Friday Thoughts 30
A Beautiful Example
You do have in God's Messenger a beautiful example for anyone who hopes for God and the Last Day and remembers God often. (Surah 33:21)
Every Muslim knows that, next to the Qur'an, the Sunnah is an important source for Islamic law and theology. But from then on opinions are divided. Some Muslims understand the term Sunnah mainly as referring to additional ritual prayers before and after the obligatory ones as practised by the Prophet Muhammad. To some it denotes a set of everyday actions done in a specific manner including the way of greeting each other, eating or handling personal hygiene. In Turkish, the word "Sünnet" came to be used for circumcision that is, in fact, traced back to Abraham. In some circles, Sunnah is understood as synonymous with hadîth that is actually the report of the Prophet's actions and statements that are significant for Muslim tradition, illustrating and explaining things that are expressed in the Qur'an in a more general and abstract way. As such, it is considered a key for interpreting the Qur'an, except that there are differing views on what the status of the Sunnah is in this context: is it a source of law on an equal level with the Qur'an, including an inspirational element, or is it an auxiliary source that facilitates understanding and implementation, or is it even a prerequisit for the understanding of the Qur'an? In any case, all these approaches have a role in the critical evaluation of traditions that tries to establish their authenticity and scope.
The word sunnah itself literally means regular practice, habit, and is originally used in a much wider sense than the technical term referring to the Prophet's example. Thus, for example, the Qur'an uses it in the sense of Sunnat Allah, God's habit, as it were, to describe phenomena that we would nowadays call laws of nature. In contemporary language, the word would also have been used for the regular practice or habits of a specific individual, family or tribe the way we would talk about family tradition or tribal lore. It would therefore be the question of whose sunnah we are talking about. Most Muslims mean it in the sense of the technical term denoting the example of the Prophet Muhammad, but it is not always clear whether a particular pattern of behaviour really goes back to him or rather represents a local custom. And even in the case of the Prophet there is a debate on whether a particular action of his is to be considered normative or something that is part of his cultural background or even a personal habit. This has a role in the discussion of what it means to follow the example of the Prophet. It is often understood in the sense of imitating a whole range of everyday habits of his including additional ritual prayers, brushing his teeth several times a day, being the first to greet people, helping his family with the work in the home and even wearing a turban and eating with his hands. Obviously some of these practices, if taken to an extreme, are not easily compatible with modern life, neither in the West nor in Muslim countries, but if they are not imposed on others or turned into a dogma but done out of a simple love for the Prophet, I would not judge too harshly.
What did make me think, though, is the fact that the verse quoted above was revealed in Makkah at a rather early stage while hadîth texts almost exclusively refer back to experiences in Madinah where there was much more of an emphasis on social norms and structures. If Muslims, back then, had been as preoccupied discussing details of behaviour and external marks of identity as they are today or were even at the time when the great collections of hadîth were compiled, I wonder what would have become of the community. But in those days, as a minority in a hostile environment, they had to struggle with numerous more existential problems: persecution, boycott, torture and danger for their lives. The verse goes together with other Makkan texts that have their emphasis on faith and personal ethics, and with stories of testimony and selfless efforts to help others dealing with the suffering that was imposed especially on the slaves and on the poor.
What also struck me was the Arabic word uswa that is used here and translated as example - or sometimes as model or pattern. Its root means to care for, to heal, to make peace, and a related word means comfort. Therefore I don't just read it as describing the Prophet as a role model whose patterns of behaviour are to be imitated but as an allusion to the attitude behind his actions that should be contemplated. I am not saying that behaviour codes don't matter. They are essential for human coexistence and understanding. But I would like to point out an additional dimension of following his example by considering the spirit along with the words and actions. Both the word uswa that is used here as well as the term "mercy for the worlds" that is describes the Prophet elsewhere in the Qur'an point out a perspective from which to consider his behaviour on the whole and make it relevant for ourselves.
Therefore when we remember the Prophet on his upcoming birthday by once again reading his biography, we may focus on one of the following threads and follow them through the story of his life, keeping in mind the principles of mercy, healing and peace:
We may keep an eye on his relationship with his family, perhaps asking why he married each of his wives and what was special about their relationship, including the spiritual aspect of it, or how he cared for his children, stepchildren and grandchildren. We could try to see the matter from the perspective of one of his family members. What would I have done in the place of one of them? How do these insights relate to my own family life?
We may follow the line of his relationship with his friends, companions and students. How did he come to know them? What did he and his friends do together before and after he became a prophet? How did his companions interact while resisting persecution in Makkah,
emigrating to Madinah and building the Muslim community? How did he teach his students and how did they learn from him? Can we find any ideas that could be translated into our own world of friendship, companionship and learning together?
We may try to imagine his life as a businessman with his colleagues and partners, starting from his reputation long before he became a prophet and from Khadijah when she employed him as a business representative, then following him through the boycott in Makkah, the emigration and the reconstruction of social life in Madinah. Are there impulses for a vision of social justice that can be useful in an even more complex world today?
Likewise we could look into his encounters with people of other faiths, exploring, for example, his relationship with his Christian relative Waraqa bin Nawfal, or studying the Constitution of Madinah that included Jewish tribes and other groups, or speculating what might have happened if the polytheist Quraish in Makkah hadn't persecuted the Muslims. It might also be worthwhile to have a closer look into the conflicts and their background as well as the Prophet's attitude and behaviour in connection with the Treaty of Hudaibiya or after the Opening of Makkah. There are many more aspects of his life to explore.
A word of warning, however. The Prophet Muhammad is a human example to confront ourselves with. Idealizing him, as it is often done in the Muslim community, does not help us to come closer to him but would only dehumanize him in a way that is almost as strong a barrier as demonizing him. Instead, we should try to understand his complex personality and investigate its impact on our life in modern society. We might discover that another possibility of following the example of the Prophet could be by sharing his great love for God, our fellow human beings and all creation.
(c) Halima Krausen, 2007