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Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the Eyes of (Muslim) Historians

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Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

From the classical to the contemporary era, numerous biographical works have been written on the life (seerah) of the last Prophet (SAW)—the only personage whose every detail, aspect, and feature, of whose blessed and illustrious life is thoroughly known to the world. Among these, a good number have been written, especially in the modern period, by Western (Muslim and non-Muslims alike) scholars in English. A good deal of this scholarship—related to the life, reforms, and achievements—is also produced in the form of the books on Islamic history. Here, in this write-up, views of some of the Muslims scholars, through their books on Islamic history—viz. Syed Ameer Ali, Masudul Hasan, Sayyed Hossein Nasr, and Akbar S. Ahmed—are presented to get a glimpse of how they perceive and present the achievements of the Prophet (SAW) as a Prophet vis-à-vis reformer.

Prophet Muhammad (SAW) “came to humankind”, as Professor Tariq Ramadan writes in his ‘In The Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad’/ The Messenger (2007, p. 214) “with a message of faith, ethics, and hope, in which the One reminds all people of His presence, His requirements, and the final Day of Return and Encounter”. He touched every aspect of human life: he was a savior, liberator, and protector of the ‘oppressed’ humanity. Benefactor of humanity, Prophet (SAW was the greatest reformer the world has ever produced. He made great reforms in the socio-religious and politico-economic spheres. In the modern times, Prophet (SAW) is presented as a ‘reformer’ who considerably raised the social and ethical level of the Arabs of his time.

The Prophet (SAW) was not only a religious preacher, a soldier, a statesman, but also a great administrator as well. He presided over, after hijrah from Makkah to Medina in 622 CE, the Commonwealth of Islam for ten years (622-32CE); and, thus, in the words of Syed Ameer Ali (d. 1928; Indian Jurist, political leader and author of numerous books on Islamic history) in his A Short History of the Saracens (2011, pp. 19 & 55): “During the ten years [Prophet] Mohammad [SAW] presided over the commonwealth of Islam [622-32 CE], a great change had come over the character of the Arab people”. And, in this short span of ten years at Medina, Ameer Ali adds, “a congeries of warring tribes and clans were rapidly consolidated into a nation under the influence of one great Idea. The work done within that short period will always remain as one of the most wonderful achievements recorded in history”.

Writing on the achievements of Prophet (SAW), Professor Masudul Hasan (Pakistani historian), in his “History of Islam” (2015; vol. 1, pp. 76-77) writes: “the Holy Prophet [SAW] built an Ummah out of the people never united before; established a religion that elevated the soul; created an egalitarian society; laid the basis of an empire and set up new ideals before mankind. … He liberated man by planning for him a new political, economic, and social order, free from exploitation”. “In the wider perspective of universal history”, Professor Hasan avers, “we discern in the Holy Prophet of Islam [SAW] the greatest man the world has ever produced. As regards all standards, …, He (SAW)] is the greatest man of all times. … Of all men, the Holy Prophet of Islam [SAW] has exercised greatest influence upon the human race, and he stands to this day, and for all times to come, at the peak of humanity” (p. 77).

Professor Sayyed Hossein Nasr (George Washington University, USA), in his “Islam: Religion, History, Civilization” (2002: 5), is of the opinion that the “primordial character of the Islamic message”, which was brought by the last Prophet (SAW), “is reflected not only in its essentiality, universality, and simplicity, but also in its inclusive attitude toward the religions and forms of wisdom that preceded it”. Writing on ‘The Prophet [SAW]: His Significance, Life, and Deeds’ (pp. 46-47), Prof. Nasr puts forth very eloquently that “The Prophet [SAW] is seen by Muslims as the most perfect of all of God’s creatures, the perfect man par excellence (al-Insan al-Kamil) and the beloved of God (Habib Allah), whom the Quran calls an excellent model (Uswah Hasanah) to emulate. He represents perfect surrender to God combined with proximity (qurb) to Him, which makes him the best interpreter of God’s message as well as its most faithful transmitter”.

On the Prophet’s (SAW) achievements and contributions in the Medinan phase, Professor Nasr holds that in Medina, “the Prophet [SAW] became the ruler of a community; was at once statesman, judge, and military leader as well as the Prophet of God” (pp. 50-51). Thus, he accepts, like others, that in a short span of twenty-three-year period (as Prophet), “the Prophet [SAW] succeeded in not only uniting Arabia under the banner of Islam, but also establishing a religious community of global extent, for which he remains always the ideal model of human behaviour and action” (p. 52). He further states that “When we think of the life of the Prophet [SAW] in its totality, we must not only think of him as the leader of a human community, a father and head of a family, a man who married several wives, or a ruler who participated in battles or made social and political decisions for the preservation of Islam. We must also meditate on his inner life of prayer, vigil, and fasting and especially the mi‘raj [The Ascension], … create[ing] a balance between the outward and the inward, the physical and the spiritual” (p. 53). In his “The Heart of Islam” (2004), Professor Nasr enunciates almost similar views, and describes the significance of Prophet (SAW) as essential in order to “understand the heart of Islam” (p. 28).

Along similar lines, the Pakistani-American professor, Akbar S Ahmed (American University, Washington, USA) in his “Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society” (2002) puts forward these insights: “Equality, the status of women, the rights of the less privileged (minorities, poorer working groups)—the shibboleths of our age—were reflected in the Prophet’s [SAW] message. It was a revolution the Prophet [SAW] wished to bring about, to end what came to be known as the Jahiliyya, the dark age” (p. 19). “In a short span” of 23 years as Prophet (SAW), he continues, “he [SAW] had played the role of father, husband, chief, warrior, friend and Prophet. His respect for learning, tolerance of others, generosity of spirit, concern for the weak, gentle piety and desire for a better, cleaner, world would constitute the main elements of the Muslim ideal. For Muslims , the life of the Prophet (SAW) is the triumph of hope over despair, [and of] light over darkness” (p. 21). Thus, we see that although Prophet (SAW) had, and displayed, in abundance, the qualities of “Piety, forbearance, courage and judgment—required in some degree by any leader”, but “what is striking about his behaviour and temperament is the most unexpected quality in tribal life, gentleness” (p. 22). The Prophet’s (SAW) “years of tribulation were brief; success followed in abundance. Within his lifetime he had established a religion and a state. … One hundred years after his death the Islamic empire was greater than Rome at its zenith” (pp. 28-29).

These glimpses clearly show the greatness of ‘the greatest man of all times’. It is in the Prophet’s (SAW) illustrious life, that we see absolutely everything was ‘an instrument of renewal and transformation’ from the slightest detail to the greatest events; and all those (be they Muslims or believers of any faith) who study and write on Prophet’s (SAW) life, regardless of their personal religious belief, can derive instruction from this, thus reaching toward the essence of the message of light of faith. To use again, and to end with, the terminology of Tariq Ramadan, the Prophet (SAW) “prayed, meditated, transformed himself, and transformed the world. … He was beloved by God and an example among humans. He prayed and he contemplated. He loved, he gave. He served, he transformed. The Prophet [SAW] was the light that leads to Light, and in learning from his life, believers return to the Source of Life and find His light, His warmth, and His love” (pp. 214-216).

—The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC, Pulwama.


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