Learning Tools: Essays

How A Muslim Sees Muhammad by Michael Wolfe

A lot of non-Muslims who know something about Islam as a religious practice are nonetheless in the dark when it comes to real knowledge of Muhammad. This, despite the fact that Muhammad is the guiding, human spirit of the religion.

Muslims see Muhammad as a human being who became a prophet and yet remained human all his life. He had a special access to God's words, but he also worked for a living, married, and had children, led his people out of oppression and died at the age of 63 with his family at his side. They see him, that is, not the way Christians view Jesus but rather in the tradition of prophets like Abraham and Moses.

Muhammad never claimed to be divine, and he never attributed supernatural powers to himself. From the age of forty until his death, his mission was simply to convey a message, contained in the Qur'an, and to illustrate its spirit in his daily life. Muhammad received the Qur'an a few verses at a time, intermittently, over this long, eventful period, and he rendered it into language people could understand. That, he said, was his only miracle. He did not defy gravity or return the dead to life. He rebuked anyone who suggested otherwise.

Muslims have no pictures to suggest what he may have looked like. Their focus is on his message, not his face. If you spend any time at all with Muslims, you soon begin to see that they know Muhammad's words and actions and quote them frequently.

This quotable aspect of the tradition is seemingly inexhaustible, running to thousands of pages. Together with the Qur'an, they form a canon on which Islamic Law is based. In a less formal way, these reports of what Muhammad said and did are put to use daily as a yardstick against which people measure their actions and intentions.

Just as the words of Jesus are woven into the fabric of every European language so that, believer or not, most everyone knows who to credit with phrases like Turn the other cheek, the meek shall inherit the earth, and Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, so too for many Muslims the words of Muhammad are on the tips of their tongues and easily recognized.

In the published collections, these reports are often grouped by category, in sections with titles like "The Book Of Knowledge," or "The Book of Prayer."

The Book of Knowledge is both instructive and occasionally wry. What better sentence to write on the black board, for instance, than "Asking good questions is half of learning." A page or two later, the value of knowledge is summed up in these terms: "People with knowledge and those who seek it are the only two groups of any use to humanity." While truth's poor keepers are succinctly dismissed, as in this gem: "Three agents destroy religion: an ill-tempered scholar, a tyrannical leader, and an ignorant theologian."

"The Book of Charity" contains this unexpected advice: "Happy are those who find fault with themselves instead of finding fault with others."

Morality is often expressed in terms so simple they arrest you, as in this maxim: "Avoid anything that requires an excuse." At other times, the terms are earthy and even humorous: "If people had been forbidden to make porridge of camel dung, they would do it, saying that it wouldn't be forbidden unless there was some good in it."

And here is Muhammad on Humility: "Strength does not lie in carrying heavy loads: a camel can do that. The essence of strength lies in taming your temper and your anger."

These statements full of wisdom were mostly coined on the spot, in response to particular situations, by a man aware of the limits of his knowledge. He only knew, he said, what God would show him.

Here is what God showed Muhammad about prayer: ""During prayer, God lifts the veils and opens the gates of the invisible, so that His servant is standing in front of Him. Prayer creates a secret connection between the one praying and the One prayed to-Prayer is a threshold at the entrance to God's reality."

And what does the great Hindu sage Mahatma Gandhi say about Muhammad's words? "They are among the treasures of Mankind, not merely Muslims…. A reverent study of the sayings of the different teachers of mankind is a step in the direction of… mutual respect."

Michael Wolfe, a poet and a co-producer of Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, is the author of three books about Islam: Taking Back Islam, Rodale Press, 2002; One Thousand Roads to Mecca, Grove Press, 1997; and The Hadj, Grove Press, 1993.