Sunday, January 4, 2009

Muhammad: The Universal Man of All Times

Throughout history, human beings have celebrated the qualities of men and women whose lives were believed exemplary and inspiring, giving rise to the cult of prophets, sages, military leaders, and charismatic political figures. Of all this galaxy of individuals who have dominated human thought and imagination, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and Gautama Buddha continue to enjoy unbelievable influence in societies around the world. The Prophet Muhammad's reputation and influence are most evident in the daily rituals of Muslims, who link his name in prayer to that of the grand patriarch Abraham. Few people are as memorable as Muhammad, Jesus, and Buddha. What is distinctive about Muhammad is that he is referenced not as a saviour but as a final messenger who metaphorically brought the last divine direct connection, through which men and women could maintain direct and unmediated contact with the celestial world. Yet, this very claim of the man from Arabia has made him simultaneously the most hated and most loved human being ever to step on the surface of this earth: The venom directed at him and his movement has coagulated in the bloodstream of history. Our age is as affected by this poison as were the generations that came after him. The great irony is that his message was called Islam and the root of this word is very much related to another Arabic word, salaam (peace).


Examining the historical record about the Prophet Muhammad reveals several biographical fragments that help us understand his background. Born into a Meccan family whose ancestors go back to the early days of the city, Muhammad grew up knowing that he was a member of the Quraysh tribe and that their roots link them to Abraham. Though poor and orphaned at an early age, he enjoyed the warmth and support of his uncle and grandfather. Young Muhammad belongs to that group of children who grow up without adequate knowledge of their deceased parents. His father passed away before his birth, and his mother did not live to see him as a teenager. Despite these personal tragedies, his earliest biographers tell us, he had good exposure to Arab and Bedouin culture. He spent some years in the custody of Halimah, a Bedouin nurse. She gave him access to the Bedouin lifestyle, which differed in many ways from the folkways of Mecca's urban areas. The same sources tell of travels to Syria in the company of his uncle and other Meccan merchants. Many stories have reached us about the experiences he had on this journey. Some of the accounts are filled with hagiographic details, and some shed some light on the psychology and sociology of these times. However one may feel about such narratives, the fact remains that Muhammad grew up learning and mastering the ways and styles of his contemporaries in Mecca and Arabia. In this light one can understand how he at age twenty-five married his boss Khadijah, the Meccan merchant woman who had employed him as part of her long-distance trade network.

Muhammad was a child of Arabia in many ways. Mecca was home to the Kaaba, the black stone that had served for centuries as the spiritual centre for Arabs of the peninsula and beyond. It drew tribal Arabs from every corner of the region for the specific purpose of pilgrimage. As a child he saw his family and others engaged in these pagan ways; later, as a prophet, he would demolish these irreligious practices and begin the worship of the one true God, the God his ancestor Abraham had worshiped in earlier times. This transformation of the ancient traditions would make him the source of continuity and discontinuity of that inheritance. His teachings and the religion that grew after his death would embody the great synthesis between the ways of the ancient Arabs and those of the tawhidic dispensation (focusing on the unity of God) enunciated by the Qur'an.

Muhammad's command of language and the manner in which he expressed himself led some of his contemporaries to charge that he was a poet, a title he strongly rejected. Since Arabs have always placed extraordinary premium on their language and the manner in which it is used, the eloquence of the Qur'anic verses became a source of dispute between his enemies, who saw him as a good Arab poet in the tradition of the ancients, and his followers, who saw him as a favored human being who was merely the microphone of the heavenly voice. Again, whatever one's attitudes toward the Prophet Muhammad, the fact remains that the Qur'an has continued to move men and women around the world. It is a document that captures the metaphysical and historical realities of his times, not only in Arabic but in the Quraysh dialect in which it was originally revealed. Like the Hebrew prophets who preceded him in the region, Muhammad was a man of the area in terms of both speech and culture. Whatever universalism he conveyed to humanity was inevitably captured in the language of his group. The relativization and historization of the universally intended message have continued to create tension between the chauvinistic Arab and the non-Arab who sees the kernel of truth in the universalism of the message.

The peripheral role of his city and people in the wider world of contemporary history is another distinctive factor. Living in the desert, far from the centres of political and cultural gravity of his age, Muhammad, like many of his Arabian tribesmen, was operating at the edges of Sassanian and Byzantine imperial power. Remarkably, he saw the negative consequences of Arabian disunity and, through his role as prophet, was able to unite these variegated elements into a commonwealth of faith and a community of moral and political solidarity. The child whose peoples were dismissed as uncultured and marginal to the centres of human civilization managed to express genius in social organization, military warfare, and diplomatic sagacity, ushering in a new age for Arabs and other followers of his brand of monotheism. In his lifetime Muhammad the Arabian became the symbol of human ingenuity and the fountain of spiritual inspiration for his companions. One should hasten to add that this very record of success soon became a source of hostility among the other peoples of the Book.


Biographers have stated repeatedly that Muhammad was a reluctant prophet. This is to say that the young man was not eagerly awaiting his mission. According to the sources, when he first encountered the angel Gabriel (Gibril in Arabic), he protested to the heavenly creature that he could not read. Iqra, the opening verse of Chapter 96 of the Qur'an, which Muslim tradition claims to have been the first revealed, not only led to his admission of illiteracy but also made Muhammad question his suitability for the task. Tradition has it that he rushed home to share his experiences at Mount Hira with his loving and supportive wife, Khadijah. It was she who consoled and reassured him about his prophetic mission. Waraqah, a cousin of his wife and a practicing Christian in Mecca, also reassured him that what he had experienced in the cave of Hira was in the tradition of the earlier prophets. Once he had accepted his new role and place in society, he pursued his task unflaggingly. He preached his message of monotheism to his fellow Meccans and people of surrounding areas. In his hometown he faced formidable opponents, who saw his ideas as detrimental to their cultural and religious heritage and to the centrality of their city to the Arabian experience. For this and other related reasons, they plotted to do away with him.

Muhammad the Prophet soon became a feature in certain parts of Mecca. Through various means he began to recruit followers among the poor and lowly members of society. In time some members of the elite began to join his ranks. Abu Bakr and Osman would later succeed him as key figures. Ali, his cousin and later his son-in- law, would become the first youth to embrace Islam. Bilal, the Ethiopian slave who later rose to the position of muezzin (caller of worshipers to prayer), would for years remain the major symbol of Islamic concern for the poor and downtrodden.

What was the message of this budding community in Mecca? And how was their philosophy of life different from that of their contemporaries? First, it should be said that the coming of Islam to Arabia was a spiritual, moral, and political revolution simultaneously. Spiritually, the Arabians were being exposed to a new form of belief and worship. Contrary to their traditional belief in Uzza, Manat, and Lat, these Meccans were now asked to embrace a single God who created life and death, day and night, the visible and the invisible. This God, according to Muhammad and the Qur'an, has no rivals and cannot be seen in human flesh. This teaching of the young Islamic community challenged the belief system of the Meccans and their coreligionists in Arabian paganism; it also raised doubt about what was vaguely known to some Arabians as the Christian belief in incarnation. However, like the contemporary Jews and Christians, Muhammad's followers embraced a community of beliefs in common with these other branches of the Abrahamic tradition of monotheism. For example, they believe in angels, in revelation, in the creation story of Adam and Eve, in Satan and his threat to human moral development, and in the resurrection and judgment of humanity at the end of time.

It was for this and other related reasons that early Islam was perceived by some as a form of Judaism or of heretical Christianity. Muslims then and now never accepted this characterization of their faith. In their view, Islam is the culmination of a long line of prophets and messengers from Allah (God). According to Muslim tradition attributed to the Prophet himself, Allah had sent 140,000 messengers to humankind since the time of Adam. Each was instructed to educate his people to encourage the doing of good and the avoidance of evil. Because of this reasoning, Muslims believe that the Qur'an was God's last word to humanity. Hence the Qur'anic designation of the Prophet Muhammad as "the seal of the prophets." To put all these theological differences in a nutshell, one can say that Muhammad clearly saw himself as a continuation of the Abrahamic legacy. He assumed the self-confident role of the iconoclast, whose job was to demolish the idols of the tribe and then rehabilitate the ruins of monotheistic beliefs known to Arabians from their ancestor, Abraham.


Muslim children learn early that the Prophet Muhammad is the ultimate role model. Being such a universal model, he therefore becomes the example that is copied from sunrise to sundown throughout the Muslim world. This tradition of imitation is not confined to the domain of rituals. Muslims not only pray like their role model, they also fast in his tradition and offer sacrifices during their pilgrimage to Mecca in like manner. This attempt to follow in the Prophet's footsteps has led to many little traditions within Islam. These approaches to the prophetic examples have become institutionalized in the branches and sects of Islam. The Sunni-Shiite divide, which has continued to plague Muslims throughout their fifteen centuries of history, is wreaking havoc in Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and a few other places where sectarianism has replaced the spirit of cooperation of the early Muslims. But even these antagonists, who have consistently tried to outdo each other in their fidelity to the prophetic example, agree on a wide range of issues regarding his life, activities, and examples of ways people could live in this world and prepare themselves for the hereafter. Evidence for this claim lies in the points of convergence and divergence between the five legal schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Whatever his school, a Muslim faces the qiblah (points facing Mecca) when offering prayers to Allah, goes through the bodily motions associated with the prophetic example of salat (prayer), does the hajj (pilgrimage) by circumambulating the Kaaba, and attends to other details central to this ritual.

Muhammad is an example to Muslims in many other ways. According to tradition, he is the example par excellence in family life. Although he married more than once, for more than twenty years, he knew only one woman, Khadijah. However, his thirteen years of life in exile and refuge in Medina made him a polygamist. Muslims and non-Muslims have spent a great deal of time arguing about this marital status. Believers who have accepted the prophetic legacy of polygamous relationships see it as a special case demanded by historical and political circumstances. They peg their arguments on the political utility of these matches and on the fact that the Prophet was an old man when he consummated such marriages. Non-apologetic Muslims simply embrace this example as an opportunity that is available. While affirming such things, they also acknowledge the Qur'anic stipulation that the man who decides to have more than one wife needs to ask himself whether he can be fair and just in his dealings with these women.

The prophetic model of family life has continued to exercise much influence. Although monogamy is the dominant form of marriage in most Muslim societies, rich and poor Muslims have taken full advantage of this Qur'anically sanctioned opportunity. Sociologists may lament the fact that many a Muslim male has engaged in polygamous relationships by citing the prophetic example, but the fact remains that people sometimes deliberately ignore the conditional clause that accompanies the granting of such opportunities.

The Prophet Muhammad's exemplary role is also evident in politics, diplomacy, warfare, and several other areas of life. In politics, he showed the Arabians of his time the benefits of unity and the strength of coalition building. This exercise in political sagacity was most evident in the years of exile, when Muhammad and his companions were at the mercy of Medinans and other Arab tribes who were willing to form alliances with him and his movement. Some of his Orientalist critics read the historical record differently and blame him for pursuing worldly ambitions. Muslim believers have always refuted these charges as unfounded and bigoted. Regardless of how one may feel about this characterization, the modern world provides a living testimony to the continuity of the prophetic example. The rise of Islamic movements in our day and the claims they make for themselves have made it categorically clear that what happened in Medina many centuries ago still reverberates in the firmaments of Muslim political debate. Although most Muslims around the globe may not embrace an Islamic fundamentalist view of reality, they would not deny these groups' claims that the governments of their countries are often corrupt and inept and that there should be change for the better.

An example of the Prophet's message being widely misunderstood and distorted often centres on the question of jihad. Often translated as "holy war" and pressed to serve in any ideological contest between non-Muslims and Muslims, this term has assumed negative connotations in many Western and some non-Western languages. In its original meaning, it was used to encapsulate the spirit of struggling on the path of Allah. The idea of jihad was originally meant to underscore the precarious nature of the young Muslim community in Medina. Caught between the Meccan enemies and unreliable partners whom the Qur'an called hypocrites, and being willing and ready to sacrifice their lives in case of all-out war with the opponents of Islam, the Prophet's followers were told to struggle at two levels. The first and greater jihad was the conquering of the ego in the service of Allah. The second struggle was the defence and maintenance of the Islamic boundary line that separates those who believe in God and those who do not. It was in this context, according to Muslim tradition, that Muhammad told his companions after the victory of Badr that they were leaving one battlefield for another. When the companions asked what he meant, he clarified by saying that warfare against one's worldly enemy was the secondary jihad. The primary jihad is the war against one's soul.


The Prophet Muhammad was known to Christian and Jewish contemporaries. According to Muslim tradition he married a Christian woman from Egypt called Mary who later bore him a child called Ibrahim. He also married a Jewish woman, Safiyya, who came out of the Jewish community in Medina and its environment. In the early history of Islam there are accounts of Jews who joined the Islamic movement. These were, however, the exceptions that confirm the rule of religious rejection and defiance of the Prophet and his movement in Medina. The young Muslim community's relations with the Jews of Medina were seesaws of pride and prejudice, love and hate. With the benefit of hindsight we can say that it was doomed from the very beginning. Committed to their tradition and unwilling to change their faith, the Jews of Medina saw no reason to join the Muslims. They maintained their sense of pride and religious independence among the pagans of Arabia. This state of affairs was not shaken by the coming of an Islamic form of monotheism in their neighbourhood. The Muslims, on the other hand, had a different sense of relevance and suitability for the occasion. Coming out of Arabian days of ignorance (jahiliyah) and confident that Allah had chosen one of them to be the recipient of the final revelation, these followers of the Prophet saw themselves as custodians and inheritors of divine honour and blessings. This mixture of enthusiasm and antipathy defined the history of the two communities in Medina. The differential outcomes would later become the yardstick by which many Muslims and Jews measure their relationships.

From a religious point of view, some Jewish contemporaries of the Prophet, like their coreligionists in our world today, saw Islam as simply as a distorted copy of aspects of the Jewish heritage. This characterization was never accepted by Muslims of the Prophet's generation. In our times, some Jewish scholars have examined the Islamic tradition and found points of convergence and divergence between the two faiths. Their research often reinforces the claims of some classical Muslim writers, who argued that following Islam's triumph in Arabia a great deal of material crept from Judaism into Islam. In their view, these Israelite elements within the Islamic experience deserved attention and scrutiny. The charges of the anti-Israelite literature in Islamic literate culture were not false. They confirm the fact that many early Muslim writers drew from these sources to supplement or complement their narratives about Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, and other figures in the Bible.

The Christian reaction to the Muslim rise was bitter and enduring across the centuries. As an expanding civilization and empire, the young Islamic movement gained ground at the expense of those who were previously powerful. Because of this transformation, the history of the area now called the Middle East was changed almost permanently. The ethnic and religious groups that had inhabited the region since time immemorial would gradually convert to Islam, while many of their coreligionists tried to remain faithful to the tradition of their ancestors. The ethnic and religious quilt that characterizes the Middle East today is a result of this long history of coexistence and conflict between the Muslims and their Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian neighbours. Throughout this long stretch of time there were moments of peace and harmony and also moments of violence and disharmony. The conflict between Islam and Christianity was most violent and tragic in the eras before the creation of the state of Israel. The Crusades, undertaken in the name of retaking the Holy Lands, have become the worst example of religious bigotry and warfare, according to many scholars. W. Montgomery Watt has written, in Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman that European views of the Prophet were worst "in medieval times when his name, corrupted to 'Mahound,' was regarded as a name of the devil." This is not as strange as it appears at first sight. We have to remember that in the first rush of expansion after Muhammad's death the Arabs wrested from Christian control the lands in which Christianity had been born, Syria and Egypt.

But if the Crusades are unparalleled examples of religious bigotry, then the events of the last two centuries have provided another source of negative memories for the faith communities. Between the eleventh century and the present day, Muslim- Christian relations have gone through several stages. The period between the eleventh century and the end of the Crusades was marked by unremitting attacks on the Prophet. Not only was his name spelled mischievously with Roman alphabets, but his character was widely assassinated to score points against the "Muslim infidels." With the end of the Crusades the Muslim world and Christendom continued to interact but with less violence. Europe, then the bastion of Christianity, soon entered a new phase in its history. Western historians called it the Age of Discovery. Three developments during this time would have consequences for Christian-Muslim relations. The first was the annexation and colonization of the Americas by the rising European powers and the decision by church leaders to proselytize Christianity among the native peoples of these lands. The second was the successful European penetration of parts of the world that were previously known to or controlled by Muslims. The circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartholomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama led to the European colonization of India and regions east of the subcontinent. It also caused the partition of Africa and the loss of Muslim power in those regions.

The third development that has consequence for Christian-Muslim relations was imposition of colonial and imperial rule in Muslim lands. Much has been written about this period of colonization. From the perspective of this essay one can say that colonialism was the greatest challenge to the legacy of Muhammad, not only in non-Arab lands but in the Arab lands themselves. How is this so? Well, the colonizers, especially France, sought to replicate their cultures in the colonial territories. This policy of assimilation did not succeed as originally intended. One can argue, however, that the influence exercised during this time was strong enough to lead a sizable portion of the colonized population to embrace at least modernity, if not Christianity. This sense of identity with modernity has resulted in secularization without industrialization in many Muslim lands. Such unintended consequences of the colonial empires have created conditions that many political leaders in the postcolonial states have been unable to handle effectively. Under these trying conditions, some politically conscious Muslims have resorted to what they call Islamic revivalism. Banking heavily on Islamic thought as the moral compass to them and their movement, these young men and women have created havoc in many Muslim states. The activities of the Islamic movements in the Arab world, Pakistan, and some African states have come to haunt us all. The ferocious wars in the Balkans and many Muslim areas within Russia testify to the powerful grip religion still exercises in the minds of these former victims of communist tyranny. Though most of the fighters on both sides of the religious and ideological divide may actually believe that their war against group A or B is religious, in fact, religion is simply a tool manipulated to draw into the conflict coreligionists who would not otherwise have cared much.

Muhammad's legacy is also affected by the intended and unintended consequences of colonialism. Today, many Muslims live in the Western world. These "children of the Cold War" provide another example of the manner in which religion has served political motives and strategic interests of competing powers. South Asian Muslims in England, Turkish-speaking persons living in Germany, and Maghrebians in France are good examples of how secular and colonial objectives of European powers have wittingly or unwittingly created the conditions for a massive transfer of people from one part of the Muslim world to the West. Accepted or not, these men and women are now increasingly becoming a part of the cultural and political reality of life in the West. Their presence in European and North American cities tells us that globalization is following the logic of the corporate markets; the particularism of religious traditions apparently must now give way to the universalism of the market. This state of affairs poses a challenge to both the Muslims who follow the example of the Prophet-cum-trader and to the Western Christians who believe that God entered history in the person of Jesus Christ. Both are being buffeted here and there by the forces of secular humanism; both are still insisting that their message be relevant to the problems of living in all periods of human history.


Examining the writings of our contemporaries, we find that Muhammad is viewed differently by the various ideological schools of thought in the Muslim world and beyond. This is particularly true in our time of isms. Before the fall of communism, the Prophet Muhammad and his Islamic movement were appropriated differently by the rival schools of thought. Among the anticolonial intellectuals of the Muslim world, Muhammad and Islam were pressed into service by both the secular nationalists and the more religiously inclined members of the political class. Arab nationalists, including even some prominent Christian thinkers, saw him as the father of Arab nationalism. According to the late Oxford University Professor Hamid Inayat, writing in Modern Islamic Political Thought,

"In defining its relationship with Islam, Arab nationalism thus often ends where it started: with the glorification of Arabism as a commanding value in Islam. On this point, most theoreticians of Arab nationalism seem to be in agreement whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims, religionists or secularists. Some of them are, of course, at pains to underscore their recognition of Islam as a religion for the whole of humanity and not just for one particular branch of it. Nevertheless, their works impart an unmistakable impression that the Prophet Muhammad almost acted as the first hero of Arab nationalism by uniting all Arab-speaking inhabitants of the Peninsula under his banner."

Judging from the rich corpus of opinions on and attitudes toward secular nationalism, Arab nationalists of our age and before have viewed the Prophet Muhammad as the principal architect who helped prepare the way for the creation of Arab consciousness. Michel Aflaq, onetime dean of the Syrian branch of the Arab nationalist caravan known as Baathism, shared this perspective. Gamal Abdel Nasser, a major personality in the annals of Arab nationalism, also included Islam among his three concentric circles of Egyptian identity. In his Philosophy of the Revolution, he urged his countrymen to reach out to their Islamic brethren in their fight against colonialism and imperialism. A rival to Nasser, Syed Qutb of Islamic Brotherhood fame, also appropriated the legacy of the Arabian prophet, calling for establishment of an Islamic state. Because of his activism for this ideal, he went to the gallows. But before he lost his life to the Nasserites, Qutb vigorously argued that Islam does provide intellectual foundations for a socialist order in human society. These and many other Arab thinkers and leaders saw in the Prophet's legacy a significant building block for the renaissance of Arab and Muslim society in the contemporary era. The rise of Muammar Qaddafi in the late 1960s and his affirmation of some form of Islamism in Libya reached a high point with the publication of his Green Book. Living contemporaneously with the Marxist movement of the post-war era, Qaddafi decided to use some form of Islamic symbolism to counter the Red Book of Mao Zedong of China. He self-satisfied opposed the Red Book with the Green Book, green being the favourite colour of the Prophet of Islam.

If the Arab nationalists and their Islamist rivals both appropriated something from Muhammad, how did other secular thinkers feel about him? The distinguished French Marxist Orientalist Maxine Rodinson has told us in his book, Mohammed, that “The Comte de Boulainvilliers, early in the eighteenth century, hailed him as a free-thinker, the creator of a religion of reason. Voltaire used him as a weapon against Christianity by making him a cynical impostor who yet managed to lead his people to the conquest of glory with the help of fairy stories. The eighteenth century as a whole saw him as the preacher of natural, rational religion, far removed from the madness of the Cross. The academies praised him. Goethe devoted a magnificent poem to him, in which, as the very epitome of the man of genius, he is compared to a mighty river."

In this concluding chapter of his book, the Frenchman goes on to say that Thomas Carlyle put Muhammad among the heroes of humankind in whom the spark of divinity is to be seen. Rodinson tells us the nineteenth-century Arabist Hubert Grimme "saw Muhammad as a socialist who was able to impose fiscal and social reform with the help of a [strictly minimal] 'mythology', invented deliberately to terrify the rich and enlist their support."

What the French scholar's research revealed about the selective appropriation of the Prophet Muhammad's legacy should lead us to conclude that the secular thinkers and politicians have their own ideological and political interests. Muhammad and Islam became mere pawns in their shrewd calculations. What happened to his legacy in the wrong hands is the best example of unintended consequences of human history. A careful reading of the literature of the modern-day Islamists around the Muslim world offers us a vast sample of selective appropriation of the prophetic legacy. Since the train of history roars along the tracks of human conflicts and uncertainties, the great men of Muhammad's mettle and ingenuity would serve as intended or unintended sources of inspiration for those of dubious intentions and objectives. This is particularly true in our modern and postmodern age when human beings, almost every man and woman, now feel that their sense of rationality empowers them to interpret the sacred text, a task previously left in the hands of the ulema (the learned class).


In writing about the Prophet Muhammad one cannot avoid the issue of the Sharia. As the late Fazlur Rahman, a leading interpreter of Islam in this century, said in his book Islam, "The most important and comprehensive concept for describing Islam as a function is the concept of the Shari'a or 'Shar.' The University of Chicago professor tells us that the word originally meant " 'the path or the road leading to the water,' i.e., a way to the very source of life." He goes on to say that in its religious usage, from the earliest period, the word Sharia meant "the highway of good life, i.e., religious values, expressed functionally and in concrete terms, to direct man's life." (p. 100) He contrasts this term with the word Sunna to show that, whereas Sharia has a correlate in the Qur'anic term din (religion), Sunna means that which underscores the exemplary role of the Prophet in his capacity as religious leader (imam) of men and women in the worship of Allah. This is why Professor Rahman believes that "for the Muslim Community which had so submitted, the primary task was to explain the Sharia, the 'Way' or the 'Command of God.' This task has since occupied the succeeding generations of Muslims.

The history of this idea and its human attempts at embodiment has been the source of joy and pain to many Muslims over the centuries. But despite how one may feel about the history of Muslim attempts at the institutionalization of the Sharia, the fact remains that almost all Muslims believe that social and religious life cannot be led properly without human fidelity to the Divine Law. Hence the development of a science of Islamic jurisprudence called Figh. It took several generations of human intellectual and scholarly activity to bring this edifice into being. Its primary building blocks were the Qur'an and the Sunna (the words and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad). But since changing times required creative responses to the circumstantial needs of the growing Muslim community, the learned jurists of the Islamic world began to press into service what was known as ilm (learning) and fiqh (comprehension). The term fiqh, which was originally distinguishable from ilm, later became the word used by jurists to define the body of knowledge about the Sharia and its application in human society. What was once "a process rather than a body of consolidated knowledge," according to Rahman, went through a radical transformation around the middle of the eighth century, this is to say, fiqh passed from being a personal activity to meaning a structured discipline and its resultant body of knowledge.

It is indeed against this background that one can talk about the present developments in the Muslim world. Since the Iranian revolution, the political leaders and intellectuals of the Muslim world have come again to examine the relevance and utility of the Sharia in the creation of modern Muslim structures of governance. The Iranian revolution established a new state system that calls for the restoration of the Sharia in Iranian society and the return to Islam among the Iranian masses who had gone through the processes of secularization and modernization under the shah. Similar attempts at Islamization have taken place in Pakistan under President Zia ul-Haq and Jafaar Numeiri and General Bashir of Sudan, and the present Taliban government in Afghanistan. Because of the introduction of the Sharia in these countries, many political, moral, and social issues have come up for discussion between Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. Issues such as religious freedom, the rights of women, and Huddud punishments for criminals and violators of the Divine Law have continued to attract the attention of politically conscious Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors. These issues are burning ones because they go to the heart of modern living and liberal sensitivities.

Before the Iranian revolution most Muslim countries had secular nationalist governments whose leaders were not eager to introduce the Sharia into the domain of public law. Consciously or unconsciously following the example of Kemal Ataturk of Turkey in their drive for modernization and economic and political development, these countries and their leaders shied away from any mixing of religion and state. If religion entered the picture, it was always in the role of a legitimizing tool in the hands of manipulating agents. This was most obvious in Egypt under Nasser, who tried to stack Al-Azhar University with scholars and jurists amenable to his policies. This pattern of political manipulation of Islam was evident throughout the Muslim world; and until the rise of Imam Khomeini, the Sharia was mummified in the former British colonies in the Muslim world or effectively marginalized and banished as a relic of medieval Islam in the Francophone world. The flickering light of the Sharia was visible to only those who ventured to the Arabian Peninsula, where the successors to the Wahabi Movement of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab kept the flag of the Sharia flying. Things have changed a great deal in the Muslim world. With the emergence of many Islamist groups around the world, more Muslims are pressing for the reintroduction of the Sharia. The challenge facing Muslim leaders and intellectuals in the twenty-first century is how to revisit the Islamic heritage and to reconstruct a political/religious order that remains faithful to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad without necessarily violating the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim minorities. This is a major feat, and Muslims who believe in the authenticity of the prophetic message would have to work harder along the path that predecessors such as Imam al-Ghazali and Imam Ibn Taymiyya have traveled.


In evaluating Muhammad's impact on the contemporary period, one must focus on the political, cultural, and economic life of Muslims and their neighbours. Future historians who look back at the twentieth century will note several developments whose roots come back to our time. The world wars will be remembered as great blunders in human decision-making. They will also be judged on the basis of human cruelty and ferocity. Muhammad's name will occupy the minds of those generations of human beings when they think about the anti-colonial struggles of the Muslim peoples and the uses and abuses of Islam and the Prophet's name in the campaign against the European colonizers. Most significantly, the eruption of the Iranian Revolution and Imam Khomeini's rise to power would also be remembered as a turning point in the Muslim quest for self-determination and cultural autonomy. The Iranian people felt betrayed by a generation of rulers and elites who were more interested in lining their pockets than in maintaining the cultural and political patrimony of the Iranian people. Though the Iranian Revolution raised much hope in many circles, its un-foldment has led to disillusionment among some Iranians and guarded optimism among many die-hard supporters of the late imam. Despite one's position on the ideological contest within Iran, the fact remains that future Muslim and non-Muslim historians will remember this event, which took place 204 years after the American Revolution and 10 years before the collapse of communism.

But if future historians pay attention to the Iranian Revolution and the reassertion of Muhammad's legacy in its Shiite form, they will also be forced to look back at the oil embargo of 1973 and its intended and unintended consequences. We are still too close to the events and mistake the trees for the forest. With the benefit of hindsight, those who come after us will see that Muhammad's message benefited immeasurably from the embargo. It helped change the face of the Arabian Peninsula. It gave the people of the region a glimpse of what modernization could do for those who are determined to change while simultaneously holding on to the rope of faith.

Muhammad and his ideas have outgrown the mental and emotional boundaries created by the accident of his birth. His is a message of universalism, and the vast numbers of Muslims around the world who pattern their lives after his testify to the magnetism and continuing relevance of his message Yet, because of the ever- growing power of secularization and modernization, Islam and all other religions face new challenges and problems. The Prophet Muhammad, it appears, will continue to affect many a human soul. Only time and history will tell whether his message will settle in outer space, just as it has spread successfully around this sublunary world.

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