By Ziauddin Sardar
June 16, 2008
Given his character, his spiritual enlightenment and the fact that he is the recipient of revelation, the prophet is the ideal model of behaviour for the Muslims. Indeed, the Qur'an tells us that "in God's messenger you have a fine model for someone who looks forward to (meeting) God and the last day, and mentions God frequently' (33:21).
Someone who is held in such high esteem commands both admiration and respect; and Muslims go out of their way to show due respect to the prophet. At the Qur'an's suggestion (33:56-57), we send blessings to the prophet every time we mention his name: "peace be upon him". By extension this same sign of respect can and should be accord to all prophets, and it is common for Muslims to do so when referring to Jesus, Abraham or Moses. But it is not just out of respect that Muslims prefer the prophet is not depicted in images. It is part of the more general concept of not associating or elevating anything to position comparable with God. It's a position that prohibits all forms of imagery which might be considered idols and lead people away from the God-consciousness which is the essence of the prophetic message. This led to the development of distinctive forms of non-figurative art in Muslim cultures.
We try to emulate the prophet and model our behaviour on his. And, not surprisingly, we are upset when he is disrespected or depicted in an insulting manner - as the controversy over Danish cartoons demonstrates so well. Though it would be of more importance if Muslims as a whole stopped and questioned how well we as a community uphold and follow the example of the entire life and character of the prophet, before blaming others for their disrespect.
While the prophet is the ideal model to emulate and respect, can we also say that he is perfect in all ways?
I think the assumption that the prophet was perfect in all regards, common amongst both classical and contemporary jurists and religious scholars, is logically inconsistent with the fact that he was a human being, which is stressed throughout the Qur'an.
To be human, by its very nature, is not to be perfect, though the human condition is perfectible. To assume that the prophet was a perfect human being is to conflate his personality with the origin and source of revelation: God. The prophet himself never made this claim; the doctrine of isma, or the infallibility of the prophet, emerged later when the wisdom of his saying and actions, compiled in the sunna, was formulated. And the doctrine is logically inconsistent on a number of counts. First, the prophet was scrupulous and insistent on the distinction between his own actions and sayings and the revelation, which was the word of God. The prophet's sayings include many instances of his admitting to his fallibility. For example, when Muhammad discovered some farmers had stopped propagating their date palms in a particular manner because they thought the prophet disliked the practice, he counselled them to follow their practical, scientific knowledge, which was much greater than his own.
The Qur'an brings out prophet's humanity on a number of occasions, when he is corrected or indeed admonished. On one occasion, Muhammad was addressing a group of Quraysh leaders in Mecca. A poor blind man, Ibn Umm Maktoom, interrupted him.
Unaware that the Prophet was busy, Ibn Umm Maktoom asked him repeatedly to teach him some verses of the Qur'an. The prophet was not pleased with his repeated interruptions. The following verses were then revealed criticising his behaviour:
(The prophet) frowned and turned away,
Because there came to him the blind man.
And what would make you know that he would purify himself,
Or become reminded so that the reminder should profit him?
As for him who considers himself free from need (of you),
To him do you address yourself.
And no blame is on you if he would not purify himself
And as to him who comes to you striving hard,
And he fears,
From him will you divert yourself.
Nay! surely it is an admonishment.
So let him who pleases mind it.
Not only was the prophet a human being, he was also a person of a particular time and a particular place. As such, he could not transcend the limitations of his society and his times. He dressed according to the customs of his society, he performed his daily functions within the limitations of this society, and the environment he created around himself depended on the tools and instruments available to him.
We therefore need to separate what is particular to his time and circumstances from what is eternal in how he lived out the message of the Qur'an. And what is eternal in the life of Muhammad, I would argue, is his humanity, the norms and values he exemplifies and personifies in his character and everyday behaviour. I think it is important for Muslims to constantly stress the prophet's humanity rather than focus on the minutiae of how he looked, how he brushed his teeth or the medicine he used. It is the example of his character and spirit we need to bring to the circumstances, opportunities and challenges of our time and use them as examples of living a good life and bettering the condition of all humanity.
In al-Baqura, we came across a verse that I deliberately passed over. It addressed the prophet directly: "To make them walk in the right way is not incumbent on you, but Allah guides aright whom he pleases; and whatever good thing you spend, it is to your own good; and you do not spend but to seek Allah's pleasure; and whatever good things you spend shall be paid back to you in full, and you shall not be wronged." (2:272). It is not the prophet, however, who needs this reminder. It is us. We need to be reminded that ultimate guidance comes only from the Qur'an; the prophet teaches us how to translate this guidance into our lives, how we might use it to build communities and establish just and equitable societies - how we should approach, interpret and live the message of the Qur'an. This makes him an extraordinary human being.