by Abdalhaqq Bewley
There is no god but Allah
Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
This affirmation is the gateway to Islam and the foundation of all that makes up the way of life of a Muslim. It tells first of Allah, the One, alone, without partner. All is dependent on Him. He is independent of everything. He is everywhere manifest and yet invisible. He is before past time. He is beyond endless time. And nothing bears any resemblance to Him. We have no access to the awesome Presence of the Divine Reality except through Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah.
This description of Muhammad is divided into three parts. One is historical, one is concerned with his character, and the other is about his essential nature.
Muhammad - may Allah bless him and grant him peace by the number of all those who trust in him and all those who deny him from the day of his birth until the day that the Truth is made plain - was the son of 'Abdullah son of 'Abdul-Muttalib son of Hashim of the tribe of Quraysh, descendent of Ismail son of Ibrahim. He was born in Makka fifty-three years before the Hijra. His father died before his birth and his mother Amina died while he was still a young boy, but he found a protector and a guardian first in his grandfather 'Abdul-Muttalib, and then, on his death, in his uncle Abu Talib.
His childhood and boyhood was very simple. He received no kind of formal education and would look after his family's herd of sheep and goats in the hills surrounding Makka. On one occasion he accompanied his uncle on a caravan to Syria and on this journey met a Christian hermit called Bahira who told his uncle that his young nephew would be the Prophet of his people. When he was twenty-five years old, he again made the same journey, this time as a trader in the service of a wealthy widow named Khadija. As a result of his success and from hearing reports of the excellence of his character, she married her young agent. They lived together for twenty-six years and she was the mother of his children and stood by him during the difficult years when he was trying to spread Islam among the people of Makka. It was his custom every year to spend the month of Ramadan alone in a cave on a mountain near Makka. In his fortieth year, nearly at the end of this month, he heard during the night a voice which said to him: "Read!" He replied: "I cannot read." Again the voice came: "Read!" Again he replied, awestruck: "I cannot read." For the third time, the voice commanded: "Read!" He said, "What should I read?" The voice said: "Read in the Name of your Lord who created. He created man from a clot." This was the beginning of the revelation of the Qur'an which continued, intermittently, until just before his death, twenty-three years later. The voice told him that he was the Messenger of Allah and raising his eyes he saw the angel Jibril who was the means by which the revelation was conveyed to him from the Creator of the universe.
His first thought as that he had gone mad, but he was reassured by his wife Khadija and gradually as the revelation continued his reluctance left him and he accepted the awesome task of being the Messenger of the Lord of the creation. During the first three years after this event, he told only his immediate circle about what had happened. His wife Khadija, his adopted son 'Ali, his freed slave Zayd, and his friend Abu Bakr were among the first to accept what he said and to agree to follow him. Then he received the command to "arise and warn" and he began to talk openly to the people of Makka. He pointed out to them the stupidity of idol worship in the face of the clear proofs of the Divine Unity manifest in the creation. Seeing that their way of life was threatened, the clans of the Quraysh became hostile and started to persecute his followers and to insult him.
In spite of this, the number of Muslim steadily increased and the Quraysh tried to stop him with bribes, even offering to make him king if he would only compromise with them and stop attacking their false gods. By his words and example, he was undermining and endangering the structure of their society and the basis of their wealth. However, Islam was further strengthened when 'Umar ibn al-Khattab accepted the Prophet. He was one of the strongest and most respected of Quraysh and until this time had been one of the staunchest opposers of Islam. In their frustration and rage, the Quraysh confined the whole of the Prophet's clan to a ravine for three years forbidding all dealings with them. During this time, his wife Khadija and his uncle and protector Abu Talib died and an attempt that he made to take Islam to the nearby city of Ta'if met with failure and rejection. It was at this seemingly low ebb that the Miraj took place. Muhammad was taken up through the seven heavens and shown the true nature of his being and the honour in which he was held by his Lord, the Divine Reality.
Shortly after this, a small group of me from a city named Yathrib listened to him when they came to Makka. They accepted him as Prophet and returned to their city with a Muslim teacher. The following year they returned with seventy-three new Muslims and invited the Prophet to their city. From then the Muslims began to leave Makka and to settle in Yathrib and finally the Prophet, evading an attempt to murder him, travelled with Abu Bakr to Yathrib which was renamed al-Madina al-Munawwara, the Enlightened City. This event is known as the Hijra and marks the beginning of the Muslim community.
From this time, the Prophet was ordered by his Lord to fight his enemies though up to this time there had been no attempt at self-defence. The first expeditions were very small and there was almost no fighting. In the second year of the Hijra the Quraysh sent an army of a thousand men ostensibly to protect a caravan from Syria. The Prophet assembled an army of just over three hundred men and the two sides met at a place called Badr. The Muslims led by the Prophet, with complete trust in Allah in their hearts and reinforcement from the angelic world, won a complete victory and killed many of the leaders of Quraysh. The enmity of Quraysh increased but Islam was firmly established in the land.
The following year, the Quraysh marched against Madina and the Muslims met them at the mountain of Uhud, a short distance from the city. Despite the odds against them, the Muslims would have won a victory except that greed for spoils led a band of archers to leave their position and the Muslims were defeated. This defeat led to the murder of Muslims who travelled to spread Islam and to open hostility from the Jews of Madina encouraged by disaffected elements within the Muslim community.
In the fifth year of the Hijra, the Quraysh again attacked Madina and this time they brought ten thousand men. The Prophet had organised the digging of a deep ditch as a defence for the city and the affair became known as the Battle of the Ditch. The Makkans were joined by a tribe of Jews from Madina. However, confused by the ditch and discouraged by suspicion of their Jewish allies and a bitter wind which blew for three days and nights, they packed up and left without offering battle. The Jewish tribe were severely punished for their treacherous behaviour.
In the same year, the Prophet decided to take a company of fourteen hundred men to Makka to perform Hajj. They camped at al-Hudaybiyya just outside the city, but were prevented from entering. Envoys were sent by Quraysh and the Prophet made a treaty which appeared to be disadvantageous to the Muslims and they returned to Madina without setting foot in the Holy City. However, this treaty which stopped the fighting between the Quraysh and the Muslims proved in fact a great victory and Islam spread with greater speed than ever before.
Under the terms of the treaty, the Quraysh had agreed to evacuate Makka the following year for three days while the Muslims visited the city and performed 'Umrah. This was the first time that the Prophet and his Companions had visited Makka for seven years.
In the following year, the Prophet sent an army of three thousand to face an attack from the Byzantine Emperor in Syria. They attacked fearlessly a hundred thousand men, fighting until three leaders had been killed. The few who remained retired and returned to Madina. Then the Quraysh broke the treaty and the Prophet marched with ten thousand men against the Quraysh in Makka. They conquered without bloodshed and the Prophet proclaimed a general amnesty. He freely forgave the people who had unceasingly persecuted him since the beginning of Islam. They became Muslims and the only destruction was of the idols around the Ka'ba. The Prophet set about subduing the remaining hostile tribes, winning a victory at Hunayn, and he besieged and won over the city of Ta'if whose people had rejected him ten years earlier.
In the ninth year of the Hijra, the Muslims of Madina were tested by Allah. The Prophet called for all the Muslims to go with him at the hottest time of the year on a gruelling expedition to a place called Tabuk. Some went and some stayed behind. The expedition returned without fighting. The same year was known as the Year of Deputations and people came to swear allegiance to Islam and the Prophet from all parts of Arabia.
In the tenth year of the Hijra, the Prophet led the Farewell Hajj at which there were one hundred forty thousand Muslims. In a khutba on Mount Arafat, he reminded them of the duties of Islam and that they would be called to account for their actions, and then he asked them if he had truly delivered the guidance. The reply was: "By Allah, yes!" and he said, "O Allah, you are witness." Soon after his return to Madina, he became ill and died with his head in the lap of his most loved wife, 'A'isha.
During the last ten years of his life, he led twenty-seven campaigns in nine of which there was fierce fighting. He planned and sent out thirty more. He personally surprised every detail of administration and judged every case himself, being accessible to every suppliant. He destroyed idol worship and replaced the arrogance and violence, the drunkenness and immorality of the Arabs by humility and compassion, harmony and generosity, creating a truly illuminated society whose like has never been seen - the community of the Companions of the Seal of the Prophets, the final Messenger, the slave of his Lord, Muhammad.
Muhammad - may Allah bless him and grant him peace by the number of beautiful things and by the number of good qualities manifested by men from the beginning of time until the end of time - appeared, when alone, to be a man of medium height. But when he was with other people, he neither dwarfed those smaller than he, nor seemed shorter than those taller. He was well built with a broad chest and wide shoulders and his limbs were strong and well-proportioned. On his back, between his shoulder-blades, nearer the right than the left, was the seal of prophecy, a black mole surrounded by tiny hairs.
His face was oval-shaped and he had a white complexion with a hint of brown in it. His forehead was broad and he had very long arched eyebrows with a gap between them where there was a vein which pulsated in moments of strong feeling. His eyes were black and wide set. He had long heavy eyelashes. His nose was aquiline and his mouth and lips were beautifully formed. His teeth, of which to took great care, were well set and would flash brilliant white when he smiled or laughed. He had broad even cheeks and a full thick black beard which had in it, at the time of his death, seventeen white hairs. His face was framed by luxuriant black hair which fell in waves to between his ears and shoulders, and which he would sometimes plait and sometimes let hang free. The translucence of his face was such that his anger or pleasure shone directly through it. His neck was neither short nor long and was the colour of silver mixed with gold. His hands had the texture of satin with broad palms and long fingers and they exuded a sweet scent which lingered on the things that he touched. His feet were high arched and his gait was like a man who walks down a slope with speed and modesty.
He was mild-tempered and beautifully mannered in an environment accustomed to arrogant violence. He was never insulting and never looked down on illness or poverty. He honoured nobility and rewarded according to worth, giving each what was most fitting to his needs. He never paid homage to wealth and power, but called all those who came to him to the worship of Allah.
He would always be the first to greet whoever he met and would never be the first to withdraw his hand. He was endlessly patient with all who came to him for advice or help, not minding the ignorance of the uneducated nor the coarseness of the ill-bred. On one occasion, a Bedouin came to him asking for something and tugged so violently at his clothes that he ripped a piece right off. Muhammad laughed and gave the man what he wanted.
It was one of his qualities that he had time for all who needed him. He showed regard for his visitors to the point of giving up his own place or spreading his cloak for them to sit on; and if they refused, he would urge them until they accepted. He gave all his guests his complete attention so that all without exception felt that they were the most honoured.
Of all men, he was the least prone to anger and the most ready to be pleased. The mistakes of his companions were not mentioned and he never blamed or reviled anyone. His servant Anas was with him for ten years and not once in all that time did Muhammad take him to task even by so much as asking why he had not done something. He loved to hear good things about his companions and regretted their absence. He visited the sick even in the parts of Madina that were furthest from his house and the most difficult to get to. He attended feasts and accepted the invitations of slaves and free men alike. He accompanied funeral processions and prayed over the graves of his companions. Wherever he went he walked unguarded, even among people who were known to be unfriendly to him.
He had a powerful melodious voice and, although he was silent for long periods at a time, he would always speak when the occasion demanded. When he spoke, he was extraordinarily eloquent and precise, and his sentences were beautifully constructed and so cohesive that those who heard them - whoever they were - could easily understand and remember his words. He would speak sweetly and playfully when he was with his wives; and with his companions he was the most smiling and laughing of men, admiring what they said and joining in with them. He was never angry for himself or for any matter connected with this world, but when he became angry for the sake of Allah, nothing whatever could stand in his way. When he directed someone to a place, he would point with his whole hand. When he was pleased with something, he turned his palms up. When he was speaking, he placed his palms together, When he talked to someone, he would turn with his whole body towards them. Whatever he did, he would do it to the full.
His generosity was such that whenever he was asked for anything he was never known to say no. He once went on giving sheep to a Bedouin who kept asking for more until they filled a valley between two mountains and the man was overwhelmed. He would never go to bed until all the money in his house had been distributed to the poor and he would frequently give away from his year's store of grain, so that he and his family would be without before the year was up. He used to ask people about their needs without them coming to him and would give them what they wanted. As he was generous with his few possessions, so he was generous with himself, giving unceasingly, advice, help, kindness, and forgiveness, and overflowing love.
He loved poverty and was continually to be found with the poor. His life was as simple as possible. He always sat on the ground, and often when he was with his companions he would sit in the last row so that visitors could not distinguish him among them. He ate from a dish on a cloth on the ground and never used a table. He slept on the ground on a mat of palm fibre, the marks of which showed on his skin, though he did not refuse more comfort if it was offered to him.
He and his family would frequently go hungry and there were months at a stretch when no smoke would rise from his or his wives' houses because they had only dates and water and no food to cook or oil for the lamps. But on other occasions, when food was available, he ate well. He said that the best meal was the one with the most hands eating it. He never criticised food. If he liked it, he ate it, and if he didn't, he left it.
He used to tie up the male camel and feed the animals used for carrying water. He swept his room, soled his shoes, patched his clothes, milked the ewe, ate with his slaves, and dressed them as he dressed himself, and carried what he bought from the market place to his house. He said, "O Allah, make me live and die and be raised up with poor," and at his death, he left not a dinar nor dirham.
He would wear whatever was at hand, provided it was lawful, though he particularly liked green and white garments. When he wore a new garment, he would give an old one away. Sometimes he would wear coarse wool. He had a striped cloak from the Yemen of which he was particularly fond. He loved perfumes and would buy the best that were available. The only possessions of which he was particularly fond and of which he took great care were his words, his bow and his armour, which he used fearlessly and frequently in the expeditions which he led.
Above all, it was through him that the Qur'an was revealed and his whole life was a continual manifestation of his teachings. He was the perfect example to his community, both of how they should be in regard to each other and the world, and also of how they should be with their Lord, the Creator of the Universe. He showed them how to purify themselves and how and when to prostrate before Allah. He showed them how and when to fast. He showed them how and when to give. He showed them how to fight in the Way of Allah. He led them in prayer and prostrated alone during the night until his feet became swollen. When he was asked why, he said, "Should I not be a thankful slave?" He had a prayer for every action and he would never rise nor sit without mentioning Allah. All his actions were performed with the intention of pleasing his Lord. He taught his community everything that would bring them closer to Allah and warned them against everything that would distance them from Allah.
He inspired love and awe in all who met him and his companions loved and revered him more than their families, their possessions, and more even than themselves. His close companion and friend Abu Bakr as-Siddiq once put his foot in a hole where there was a snake which bit him, rather than disturb his beloved Prophet who was asleep at the time. His son-in-law and nephew 'Ali risked being murdered in his place, and there are many more accounts of the devotion he inspired among those who followed him. The unanimity of reaction of those closest to him and the description of him which has come down to us from them show a man of such perfection of character that there can remain no doubt about the truth of the message and guidance which he brought - the Way of Islam. His Lord said of him in the Qur'an: "We have created you on a vast self-form," and he said, "I have come to perfect good character." It is this that is the goal and result of following the Way of the Seal of the Prophets, the final Messenger, the Slave of his Lord, Muhammad.
Muhammad - may Allah bless him and give him peace by the number of created things from the beginning of the creation until the day that all things are effaced in the overpowering splendour of the Divine Majesty - said that his Lord said: "I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known and I created the universe so that I would be known." It was the desire for self-knowledge expressed in the depths of the Essence of the Divine Unity that caused the beginning of the process of creation and led to the unfolding of the many layers of existence and all the forms contained in them including the earth with all its mineral, plant, and animal life. At a certain point, when the environment was completely prepared for it, a new creature was brought into existence - man. Until this event, all the different forms of existence had varying degrees of awareness, but man was given, by his Creator and Lord, the ability to recognise, not only his physical environment, but also that he was an inseparable part of One Reality which he perceived in himself and in everything around him. He was the summit and perfection of the whole creation and the means by which the "hidden treasure" could achieve His desire of complete self-knowledge.
Deep in the being of man is a secret breathed into him by his Lord which opens out onto the Majesty and Beauty of the Divine Unity. Muhammad said that his Lord said: "The whole universe cannot contain Me, but the heart of My trusting slave contains Me." The Qur'an says: "We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to carry it and were afraid of it and man carried it. Surely he is wrong-acting, very foolish." This wrong action and foolishness on the part of man led him to forget his true nature and to lose his awareness of the Divine Unity. He became more and more involved with the perception of his senses; and gradually, gave intrinsic reality to created forms. However, because of the Mercy inherent in the Divine Reality, men appeared among the different human communities to show them what had been lost and restore man to his true nature. These men, known as Prophets and Messengers, were created for this purpose alone; and although they were only men among men, they were from their birth blessed with unobscured perception of the Divine Reality and knowledge of how to live in harmony with the Lord of the Universe; while those around them floundered in the darkness of forgetfulness and increasing ignorance. These Prophets and Messengers brought for their communities the knowledge and direction they needed and served as examples for them, bringing them back to the worship and recognition of their Lord, the One Reality. They are the perfection of the human creature, unspoiled by their contact with this existence, constantly aware of the Presence of their Lord.
The first of them was the first man, Adam, and they continued to appear throughout the history of man of earth until the chain was completed with the coming of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad. The Qur'an says: "Muhammad is not the father of anyone of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets."
We have seen that the summit and fulfilment of the process of creation is in man. Although he was the last to appear, everything that preceded him was in preparation for him - the means by which the Lord of the Universe would come to know Himself. The desire for this self-knowledge was what brought about the whole unfolding of creation, and so the first idea became a reality in the final form. In man firstness and lastness are joined together. If you desire a fruit, you must first plant a tree and then wait for it to grow, blossom, and finally, to bear fruit. However, the idea of the fruit preceded the planting of the tree.
As we have said, the perfection of man was in the Prophets and Messengers who were the models and examples for the rest of mankind, and in whom the Divine Unity was most perfectly reflected. They correspond most closely to the original desire in the Divine Essence for self-revelation and are, therefore, the first beings in the unfolding of the creation. As lastness and firstness are combined in man, the last of creatures, so they are combined in Muhammad, the last of the Messengers. He said, illustrating this, "I was the first of the Prophets to be created and the last to deliver His message." And he said: "I was a Prophet when my brother Adam was between water and clay." And he said again: "When Allah desired to create the universe, He grasped a portion of His Light and said to it: 'Be Muhammad!'"
Muhammad is the first point at which light emerges from the impenetrable, absolutely unknowable vastness of the Divine Essence. He is the first being in the unfolding of the creation of the universe. He is the screen through which the Divine Attributes flow into the rest of existence and great veil by which creation is protected from the overwhelming power of the Divine Majesty. He is the moon reflecting the undifferentiated light of the divine sun. He is the highest manifestation of the Names and the Attributes of Allah and the means by which they flow into the rest of the creation.
He is Muhammad, the son of 'Abdullah, son of 'Abdul-Muttalib, born in Makkah fifty-three years before the Hijra. He was given complete realisation of his incomparable station with the Lord of the Universe during the Mi'raj, the Night Journey, when he was taken up through the seven heavens to a point beyond the Lote Tree which marks the furthest limit at which even Jibril, the greatest of the angels, was forced to halt. From there he drew to within two bows' lengths of his Lord and realised complete fulfilment and the stilling of every desire. This journey was his returning to the point from which he had come when he came into this existence, and was his discovering fully the depth and perfection of his own being - the pinnacle and pivot of creation and the purest manifestation of the Divine Beauty, Mercy, Generosity, and Balance. Because of his closeness to the Divine Essence, there being none closer than him, he has been given the name al-Habib, the Beloved.
But it must be remembered that, in spite of his incomparable station with the Creator of the universe, Muhammad is no more than a creature and is absolutely powerless in the face of his Lord, the One Who has no partner. He is the Messenger bringing to mankind the final and perfect Way which envelops and supersedes the teaching of all who came before him; he is, at the same time, absolutely a slave to his Creator, aware that all power and strength are from Him. For the Muslim, there can be no possibility of worshipping Muhammad, because the Lord is always the Lord and the slave can never be more than a slave, completely dependent upon his Creator, In fact, because of his nearness to the Divine Essence, Muhammad, more than any other creature, is aware of the absolute Power of his Lord and of his own total incapacity.
However, Muhammad - and his name means "worthy of praise" - has been given, by the Lord of the Universe, a place more exalted than that of any other creature, and all the Muslims are commanded to give him the honour due to his rank and to pray for blessings on him. The Qur'an says: "Surely Allah and His angels bless the Prophet. O who you believe, pray for peace and blessings on him." Because of his position with Allah, by which all things are clothed in their existence, to bless him is to bless the whole of creation, and, because of the generous nature of the Divine Reality, the blessings are magnified back on to the one who utters them. Muhammad said: "He who blesses me once, Allah blesses him a hundred times. He who blesses me a hundred times, Allah blesses him a thousand times. And he who blesses me a thousand times, Allah forbids the Fire to touch his body."
The nearness of Muhammad to his Lord and his understanding of his own ignorance before the Knower-of-all-things makes him the perfect vehicle for the revelation of the Divine Word in the Qur'an. This is why he is the Messenger, the Slave, and also the Unlettered Prophet. No knowledge can be attributed to him. All his knowledge is from Allah who alone knows the Unseen and the Visible. His position of perfect receptivity and total subservience to his Lord means that all his words and actions were in absolute harmony with the Divine Unity, and his message to mankind was therefore not only contained in the Qur'an, but was equally shown in the way that he lived and the things that he said during his life. The Muslim is instructed in the Qur'an: "Obey Allah and obey the Messenger." Obedience to Muhammad is obedience to Allah. Love for Muhammad is love for Allah. And enmity to Muhammad is enmity to Allah. "He that hates you, he is the one cut off." Muhammad is the one who is completely given up to his Lord. By listening to and acting upon his words, by emulating his behaviour and by increasing in love for him, the Muslim hopes for closeness to him, for closeness to him is closeness to his Lord. By drawing nearer to Muhammad, a man draws nearer to Allah.
It is Muhammad, the greatest of the creation in the eyes of the Lord of the Universe, who will intercede for all his fellow creatures on the Day of Reckoning when all are called to account for their actions in this existence. On that day when "he who has done an atom's weight of good will see it, and he who has done an atom's weight of wrong will see it." He, of all beings, has been given the most generosity and compassion and, because he is the Beloved of his Lord, all who have even the tiniest grain of true belief in their hearts will be removed from torment and given bliss.
Muhammad is the nearest to Allah, the Beloved of Allah, the first overflowing of light from the Essence of Allah and therefore, the Way to Allah inevitably passes through him. On his Night Journey, he travelled through the seven heavens to the depths of his being and the Presence of his Lord, and returned to tell all men of the Way that leads to the Lord of the Universe. That Way is available to all who wish to follow it. All who make this journey to discover their true nature will find that the Way to the Divine Reality in the depths of their hearts is the Way of the Seal of the Prophets, the final Messenger, the Slave of his Lord, Muhammad.
No description of Muhammad, however detailed or well-researched, can convey who he really is. His perfections are beyond numbering and even the greatest poets among those who love him end by admitting the impossibility of praising him enough. If you want real knowledge of Muhammad, you must look to the people who have given themselves up to following his example in every aspect of their life. In them you will see something of the inner quality and luminosity of Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. From them you can learn the way of Islam, the path of submission that leads to peace.