand and then follow the Seerah of the noble Messenger (saws) by overthrowing the jahili systems that have taken root in our societies. Breaking the stranglehold of the kuffar will require a clear understanding of our present predicament, as well as correctly identifying the agents of kufr in our societies. There is no shortage of munafiqs like Abdullah ibn Ubayy in Muslim societies. These will have to be exposed and dealt with in the same manner as the Prophet (saws) and his illustrious Companions (ra) did in early Islamic history. Ordinary Muslims have begun to realise the true nature of the struggle; it is time for the leaders of Islamic movements to show similar understanding and demonstrate through their own example that they are aware of their responsibilities. Only then can they be considered faithful followers of the Messenger of Allah (saws). Otherwise they will stand condemned as munafiqs: a category of people whom Allah has consigned, together with the kuffar, to jahannum (Q. 9:73).

- Sri Lanka Guardian

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