Lessons of faith and optimism in the Seerah of the Prophet

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Thani 24, 1426 2005-06-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 4, Rabi' al-Thani, 1426)

The scale and intensity of problems confronting Muslims worldwide—from Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya to Afghanistan, Kashmir and Mindanao— can easily lead to depression and despondency. Far from these dark days coming to an end, other more intractable problems are added to them daily, and the rulers of the Muslim world, with rare exceptions, appear to have joined in this war against Islam and Muslims. Yet neither the Qur’an nor the Seerah of the noble Messenger of Allah, may peace and blessings be upon him, allow for pessimism despite the magnitude of the problems facing Muslims. On the contrary, both the divine Book and the Prophet’s Seerah give us hope and optimism for just such dark periods of our lives.

Trials and tribulations are a part of life; not even the most committed and pious are exempted from experiencing them. At times, these can be quite severe: torture, deprivation, humiliation and even death. Every Prophet of Allah faced difficulties; some managed to surmount them, others paid with their lives, but all persevered in their divinely ordained missions with courage and fortitude. In the Qur’an, Allah reminds us: “Do people think that they will not be tested once they say they have accepted Allah’s message and committed themselves to it?” (29:2). But with this clear warning of difficulties in life, Allah also gives hope to His faithful servants. We see this most dramatically in the early days of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah, when he faced ridicule and persecution. When revelation stopped for a brief period, his enemies taunted him, saying that Allah had abandoned him. When the revelations resumed, they brought a very clear message of hope. Some of the most beautiful ayaat of Surah Ad-Duha testify to this:

Your later time [in life] will be better than the former; and your Lord shall give you in such abundance that you will be pleased. Did He not find you an orphan and protect you; did He not find you struggling [for guidance] and guide you? Did He not find you destitute and give to you in abundance? (93:4-8).

In the very next surah, more consoling ayaat follow:

Did We not open your breast, and remove from you the burden that [almost] broke your back? Did We not exalt your name far and wide? Indeed, with every hardship there is ease; indeed, with every hardship there is ease. (94:1-6).

In its inimitable style, the Qur’an refers to future events as if they have already occurred. Thus, while the Prophet (saw) was facing great difficulties and hardships, Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala was already giving him glad tidings of better days to come. The same optimism is evident in the ayaat revealed at the time when he was forced to leave Makkah when the chiefs of the Quraish were plotting to kill him. Ayaat 80-81 of Surah al-Isra refer to his triumphant return to Makkah, even as he was fleeing the city, before they refer to his departure from it. They also proclaim the triumph of truth over falsehood. Given the almost total isolation that Allah’s Prophet faced at the time, such optimism may appear unrealistic to the uninitiated, or to those given to viewing the world purely in material terms. The divine scale, however, is very different; it transcends the here and now and provides a clear view of the future.

Similar optimism comes through repeatedly in several episodes from the Seerah of the Messenger of Allah (saw). After a particularly difficult experience during his visit to Taif, a city some 40 miles south-east of Makkah, when the town’s hooligans were set upon him and pelted him with stones, the Prophet (saw) made his famous lament to Allah:

O Allah! Please consider my weakness, shortage of means, and the little esteem that people have of me. O Most Merciful, You are the Lord of the oppressed, and You are my Lord. To whom would You leave my fate? To a stranger who insults me, or to an enemy who dominates me? If You are not displeased with me, then I am satisfied, for Your pleasure is my sole objective.

Allah then sent the angel Gibrail, with the angel of the mountains, telling him that if he so wished, the town would be turned upside down and buried under the mountains. The Prophet’s response is instructive. “O Allah, spare and forgive these people for they know not what they do. Per chance, there may emerge from among their progeny people who will serve Your deen one day.” Even in such bleak circumstances, he hoped that the future would bring better days. This hope was realized in his own lifetime, when people likeKhalid ibn Walid, a great military commander, entered the fold of Islam.

Before his hijra (migration) from Makkah, the Prophet entered into delicate but secret negotiations with delegations from Madinah. After the second pact of Aqaba, one of the delegates asked what they would gain from helping him. The Prophet (saw) told them that if they helped Islam and the Prophet, the Roman and Persian empires would lie at their feet. At a time when the Prophet (saw) had been rejected by his own people, and faced the risk of assassination, forcing him to seek refuge from his place of birth, he talked about the conquest of the Roman and Persian empires. This reflects both great faith and great optimism. True, he spoke with such confidence because of Allah’s promise to help, but still, those who were being promised victory over the two superpowers of the time were ordinary mortals, however committed and dedicated they were. Two lessons emerge from this, unfailing optimism and confidence in ultimately achieving victory, but also that these must be rooted in total commitment.

Neither the paucity of his own resources nor the numerical superiority of his enemies ever overwhelmed the Prophet. Before the Battle of Badr took place in the second year of the hijra, Muslims had two choices: to go after the Makkan trade caravan returning with goods from Syria, or to face the well-equipped army of the Quraish. Some companions wanted to go after the caravan, but the Prophet (saw) favoured taking on the Quraishi army, even though they outnumbered the Muslims three to one. Moreover, Muslims had only six horses and 72 swords with them, while the 1,000-strong Quraishi force was heavily armed. The Muslims had also never been tested in battle. The mismatch could not have been greater, yet the Prophet (saw) led his companions into battle in full confidence that they would have the help of Allah as He had repeatedly promised in the Qur’an. Their victory at Badr established the Muslims as a force to be reckoned with.

The same optimism was seen at the Battle of Ahzab, when an army of 10,000 surrounded Madinah, which was defended by only 3,000 Muslims. Following the advice of Salman al-Farsi, the Prophet ordered a huge ditch to be dug as a defence around Madinah. As the companions began digging, they came across a huge boulder that they could not dislodge. They called for the Prophet, who came to deal with it. As he struck the rock, sparks flew. The statement that he uttered at the time would have appeared incredible to the weak in faith, but it revealed the true mindset of the Prophet (saw). He said that in those sparks, he saw the fall of the Persian and Roman empires. When the Muslims could barely defend themselves and their families, predicting the fall of the two mightiest empires required a great leap of faith, yet this is precisely what happened not long after the noble Messenger of Allah left this world. In fact, when the confederate army abandoned the field after a fruitless month-long siege, the Prophet (saw) predicted that henceforth no army would come to attack Madinah; the time had come for Muslims to go out to challenge the enemy on their home ground. This prediction came true without any outsiders coming to attack Madinah again.

In the ninth year of the Hijra, in what is referred to as the Tabuk expedition, a mere 30,000 lightly-armed Muslims, marching through a scorching desert, went all the way to the Syrian border to confront a Roman army of 100,000. Despite marching through the desert for several weeks, the Muslims were determined to take on the Romans. The latter decided not to confront the Muslims and withdrew from the border. How a force of 30,000 scared an army of 100,000 into abandoning the field, even though the Muslims were hundreds of miles away from their home, is an example in courage and perseverance. It was the optimism of the Prophet (saw) not only in the rightness and justice of his cause but also in the commitment of his companions that enabled them to achieve such victories. The same optimism was at work during negotiations preceding the treaty of Hudaibiyya, when Muslims were prevented from performing the Umrah. Although the Prophet’s companions were disappointed by the terms of the treaty, calling them “humiliating”, the Prophet (saw) could see much further. He had a more optimistic outlook: he saw in this treaty an opportunity that would open the whole of Arabian Peninsula to Islam. As they returned from Hudaibiyya, Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala revealed to him the ayaat of Surah Fath, giving the glad tidings of “a manifest victory”.

The liberation of Makkah offers another glimpse into the Prophet’s optimistic outlook. Marching at the head of a 10,000-strong army, the Prophet entered the city of his birth not as a conqueror but in complete humility, with his head bowed, as the servant of Allah. Once inside the city, he ordered that there would be no bloodshed; instead he offered the people complete safety and security provided they stayed in their homes or sought sanctuary in the Haram of the Ka’aba. He would have been perfectly justified in executing those who had plotted to kill him, plundered his and his companions’ wealth and possessions, fought numerous battles against him and even tortured some of his companions to death (Sumayya and Yasir, for instance), but he did not do so.

When the Makkan chiefs were assembled before him, he asked how he should treat them. They all said in unison: “You are the son of an honourable man and the nephew of an honourable man. While you are entitled to exact revenge, we expect kindness and compassion from you.” The Prophet told them: “This day I say to you what Prophet Yusuf said to his brothers: There is no blame on you; you are all free to go.” By this act of supreme compassion and mercy, the Prophet (saw) won their hearts completely. Thus, when he left Makkah, he did not have to leave behind a pro-consul or a lord general to ensure that the people obeyed his command. He had already conquered their hearts; there was no need to impose anything. He did not fear a revolt from his recently vanquished enemies.

One final point from the battle of Hunain is instructive for our purposes. Despite their numerical strength—12,000 Muslims compared to 4,000 of the enemy, the first numerical advantage in Muslim history—the Muslims suffered a serious setback when they were ambushed in a valley. The Muslims started to run away in confusion and disarray; the Prophet was virtually abandoned and left alone. It was at this critical juncture that he rallied his followers by shouting: “I am Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah; and this is not a lie.” When the Muslims heard him, they rallied to his side and regrouped to mount a counterattack. There were able to rout the enemy, thanks to the courage and perseverance of the Prophet (saw).

The enemy—the Banu Thaqif—had come with all their possessions for this battle; the Muslims took some 24,000 sheep and goats, thousands of ounces of silver and thousands of camels as war booty. When it was time to distribute the booty, the Prophet (saw) gave the bulk of it to the Makkans who had just joined him after the liberation of Makkah. This upset some of the Ansar of Madinah. They said to one another that “when it was time to make sacrifices, he called on us; we helped him fight his battles and protected him against his enemies. Now when it is time to distribute the booty, he hands it over to his own kith and kin from Makkah.”

When the Prophet (saw) heard this, he called all the Ansar to assemble in a big tent. Despite the delicate situation confronting him, when the displeasure of the Ansar could have led to a split in the ranks of his followers, he addressed them in the most moving manner, confident that he would be able to convince them: “O Ansar: Were you not divided and I united you? Did you not wander aimlessly in search of truth and I brought you to Islam? Did you not fight and kill each other and I made peace between you?” To each of these questions, the Ansar answered in the affirmative. The Prophet (saw) then turned the questions around and said: “You could say to me: ‘You were without friends and we helped you; you were driven out by your own people and we gave you refuge; the people of Makkah came to fight you and we stood by you.’ To each of these, I would say, ‘Yes, you are right.’ My dear Ansar, I therefore, ask you: Would you rather take goats and camels with you home or the Prophet of Allah?”

When the Prophet finished speaking, the Ansar were in tears. They had realized what a terrible mistake they had made. The episode also demonstrates the great hikmah (wisdom) and optimism of the Prophet (saw) that, even if concerns and worries were expressed by his longtime companions and helpers, he would be able to satisfy them once he had spoken to them. The Prophet’s aim in giving the bulk of the booty to the Makkans was to soften their hearts towards Islam because they had just entered its fold. They needed to experience firsthand the material benefits that Islam can bring, although that is not the purpose of entering the fold of Islam. This is what the Qur’an also emphasizes in ayah 9:60: win the hearts of people by giving them some material reward.

Thus we see from the Seerah of the noble Messenger (saw) that he not only demonstrated faith, optimism and hope at all times, but he also knew how to handle the most delicate situations in a manner that his critics would be completely won over. It behooves us to seek such lessons from the Seerah and not allow the present state of difficulties overwhelm us. As Allah has promised in the noble Qur’an:

“After every hardship comes ease; indeed, with every hardship there is ease” (94:5-6).

Muslims need to go beyond merely narrating the qualities of the Prophet (saw), or praising him, to demonstrating similar faith and optimism in our own approach to the situations facing us. This is also in line with the guidance offered to us, and the Prophet (saw), in the noble Qur’an. This is how Muslims today can walk in the company of the Prophet, taking the road to Madinah, as he did 1400 years ago.

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