The centrality of the Prophet’s use of power in the method of the Seerah

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 22, 1426 2005-05-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 3, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1426)

As the Prophet (saw) was migrating from Makkah to Madinah-by no means a voluntary departure, but made because the mushrik tribal chiefs of Quraish had vowed to kill him-Allah revealed to him the following ayaat: Say: 'O my Lord! Let my entry be by the Gate of Truth and Honour, and likewise my exit by the Gate of Truth and Honour, and grant me from Your Presence an authority and power to aid [me].' And say: 'Truth has [now] arrived and falsehood has perished: Verily falsehood [by its nature] is bound to perish.' (17:80-81).

Although these ayaat are in the form of a du'a (prayer), they refer to the temporal side of the Messenger's mission and predict his ultimate triumph, with Allah's Help, over his enemies. They were revealed at a time when his situation appeared totally bleak: he had few supporters in Makkah (most of his Companions had already left for Madinah), and the last of his defenders and helpers-his uncle Abu Talib and his beloved wife Umm al-Mu'mineen Khadijah (ra)-had died three years earlier. Even as life had become extremely difficult for the Prophet (saw), Allah was showing to him signs of his ultimate victory through such events as the Isra' and the Mi'raj and the ayaat revealed during the Hijra.

These ayaat refer to the issue of temporal power, not merely the spiritual or personal power that the Prophet (saw) already possessed by virtue of his being the Messenger of Allah and the bearer of Allah's last and final message. The ultimate defeat of kufr is also predicted in unambiguous terms. Allah instructs him to seek His Help through the prayer: "...and grant me from Your Presence an authority and power and aid [me]." Given the circumstances in which these ayaat were revealed-at the very moment when he was being driven out of Makkah-they demonstrate and command an optimism that the kuffar and the weak in faith must find incredible. Yet the divine scheme operates on a higher plane than that of humans. The ayaat start with the prayer that his entry be "through the Gate of Truth" before it refers to his departure, although he was fleeing Makkah at the time. The divine message emphasises optimism and positive thinking even in the darkest moments of one's life: this is a point we Muslims need to note in these days of our collective humiliation.

A well-known hadith of the Prophet (saw), reported by Anas ibn Malik (ra), that is also a du'a, says: "O Allah, I seek refuge in You from worries and distress... from weakness and laziness... from cowardice and stinginess... from the burden of debt and the domination of [other] men" (Sahih Bukhari and Muslim). Again, we see that the Prophet (saw) is seeking Allah's Help in the affairs of this world for worldly matters. Weakness ('ajz) does not only mean physical weakness, although that is included; it refers (for instance) to weakness that would enable others to dominate him. Domination by human beings negates our submission and obedience to Allah, the only Power and Authority we may acknowledge and worship, this being the essence of imaan in Islam. The clearest evidence of seeking Allah's Help in acquiring power is to be found in the Messenger's beseeching Allah to save him from the domination of others. This can refer to domination at the individual and family as well as collective or state level, wherever people in authority have control, power and influence over others.

Thus we see that the Prophet's mission was not confined to delivering the message; his mission also included the struggle to acquire power so that forces opposed to Allah's divine command would not have the capacity to dominate Muslims. In the secular world the acquisition of power is regarded as undesirable because it corrupts; from the Islamic point of view there is no harm in it as long as it is used to implement Allah's deen in the world; it is what Allah wants us (indeed commands us) to do. Allah reminds us in His Book: "It is He [Allah] Who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the deen of Truth so that it may dominate all other systems, however much the mushrikeen may detest this" (9:33 and 61:9). The Prophet (saw) acquired power in his own lifetime; this is part of his Sunnah and Seerah, in fact a vital part that must be revived and implemented today so that the Muslim Ummah can again be in the driving seat of history.

In another hadith Allah's Messenger (saw) said: "Allah deals with those matters through the power of the State that He does not address [directly] in the Qur'an." Thus the state (however we define it) is an inseparable part of the divine scheme. We Muslims must comprehend this concept clearly because, under the influence of the fraudulent claims of the West, we have come to believe that there ought to be a "separation of Church and State". Almost all states, no matter how secular, derive some laws from religious precepts. But for Muslims the issue is much more fundamental: there is no "Church" in Islam; the "Church" and state are one and the same thing. Islam's laws and ethical precepts can only be implemented in their totality with the authority and power of the state. This is a fundamental part of the Sunnah and Seerah of Allah's Messenger (saw).

We thus need to develop a better and much broader understanding of the Seerah; the question is how to do so. The Sunnah and Seerah of the Prophet (saw) are second only to the Qur'an as sources of knowledge and guidance. There is a close relationship between our understanding of the Qur'an and of the Sunnah and Seerah. "The Prophet's character was the Qur'an," according to the well-known saying of Umm al-Mu'mineen 'Aisha (ra). This also conforms to the Qur'anic advice that there should be no contradiction between our words and our deeds. As the embodiment of the divine message, the Messenger of Allah practised what he preached. We are challenged and reminded in surah as-Saff: "O you who have made a faith-commitment to Allah, why do you say what you do not do? The worst thing in the sight of Allah is that you say what you do not do" (61:2-3).

When he received wahi (revelation), the Prophet (saw) would apply it in his own life before he called upon others to do so. He was, therefore, the perfect embodiment and demonstration of the Qur'an. Other ayaatemphasise the importance and significance of applying Allah's Laws on earth. Those who fail to judge by what Allah has revealed are referred to as kafirs (5:44), dhalims (5:45) and fasiqs (5:47). Naturally the Prophet (saw) adhered to these laws fully, thus implementing the teachings of the Qur'an in their totality. Although the Qur'an is not a biography of the Prophet (saw), it is the primary source of understanding of his Seerah. Just as the Qur'an cannot be understood properly without reference to the Sunnah and the Seerah, so the Seerah cannot be fully comprehended without reference to the Qur'an; Allah says: "[O Prophet] You have the most lofty character" (68:4) and that "In the messenger of Allah you have the most beautiful pattern of conduct and the best of exemplars" (33:21). Not only has obedience to him been made compulsory (4:59), but it is also equated with obedience to Allah Himself; Allah informs us in the Qur'an: "When you obey the messenger [it is as if] you obey Allah" (4:80).

Our study of the Seerah, however, must go beyond mere reference to ayaat; we must derive our understanding of the Seerah from them. A number of scholars have alluded to this, but there has been no systematic study so far. It is even more important because most of the Seerah books we have now were compiled some decades after the Prophet (saw) left this world; the early biographers followed a chronological order in narrating his life-history. During his lifetime there was no need for people to compile the Seerah in writing because the Prophet (saw) lived among them; after his death, there were many Companions (ra) who narrated aspects of his blessed life in the course of teaching the Qur'an, explaining and demonstrating how to lead a proper Islamic life by referring to the example set by the Prophet (saw). The need for a written record of the Seerah was felt by subsequent generations as the Companions (ra) of the Messenger (saw) and their companions (tabi'un, literally "followers", i.e. in their footsteps) departed from this world and the number of people with direct knowledge of the Messenger's life dwindled.

In order to develop a systematic method of studying the Seerah, we must identify the sources in their order of priority. Four basic sources can be cited immediately: the Qur'an; the treaties and documents that the Prophet (saw) made or signed during his life; the hadith literature; and finally the Seerah literature. Again, early Seerah biographers must take precedence over those that came later because of their proximity to the time of the Prophet (saw). Some observers may wonder about relegating the Seerah-literature to the end of this list. Muslim scholars admit that events narrated in Seerah books were not scrutinized as carefully as the ahadith were. They recorded events as they heard them; some took more care than others, but an exact science to verify the authenticity of each narration did not develop as it did in the case of hadith-compilation. We need to emphasize that this is not to question the veracity of the Seerah-literature, only to establish a framework for its evaluation based on the Qur'an, the immutable Word of Allah. There can be no question about the authenticity and veracity of the Qur'an; Allah Himself has guaranteed its integrity for all eternity (15:9). It is the divine Word of Allah, without any alterations or deletions since the day it was first revealed. Any person who does not believe in this or has even the slightest doubt about any aspect mentioned therein falls outside the fold of Islam. This is the verdict of the Qur'an itself (2:85).

Let us next consider the treaties and various documents signed by the Prophet (saw). These have been preserved and thoroughly researched by a number of scholars, most notably the late Dr Muhammad Hamidullah. Their existence in the original form confirms their authenticity; they are not based on anyone's narration from memory at a later date. While the treaties and documents refer to specific events, hadithliterature has a much broader scope and application, although even this must be judged against the divine Word of Allah. Great care and diligence went into compiling the hadith, yet it is ultimately the product of human effort, and therefore cannot be accepted on any parity with the Qur'an. And finally we come to the enormous body of Seerah-literature. It must be evaluated against the ahadith, the treaties and documents signed by the Prophet and, finally, the text of the Qur'an. In all matters the verdict of the Qur'an must take precedence over all other sources; anything contradicting the Qur'an must be rejected. This applies equally to hadith; if it does not conform to what the Qur'an says, it has to be discarded. The Qur'an alonestands as the unquestioning, ultimate criterion to evaluate all truth.

One aspect of the Prophet's Seerah that has not been dealt with by the compilers of the Seerah books in any systematic manner is that of the acquisition of worldly power (particularly, but not only, political power). Almost all the Seerah books, starting from the very early accounts, narrate the Prophet's life in a chronological manner. Until recently, most scholars had relied on Muhammad ibn Ishaq's (d. 151 AH) work on the Seerah as rendered by Abdul Malik ibn Hisham (d. 213 AH) in Seeratun Nabi, as their primary source. This was the earliest extant book on the Seerah. In the mid-eighties, Dr Mohammad Mustafa al-Azami discovered an earlier book on the Seerah: the Maghazi Rasoolullah of Urwa ibn Zubayr (d. 94 AH), which he published from Riyadh. It is now available with the same title in Urdu as well, courtesy of the Institute of Islamic Culture, Pakistan.

Conforming to the tradition of the time, the early compilers called their works "maghazi", that is, the Prophet's campaigns. It was customary for the Arabs of the time to describe their exploits in battle as a way of projecting their prowess. Later the Seerah-writers expanded their work to include other aspects of the Messenger's life as well, but what is revealing is that while the maghazi dealt with descriptions of the Prophet's military campaigns, they did not deal with his acquisition of power. The lack of a power perspective in the traditional Seerah-literature is undoubtedly a void, but it is also a blessing in disguise. It enables us to start afresh without being influenced by existing narrations or interpretations in the Seerah-literature. We can go directly to the Qur'an, the treaties and the ahadith to develop an understanding of how the Prophet (saw) acquired power and used it. It may be asked why the power perspective should be privileged over other aspects of the Seerah in this regard. The simple answer is that almost every aspect has been dealt with, except the power perspective; as Islam is not merely a religion but a deen (a way of life, ethical code, etc.) that must govern all aspects of our lives, power is an important dimension of it.

The power perspective is important for other reasons as well: human nature is based on power differentiation. In every society, there are physically strong as well as weak individuals; there are those who are rich and others who are poor; there are those who command authority in the land by virtue of possessing power, and others who are at their mercy. Thus at every level there are differences in power. What is essential for human existence is the regulation of power; the rich must not use their wealth to exploit the poor, nor to acquire unfair advantage; the strong must not usurp the rights of the weak, and so on. Islam deals with the regulation of the use of power by a balanced approach; hence its prescriptions for how life should be organised and conducted. All societies establish rules for the use of power, but it has been observed that without divine guidance human beings are prone to animal-like behaviour: the rich exploit the poor and the powerful the weak, often causing immense suffering of various types (physical, emotional, economic, etc.).

All the Prophets were sent with a specific mission: to deliver the message of Allah and to actualize it in human society by demonstrating it through personal example. While all the Prophets (as) delivered the message as they were commanded to do, not all of them succeeded in establishing these rules in society, although not because there was anything deficient in the message (nastaghfirullah), or in their method of delivery. Acceptance or rejection of the message is left to people's free will; this is a choice given by Allah to humans but not to the rest of creation. This is also why, on the Day of Judgement, Allah will question only humans (and jinns) for their deeds; other creatures-whether angels, birds or animals-will not be called to account because all of them by their fitrah (nature) are muslim (submitters to Allah in totality, who cannot do anything but what Allah has commanded them to do). Humans have the choice to accept or reject the message, and so are answerable for the choices they make. According to a well-known hadith, Allah sent more than 124,000 Prophets to deliver His message to humankind at different times, although we know the stories of only a handful of them: those whose names are mentioned in the Qur'an. Even so, details about their lives are sketchy. Muslims, however, can take comfort in the fact that the life of the blessed Messenger, Muhammad (saw), is known in great detail. Almost every aspect of his life is recorded, from birth to his departure from this earthly abode. It would, however, be wrong to assume that we have learnt everything about his life and no further study is necessary. Like the Qur'an, the Seerah is a rich source of guidance to help us shape our lives. What is required of us is that we study it from a new perspective: linking early events with those that occurred later, and examining what patterns emerge in the methods chosen to make Islam dominant in society, as commanded by Allah in the Qur'an (9:33 and 61:9).

There is a common misconception that the Prophet (saw) was totally powerless in Makkah. He did not have power in the conventional sense, in that he had few followers and Islam's rules did not apply in society, nor could they be implemented; yet Muslims lived as a distinct community, discernible from the rest of society. The Prophet (saw) was their leader and they obeyed his instructions, even if it meant sacrificing their lives in the process. The Muslims even had their own meeting place (Dar al-Arqam) separate from the Makkans' place of assembly (Dar an-Nadwa) that acted as a parliament, where the elite of that society debated issues and made decisions. The Prophet (saw) exercised what may be referred to as persuasive power as opposed to coercive power. He appealed to his followers' intellect and emotions, exercising charismatic power over them that emanated from revelation, which shaped his personality. The lack of coercive power can be thought of as having a "non-territorial Islamic state" in Makkah; it was transformed into a territorial state with the Muslims' hijra to Madinah. While not the primary purpose of his mission, the acquisition of territory by the Prophet (saw) was an important part of achieving the implementation of Islam in society. Without ascendance and authority over a territory, some of those laws simply cannot be

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