THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD, may peace and blessings be upon him, was born in the (then) small Arabian town of Mecca around 570 CE. He was a direct descendant through the male line of Abraham’s eldest son Ishmael, peace and blessings be upon them all, of whom the Bible says God blessed him 1 and God was with the lad,2 and who dwelt in the desert of Arabia. The Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, had no brothers or sisters, and first his father and then his mother died whilst he was still a young child. He was brought up first by his paternal grandfather, and then when he too died, by his paternal uncle, Abu Talib. Although illiterate, the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, became a merchant, and was much beloved in Mecca and known as Al- Amin – the “trustworthy”.
At the age of forty, whilst in solitary retreat (as was his custom) the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, began to receive wondrous Revelations and visions from God. These Revelations (which comprise the Qur’an) compelled him to call on Meccan society to reform its evil practices. In particular, he called on Meccans to stop worshipping stone idols and to worship instead the One-and-Only God (whose Name in Arabic is Allah), to stop killing their infant daughters, to care for orphans, treat women fairly, give alms to the poor and the weak, and to set slaves free. The Meccan chiefs reacted with hostility to his message for they perceived it would not only change their way of life, but also their social and economic privileges. They sent him a delegation with the following offer:
If the aim of all you are doing is to gain much money … we shall gather enough and give it to you so that you will be the richest among us __ If you seek to be king, we shall make you our king. If what is happening is a type of obsessive vision that you cannot stop by yourself, we shall seek your cure sparing no money until you are fully recovered.3
But the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, refused to stop his call. So the Meccans began to react with violence against him. Those who heeded his call were humiliated, boycotted, spurned, abused verbally and physically, and finally tortured and killed. After about twelve years of such attacks (including attempts on the Prophet’s own life), in the year 622 CE the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, fled to a town two hundred miles north of Mecca (now known as “Medina”). There he organized his followers into a community and began to organize their defence, since the Meccans kept waging war on him and inciting others to wage war on him.
Whilst in Medina, a man of the town used to leave his refuse every day in the Prophet’s path, to show contempt. The Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, restrained his followers from reacting. After a while the man stopped and the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, heard he had been taken ill. He went to the man’s house and inquired about his health. The man’s attitude changed. The Holy Qur’an says:
The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee was enmity (will become) as though he were a bosom friend.*
Within eight years the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, was the most powerful leader in Arabia. Converts to Islam had streamed in steadily from everywhere. He then led his followers to free Mecca. And despite the cruelty, blood and bitterness inflicted upon him and his followers, he did not shed a drop of blood nor take any revenge. He refused even to reproach the Meccans in his moment of victory. He said to them: / say to you what my brother Joseph said: “No reproach upon you today “; Go. Ye are all free /S It is also related that on the path to Mecca he came across a frightened dog that had just given birth, and so he asked one of his companions to stand over her and her litter to ensure her safety until all his men had passed.6
The Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, lived for another two years or so. On his last pilgrimage to Mecca, he said to his companions: “We have returned from the lesser holy war (jihad) to the greater holy war”. When asked what the greater holy war was, he said: the war against the ego.7 He said also: “By Him in whose Hand is my life, none of you believes until he [or she] loves for their neighbour what they love for themselves”,^ and: “God does not look at your appearances and wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and your deeds”.9
Within a century of his death Islam had spread across the world, from France to China and, for the fourteen centuries since his death, it has maintained itself as the religion of almost a quarter of the world’s population. It has produced some of the greatest civilizations, arts, sciences and spirituality the world has ever seen, and is today the world’s second largest and fastest-growing religion.
The Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, never claimed to be more than a mortal man. Unlike Jesus Christ (peace be upon him, whom the Qur’an recognizes10 as the Messiah, and a word and spirit from God) he was born with an ordinary father, and died in the normal way. He was only the Messenger of God, calling people to the original Monotheism of his ancestor the Prophet Abraham, peace be upon them all. The central Creed of Islam La illaha ilia Allah Muhammad rasul Allah simply means: There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
The Prophet spent his life in prayer and devotion, poor, hungry (he used to tie a stone against his belly to combat hunger) and combating sleep in order to worship God in the watches of the night. Until the age of fifty or so he was only ever married to one wife, a lady 1 5 years older than himself. After her death he married several times, mostly to conclude tribal alliances. He was always kind and merciful, even in war; he never lost his temper; he was easy-going, friendly and courteous, and he was devoted to his family. He said: “The best of you is the best to his family”.11 He had three sons all of whom died in infancy, and four daughters, three of whom died in his lifetime. He said: “The eye weepeth, and the heart greiveth, but we say naught save that which pleaseth the Lord”. I2 The Qur’an says of him:
There has come unto you a messenger from among y our selves; it grieves him that ye should sujfer; full of concern for you; with the believers most kind and merciful. 13
In the last century, the Hindu leader Mahatma Ghandi said of the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him:
I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind . . . I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle.
Muslims who truly believe love the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, more than their own selves.1* They look forward to spending eternity in his company in Paradise, and they hope for his intercession for their sins on the Day of Judgment. Even if they express it in ways that fall short of his standard, it is love that makes them cherish his memory. It is through love that they are wounded when he is vilified. And it is because of love that they protest. That, I think, is something we can all understand.
But precisely also because of love Muslims should protest peacefully, and perhaps – even as the Prophet himself did, may peace and blessings be upon him, when he was insulted – with goodness. That, I think, is something we can all agree on.