The Prophet Muhammad: lessons for our day

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)[1]: lessons for our day

Rev. Dr John Dupuche

Introduction

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), states with regard to Islam:

“… the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”[2]

The Council makes no statement concerning the Prophet Muhammad and therefore does not distract in any way from the supremacy of “the Almighty and Merciful One”. Similarly in the collection of documents, Interreligious Dialogue, the Official Teaching of the Catholic Church, (1963-1995),[3] no statement is made concerning the Prophet. There is value, nevertheless, in outlining the various stages of his life and in reflecting on his contribution to humanity in general.

Mecca

By the 5th century CE Mecca had superseded the Nabataean city of Petra in importance. It was at the crossroads of the caravan routes, which joined modern day Yemen and Ethiopia to the markets of the Egypt and Syria. It also had trade routes from the Persian Gulf and even from as far away as India. Although geographically isolated and outside the Roman limes[4] it was also international.

After the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE) and the failure of the second Jewish revolt (132-135 CE) many Jews had settled in the oases of Arabia which was not altogether foreign territory since the Arabian peninsular is thought to be the homeland of all Semites: Arabs, Hebrews, Canaanites, Assyro-Babylonians, Amorites and Arameans alike. The distinction between Arabs and Jews is not racial. Christianity too flourished in Arabia, East Syria, Ethiopia and in what is now called Yemen.[5]

Mecca was also a place of pilgrimage. The various clans and tribes of the peninsular, disunited and engaged in continual warfare, had hundred of gods which they carried with them in the form of stones, some of which they placed in the Ka’abah.[6] Arabia was a land of confusion and division, both religious and political.

570 CE, Birth of Muhammad

It was in this context of turmoil that Muhammad was born, in about 570 CE, into the Hâshimite clan of the tribe Quraysh, the dominant group in the city.[7] He was, therefore, neither a nomad nor a peasant but a city dweller. His father, a merchant, died before his son was born; his mother, Aminah, died when he was very young.[8]

He is given the name muammad which according to most scholars was unknown previously.[9] Was it a surname or a given name? It is built from verbal root md meaning ‘to praise’ and, in its intensive form, ammada, can be translated as: ‘the one who is highly praised’,[10] or ‘him in who thanksgiving is made’.[11] It could also mean, ‘The one who wishes to please God.’[12] The meaning is not settled.

Taken into the care of his uncle Abû Tâlib, who is not a wealthy man, he learns the trade of caravanning.[13] The story is told that when Muhammad reaches the age of nine or perhaps twelve he accompanies his uncle to Syria. When the caravan halts at the hermitage of the Christian monk, Baḥirâ, the venerable man recognises the boy as the Prophet.[14]

610     The first revelation

Muhammad enters into the service of a wealthy widow, Khadija, and earns her trust. He leads her caravans as far as Syria.[15] In about 595 CE, when he is twenty-five years old and she is forty, they marry and have several children: two or three boys all of whom die in childhood and four girls, three of whom predecease him. He is left with the one daughter, Fatima.

He is now well off, but withdraws each year to a cave on Mount Hirâ outside Mecca. It is in 610 CE during one of these retreats and during the month of Ramaḍân, that he receives his first revelation:

Convey thou in the name of thy Lord. He created man from a clot of blood. Convey! And thy Lord is Most Generous, who taught man by the pen, taught man what he knew not. (S.96.2-6)

For the rest of his life he will continue to receive revelations from God through the Angel Jibrl (Gabriel).[16]

Lesson 1     A significant lesson can be drawn from this episode. It is first necessary to withdraw from ‘noise’ and enter into silence. In that context, the Word may perhaps come. Meditation, therefore, is as much part of the Muslim tradition as it is of the Christian tradition, for Jesus himself goes into the desert and fasts for forty days and nights. Christians and Muslims can join in silence if they cannot yet join together in verbal prayer.

613-622 the Meccan period

The years 610-613 are a period of maturation and testing, for the revelations cease for a while. It is the ‘pause’ (fatra). In 613, however, he receives the call to preach. This does not mean he was the only monotheist in Mecca. Others too, called hanif, worshipped the one true God. But it is to Muhammad that the words of God are revealed and the commission to preach is given. He is daunted by the prospect but Waraqa Ibn Nawfal, a cousin of Khadija and a Christian, supports him warmly and affirms him in his role.[17]

Lesson 2    The Christian community warmly supports the central tenet of the Islamic faith that God is one and that this faith must be preached to all.

Thus, it is only at the rather advanced age of forty that Muhammad realises his vocation as a prophet. Notice, however, that Muhammad is a messenger,[18] one who simply reports a message. In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is understood to be the messenger of God but the Holy Qur’an is the message, the revelation. The messenger and the message are not be identified.

Lesson 3     In the Christian understanding, however, Jesus, has a different role. He is not only the messenger of God, he is also the message. The messenger and the message are one. Jesus speaks the words of God and is the Word of God. Jesus is not only an example of the Christian life, he is Christian life itself, its source and means.

Muhammad has visions; ecstatic experiences, [19]veiling his face like other visionaries.[20] Whereas the Christian monks recited their sacred texts in Aramaic or Syriac; and the Jews in Hebrew, Mohammed speaks in Arabic, in the language of the people. He does not side with either the Christianity of the Byzantines or with the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanids of Persia but gives his contemporaries an alternative, a religious faith taught in Arabic and arising in Arabia. Religion will be communicated adequately only if it is proclaimed according to the culture of its time. Here too is a lesson for our day.

His contemporaries criticised him as a soothsayer or someone possessed by djinns or as no more than a poet. Muhammad rejected these calumnies and began to see himself in the lineage of Noah and Moses and Jesus and the other great figures.[21] He trusts that God is at his side, as was the case with the other prophets.

Lesson 3     To trust insights, even in the face of opposition.

He brings unity to the tribes of the peninsular and the Arab world – faith as a unifying force for all the world.

He teaches monotheism to the polytheists who are constantly engaged in raiding and warfare. He succeeds in uniting the tribes, the cities and the entire peninsula in one faith. He will extend his mission to the Arab tribes of what is now Jordan and Syria and Iraq. He is a lesson to all. The unity of faith is the basis for unity among peoples not only in religious matters but also politically.

He also gives warning. The merchants of Mecca would do well to abandon their gross materialism and the gross gods who justified it for all will be brought to judgment. This too is a contribution to our age as the teaching of Islam acts as an antidote to its materialism.

Muhammad was not unacquainted with the teachings of the Jews and the Christians, but it is not certain exactly what he knew from these sources. The trade routes which he plied would have led him, presumably, to those parts of the Middle East in Syria and Palestine which had never been part of the Roman Empire and where the language was Syriac, a cognate of Arabic.

 Interreligious dialogue

From the start, Muhammad was engaged in interfaith dialogue.

He has a sense of unity:

… those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, … (S.2.62)

He wishes to avoid religious disputes

And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except [in the most courteous manner], … say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit. (29.46)

He rejects all coercion:

There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; (S.2.256)

Jews and Muslims and Christians were all People of the Book (ahl al-kitâb), for they had received revelation from God. This term was extended to others, Zoroastrians, Sabaeans and even Hindus.[22]

Muhammad had hoped to be welcomed by the monotheistic Jews who also worshipped the God of Abraham, but they rejected him because he was not one of them.[23].

He had hoped also that his message would be welcomed by the Christians, but the differences concerning the role and person of Jesus are irreconcilable. They considered him to be a heretic. He in turn opposes them and declares:

They have taken their doctors of law and their monks for lords besides Allah, and (also) the Messiah son of Marium … (S.9.31) God does not beget and is not begotten. (S.112.4)

Muhammad stands his ground and says of the Muslims:

You are the best of the nations raised up for (the benefit of) men; you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in Allah; and if the followers of the Book had believed it would have been better for them; of them (some) are believers and most of them are transgressors. (3.110)

622-630         The time in Medina

Khosrau II, Persian king of the Sasanian dynasty (590, 591-628??), invaded most of south-west Asia, including Syria and Palestine, captured Egypt in 616 and a year later advanced to Chalcedon, opposite Constantinople. In response, Heraclius (c. 575-641), Byzantine emperor (610-641), launched in 622 a great counter-attack and by 628 he had pushed into the heart of Persian territory. In 630 he recovered the relic of the True Cross, which the Persians had captured and brought it back in triumph to Jerusalem.

However, the constant wars and religious dissensions of the Empire left it unable to resist the new Muslim threat from Arabia. Thus, before the end of Heraclius’ reign, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt had fallen to the conquering Arabs[24] Similarly, despite the legendary splendour of his court, Khosrau had weakened Persia and left it vulnerable to the Arab invasions, which came 12 years after his death.[25]

The economy and the polytheism were interlaced which meant that when Muhammad eventually spoke against the gods in favour of the one God, the merchants of the city opposed him vehemently.[26]

In 622 Muhammad left for Yathrib, some 350 kilometres to the north.[27] It was not a city but a collection of villages within an oasis. It was inhabited by polytheistic Arabs, Christians and Jews. There were Jews among the Arab tribes and Arabs among the Jews. It was a complex situation. The two main tribes were Al-‘Aws and Al-Khazraj[28] and they were sworn enemies.[29] Muhammad, who had established a reputation for sagacity, was invited to come to mediate between them.

Thus Yathrib became known as Medina al-nabi, ‘the City of the Prophet’, or simply as Medinah. It was a ‘medinah’ in the sense of being the place where the leader gave judgment and issued decrees. It was a capital rather than a city.

The exodus to Medina is an act of dissociation. War was to be expected between the two cities, Mecca and Medina. The Prophet fights battles, Badr, Uḥud and Khandaq, leading his Muslim forces to victory over the Meccan coalition, and establishes his dominance in the area.[30] Thus he is both a religious and a political leader like Moses and King David. The separation of church and state, of the religious and the political, comes only with the French Revolution.

Muhammad unites the Arabic tribes by the one faith in the one God. At the same time he allowed Jews and Christians to hold their teachings and practice their customs. Muhammad set up the ‘Constitution of Madīnah’, which established each group as an umma, a community, with its rights and obligations, Muhammad being the arbiter. This was the basis for the later dispositions concerning the treatment of minorities, especially Jews and Christians.[31] This is best appreciated against the background of the turmoil occurring just to the north of Arabia.

His support of both unity and diversity constitutes one of his greatest contributions to human civilization.

Lesson 4      One could hope that modern Muslims nations followed his example The Vatican strongly supported the construction of a great mosque in Rome. Should not Catholics be allowed to build their churches in Arabian peninsular? It is a question of reciprocity.

While Muhammad is still in Medina the first attacks begin against the Byzantine Empire east of Jordan[32] for raiding parties were customary among the Bedouin. The first attacks begin against the Byzantine Empire east of Jordan.[33]

630 Return to Mecca

In the year 630 CE Muhammad leads the pilgrimage to Mecca. He has the tribal sanctuaries destroyed[34] and removes the stone idols from the Ka’aba,[35] the cubic shaped building constructed, according to Islamic teaching, by Abraham, which becomes the focal point of worship. To it, the countless millions of Muslims turn five times each day to pray. To it millions come in sacred pilgrimage: the Hajj.

Lesson 5        By this emphasis on Abraham, Muhammad binds the three monotheistic faiths together, for all in their different ways revere Abraham as their father in faith. This is not a small contribution.

As he made known the requirements of the Hajj, did he anticipate the extraordinary developments in geometry an astronomy that would be of such benefit to mankind?

The Prophet of Medina returns to Mecca in triumph.

Lesson 6  What a contrast with Jesus the Christ who according to Christian tradition is crucified ignominiously. The apparent failure is, however, supremely successful; for in Christian teaching, the whole world is saved by the outpouring of his blood.

 632 death of Muhammad

In the year 632 CE after a short illness Muhammad died in Madînah in the arms of his favourite wife ‘â’ishah. Only one child survived him, the celebrated Fâṭimah.

Some, however, refused to believe that he had simply died and proclaimed that he had been raised to heaven like Jesus.[36] To prevent this error from gaining currency Abû Bakr, the first caliph, stated clearly that Muhammad was only a messenger, nothing more.

Muhammad is no more than a messenger: many were Messengers that passed away before him. (S.3.144)

Muhammad’s sons had died in childhood. There was no dynastic succession. His mantle is inherited by the four righteous Caliphs, Abû Bakr (632-634), ‘Umar (634-644), ‘Uthmân, (644-656) ‘Ali (656-661).[37]

650     The Holy Qur’an

Abû Bakra commands that the revelations give through Muhammad should be compiled. This process was completed under ‘Uthmân about 650. The Holy Qur’an is the revelation given by God. Muhammad is its paragon and the stories given in the Hadith are powerful illustrations.

The Qur’an does not follow an historical order but consists of short sayings and exclamations which are often elliptic and held together by alliteration and powerful images.[38]

The text of the Holy Qur-ân can be fully understood only in its context. The words pronounced by the angel and communicated through the mouth of Muhammad are spoken to people of flesh and blood. Communication involves both speaker and listener. The listeners cannot be left out of the equation, with their viewpoints and situation.

Archaeology has begun in Saudi Arabia but is still in its infancy. Studies concerning the Sitz-in-Leben of Muhammad have a long way to go. The knowledge of Syriac texts is just starting. We need to understand the context if we are to appreciate the full meaning of the Holy Qur’an. His statements were copied down as he spoke or remembered accurately at a later time. The message was given in the first instance to the people of Mecca and Medina. We need to know not only what the words were but who the listeners were, for a message involves not only the speaker but also the listener.

We celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad but we could equally celebrate the gift of the Holy Qur’an

Lesson 7  Christians were at first disturbed as they saw their traditional interpretations brought into question by the discoveries of science and advent of textual criticism, but this disturbance gave way to a heightened appreciation of the Biblical text. We would never want to go back.

Concluding general remarks on Christianity and Islam

  1. The essence of Islam is submission to the One who is compassionate and merciful. In Christian teaching the highest virtue is likewise understood to be the obedience of faith. Unlike Muslims, however, this faith is placed in Jesus who says, “This is doing the work of God: that you should believe in the one he has sent.” (Jn 6:29) Since faith in Jesus is ultimately faith in the One who sent him, in this sense Christians are Muslims.
  2. One truth does not discount another but complements it.       Christians will draw more closely to their essential teaching concerning the Holy Trinity if they also hear the teaching of Islam concerning the One who has no equal. At the same time, I suggest that in understanding the Christian faith Muslims will more fully appreciate how the doctrine of the Trinity preserves the loving transcendence of God.
  3. Diversity is to be celebrated. When Christians and Muslims come together they realise to what extent they both have been gifted with revelation from God. Those to whom the Word of God has been addressed are honoured. Christians delight in Muslims as a sacred place, as a Ka’aba of flesh and blood. And who have received the word and acknowledge the one who pronounces it. Judgment Day holds few fears for them.
  4. There is much vaunting of the separation between Church and State. But the separation has become a divorce leading to opposition and ultimately to the dismissal of the religious dimension. . The dualism between faith and reason, church and state, needs to be overcome. Islam has much to contribute here.
  5. It is a mark of maturity to be able to hear what one does not agree with. It is only possible to disagree wholeheartedly if the disputed matter is clearly understood.

Epilogue

It is hardly surprising that the Muslim armies had such success. The Byzantine Empire was deeply unpopular for its aggressive fiscal taxes and its harsh oppression of different doctrinal views. Islam wished to dominate the Red Sea and the trade with India.

Once the Caliphate moves to Damascus, Medina ceased to be politically significant.[39]

John of Damascus, or John Damascene, (c. 675-749), theologian, writer, scholar, and Doctor of the Church, was born in Damascus. Although a Christian, he served as a high-ranking financial officer to the caliph of Damascus. However, because of the caliph’s hostility to Christians, he resigned his post about 700 and retired to the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. He is a good example of the ambiguous situation of Christians at that time. He could on the one hand occupy a high position and on the other hand experience hostility. Although he was not allowed to possess a copy of the Holy Qur’an, he knew it well. The following quotation shows a different view of the person of the Prophet.

“He was called Mameth. Having acquired by chance some knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, he met an Arian monk; as a result of this he elaborated his own form of heresy. After having falsely given to the people the impression that he was a man of God, he spread the rumour that a Scripture came down to him from heaven. Thus, after having put into writing in his book a compilation of statements which merit nothing but ridicule, he gave these to them for their observance.[40]

The polemical nature of this text, so often imitated, must give way in our own day to a more balanced view.

Bibliography

Flannery, Austin.                    Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Post-conciliar Documents Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1975.

 Gallez, Edouard-Marie          Le messie et son prophète, Aux origines de l’Islam. Versailles: Editions de Paris 2005.

Gaudeul J.M.                           Disputes ? ou rencontres ?, L’Islam et le Christianisme au fil des siècles. Rome : Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e d’Islamistica (P.I.S.A.I.), 1998.

Gioia, Francesco (ed.)            Interreligious Dialogue, the Official Teaching of the Catholic Church, (1963-1995). Boston: Pauline Books, 1997

 Küng, Hans, J.Van Ess, H. von Stitencron, H. Bechert. Le Christianisme et les religions du monde: Islam, Hindouisme, Bouddhisme, Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1986. translated from the German Christentum und Weltreligionen; Hinfürhrung zum Dialog mit Islam, Hinduismus und Buddhismus, München: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1984.

Newby, Gordon D.                 A Concise Encylopedia of Islam. Oxford : Oneworld Publications, 2002.

Sourdel, Dominique.             L’islam mediéval, Religion et civilization, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1979.

[1] It is Muslim customary to add the phrase ‘peace be upon him’ after mentioning the name of a prophet. This custom will not be repeated each time in this paper.

[2] ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (Lumen Gentium), in Flannery, Austin.           Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Post-conciliar Documents Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1975. p. 367.

[3] Francesco Gioia (ed.), Interreligious Dialogue, the Official Teaching of the Catholic Church, (1963-1995). Boston: Pauline Books, 1997.

[4] Küng, Hans, J.Van Ess, H. von Stitencron, H. Bechert. Le Christianisme et les religions

du monde: Islam, Hindouisme, Bouddhisme, Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1986. p. 27.

[5] Indeed there was an episcopal see in the oasis of Najrân in the deep south of modern day Saudi Arabia. Küng. Le Christianisme et les religions du monde. p.27.

[6] Newby, Gordon D. A Concise Encylopedia of Islam. Oxford : Oneworld Publications, 2002. p. 6.

[7] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, p.154.

[8] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, p.154.

[9] Gallez, Edouard-Marie    Le messie et son prophète, Aux origines de l’Islam. Versailles: Editions de Paris 2005. Vol 2. p.335.

[10] Gallez, Le messie et son prophète, Vol 2, p.336.

[11] Antoine Moussali.

[12] Gallez, Le messie et son prophète, Vol.2, p.340.

[13] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, p. 154.

[14] Gaudeul J.M. Disputes ? ou rencontres ?, L’Islam et le Christianisme au fil des siècles. Rome : Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e d’Islamistica (P.I.S.A.I.), 1998. Vol. I, p. 6.

[15] Küng. Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p.26.

[16] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, p.154.

[17] Gaudeul, Disputes ? ou rencontres ?, Vol. 1. p.7.

[18] The term ‘messenger’ (??) is different in meaning from nabîy ‘prophet’, although in practice the terms are interchangeable.

[19] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p.29.

[20] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p.30.

[21] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p.3.

[22] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, 21.

[23] Küng. Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p. 32.

[24] Microsoft ® Encarta ® Premium Suite 2005. © 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

[25] Microsoft ® Encarta ® Premium Suite 2005. © 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

[26] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, p7.

[27] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p. 31.

[28] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, 133.

[29] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p. 32.

[30] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, 154.

[31] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, 133.

[32] Küng p.32.

[33] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p.32.

[34] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p.33.

[35] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, p. 7.

[36] Gallez, Le messie et son prophète, Vol.2, p. 351.

[37] Gaudeul, Disputes ? ou rencontres ?, Vol. 1, p. 25.

[38] Küng, Le Christianisme et les religions du monde, p.30.

[39] Newby, A Concise Encylopedia of Islam, 134.

[40] Migne, PG 94.764P. Own translation from French. Gaudeul, Disputes ? ou rencontres ?, Vol.2, p.16.

About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
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