By: Shahnaz Khan
February 27, 2012
Muslims all over the world celebrated the Prophet’s birthday during this month by remembering the details of his life: His birth, childhood, marriages, and struggle to spread his message, kindness, courage, wisdom, last sermon and finally death. There is emphasis on how he spoke, loved, washed, worshiped, ate, drank etc. And premium is put on imitating him in the smallest details. But the questions I keep asking myself are: What is his real legacy? What is the essence of his message? Who are the true heirs of his tradition? Is there a higher, more profound meaning in his life that we should be trying to understand?
This article is mostly about questions, rather than answers. As someone who is observing a worldwide meltdown of the current financial systems, destruction of the environment, population explosion, exploitation of the poor and attempts of the superpowers to control the world resources, these questions are not just relevant, but of existential nature. If we do not attempt to look for the solution to these problems in his teachings and philosophy, then just reciting poems in his praise and ritualistic imitation of his life is meaningless.
Muslims claim that his message is eternal. Is that a realistic expectation? How do we reconcile what he did in the tribal life of the 7th century Arabia with the demands of the 21st century? This will be only possible if we look beyond the superficial ritualistic aspects of his life. Travel by camels, eating dates as a staple food, wearing the kind of clothes that he did, methods of war and peace, norms of inter-tribal relations of his day cannot be simply imposed today. So, what is his core message that will last for eternity? I believe timelessness of his message can only be found by going beyond the perfunctory review of his teachings. Only then we discover his true legacy that is his revolutionary spirit, his courage to challenge the status quo, his audacity to question the traditions, which were unjust, inhumane and exploitative of the weak. This is the essence of his message that will live forever, that will be applicable in all times to come and will inspire men and women to higher ideals and move the world towards a better place for all human beings: Men and women, old and young, weak and strong, rich and poor, white and black, yellow and brown.
He emphasised charity, but when charity erodes human dignity, makes people and nations to become subservient to the rich, when it becomes a business for ulterior motives and, above all, when it fails to alleviate human misery and restore balance of power among people and nations, is it still the answer? How would he address this issue? Economic disparity and marginalisation of the poor is the predominant problem of the modern world. Promise of capitalism has failed. The trickledown economics does not work for the majority of the people on this planet where almost three-fourths of them live in poverty, while a few have amassed enormous wealth; where multinational companies control the world resources. What will be his stand on feudalism, current trade practices, unlimited private property holdings, maximisation of profit for shareholders by exploiting the workers? Will he approve of a system that allows a minority of people to hold large amounts of land and property enabling them to subjugate the majority?
Karen Armstrong in her book, Muhammad: A biography of the Prophet, says: Western scholars tell us that it is mistaken to see Muhammad as a socialist. They point out that he never criticised capitalism, which had, after all, done great things for the Quraysh, and that he did not attempt to abolish poverty altogether, which would have been an impossible task in the seventh-century Arabia. Muhammad may not have conformed to all the recent concepts of socialism, as it has evolved in the West, but in a deeper sense he was certainly socialist. I believe there is a certain truth in this statement.
Islam emphasises obedience to the ruler. What would he say about the rulers, who are corrupt and unjust? Would he want people to follow them blindly? Or would he expect them to raise their voice against their corrupt practices? What will he expect people to do when the poor in a country do not have bare minimum food to sustain, while millions are spent in the kitchens of the rulers? When average person does not have even meagre means to travel, while the rich are importing expensive cars and establishing private trains for their luxury? Where poor children are deprived of even the basic primary education, while the rich attend elite schools with air-conditioned rooms? Where the workers are paid minimum wage and no benefits, while the owners of the mills and factories are minting money? Where the average person is dying of tainted medicines, while rich are flown in private jets to countries with the state-of-the-art medical facilities? Where rich have palaces with swimming pools, while the poor are forced to spend lives in makeshift huts from which they can be evicted anytime? What will he do and say to the poor and the rich in today’s Pakistan?
Karen Armstrong said: At the beginning, therefore, Islam was a movement of young men and people, who felt they were being pushed into a marginal place in the city of Makkah. Why was this so? I think it was because his message of change, egalitarianism, economic and social justice resonated with them. From this perspective, his message is not just for all times, but for people of all ages, all countries, all ethnicities and all religions. The young and the poor of today have to think hard. Do they want to mindlessly follow what the preachers are telling them or are they willing to be the true heirs of his tradition and challenge the status quo, work for equality and justice for all, according to the needs of this modern day. Will the young men and women, please rise to the occasion?
The writer is a physician based in the US.
Source: The Nation