The Sirah from a hitherto neglected dimension: the letters and treaties of the Prophet

Developing Just Leadership

Zainab Cheema

Ramadan 01, 1432 2011-08-01

Book Review

by Zainab Cheema (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 6, Ramadan, 1432)

Zainab Cheema reviews Zafar Bangash’s latest book entitled Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Examining the Letters and Treaties of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and published by Crescent International for the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (384 pages; soft cover, $30.00).

Focusing on the Sirah through the lens of the treaties and letters sent by the Prophet (pbuh) alights at the miraculous paradox at the heart of the Qura’nic message. The Qur’an itself calls attention to how the power and grandeur of the Divine Writ was revealed to an unlettered prophet. In reading the writings of the Prophet (pbuh) as a statesman, it also becomes clear that the word is intertwined with every facet of Islam’s temporal expression on earth. Zafar Bangash’s new book, Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Examining the Letters and Treaties of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), focuses on the political documents around which the first wave of the Islamic movement was launched 1,400 years ago.

Most books on the Sirah take an overly chronological approach, focusing on the minutiae of events in the Prophet’s (pbuh) life and emphasizing acts of personal piety. Other works by writers such as Muhammad Hamidullah have specifically tackled the Prophet’s (pbuh) letters and treaties, but are descriptive rather than analytical. Bangash’s accomplishment is to produce an account of founding political documents charting the establishment of the city state of Madinah and Islam’s expansion as a world power, while using them to illuminate how the Prophet (pbuh) practiced politics as grounded in the Qur’an. The book operates on the canvas of ideas — it compellingly charts the shift from a chaotic political system influenced by tribal loyalties, elitism, and class interests to one grounded on deliverance of care and universal justice to the diverse constituents of an Islamic state.

Power Manifestations is organized according to the sequence of key documents executed by the Prophet (pbuh) as he gravitated from his role as the leader of a small community of Muslims in Makkah, to the head of state administering Madinah and eventually, the Arabian Peninsula. The chapters focus on the Pacts of ‘Aqabah, the Covenant of Madinah, the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, the Farewell Khutbah at Arafat, in addition to his correspondence with other world leaders like Asham, the Negus of Abyssinia; Chosroe Pervez, the Emperor of Persia; Heraclius, the Emperor of Byzantium; and Muqawqis, the Administrator of Egypt. Copies of these documents are reproduced in tables within the chapters, while the analysis reproduces the conversations, controversies, and statecraft mobilized around these encounters.

The author has also paid attention to the Qur’anic ayat quoted, forwarded or revealed around these encounters, implicitly providing an answer to Muslims who somehow believe that the Qur’an stands apart from the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah. Every letter to a head of state marshals a Qur’anic ayah. Reflexively, the book shows that revelation came upon charged moments of the Muslims’ political life, such as the Treaty of Hudaibiyah (the pact of non-aggression with the Quraysh), which many of the Companions believed to be a setback before Allah (swt) reassured them that it was indeed a strategic victory. The Prophet’s (pbuh) character as man and leader, and the experiences of his constituency is the frame on which the warp and woof of the divine Word has been woven.

The Covenant of Madinah marks a definitive shift in the power distribution of the Arabian Peninsula. Power Manifestations looks at how the Prophet (pbuh) exercised the forward-thinking qualities of a statesman even under the severe stress of Makkan persecution. His choice of Mus‘ab ibn ‘Umayr (ra) to develop social contacts in various cities, including Yathrib, in order to provide a base for the Islamic movement, reflected a brilliant strategic move. We are given a close look at the culture of leadership fostered by the Prophet (pbuh) in his community through the rhetorical skills, insightfulness, and God-consciousness of men like Mus‘ab and Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib (who was instrumental in building the Prophet’s (pbuh) diplomatic and spiritual ties with the Negus). It was Mus‘ab that laid the groundwork for the Prophet’s (pbuh) success in Yathrib (later renamed Madinah), a city exhausted by tribal blood feuds and Yahudi economic exploitation.

There is no question that the Covenant is a landmark document in human history. For the first time, an inclusive government based “on the notion of a ‘social contract’ between the state and its citizens” (p. 99) was inaugurated in the quiet hamlet of Yathrib. Power Manifestations describes how the Prophet (pbuh) materialized the Qur’an’s rhetorical invocation of al-ladhina amanu (those committed to Allah’s (swt) power presence) by a process of ittihad (social integration) that fused the various interests of diverse groups of people into a singular community oriented toward social justice.

The Covenant is a text that should be mandatory reading for anyone doubtful about whether Muslims have exercised justice with power. Bangash compares how it meticulously lists the rights and responsibilities of all groups and constituencies that were to makeup the social fabric of the Prophet’s (pbuh) city, in contrast to the US constitution which offered equality and citizenship to men of European background but denied social existence to Africans, women and Native Americans. However, the nature of Islamic politics and “…indeed the cause of Allah on earth is to represent those who have been oppressed and degraded by the corrupt exercise of power and weave threads of justice into the social tapestry of natural human relationships” (p.95). A remarkable facet of the Covenant that has been noted by many scholars is that the majority of the Prophet’s (pbuh) constituents were non-Muslim when agreement was ratified.

The Prophet’s (pbuh) correspondence with the Negus provides a valuable archive of a diplomatic relationship that first validated the Muslims’ presence as a world power, and also of the ties of friendship that grew between the Abyssinian head of state and the last Messenger (pbuh). The Negus even sent his son Ariha to Madinah, where the Prophet’s (pbuh) cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra) hosted him. The book discusses the extant letters exchanged by the Prophet (pbuh) and the Negus. Bangash includes copies of the letters within the chapters theya are analyzed in, which is far more helpful than collecting them in the backwaters of an index.

While the Prophet (pbuh) and the Negus never met, the Prophet’s (pbuh) letters and his companions provided a doorway of communication with the Divine Message through which Asham eventually converted into Islam. In one of Asham’s final letters, he writes to the Prophet (pbuh): “We have understood well what you have stated in your letter to me. Your cousin [Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib] and his companions are very close to us. I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allah and I have pledged my allegiance to Allah at the hands of your cousin and I have entered into Islam” (p.229). On his death, the Prophet (pbuh) offered Janazah prayers in absentia, signifying that the ruler was in fact a member of the Muslim Ummah.

Power Manifestations calls our attention to the confident leadership exuded by the Prophet (pbuh), notwithstanding the personal and social setbacks he was suffering in delivering the message. While Muslim scholarship of the Sirah is deeply sympathetic to the suffering of the Muslims, engaging with the political dimension of his letters makes it clear that personal hardship did not cloud his confidence, political intelligence, or the driven initiative in presenting Islam as a message on the global scale. By initiating the process of creating an archivable record of official communication, practiced by presidents today, the “…Prophet (pbuh) clearly visualized his role both as a prophet as well as a leader of a distinct community at the time” (p.59).

We also see that the celebrated “breakthroughs” in Islamic history were not just the miraculous movements of divine providence. They were also an outcome of the real world strategies practiced by the Messenger (pbuh); he was conscious of himself as world leader and acted as such, even before Madinah was able to wrest Makkah’s role as Arabia’s power center. For instance, there were strategic reasons behind sending the contingent of Muslims, apart from alleviating them from the oppression they suffered in Makkah. Bangash raises the point that many of the émigrés were in fact, children of aristocrats who were far less likely to suffer persecution than the Muslims from lower classes or slaves. Even from Makkah, the Prophet (pbuh) was in effect sending diplomatic missions to a ruler in order to invite him to Islam, while weakening the Muslims’ national and tribal allegiances. Ja‘far (ra) with his famed eloquence became a medium for translating the prophetic message in Abyssinia, and a point of contact for the exchange of letters.

Bangash characterizes Hudaybiyah as the first “international treaty” signed by the Prophet (pbuh). The book elaborates on how the Treaty, characterized by Allah (swt) as a definitive victory, became the watershed moment in the Muslims’ move toward political ascendance over Arabia and the world at large. Even as it became evident that the Jewish tribes would work to undermine Madinah’s government at every opportunity, the Prophet (pbuh) required a treaty of non-aggression with the Quraysh that would allow him to deal with internal and peripheral threats to the city-state, while also normalizing relations with the rest of the Peninsula. “The treaty was a master stroke in statesmanship, neutralizing one enemy by binding it to a pact of non-aggression while forcing lesser enemies to deal with Muslim military power individually” (p.207).

The Prophet’s (pbuh) epistolary contact with Byzantium and Persia is also extensively treated in a later chapter. Bangash’s analysis of the force and assurance with which the Prophet (pbuh) addressed the two superpowers of the day makes for an arresting read, while also providing an instructive lesson for Muslims who believe that non-Muslims must be sufficiently accommodated before they can be persuaded to tolerate Islam within their midst. The emperor Heraclius possessed knowledge of the final messenger from the Bible and after hearing an account of his character from Makkan traders (including Abu Sufyan), attempted to convince his priests to accept the Qur’anic message. However, he was thwarted by their ethnic and religious chauvinism, even while he was convinced that this refusal would (eventually) cost him his kingdom.

“Obviously, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) did not regard himself to be one who is lacking in power,” writes Bangash. “With Allah’s (swt) support, with the Qur’anic revelation causing seismic shifts in the restructuring of human behavior, and with the finest generation now coming into its own as the state instrument of da‘wah, how was it possible for the Islamic precedent [that had] Muhammad (pbuh) at its vanguard, to be vanquished?” (p.247). Bangash also provides information about how the letters circulated among various kings and dignitaries through the centuries, and where some of them are currently preserved.

Power Manifestations is a break from Islamic scholarship focusing on narration of events and personal acts of devotion. In today’s complex, fast-paced world, Muslims face a vacuum of knowledge in how to manage their progression to the forefront of world affairs. The book illustrates that this vacuum stems not from a deficiency in the prophetic example, but from a deficiency in our efforts in gaining comprehensive knowledge of it. Islam’s astonishing spread in the first 30 years stems from the creation of a unique body politic devoted to the Divine Word, while also embracing human diversity and human needs on earth. And while many Muslims have deep love for the Prophet (pbuh), the book makes clear that without understanding every facet of his character — including that of a statesman — that love must remain a shadow of the attribute demanded by his great personality.

Many readers will appreciate the fact that Power Manifestations is not hermetically sealed within a historical canvas of time past, but also blends in contemporary issues of leadership, organization, and socialization relevant to a contemporary Islamic movement. And in order to understand politics done right, one cannot really escape reference to the enormous archive of politics done wrong under the European nation-state system. Power Manifestations also refers to contemporary political issues of war and violence faced by the world today. While the book manages to get the balance right for the most part, perhaps there is too much reference to contemporary events in the final chapter addressed to the Prophet’s (pbuh) farewell khutbah. This makes the chapter too news-oriented and deflects attention away from the central theme of the argument.

In examining the way in which the Prophet (pbuh) practiced power and communication, the book provides a scholarly nexus for the Qur’an, Sunnah and Sirah in addressing some of the most pressing issues that face us today. In examining the Prophet (pbuh) as a leader, we understand the true dimension of his meaning when he characterized the Qur’an as the miracle he was endowed with, in contrast to ‘Isa (a) and the other prophets sent to Banu Israel. The might of the written word, which characterized the grandeur of Islamic civilization, rests on the Prophet’s (pbuh) understanding of the Qur’an as the vehicle for mobilizing human intelligence’s connection with divine presence. Power Manifestations will likely prove to be one of the enduring classics of Islamic studies, not least for definitively proving that Islam was spread by the pen rather than by the sword.

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