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Islamic Personalities ( 29 Aug 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Life And Teachings Of Muhammad – Part I

Lecture 1


By Annie Besant


Adyar Pamphlets No. 162




as published in June, 1932


By The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai [Madras], 600 020, India


Lecture 1 is printed here for the first time from a type-written MS., unrevised by the author.


Lecture 2 was delivered at Junagadh on March 23, 1903

and was first printed in Junagadh at the expense of the State in 1903.




In speaking to you this evening one thing I want very much to do is try to lead a better understanding between the two vast populations of Hindus and Mussalmans in this country. I feel sure that if they understood each other better, they would feel as a single people. There is far more misunderstanding of Islam than there is I think of the other religions of the world. So many things are said of it by those who do not belong to that faith. Several things are said attacking those who follow the faith, not realising that it has gone far and wide over many nations and has brought reform and improvement to some of the very barbarous nations of the world; and the religion is blamed because while it has much improved them, it has not been able to entirely eradicate] much which makes other nations hostile to them. Then there has been a good deal of deliberate misrepresentation.


When the banner of the great Prophet was first carried to Europe, it came at a period of intellectual darkness. When the Roman catholic faith was a persecuting faith, and when the Moors invaded Spain and founded wonderful Universities, when they brought the light of science to Europe and for six centuries carried a torch of illumination to the European nations — in that time they were looked upon less as scientific teachers than as religious heretics; and because the Crescent instead of the Cross was blazing on their standards, their teaching was banned and they themselves were regarded as enemies.


It is well to remember that from the 8th century to the 14th it was from the Mussalman source that the light of knowledge spread over Europe, that the Muslims revived the knowledge of Greece and of Alexandria as it had been advanced and strengthened in the great University of Baghdad, sending out its messengers in all directions. From that entry into Europe there arose a prejudice against Islam as Islam which was not due to a knowledge of its religious teachings, but as a heretical faith; and therefore all its teachings of every kind were to be banned by good Christian people.


You can hear in England today good, kindly people saying of Islam that it denies to woman the possession of a soul. You can find others stating that the religion is evil, because it sanctions a limited polygamy. But you do not hear as a rule the criticism which I spoke out one day in a London Hall where I knew that the audience was entirely uninstructed, I pointed out to them that monogamy with a blended mass of prostitution was hypocrisy and more degrading than a limited polygamy. Naturally a statement like that gives offence, but it has to be made, because it must be remembered that the law of Islam in relation to women was until lately, when parts of it have been imitated in England, the most just law, as far as women are concerned, to be found in the world. Dealing with property, dealing with rights of succession and so on, dealing with cases of divorce, it was far beyond the law of the West, in the respect which was paid to the rights of women. Those things are forgotten while people are hypnotised by the words Monogamy and Polygamy, and do not look at what lies behind it in the West — the frightful degradation of thousands of women who are thrown into the streets when their first protectors, weary of them, no longer give them any assistance.


So it is that Islam has to deal with an amount pf prejudice. There is much of course in the exclusive claims of Christianity which make it hostile to other faiths. But none the less that is no excuse for an ignorance of one of the great religions of the world — an ignorance that I think ought to be regarded as a duty by the Muhammadan world to diminish by making known the real character of the Lord Muhammad and by spreading a knowledge of his teachings in countries where those teachings are misrepresented. It is then that I had the idea of putting before you who hold that faith, and of putting before others who do not hold it, a way in which it may be regarded, which will replace mistrust with trust, which will make friendship instead of hostility. It is impossible for anyone who studies the life and character of the great Prophet of Arabia, who knows how he taught and how he lived, to feel anything but reverence for that mighty Prophet, one of the great messengers of the Supreme. And although in what I now put to you I shall say things which may be familiar to many, yet I myself feel, whenever I re-read them, a new way of admiration, a new sense of reverence to that mighty Arabian Teacher. In order to understand his work at all, you want to consider the conditions under which he came.


What was the kind of country into which this teacher was born? What the surroundings that were his in childhood, what the kind of opposition he had to meet, not only as to teaching, but as to life? I cannot summarise more effectively than by borrowing a passage written many years ago by myself, but taken from great authorities, which sums up very briefly the condition of the country when this Child was born.


“When the sixth century of the Christian era had broken over the world, come with me, and see what is the state of Arabia the fair, or Syria, the land trodden by the Christ. Religious war on every side that breaks up homes and separates the people: quarrels brutal and bloody; blood-feuds that last from generation to generation; hatreds that divide man from man, and clan from clan, and tribe from tribe. Look at Arabia, Arabia where there is a fierce and cruel idolatry that even offers up human beings in sacrifice to idols, and where the worshippers feast on the bodies of the dead; where lust has taken the place of human love, and utter licentiousness the place of family life; where bitter and bloody wars break out on the slightest provocation; where kinsman slays kinsman and neighbour, and life is almost too foul for words. Into that seething hell of human passion, murder, lust and cruelty a child is born."


[The Religious Problem in India, by Annie Besant, page 4]


Now that is not an exaggerated description, but may readily be found by the statement made by some of his early disciples after he had taken to teaching and when terrible persecution was making life impossible in Mecca, a statement made by them of the change that the teaching of this Child when it came to manhood had made in their lives. "O King!" (the address was made to a monarch [Page 6] from whom they claimed protection) "we were plunged in the depths of ignorance and barbarism; we adored idols; we lived in unchastity; we ate dead bodies, and spoke abominations; we disregarded every feeling of humanity and the duties of humanity and neighbourhood; we knew no law but that of the strong; when God raised among us a Man, of whose birth, truthfulness, honesty and purity we were aware; and He called us to the Unity of God, and taught us not to associate anything with Him; He forbade us the worship of idols, and enjoined us to speak the truth, to be faithful to our trusts, to be merciful and to regard the rights of neighbours; He forbade us to speak evil of women, or to eat the substance of orphans; He ordered us to fly vices and to abstain from evil; to offer prayers, to render alms, to observe the fast. We have believed in Him; we have accepted His teachings".


There is contemporary evidence to the change brought about by the teaching of the Prophet, and I submit that that ought to be familiar to everyone of you who live in a country where seven crores of people, follow his teachings and reverence his memory; and these people, you must remember, were not mere speakers of empty words, for we find of them that when they were frightfully persecuted, they willingly endured it and died blessing his name. A man who could raise such intense devotion, a man who was followed with such passionate love was a man, certainly, who among the surroundings, that I have described to you, must have been inspired by God, a true Prophet to the people to whom he came. And then you find that he lived up to what he taught, when you find that he never revenged himself on an enemy, when you find that in the days when he was at war instead of killing the prisoners of war, as was the brutal habit of this time, he not only gave them life, but his followers gave them all the bread they had and only kept the dates for themselves. So much were they inspired by the teaching of the Prophet that they began to realise that they were face to face with one of the mighty Ones of history, a man whom all men should reverence, whether they be followers of his special teachings or not.


I would then ask you to consider the conditions under which he had to teach, to teach the unity of God and to teach the duties of man to man — no easy task and for a long time unsuccessful. Let us remember how he was loved in the place where he lived. Little children would run to him and cling to his knees. His neighbours called him Al Amin, the trustworthy, the testimony to the character of which any man might be proud. And when at first he began to wonder what was to be his work in the world after he had married Khadija — he was 24, she very much older, one of the ideal marriages of the world for they lived twenty-six years of married life in perfect harmony and she was his first disciple — there came that terrible time in his life when for fifteen long years he was struggling for himself and wondering about his duties. You will read of him, time after time and months after months, living in the desert, separating himself from all human influence, praying aloud for light, crying aloud for teaching and nothing came. And then you hear how now and then a voice would be heard, he knew not whence, simply saying “cry", and he knew not what he was to cry nor what the voice demanded of him.


It was after fifteen years of those mental struggles, of that agony of mind and that rending anguish of human soul struggling in darkness to find the light, that one day as he was lying on the ground in his agony, a light shone around him and suddenly an Angel appeared before him and said to him: “Thou art the Prophet of God; rise up and cry". His answer was: “What shall I cry?" He was an ignorant man on these points. And then it took him and taught him of the world and of the divine life of the Angels and of man and then sent him back to the world with its Message. He went back still troubled, anxious and broken, and when he reached his home again he threw himself on the ground and said: “Who am I.? What am I ? How shall I cry ? And it was then that he made his first disciple his wifewho loved and trusted him and who spoke words so wise and so true that they are worthy of ever being remembered. "Nay ...” she said. "thou art true and faithful. Thy word is never broken, men know thy character; God does not deceive the faithful. Follow the voice then. Obey the call". In that there lies a great truth. A man who is true to his fellowmen, who never lies, whose word is trusted, that man has in himself a truth which would not be deceived by Him who is Truth Himself. The inspiration that came to him has built up the great faith of Islam. Over one country after another it flew; among the many countries it carried the light of knowledge.

You may say there was much cruelty and persecution. Have you ever tried to discriminate something about that and to judge the religion by the teaching of its Prophet rather than by the excess of its adherents ? You should always take a religion at its best and not at its worst, from its highest teachings and not from the lowest practices of some of its adherents. If you like to take an example from recent history, think of the white Huns who swept down to Europe, who destroyed some of the great monuments of Buddhist learning in the three chief Universities, and then notice how going out of India westward they destroyed the splendid University of Baghdad, although nominally they were Muslims. They hated learning and therefore they destroyed indiscriminately. It is true there was much destruction of idols, but against the teachings of the Prophet. You remember how he said: “Revile not the idols which they worship beside God".


A Prophet is always much wider than his followers, much more liberal than those who label themselves with his name. You may remember that wonderful statement of his that in the day of resurrection God would explain to the different religions the things in which they differed, and that until then they should live together in peace, not hating nor injuring each other. If those teachings were to be carried out in India, hatred would cease between Mussalman and Hindu and Parsi, Jew and Christian.


 Take this example. A bier passed by with the corpse lying on it and someone said to him that it was the body of a Jew. “Whether it be the body of a Jew or Christian or Mussalman", answered the Prophet, “you should stand up as the bier passes by". And so it is that when studying his teachings you cannot help avoiding a deep reverence and even a respectful love for the man. So beautiful was the teaching that fell from his lips and so inspiring was his example.


The Prophet did not succeed very much. At the end of three years he had thirty followers, and last there came a time when the terrible persecutions scattered them all over the country and only three men were left; and then his uncle who had been so marvellously faithful to him throughout turned to him and said: “Give up your teaching, because it is hopeless". And the answer was: "As God is my witness if they place the sun on my right hand and the moon on the left I will not forsake this cause". And when the uncle seemed a little annoyed with him, he turned away and left him throwing his mantle over his head to hide his grief at seeing the breaking of the tie. And then his uncle cried after him: "Stop, stop, teach what you will, but do not go away". At last out of the three, there was only one left. And with him the Prophet wandered lonely across the desert and when the disciple said: "We are only two", the answer of Muhammad was: "Nay, we are three, for God is with us.”


There is one story which I want to read to you because it shows that Lord Muhammad has a sense of humour in him. Sleeping one day under a palm tree he awoke suddenly to find an enemy standing before him with drawn sword. Then the man asked: “Who is there now to save thee?". “God,” answered Muhammad. Then the enemy dropped his sword. Muhammad seized it and asked him who was there to save him. "No one", replied the enemy. Then the Prophet handing the sword with the hilt turned towards the enemy said: "Then learn from me to be merciful". So it was that he was fearless at all times, because he knew that he was never alone.

Then he came to Medina where he went his way. There is one scene in that so beautiful as showing the great love that his followers felt for him that I think it worthwhile to read it now. There has been a battle and a victory and the spoil has been divided; and those who have followed him longest have not shared the spoil and they complained to him that they were badly used. He said: "I have learnt the discourse that you were holding among yourselves. When I came amongst you, you were wandering in darkness and the Lord gave you the right direction. You were suffering and He made you happy. You were at enmity amongst yourselves and He has filled your hearts with brotherly love. Was it not so? Tell me". "Indeed it is true, as thou sayest, to the Lord and His Prophet belong the benevolence and the grace was the reply. "Nay, by the Lord”, said the Prophet, “but ye might have answered and answered truly, for I would have testified to its truth myself: Thou camest to us rejected as an impostor and we believed in thee; thou camest as a helpless fugitive and we assisted thee; poor and outcaste, and we gave thee food and shelter. Why disturb your hearts because of the things of this life. Are you not satisfied that others should have the flocks and herds and that I should dwell in the midst of you? By Him who holds my life in His hands while you go back to your homes I will never abandon you. If all mankind went one way I would go with them. The Lord be favourable unto them and bless them, and their children and their children's children". It is written that these rough warriors wept till the tears ran down their beards.


Now that is the impression he made on the people, this intense love, and that is the one reason why you never find a Mussalman ashamed of his religion, while you will see him, when the time of prayer comes, pray in the very midst of those who revile his Prophet and care nothing for these. That is very rare in those who follow any other faith. It is because the memory of that wonderful influence has come down through centuries, and also that that influence still spreads from him over the hearts of his followers and makes a tie between the Prophet and disciple, that nothing can avail to break it. There is indeed a strong humanity, a strong feeling of the greatness of this Teacher, the more remarkable, because they have never allowed their love to defy him or to look on him more than as a great Prophet.

The Prophet never in any way tried to conceal any possible mistake he might have made. I remember one story and I must rely on my memory. A poor and blind man had gone to him and asked for teaching. The Prophet was talking to a man of high rank at the time, and he took no notice of this poor man. Three times the man asked and three times he was disregarded. The next morning the Prophet sent for this man and told him that he had a message in the night, which is now in the Al Quran, that he had repulsed a poor man who cried out for knowledge and that he had not done well. Then the Lord Muhammad took him, placed him in a seat of honour and treated him always with the greatest courtesy because he said that "on account of this man my Lord rebuked me". Now that kind of thing, the humility of thought, the readiness to repair a blunder, the frank admission of a mistake, is not so common among the great Teachers of the world and yet you find it in him over and over again.


All through his teachings there is this thing which has so much influence on the character of the Muslim nations, a certain determination to stand on their own feet, to be under obligation to none, feeling proud to some extent; one of the best forms which pride can assume so that you find them independent as well as always ready to be hospitable throughout from their childhood — these are the precepts of their Teacher.


Then there are some remarkable points about the teaching which I mean to read to you because they are very impressive in the exact words of the Teacher. There is a phrase that you must all know well. "The pen of the scholar is more valuable than the blood of the martyr". That was one of the things that caused Ali, his beloved son-in-law, to start the great circle of pupils and begin the growth of marvellous steady discovery which characterises the great Arabian scholar of Baghdad. If you take what happened during the 8th century you will not marvel at the discoveries that were made by the followers of the Prophet, how they had two other sciences, how they took up one, how taking the great astronomical works of the Hindus they translated them into Arabic, and basing themselves on those went on to new discoveries in Astronomy that have been later passed on into Europe. You find that they studied mathematics and added very largely to mathematical knowledge. You find their wonderful skill in architecture, some of the most exquisite monuments in India having been built by Muslim Emperors. And so you find some splendid record of knowledge.


Now how is it that with such a record there are so many ignorant among the Muslims today — so many that they are sometimes spoken of as a backward class in education? If you look into it carefully, I think you will find that knowledge lingered on after the Great Emperors, Akbar, his son and grandson had passed away, when the court of the emperor was the resort of all men of learning from all the countries, practically all the nations of the world. In one way, the fact that the school was attached to the mosque had the same effect upon it later on as the fate of every temple of the Hindu and Buddhist that had the school attached to it; it brought the destruction of the schools very often, because the worship in the temple was objected to, and so when foreign rule came holding another religion, there was the tendency to try to discourage the religion and through that the teaching. Even now you will find in very many mosques elementary schools existing where the young Islamite learns his sacred books and his prayers before he is allowed to go to a general school where he might learn other forms of literature or art.


So I would ask you to consider — especially those of you who have time to study carefully — the writing of the Muslim doctors from the 8th to the 14th century. I would ask you to study this, because they are the real bridge between the two religions, because you will find the Advaita Vedanta in the Sanskrit religion is practically identical with the presentment of that high Metaphysics in Arabic by the doctors of Arabia. After that I would point out to this great audience of Muslims that here they may find the reconciliation between their own faith and the ancient religion of this land, not in the external but in matters of the intellect and of the spirit; that it is by the translation of those wonderful writings into modern languages that very much might be done in order to prevent hostility between the different faiths. For it is there you will find some of the most wonderful metaphysics of the world — metaphysics as subtle from those keen Arabian brains as you may find among Indians with the admitted subtlety of their metaphysics. It is there that I find one bridge of union, not in the outer surface, which is different, but in the fundamental teaching of the Unity of God, the nature of the Supreme; they link hands together and there is practically no difference between the two.

Then again in the ethics you will find another point of union. You will find the most exquisite moral teachings. Sometimes I have thought of putting more effectively what they call the science of the Lord Muhammad, for even in Al Quran itself that is so written, in translations by people who do not believe it, that it is very difficult to get at the real spirit of the original. If it is translated by Muslims it makes an enormous difference in effect and the depth of the teaching. There is a little book published as the Science of the Prophet Muhammad, full of the most exquisite ethics. One phrase in it that you should never forget if you hear that Islam is unfair to women, is his saying: “Heaven lies at the feet of mothers”. Or you may read how he preached to the Muslims to be reverent to their parents, that they should pray to God that He be kind to them, for they took care of them when they were little children. So looking at the metaphysics on the one side and the ethics on the other, we find so much in common between the two faiths that no adherent of either should mistrust or dislike the other. Many will try to make oppositions, will try to prevent reconciliation; but all the best men of both faiths will join together to link the hands of Islam and Hinduism in a brotherly clasp which shall not be broken again by any. It is there that lies the greatness of the country in the future.


India is a country in which every great religion finds a home. Go back as far as you will and you will find that Hinduism exists. Go down later and you will then find Buddhism establishing itself with its wonderful ethics. Go down further still, and you will find Jainism almost contemporary with Buddhism. But you will find Christianity in the first century after Christ and on the west coast. It has to become one of the Indian religions and no longer only the religion of the foreigner. Then still later you will come to the great Prophet of Arabia and his people together with the exiles from Persia, the Parsis; the whole of them are here in India in a common motherland, and have a common interest, and should have a common pride. It is in these ways by studying each side that so much will be gained.


You will find passages of exquisite beauty in Persian which may vie with any of the ecstasies of the Hindu Yogis. You will find that there is a yearning after God, a love of God and a testimony to His infinite compassion that you cannot tell is Hindu or Sufi but for the language in which the identical feelings are clothed. Why then should not this land which has all the religions, be a temple to the world of the truths of God, as it were, where all the religions would be brethren and only rival each other in good deeds?


You know what religions are. They are like the broken rays of the white light of the Sun; the truth broken in the prism of the intellect, which cannot reach the great truth of the unity of the Spirit. If you were inside some great cathedral in Christendom, you would see windows of different colours, some green, some blue, and some yellow. You will see differences of colours in the world around you where the white light of the Sun is broken up in the flowers. and they shine with reflected rays of the colours that are hidden in the white light of the Sun. It is only if you are outside the temples of religion that you see the differences in them; from inside you see the truth through a coloured glass of religion which is adapted to the times, to the people, to the wants of the age, when the Prophet gives his teaching to the world. Do not sit outside them all: rather enter into all of them and worship in all of them, the one Supreme, and then you will see the white light, which the lamps there are throwing out — the white light which is coloured by the glass of the windows and not from any change in the light. Go into all religions and love them, learn them, respect them, realise their spiritual unity, and then India will have a religion in which all the beauties of every faith shall be blended together as it were and shall give out to a wondering world the pure white light of God.