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By Osman Shaheen
Many of the problems facing people in today’s world can be traced to a lack of adherence to moral values. From murder to embezzlement, the number and size of criminal activities have increased exponentially in the last five decades. One needs only to turn on the local evening news to become aware of the general anxiety and lack of peace in the world. More than 1400 years ago, however, a single man was able to not only cure the Arabian Peninsula of its vices, but also instill in the people a sense of compassion towards their fellow man. Today’s world and that of the Prophet’s could not be more different, yet the problems and solutions are somewhat the same. What causes seemingly content people to disobey the unwritten rules of society? And what are some possible solutions commensurate with the problem? This essay discusses the character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (pbuh), and examines how the values he held and practiced gave him the strength to influence the world around him.
By 600 C.E., the Arabian Peninsula was a hotbed of moral vices. As Sheikh Safiur-Rahman Al Mubarakpuri notes in The Sealed Nectar, a biography of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), regarding Pre-Islamic Arabia, “prostitution and indecency were rampant and in full operation.” Men and women could openly commit acts of fornication and adultery without fear of societal consequences. The only issue at the time that was of perhaps greater concern was the fragility of tribal relationships. These tribes were legendary throughout the Old World for the manner in which they held generations-long grudges. Except during prohibited months, fighting was common and much bloodshed occurred. In less than a century, however, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would reform Arabian society and his message transformed entire populations from Damascus to Ethiopia. [Read more: Muslims around the World]
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, taught love, kindness and compassion to his people, and was seen to be the most loving, kind, and compassionate of all of them. The Quran mentions his kind and gentle behavior in these words: “O Messenger of Allah! It is a great Mercy of God that you are gentle and kind towards them; for, had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would all have broken away from you” (Quran 3:159).
The exact characteristics that allowed the Prophet (pbuh) to do this are innumerable. Nonetheless, chief among his traits was his honesty. The range of names attributed to him includes Al-Sadiq (the Truthful) and Al-Amin (the Faithful).
Even his enemies, who were diametrically opposed to everything he preached, still referred to him by these names. In effect, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was defined through his honesty. The first example of his honesty lies in his conditions of borrowing and lending.
Most significantly, the Prophet (on the orders of God) eliminated charging interest; no longer was the borrower forced to borrow money on outrageous terms that had previously condemned him to a life of servitude to the lender. A testament to the severity of not returning borrowed possessions and trusts lies in the Prophet’s (pbuh) Farewell Address. He reminds the people to be faithful and return whatever has been entrusted to them to its rightful owner.
Muhammad’s Treatment of Women
The character of the Prophet (pbuh) was also seen in his treatment of women. In Pre-Islamic Arabia, women were treated as mere commodities. That is, they held no property rights, divorce rights lay in the hands of men and they were responsible for all household duties. The Prophet (pbuh), however, actively involved himself in household matters. He would help his wife with chores like sweeping the floor. According to author Fazl Ahmad in Muhammad: The Prophet of Islam, when one of his children would fall ill, the Prophet (pbuh) would stay by their bedside and actively take care of them. As ordered by God, the Prophet (pbuh) gave women in Islam the right to initiate divorce and to own their own property, among other liberties.
It is important to note here the critics’ point of view: that Islam, rather than giving women rights, demotes them to a position of subservience to man. Notwithstanding, one needs only to carefully study the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and prophetic sayings to understand Islam’s treatment and emphasis on positive relations with women. [Click here to find out about treatment of women in Islam.]
The directives given were so different from what had been the norm in Pre-Islamic Arabia that even many of the Companions of the Prophet had reservations regarding taking their wives’ counsel for their affairs. Despite this initial reluctance, the belief in God and the example set forth by the Prophet (pbuh) eventually convinced the Companions to integrate this into their lifestyles. In effect, Islam had elevated women to a position on par with men, and the Prophet’s (pbuh) example reinforced Islam’s message of equality.
The Prophet’s (pbuh) goodwill did not simply extend towards women or fellow Muslims. It was inclusive towards people of other religions as well, including the Jews and Christians of the time. An example of this lies in his treatment of prisoners of war during the battle of Badr. The prisoners were kept in extremely good living conditions and even fed proper food. Furthermore, they were given the option of freeing themselves by either paying a ransom or by teaching ten Muslims how to read and write. This environment stands in direct contrast to the appalling conditions most prisoners of war dealt with in the past and continue to deal with in the present, including physical torture and lack of proper facilities. Even with all the right in the world, the Prophet (pbuh) restrained himself and saw to it that his Companions treated their enemies with hospitality and goodwill.
The situation in today’s world is at once startling and discomforting because of the minimal value placed on human life. At both the individual and nation levels, one group may treat another group as disposable simply because their way of thinking is different. The Prophet (pbuh) transcended all of these perceived differences through his character. From the beginning to the end his honesty, his treatment of women and minorities, and his behavior towards non-Muslims set the standard that would inspire all of his followers. This is why author Michael H. Hart recognized the Prophet (pbuh) as number one in a ranking of the 100 most influential persons in history. While many people at the time did not agree with the Prophet (pbuh) on his principles or policy, even his bitterest enemy came to respect the strength his infallible character gave him. As global citizens in the 21st century, it is important to see beyond differences and realize that the human denominator among us is what is most important. We must all seek examples like the Prophet’s (pbuh) and work to incorporate them into our lives, in order to increase tranquility and make the world a more peaceful place for future generations.