The noble Messenger (pbuh) was sent not only to inform but also to transform errant humanity by bringing it out of darkness and into light (65:11). In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) says He ennobled the Messenger with a lofty character (68:04) and made him an example for all humanity to emulate (33:21).
The noble Messenger’s birthday occurs in the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal. Muslims would do well to go beyond ritual celebrations and consider some of the transformational dimensions of the Sirah. There are two attitudes that dominate Muslim thinking about the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh) today. One sees his example being relevant only in people’s personal lives — that is, in a narrow sense. Thus, there is emphasis on the Prophet’s attire, personal hygiene, and the manner of his eating, for instance, but the larger issues of state and politics are ignored. At the other end, some Muslims believe that the Prophet’s Sirah was nothing but an endless series of wars. They kill other Muslims because of minor fiqhi differences ignoring the fact that Allah (swt) sent the noble Messenger “as a mercy to all the worlds” (21:107). This was witnessed at the time of the liberation of Makkah in 8ah when the Prophet’s vanquished foes stood trembling before him. He forgave them all and sought no revenge against his decades-long enemies.
During that time Arabia was steeped in jahiliyah (ignocracy). Idol-worship shaped religious, social, and cultural behavior. Injustice, oppression, and tribal warfare borne of arrogance, female infanticide, and slavery were other practices prevalent in society. Today, Muslims are afflicted by many of the same problems even though idol worship has been replaced by the worship of nationalism, money, and class interests.
In Makkah, the noble Messenger (pbuh) emphasized the Oneness of Allah (swt). For this he and his small group of companions faced great hardships. They did not pose a physical challenge to the prevalent system of inequality and oppression. Even the Makkan mushriks knew this, so why then did they inflict so much harm on them? The mushriks realized that the kalimah — proclamation of the Oneness of Allah — was a direct challenge to their entrenched system of injustice and exploitation. Today, an estimated 2 billion Muslims proclaim the kalimah but no entrenched power feels threatened, much less has undergone a transformation.
Analyzing the prevalent system in Arabia, the Prophet (pbuh) found it unacceptable and emphatically rejected it. He then prepared a group of people and imbued them with steely determination to challenge the jahili system regardless of costs or hardships.
This was only possible because the committed Muslims were convinced of the veracity of the prophetic message. Further, certain corrective measures were instituted. These included abandoning such antisocial habits as stealing, lying, oppressing others, and mistreating women and slaves. This was a blow against the entrenched unjust system.
The institution of salah was meant to inculcate the spirit of equality and develop a sense of communal responsibility. Again, distinctions of tribe or clan, rich or poor, and mighty or weak were obliterated. Similarly, zakah as a system of wealth distribution was institutionalized so that those in need could be looked after. The Prophet (pbuh) led by example. He did not ask others to make sacrifices without first doing so himself.
The migration to Madinah, forced upon the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions, led to the establishment of the Islamic State. The principle of equality and fair dealings with all the constituent parts — Muslims, ummiyun (the unlettered), and Jews — was the cornerstone of this policy. In Madinah, the socio-political and economic principles of Islam were introduced.
Clear political principles were laid down. Leadership was on the basis of bay‘ah (willing consent of the people); no coercion was used, nor were decisions imposed from the top. Mutual consultation (shura) in all affairs became the norm and after due deliberation, the decision of the leader (the Prophet) was accepted as final.
At the economic level, the bayt al-mal (treasury) was established to address the circulation and distribution of wealth in a fair and equitable manner. Near the end of the prophetic mission, following many battles against the enemies of Islam, riba (usury), the source of much injustice, was abolished.
The prophetic Sirah offers a clear path for the Muslims to escape from the state of jahiliyah into iman (faith-commitment, or light). The Sirah must be seen less as a set of rituals and ceremonial observances than as a practical guide for how life is to be lived on earth including dealing with state and politics.
Muslims must internalize this point to escape from the state of jahiliyah into which they have fallen today.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).