by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 3, Rabi' al-Thani, 1428)
Every year Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, with reverence and respect in the month of Rabi al-Awwal. Such celebrations are expressions of the deep love Muslims bear for the Prophet (saw). His birthday, however, needs to be considered as more than simply a celebration, important as it is. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala Himself describes the noble messenger as the “best of exemplars” (Q. 33:21), meaning that his example must be followed in all matters. In order to obey this divine command fully, it is necessary to know his Seerah (life-history) well. This is where the birthday celebrations of the Prophet (saw) assume greater significance.
Last month there were several international conferences on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday: in Cairo, Tehran and Istanbul. While the Islamic Republic of Iran has organized such conferences for 20 years to bring Muslims from different madhahib (schools of thought) together on a common platform, Cairo and Istanbul were welcome additions to this year’s celebrations. Al-Azhar University in Cairo established the Dar at-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah (“the hall for accommodating Islamic schools of thought”) more than 60 years ago by the efforts of Shaikh Mahmoud Shaltout and Shaikh Mohammad al-Husein al-Kashif al-Ghita, among others, to bring together Muslims to discuss the various schools of thought in Islam, and thus to foster Muslim unity. Dar at-Taqrib functioned through the nineteen-forties and -fifties before al-Azhar was “nationalized” by the government of Egypt, reducing it to an institution that merely served the narrow interests of the Egyptian nation-state. Dar at-Taqrib also fell victim to this process of nationalization and became dormant.
After the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Majma’ at-Taqrib bayn al-Madhahib was established there. It has held conferences for twenty years in a constant effort to narrow the differences between Muslims of different schools of thought. This year’s conference was held against the backdrop of the rising sectarian tensions in Iraq that have led to serious arguments among some Muslims. The Tehran conference chose the Prophet’s Seerah as its theme, as did the one in Cairo, while the Istanbul conference considered Muslim unity in light of the Seerah. At each conference, the questions of Muslim unity and how to achieve it were uppermost in everyone’s mind. It was also clear that Iraq is spinning out of control, and that the situation there will have serious consequences for the Ummah unless this issue is addressed seriously. Although some speakers from Iraq attempted to create the impression that all is well and that the sectarian conflict is only a minor irritant, not many conference participants accepted this. Iraq was not the main theme, but the sectarian violence there cast a dark shadow over the deliberations of all the conferences.
Not everything, however, was bleak. From Cairo came the good news of the revival of the Dar al-Taqrib, and that it will begin to work along the lines originally envisioned by its founders, to bring Muslims together. This is an important development because Egypt, despite the numerous faults of the regime, is a major centre of Islamic learning and al-Azhar carries much weight in the “Sunni” world. Why and how al-Azhar and the Egyptian regime agreed to revive the Dar at-Taqrib is an interesting question. Among leading Muslim scholars there is growing realization that the sectarian divide is being manipulated by the enemies of Islam and can easily cause irreparable damage to the Ummah if not addressed in earnest. The regimes in theMiddle East understand that there are limits to how much they can exploit sectarian differences; hence the desire not to overplay their hand. The Muslim masses do not buy into the vile anti-Shi’a propaganda being produced by US-sponsored mouthpieces; in fact, throughout the Middle East Hizbullah leader Shaikh Hasan Nasrallah and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad ofIran continue to enjoy enormous popularity for standing up to the zionists and Americans. This makes ordinary people feel empowered and their sense of dignity is restored, something the Arab regimes have demonstrably failed to achieve.
For all Muslims, the Seerah of the Prophet (saw) is a unifying factor. There are no two Muslims, regardless of their background, who do not agree on the noble character of the messenger of Allah, his teachings, his achievements and his example as most worthy of emulation. Thus the Majma’ at-Taqrib conference in Tehran (April 6-9) was divided into different themes: his personality traits; his example at the family and community levels; his establishment of the first Islamic state and his dealings with other rulers. These are vast fields that offer rich material for research. At least 130 foreign guests from 46 countries covering every part of the world took part in the conference. The number of papers presented (70) was impressive, but it must be admitted that not every paper met the academic standards one expects at such conferences. There is a tendency among Muslims, even scholars, to treat such conferences not so much as opportunities to present serious academic work but as excuses to repeat what has already been mentioned in the Seerah books or to talk about contemporary issues. The latter would be acceptable if it were related to some aspect of the Seerah. The problem in Iraq is a good example; repeatedly, speakers returned to this theme but did not make the effort to link it to the Seerah, or how to use the Seerah to overcome the problem.
Muslims need to grow out of the habit of simply describing various aspects of the Seerah. This has already been done through the centuries; what is needed now is to analyze the Seerahto derive lessons from it. One telling point about the lack of serious scholarship on the Seerah is that there is no authoritative encyclopaedia of the Seerah. There have been a few attempts to produce what are referred to as “encyclopaedias”, but these are essentially collections of essays put together on various aspects of the Seerah, with little or no coherence.
Muslims need to grow out of the habit of simply describing various aspects of the Seerah. This has already been done through the centuries; what is needed now is to analyze the Seerahto derive lessons from it. One telling point about the lack of serious scholarship on the Seerah is that there is no authoritative encyclopaedia of the Seerah. There have been a few attempts to produce what are referred to as “encyclopaedias”, but these are essentially collections of essays put together on various aspects of the Seerah, with little or no coherence. Equally lamentable is the fact that most universities in the Muslim world do not have specific programmes of Seerah studies. These are subsumed under Islamic studies, where the Seerahis but one of many subjects that are taught. In countries where there are well-established chairs for Seerah studies (Pakistan for instance), little research work has been done. At the Islamic University in Islamabad there is a library with more than 3,000 books on the Seerah, yet no scholar has thought of doing any original research into the Seerah. The same is true of other universities in the country, where Seerah chairs exist but no research is undertaken to produce any original ideas or courses of action.
In some Muslim countries–Iran and Turkey, for instance–there are serious attempts being made to study other disciplines and produce original material on Islam. At the Imam Reza Institute in Mashhad, an encyclopaedia of the Qur’an is being prepared under the guidance of Ayatullah Waez-zadeh Khorasani. At least ten volumes have been produced in Arabic; ten more are under preparation. At the Centre for Islamic Studies (Islam Arastirmalari Merkezi, ISAM) in Istanbul, an institution affiliated with the Foundation of Religious Affairs in Turkey, an encyclopaedia of Islam is being produced; thirty-three volumes of this 43-volume series have been completed. Unfortunately, these are in Turkish and it will be some years before Arabic and English translations become available. Still, this indicates seriousness on the part of some scholars in the Ummah to undertake fundamental research and produce original works.
There is one other aspect worth mentioning. Egypt is an important centre of learning in the Muslim world. This is not only because of al-Azhar but also because Egypt has produced a number of great scholars. Even today some original work on Islam is done there. Additionally, there are individual scholars in different countries doing research on their own. Some Muslim rulers have also got involved in this area. For instance, the Royal Palace in Rabat, Morocco, has a huge library but the king is interested only in tasawwuf. A great deal of work is being done in this area; next come Hadith and fiqh: Seerah studies are not part of his plan.
Given the lack of intellectual curiosity in the Muslim world and, even worse, a detachment from the Seerah except at a purely emotional level, it is not surprising that Muslims are in such dire straits. Without a clear understanding and appreciation of the Seerah, we Muslims will not be able to break out of the present state of jahiliyyah that we have fallen into. But Seerahstudies should not be reduced to producing more books on the same pattern as has existed for centuries. The Saudis are notorious for this. They have sponsored a number of books on the Seerah, and each year they also give awards for such books. These books may be helpful at some level or other, but what they lack is any originality. Almost every book is a straight narration of the Prophet’s life, with some additional anecdotes or hadiths mentioned to make it slightly different from the ones produced earlier. It is time to move beyond this approach and to begin to look at the Seerah as a model for change. This will not come about unless Muslims begin to analyze the Seerah.
More importantly, the Seerah must be used to derive lessons for the Muslims’ present condition. Every Seerah book narrates that for the first thirteen years of his mission the Prophet (saw) was powerless in Makkah, yet he established the Islamic State in Madinah soon after arriving there. How did this transformation from a state of virtual powerlessness to complete power and authority take place? What factors were involved in changing the conditions in and aroundMadinah to give the Prophet (saw) complete control over his immediate environment? And how did he use the power that he acquired?
This requires both original work and an original approach to understanding the Seerah. More importantly, the Seerah must be used to derive lessons for the Muslims’ present condition. Every Seerah book narrates that for the first thirteen years of his mission the Prophet (saw) was powerless in Makkah, yet he established the Islamic State in Madinah soon after arriving there. How did this transformation from a state of virtual powerlessness to complete power and authority take place? What factors were involved in changing the conditions in and aroundMadinah to give the Prophet (saw) complete control over his immediate environment? And how did he use the power that he acquired? Regrettably, no Seerah book provides any answers to these basic questions. We need to ask why, and begin to work out the answers.
The international Seerah conferences that are held each year provide opportunities to direct the attention of Muslim scholars to this vital area. If Muslims begin to show some originality and creativity in studying the Seerah, there is no reason why we cannot break out of our present predicament and begin to transform our condition in a short period of time. This task must begin in earnest and soon. The energy and resources expended in such conferences will begin to yield results only when Muslims put their minds to serious work. There is no shortage of scholars; only their minds need to be set in the new direction.
One final point is in order. Seerah studies are not a substitute for studying other aspects of Islam–the Qur’an, ahadith, fiqh and so on. What is being proposed is that we Muslims begin to look at the Seerah from a new perspective. The time for such an approach is now, not later.