The Seerah and power

Developing Just Leadership

Muhammad H. al-'Asi

Rajab 03, 1432 2011-06-05

Bismillah Ar-Rahmaan Ar-Raheem. Alhumdulillah. Peace and blessings on Muhammad (sallalahu alaihi wa alihi wa sallam), his Noble Companions and Family. Dear Committed brothers, dear committed sisters,

I would like to begin by thanking the hosts of tonight’s event by placing me upfront thereby trying to satisfy you and me that they are giving me extra time. Where it’s only half-an-hour whether I am upfront or at the end of the list it doesn’t matter, I’ll try to add another few minutes without trying to be inconsiderate of the other speakers who will follow me.

The first remark I have to make in this very limited time frame is that the seerah of Allah’s Prophet is not a very easy subject to write about. I remember, many years ago, (I can’t remember how many years ago but it must have been in the area of fifteen to twenty years ago), that brother Zafar had mentioned to me that he would like to have in addition to the work on the tafseer some type of input into the Crescent pertaining to the seerah; and I remember trying to politely decline his offer simply because as much as work on the seerah is needed it’s simply, (I think), of the magnitude that exceeds even working on the Qur’an. Here we are not trying to draw comparisons or make a judgement. The matter is very simple. The ayaat of the Qur’an- the six-thousand and few hundred plus ayaat of the Qur’an are there. We know these ayaat. Every Muslim in the world knows these ayaat. They begin in the order of the Qur’an that we have today from Surah Al Faatihah to Surah Al Baqarah and Aal Imran and then they end with Al Mu’awwidhatayn or Qul Huwa Allahu Ahad and Qul A’udhu bi Rabbi Al Falaq and Qul A’udhu bi Rabbi An Naas. Everything in between are the ayaat of the Qur’an. There’s nothing dubious about them, there’s nothing argumentative about them. These are the ayaat of the Qur’an- finished! What is left up to us is to put our minds to work and to understand what these ayaat mean in the context and in the world that we are in. So let’s get on with the task- as demanding as that may be. Now when you want to deal with the seerah of Allah’s Prophet, here you have another dynamic at work that is sometimes very elusive because the hadiths of the Prophet or the works (i.e.) the historical books that we have inherited of the Prophet’s lifetime- call it seerah (or) call it sunnah, it’s your call; but when you come to this body of literature you get into something that is sahih and something that is da’if and something that is hasan and something that is manhul and something that is questionable and on and on and on. So who is going to sort this out? Good luck- brother Zafar. And if you’re thinking of following up the work that you’re doing because it really demands much more I think. This is my personal and humble comment on this. This is a task that demands a consolidated effort, of pooling the minds of the Muslims together from the different historical contexts that they refer to, from the different bodies of hadiths that has become their references, etc. etc. When you think about it objectively, this is beyond one individuals efforts. Nevertheless, that being said brother Zafar had gone ahead and worked his way, I think, in an admirable manner and put together I think a contribution to the seerah books and the seerah literature that we have- all of us. I haven’t read the book from page-to-page but I think he did an admirable job in as far as being fair to the subject matter without isolating or alienating the different types of historical and fiqhi and hadith categorisations that we have been born into. Not many of us take the mental time off to think our way through the traditions that we were born into. This, I think, will help the average Muslim regardless of your background or your miniature cultures; regardless of all of those, this I think will be a very helpful and we are very thankful that we are here to celebrate, (in a sense).

OK, now let me try to give you a sense of what I just said in general (i.e.) what I am going to try to breakdown now more specifically when we look at the seerah of Allah’s Prophet. We scanned through the different books, and there’s plenty of them, even though they don’t concentrate in particular on the issue of power and authority. This is one subject matter which has been left out of the writings of our respected scholars of the past and even until very recently no one is really very much interested in thinking about the Prophet’s decisions when they pertain to issues of power in society. We’re going to have to break this down because many times I’ve been a listener like you and I’ve heard speakers speak about the issue of power and many times it appears to me that the issue of power alludes the average listener as sincere and as anxious as the listener is to understand what are you trying to say here. “I mean I’m listening but there’s no traction! I want traction.” So to try to put this in a way that you understand a little more I’m going to be very simplistic. I’m going to say if there is an insect- let’s pick on a mosquito. If there’s a mosquito around you and that mosquito doesn’t like you or that mosquito actually hates you, how concerned are you? Are you going to sweat because a mosquito is buzzing around and the mosquito really hates you? I don’t think so. I think you wouldn’t even give it a second thought- knowing that mosquito hates you very much; but it just doesn’t register. The mosquito goes about trying to draw a little bit of your blood and it goes on its happy way and you go on your happy way and nothing has registered. But let’s go from a mosquito to, (let’s say), a rabid animal- a cat or a dog or something like that and that animal really hates you. Now at this point you are going to think “hey that animal could attack me and it might begin to bite my leg and maybe take a chunk of my skin out of my body.” So right here that caught your attention. You go from a simple insect to a simple animal and then you go from a simple animal to a very sophisticated human being- a thinking human being with evil on its mind and that human being also hates you. He hates you in the depth of his guts but he doesn’t appear that way. He shields this hostility that is raging on inside of him. He camouflages all of that with a smile, with a friendly approach. Now, in presenting these three examples the variable that exists between the insect, the mosquito and let’s say the rabid dog is the difference of power. The mosquito doesn’t have power. It is in its own way in a defensive mode. It just wants a little of your blood and it goes on its merry way so you’re not concerned. Because there’s no power there but when it comes to an animal beyond the simple mosquito you are looking at harm that’s going to be done to you so here your antenna goes up and you’re alert. You want to be safe. You want to preserve your life and your dignity. And the psychological factor’s the same (i.e.) both these animals hate you and they want to work their nature against you. Then when you come to the most sophisticated form of life, which is your fellow human being who’s around, who also may harbour this intense animosity and hostility inside but is very well qualified to camouflage it inside of him then you should be more than vigilant lest that person harm you, not you only as a person but could harm your collective human presence in this world. This is the issue of power. Consider what I just told you like seeds that I’m throwing out into your thinking capacity and take this with you (so) the next time when someone is speaking to you about power then understand power is really an issue that we live with. The systems (and) the establishments that are around may have the capacity to disguise it. They don’t want you to feel what is going on. When they use the soft power (or) the vicious power- whatever power they use- in getting at you, undermining you, annihilating you in their own ways.

Now when we take a look at this we go back to the Prophet’s time and let’s assume that the Makkah that we are speaking about (i.e.) this is where Islam began, where the Qur’an was revealed, where the Prophet was born, the first contact of this heavenly message began its social struggle. Let’s assume there was no power presence in Makkah. Abu Lahab, Abu Jahl, Abu Sufyan and the rest of the Abus had no power. Who would be concerned? Just like that mosquito we were talking about. Oh- they don’t have any power so who cares? We can go about speaking about these ayaat and the Prophet quoting these hadiths (and) everything will be normal. But we know that wasn’t the case. Nothing was normal. Why wasn’t it normal? Why didn’t the people of Makkah in their power structure and their power heritage not let the Prophet just say what was on his mind? Because there was an issue of power. They knew if they were to give the liberty and freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and freedom of communication to this person called Muhammad the son of Abdullah then something is going to happen to their power structure and therefore they were not going to let that happen. Was the Prophet aware of this? Of course he was aware of this. And if he was aware of this then that means we can begin to read and to understand and to consider his lifelong jihad or his seerah in light of this fact. So when these words came to him from Heaven beginning with

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ

Read (or) Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created. (Surah Al Alaq verse 1)


يَا أَيُّهَا الْمُدَّثِّرُ

قُمْ فَأَنذِرْ

Oh you who are enwrapped or enshrouded. Take a public position and deliver the warning. (Surah Al Mudd’dath’thir verse 1-2)

When these initial ayaat were revealed to him he understood that this is going to be an issue of powers that are conflicting with each other. The first integral component of this power contention is al wahdaniyah. All of us say at tawhid or all of us say wahdaniyah. These are words that we all use, (but) unfortunately we don’t use them in the power context that we are speaking about here because the message that has come from Allah throughout Prophetic history is that power and authority belong to Allah. There can be no human being that claims that he or she as an individual or as a party or as a government or as a ruling class or as a political orientation- none or them- have the right to claim “they are the power of the land and the law of the land.” This is an issue that makes for wars. So the Prophet understood this from the first communication that he received from on high. This is an issue of tawhid and wahdaniyah and therefore those who now enjoy positions of power and of authority are going to lose those positions. That was a very elementary, a very essential component of this new message that now has arrived in the Makkah of that time and of that place.

Another important component that generates a lot of hostilities from people who have wealth and have status and have power is that this message of Islam seems to equalise people regardless of your race, regardless of your social status, regardless of your ethnic background, regardless of your gender, regardless of all these other divisive issues that are around; unlike the world of discrimination and prejudice and class conflict and all of these. This message harmonises people together so that the person who had that position of power and looks down at the other person who is trivial or who is powerless- that’s going to go. That is perceived as a threat. So not only did the Prophet understand that but also those people who were in positions of power, (i.e.) the elites of Makkah, understood that too. So here at the beginning there is a power clash that has not been worked out very clearly and very accurately in the resources or the references of our history. So now it is left up to us today to try to take a closer look at this. In doing so we find out that the first three years of the Prophet’s life long jihad were years of secrecy. You may ask “why should there be secrecy?” The simple answer is that it is a power answer because he is dealing with a power establishment that feels threatened because of the content and nature of the wahy that was being revealed to this person from on high. The Prophet began this secret phase of his seerah without first having a power confrontation with his potential enemies. He began to communicate these words of the Qur’an to the immediate people around him in secret. If you think about it- if someone today is going to begin to do something away from the public eye it means it is something very important and it is something very dangerous, dangerous not in the sense that it is detrimental to it adherents (but) dangerous in the sense that it is a lethal development that will take on the established power structure around. So before the potential adversaries of the Prophet would show their true colours the Prophet began his communication of this Qur’an and the organisation of this Islam away from the public eye at the same time. Both of these were not left to the people around to know that they were happening. How did he begin this? Did he just, (in what today is called the liberal mind), go out there and say, (you know), talk to anyone out there who is willing to listen? Or did he practise his better judgement in trying to identify individuals who would be positively and faithfully committed to what he is going to tell them? Reading through these books of seerah you will find that he selectively, using his better judgement, chose selective individuals to disclose to them what this Islam means, what this Qur’an is saying what is meant by revelation from God to man. And you see it turns out that when he did that he did not do that in a discriminatory manner- he was selective but not discriminatory. Who did he choose? The first one that we know to have been apprised of this revelation was Sayyidah Khadijah (Radi Allahu anha), his wife; and then his cousin who was still very young- Ali ibn Abi Talib (radi Allahu anhu) and then his Mawla- Zayd ibn Haarithah (radi Allahu anhu) and then his best friend- Abu Bakr As Siddique (radi Allahu anhu). These were the first individuals who were favoured by Allah’s Prophet’s confidence to receive the meanings of this message from Heaven to mankind. Then, along the way in the dynamics of the months that followed- we’re still under the three years. I don’t want to use the word clandestine because you know you begin to think in other areas; and I also would like not to use the word underground even though it comes more to capturing the meaning of that stage or that phase but when it came to this organisation or organising away from the public eye in addition to these individuals we had some others who also joined this effort early on. There are some others and I’m not going to be exhaustive here, (I’m) just going to mention a few names and most of them came because of the influence Abu Bakr had within his circle of friends. One of them was Uthman ibn Affan (radi Allahu anhu), the other one was Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (radi Allahu anhu), another one was Abdur Rahman ibn Awf (radi Allahu anhu). Then, throughout these three years because of this power consciousness of what is at work here there was about fifty plus a few individuals who joined Allah’s Prophet. Three years of not going public with this message won over around fifty dedicated individuals to this Prophet and his message.

When we take a look at these fifty individuals we find that they come from- you have to have a little impression of the tribal make up of Makkah. Tribalism in those days was like… You see, in today’s world there’s no tribalism. When you think of yourself, you don’t think yourself as “Oh I belong to a certain tribe.” What has substituted for tribe in our time is the issue of nationality. What nationality are you? So when we say tribalism in those times it’s like saying today what nationality are you or in some instances, depending on the society we are speaking about, it could be what race do you belong to. So it is not like saying tribalism is something primitive. When we use tribalism in Makkah fourteen-hundred years ago it’s not like it doesn’t have its equivalent meaning in today’s world. It does! So in those three years when the Prophet of Allah thought through this power configuration or the power world that he and we are living in he managed to bring together from the major national or power configurations in Makkah; even though Ali ibn Abi Talib was the only one from Bani Hashim in those formative years to have come into the Prophet’s inner circle, in addition to that there were people from Bani Taim, individuals from Bani Asd, individuals from Bani Umayah, individuals from Bani Zuhra. These were like power centres inside Makkah that came into the fold of the Prophet; in other words they relinquished their tribal character now and they gained a new social character. They became Muslims, they became committed Muslims. We see also that some of their wives- because one issue which is left out of much of seerah literature is the issue of gender, but here if we take a look at these first fifty or so individuals who became the committed core of Islam we find that some of them had their wives with them. There wasn’t this saying “you cannot have your wife, she’s a Muslimah. She can’t attend meetings.” These wives were going to Dar Al Arqam ibn Abi Al Arqam where they were forced to have meetings because one of the facts in the seerah which is not very much highlighted is that these Muslims who were building themselves up in an organised manner- the Prophet being the leader, the Prophet was the Imam, (so to speak)- were forced to meeting in Dar Al Arqam ibn Abi Al Arqam when people outside who were not Muslims began to sense “hey something is going on here.” On occasions they would see the Prophet and his cousin praying in the Haram. Now the salah at this time were not the salah al maktuba or mafruda (i.e.) the salah that we pray today Al Fajr, Adh Dhuhr, Al Asr, Al Maghrib and Al Isha’ wasn’t there at that time. The salah that was there was only two rak’at , that’s all they were- two rak’at in the morning and two rak’at at night. But they began to see that these prayers are some what different from the prayers that they were performing. So, without the Muslims intending, the public or the social eye now of Quraysh and Makkah began to sense that something is going on here. At one time in one of the shi’ab of Makkah Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas was with some of these other committed Muslims. He was confronted by some of these just average individuals of Makkah who questioned what are you doing here? What’s this salah that doesn’t totally agree with our salah? What’s going on? Is something going on? So they wanted to prove this dynamic that was left away from their attention and then an altercation began and this was the first time that someone bled in this, as of yet, not accomplished power confrontation between two sides and two opposing camps. As a result of that these committed Muslims decided to meet at Dar Al Arqam ibn Abi Al Arqam away from the intruding and the suspecting eye of the Makkans. In these dynamics, (and there’s plenty of them that are at work here), there’s what is called al jiwaar or al himaya meaning that if a person from Bani Hashim like the Prophet and Ali- these two belong to Bani Hashim- because of that tribal set up of Makkah it was the norm of that time; there were no courts in Makkah, there was no legal system but you can say, (if we wanted to take the world of that time and try to place it in the world of our time), the law of the land there at that time required that a tribe protect one who belongs to it from others. So it was the responsibility of Bani Hashim and the responsibility of Bani Abdul Mutt’talib to protect Muhammad and to protect Ali. It was the responsibility of Bani Taim, (which was of the least of the power factions in this tribal set up), to protect Aba Bakr. It was the responsibility of others to protect their own if they were threatened by the others. The Prophet of Allah didn’t annul this protection. He didn’t say “we don’t want your protection.” As long as they were willing to protect him he was accepting that. He accepted that, that’s why he lived out that tradition. It finally ran out of steam when they decided that we have had enough of this person and all of these tribal factions met and said this is the way we are going to solve this growing problem. This was after around thirteen years of this struggle in Makkah. They said all of us are going to meet and all of us are going to go to this person’s house and we’re going to pick each one from us to come down with his sword on his body and therefore his blood, (in their own words), is going to be dispersed among all our power factions therefore not one tribe is going to be responsible for the assassination of Muhammad. That’s how they dealt with this issue but before it reached that climax the Prophet didn’t see any problem with taking advantage or exhausting the laws of those lands that were protective of his right- in today’s world his human right, his civic right and his political right to express himself. In today’s world we have people who stumble. They’re sincere Muslims and they’ve read a lot and they are anxious to do what is right and all of this but they stumble and they can’t see (that) if there are laws in certain lands that are working for them OK fine- let these laws work for you because before and after all of this, this remains a power issue.

Another component that is not very much highlighted in the books of seerah is the component of the youth. Allah’s Prophet gave certain responsibilities to youth, to young people. This is not highlighted. Ali was very young, Aa’isha (radi Allahu anha) was very young. Usama ibn Zayd ibn Haarithah (radi Allahu anhu) was very young. There were other individuals in this history who were young who assumed military, scholarly, civic duties when they were very young. Even people who in the normal course of things would be excluded from some responsibilities were in the time of Allah’s Prophet given responsibilities. When the Prophet of Allah used to leave Al Madinah he used to deputise someone to be in charge of Al Madinah. We know from the books of seerah that that was a blind person- ibn Ummi Maktoum (radi Allahu anhu). The Prophet put a blind person to be in charge of Al Madinah when he’s gone and when the rest of the able bodied Muslims had gone on a military mission. That challenges some of the conventional traditions that many Muslims may have (i.e.) “let’s exempt this person because, you know, he’s handicapped or something like that.”

(I don’t like to deal with this issue in a sense because it throws into your mind misunderstanding), I’m going to use the word, but please don’t think of this as coming from the political and ideological background that it is used within. The word is social class- the upper class, the middle class, the lower class. When we take a very close look at the seerah of Allah’s Prophet we find that the message of Islam was presented to everyone regardless of their class. There are social laws at work- sunan, a sunnah a social law.

قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ سُنَنٌ

Preceding you are matters of social laws … (Surah Aal Imran verse 137)

So why can’t we learn? The Prophet of Allah, as I said without any discrimination and without bias, presented this message to whomever he thought will be responsibly receptive to it. When he did that (and) when we look at let’s say the first fifty characters who joined him in this immense effort we see that most of them come from what we call today the middle class. It wasn’t because it was engineered to be that way; it was because that’s the way society itself would respond to it. This doesn’t mean that everyone in the middle class is hunky dory, (as it were), everybody is fine and dandy. No. And it doesn’t mean that the other extremes- whether it’s the upper class or lower class are excluded. There were people in this group of fifty who were from the upper class. Uthman ibn Affan was from the upper class. Sa’d ibn Waqqas was from the upper class, wearing a gold ring, putting on elaborate clothes. So was Abdur Rahman ibn Awf. And there were those from the lower class. Like we said ibn Ummi Maktoum Zayd- Mawla Rasulillah, meaning Zayd ibn Haarithah, Umm Ayman, Bilal (radi Allahu anhum), and others. There’s something in this social law that helps us out if we can identify it because when you come to think about it (and) look at the upper and lower classes- we’re not trying to be unfair to them, we’re just trying to be as objective as we can. When people come from affluent and very wealthy families and background the majority of them, not all of them, are spoilt. That’s the word you can use- they’re spoilt. They sort of don’t have the backbone that is required to stay with this struggle and with this jihad until what is called the bitter end. Not all of them! There are some people who do come from that background and they try their best to do however much they can. Likewise, many of those who come from the lower classes, not all of them, (I have to reiterate and repeat this because sometimes people just want to draw quick conclusions. Don’t. It’s a little tricky), but many of those who come from the lower classes, their spirits are broken. They just don’t have the motivation and the marathon spirit to go with this until the bitter end. In this coagulation of the human effort around Allah’s Prophet we find that those who come from mid society were the ones who carried the responsibilities that later on withstood test of time.

Now some of us can skip this history and go beyond the Prophet and think about what happened in the years beyond that. We don’t have time for all that right now. Let’s concentrate on the years of the Prophet and learn from what he said and from what he did. One of the important, (I’ll try to end it with this. I know there might be some individuals getting a little nervous), but one of the features of looking at the seerah is that many times we tend to quote what the Prophet’s said. There’s nothing wrong with that but what is lacking is we don’t tend to study what he did. This you can say is the active absent component of the seerah. We don’t study what he did. This is what is required in concentrating our minds on what the Prophet did, analyzing what he did because we say actions speak louder than words. OK- what were the Prophet’s actions? Let' us focus our mind and our thoughts on his actions and give this some balance at least. A lot of people tell you- you go to Jum’ah prayers, you go to lectures on Islam- the Prophet said this the Prophet said that. OK fine, as I said no one is arguing anything the Prophet said but please give this a semblance of balance. Tell us what the Prophet did and don’t stop there; analyse for us what the Prophet did. That’s what we need when we read the seerah and when we write the seerah. Please tell me what the Prophet did and what it meant at that time and how we can transfer that meaning to our time. That is what is needed. So the next time when you go to a Masjid or you go to an Islamic Conference or you tune into a khutbah try to think is the person just saying what the Prophet said or is he trying to explain to me in understandable terms and in practical and relevant meanings what the Prophet did.

I hope on that note I have communicated… Actually I came (and) I thought that maybe, (you know), to make up for past truncated presentations I’ll be given some time to go into much more details that I have. Actually sometimes many of you ask- at least me, I have encountered this question many times- “could you actually tell us the names of those fifty odd individuals who were the core of that initial stage of Islamic da’wah at the time of the Prophet’s first three years?” I have their names. I actually obtained their names and have them written down but just reading them will take about five or eight minutes or so, especially if you want to comment a little about who they are. I had much other detail about the stages of the Prophet’s seerah but insha’Allah we’ll leave that to another occasion.

Please, if I have made some type of inaccurate statement, it’s your responsibility to bring it to my attention. This is not a contest here where I’m trying to present some ideas and satisfy an ego or something like that. We are here to try to work together in the spirit of Allah’s Prophet. It’s just sometimes we, (I don’t know), human beings all have our soft spots. Sometimes in the privacy of my own self if I just remember the Prophet’s hand, I become emotional- I don’t know why. I hope I’ve related to you some of what he stood for. Thank you very much.

Wa salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuh

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