Concerned for our welfare, he did nut confuse us with matters
We could not fathom, to we neither wanderednor wavered.
Human beings Cannot grasp his meaning
Even those at Ins side could not keep up with him,
He is like the sun. small In I lie eye when seen /mm afar,
But when glimpsed close up. it dazzles and overwhelms.
How can slumberous souls in this world grasp Ins reality
Distracted as ? hey are by the strength of their dreams?
The extent of what ire know of him is this: he is a man.
And yet, without exception, he is the best of God’s creation.
– from The Burda (Poem of the Cloak) of Al-Husiri
MARCH 17, 2005 MARKED A UNIQUE MILESTONE in the continued development of an American Muslim identity. With the premiere of the “first Islamic American musical” The Poem of the Cloak, Americans have seen for the first time on stage a plot that borrows very consciously from an Islamic cultural past as well as an American Muslim present. The product is unique not only for the non-Muslims attending, since it provides a window into Muslim life that they rarely chance to come across, but is also new for Muslims themselves, since no one has ever tried to put on such a production while trying to keep within the boundaries of Islamic law and propriety. As an advisor to the production, and as one who has carefully studied the script, I find the entire project to be a fascinating and exciting way to challenge the existing notions on Islam and Muslims. When initially looking at the script, however, the thing that stood out for me most was the way in which this play subtly brings out the beauty of the Prophet (May the peace and blessings of God be upon him) by linking him to the script’s sole female figure, Maryam.
What is noteworthy about the musical “The Poem of the Cloak” is that, though the female is nowhere physically present, it is her character that most affects the storyline. It is the mother Maryam’s passing that ends up throwing the whole family into chaos. She was the rope that bound them to each other; it was her mercy and compassion, her ability to actively perceive the states of each individual which in turn kept the three men and the family as a whole, functional. The removal of mercy from this group is what brings about the dysfunction; neither father nor son can see eye to eye, nor do they have the desire to do so. Each is locked into his own reality, wishing to dominate the others, and the vicious cycle is broken only when they rely on faith, and see that their religious guide and model, the Prophet Muhammad (May God’s peace and blessings be upon him) held within his being not only the strength of his men, but also the love and compassion of his women.
In the introduction to her translation of a religious manual written for Muslim women, my esteemed professor Dr. Barbara Metcalf makes an interesting point about the role of the Prophet in the lives of these women. She notes that the author of the manual describes the Prophet in a most remarkable way; a way he is not normally portrayed. “He was very gentle,” the author writes about the Prophet. “At night … he would do everything very softly, so that no one’s sleep would ever be disturbed . . . When he was happy, he lowered his gaze. What young girl would have been as modest as this?”
In a commentary on this quote, Dr. Metcalf says that through it, the original author is attempting to show that “everyone must take the Prophet as their model, that his essential characteristics must be emulated by both women and men.” The Prophet Muhammad should be upheld as a model not only by men, who might have an easier time emulating him due to their “similar” roles in society, but by women as well, because – as Dr. Metcalf states – “there is no sense [in the manual] that women have a specific range of feminine virtues” that would preclude them from modeling themselves after the Prophet.
While it is important that the Prophet is presented as a model for women alongside men, what is most remarkable is the idea that a specific range of feminine virtues are being reinforced, and that the Prophet himself embodied these characteristics. It is not only that a young girl is encouraged to look to the Prophet as a role model, just as young men should, but rather that when looking to the Prophet for guidance, she should find in descriptions of his person those very characteristics that are special to her as a feminine being. The Prophet Muhammad was undoubtedly a strong leader; one who could lead his followers in battle, and who was stern and just when the situation called for it. And yet this same man, who embodied all those traits that make him the epitome of masculinity, also perfected within his being traits that are seen as more appropriately “feminine.” For instance, he was “as shy as a virgin girl.” He “could be led by the finger through the streets by any child of Medina.” He would weep easily when reminded of the favor or wrath of God, or even when reminded of his dear wife Khadija (May God be pleased with her). God Himself says that He sent the Prophet as “a mercy to all the worlds.”
In fact, the trait of mercy is viewed by Islamic scholars as the dominant characteristic of God and His Beloved Prophet. This trait is also intrinsically linked to all that is feminine. Rahma, the Arabic word for mercy, is derived from the same root as rahm or “womb,” and also shares the root from which God chooses his two most oft-repeated names within the Qur’an: He is ??-Rahman, the “The Most Merciful,” and Al-Rahim, the “The Most Compassionate.” Just as the mother naturally exudes mercy toward her young in a way that is specific to her role as mother, the Prophet is the “mercy to all the worlds;” his concern for all beings an essential part of his compassionate nature.
How strange it is that in an age where “equality between the sexes” is most audibly touted, it is still anathema for the leader of a nation to ever come off as being “soft”; or that for a woman to be truly successful – she must shed all “girlishness” and acquire aggressive and assertive tactics to “come out on top.” Not only arc feminine virtues seen .is signs of weakness, but women themselves are afraid to claim their femininity as an asset, for tear of being seen once again 88 “‘less than equal.” It is instructive to learn that the founder of the religion that is toda) presented b) its detrac- tors as the most merciless and authoritative of religious systems was in faci the embodiment of what is perfect in bolli woman and man. Muhammad himself was a member of a societ) dominated bv machismo. ml yet, he dazzled them all – not with his might, but by demonstrating how beautiful a balance of mere] and strength can trulj be. For women followers of the religion of Islam, ii is perhaps heartening to know that their link to the Prophet is not simpl] through a series of prescriptive injunctions. Hc not only told women how to perfect themselves, he actually lived it. And lor both women and men who find solace in Islam and in the example of the Messenger of Ciotl, it is important to reflect on which traits God emphasizes when I Ie so emphatically describes I lis Prophet in the Qur’an: M There has come to you a S/iessengerfrom among your selves, grievous to him is your suffering, concerned is he for you, to tfte believers gentle and compassionate” (9:128).