Muhammad: His Character and Conduct
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Muhammad: His Character and Conduct

Adil Salahi

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Muhammad: His Character and Conduct

Adil Salahi

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Muslims all over the world see Muhammad as God's last messenger to mankind. Through his actions, he showed the way to live a life that provides for all the needs of body, mind, and soul, and elevates man's aspirations towards a sublime ideal in a very simple, direct, and truthful manner. He built a state that was dedicated to truth and justice and to the liberation of man throughout the world. He wrote to emperors, kings, and rulers, calling on them to believe in God and to follow His message, yet, at the same time, he lived a life of poverty, leaving aside the riches that were offered to him.

At a time when the Prophet is much maligned by writers, cartoonists, and various other detractors, this book aims to show Muhammad's true character in detail, both in its most everyday and most extraordinary moments.

Adil Salahi 's writings include the acclaimed Muhammad: Man and Prophet and Pioneers of Islamic Scholarship, and the English translation of the eighteen-volume In the Shade of the Qur'an. His main career has been in radio and print journalism, and for over thirty years he was editor of "Islam in Perspective, " a twice-weekly full-page column in the Arab News, a Saudi daily newspaper.

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MUHAMMAD, THE PROPHET OF ISLAM, was an ordinary human being. Muslims throughout the world acknowledge this fact. No Islamic school of thought assigns any different status to him. None attributes any Divine nature to him. The Qur’ān emphasises this fact also: stating it repeatedly, while making it clear that he was entrusted with God’s final message to mankind. His role was to deliver this message in full. The message is contained in the Qur’ān, which is God’s own word. God has guaranteed that the Qur’ān will be preserved in its original form for all time. Thus the Qur’ān that we have today is exactly the same as that which Muhammad read out to his community over 1400 years ago, as not a word of it has ever changed. As God’s Messenger, Muhammad also explained the Qur’ān. He elaborated on aspects that were stated in general terms, provided details where these were needed and corrected misconceptions where such arose. He also, in his own life, provided a practical example of how believers should conduct their lives. That which Muhammad has given us, in addition to the Qur’ān, is called the Sunnah. The Sunnah is an essential part of the Islamic faith, as it serves as an explanatory memorandum for the Qur’ān. Muslims approach the Sunnah as a complement of the Qur’ān, but it does not have the same status. It is, in fact, part of the revelation that the Prophet received, but it is expressed in his own words. Since it is a man’s word, it cannot be read in prayer.
Muhammad became a Prophet at the age of forty. Prior to that, he was not known to speak about religion, God, the status of man or even moral values and conduct. If he thought of such matters, his thoughts remained private, as he did not speak about them to anyone, not even to his wife or closest friends. No friend or foe ever said to him anything like, “I remember the time you used to tell us about religion or moral values.” No one has suggested that Islam was a development of earlier ideas expressed by Muhammad in any form.
Prophets are a special breed of people, as they assume the task of preaching to people while also setting a practical example. However, there is a subset of Prophets who attain a higher status: God’s Messengers, who are given messages to deliver to people. Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus were the highest and noblest of God’s Messengers. There have been other Messengers also: some are named in the Qur’ān, while others are not mentioned. All of these Prophets and Messengers preached the same Divine faith, which was based on God’s Oneness. They taught that all submission is to Him alone, and all worship must be addressed purely to Him. Ultimately, the Divine message was brought to its final and complete form, and addressed to all mankind, in all generations. This is the message of Muhammad, as embodied in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah.
In this book, we are embarking on studying Muhammad, the man. I will only touch on his message and his teachings through a study of his personality. I do not aim to present the Islamic faith or to illustrate its main principles. Instead, I will begin by looking at his background, the social environment in which he was born and grew up, and the cultural aspects of the society in which he lived as a youth and adult. I will then look at how his personality developed as he went about fulfilling the task that was assigned to him as God’s Messenger.
Muhammad was born in 570 CE in Makkah, the most important city in Arabia at the time. The Arabs lived in the land that today forms the entire Arabian Peninsula, as well as Palestine, Jordan, southern Syria and southern Iraq. Theirs was a tribal society, which considered allegiance to tribe as the paramount bond between people. Individuals identified themselves as members of a tribe, and the tribe protected and defended its individual members. A tribe could easily go to war against other tribes over a dispute that involved only one or two of its members. In such cases, right and wrong were of secondary importance, as tribal loyalty was supreme.
These tribes could be large or small. A large tribe could branch out into several clans. The separate clans considered themselves cousins, but they would still compete for honour and prestige. Clans had autonomy, and allegiance was always to one’s closest bond. Thus, an individual owed allegiance first to family, then to clan, then to tribe. Tribes enjoyed prestige based on their history, ancestry and strength. Even major tribes took pride in belonging to still larger ones. Indeed, all Arabs belonged to one of two main divisions: ʿAdnān and Qaān.
At the time when Muhammad was born, Makkah was inhabited by the Quraysh tribe, which was recognized by all Arabs as the master tribe. Before the Quraysh, Makkah belonged to the tribe of Khuzāʿah, which in turn had taken over from Jurhum. Muhammad belonged to the Hāshim clan, which had held authority in Makkah for several generations. In fact, his grandfather, ʿAbd al-Mualib, was the chief of Makkah, with an authority that was recognized by all the Quraysh clans. The status of the Quraysh as the master tribe was enhanced by the position of the Kaʿbah in Makkah. The Kaʿbah was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael, who was also a Prophet. It continued to be visited and venerated by people ever since it was built.
In this social environment, Muhammad was born. At the time, children who belonged to distinguished families in that society were usually looked after by Bedouin wet nurses, who came to Makkah seeking to take babies home with them. The Makkan families believed that it would be in the best interests of their children to spend their first couple of years in the desert, where the clean air and environment would ensure that they had a healthy start. The Bedouin families received financial help in return for caring for the town children. So, within a few days of his birth, Muhammad was given to the Bedouin woman alīmah, who was to breastfeed and look after him. alīmah was from the tribe of Saʿd ibn Bakr, which branches out of Hawāzin.
Two factors must have had profound effects on Muhammad during his early years. The first was the loss of his immediate relatives. His parents’ marriage lasted only a few weeks, after which his father, ʿAbdullāh, travelled to Syria with the traditional trade caravan that travelled there every year. On his way back he was taken ill. The caravan people left him in Madinah to be nursed by his maternal relatives, but he did not recover, and he died soon afterwards. Muhammad’s mother, Āminah, died a few years later, when he was only six years of age. A mother’s death is keenly felt by a child, but perhaps even more so in young Muhammad’s case, as he was with her on a journey that took them to Madinah where they visited his father’s grave. The distance from Makkah to Madinah is over 450 kilometres. When they reached al-Abwā’, a village that is a little closer to Makkah than to Madinah, Āminah was taken ill and died. The child was left to the care of his nursemaid, Umm Ayman, who took him back home. Muhammad’s grandfather, ʿAbd al-Mualib, then looked after him, but he, in turn, died when Muhammad was only eight.
Such a sequence of loss of immediate and loved relatives is bound to have a profound effect on a young person. Muhammad remembered his mother to his last days. More than fifty years later, he visited her grave in al-Abwā’, and as he stood at her grave, he wept in grief. He told his Companions that he had sought God’s permission to visit her grave, and his request was granted.1
In reply to a question from some of his Companions, the Prophet stated that he vividly remembered his grandfather’s death. Similarly, his nursemaid, Umm Ayman, stated that he wept much at the time.2 From this, we can see that young Muhammad’s grief over his losses was keen indeed.
The death of these close relatives must have given Muhammad the recognition that life brings whatever it might, with no guarantees to anyone: no one has a rightful claim to anything other than what is given. Later, he would associate this with God’s will, to emphasize that no one could expect anything other than what God grants.
The second factor that must have influenced Muhammad in his early formative years was the love he received from those around him. He was dearly loved by alīmah, his wet nurse, and her family; not least because they soon realized that he was a blessed child. Nor did she feel that breastfeeding him along with her own son placed much of a strain on her. On completing two years of breastfeeding, alīmah duly took him back to his mother, Āminah. However, alīmah requested that the child remain with her, as the desert area where she lived was a much healthier environment than Makkah. Āminah agreed, and Muhammad stayed with alīmah until he was four.
Back in Makkah, the four-year-old child was looked after by his mother, under the watchful eye of ʿAbd al-Mualib, his grandfather. They both felt that there was something special about the child. The grandfather gave him a special treatment, making allowances that no child would usually be afforded in the rigid tribal community of Makkah. Perhaps the circumstances of his birth (although more probably the nature of the child) gave the old sage a feeling that the boy would have a bright future. In Arabia, where there was always fierce competition for honour, ʿAbd al-Mualib, the Makkan chief who was around a hundred years of age, might have hoped that the boy would grow up to put the honour of his Hāshimite clan at a higher level. Yet, as noted above, within four years of returning to Makkah, Muhammad lost both his mother and grandfather. Thus, at eight years of age, Muhammad had to move home again and live with his uncle, Abū ālib, who was soon to assume a highly distinguished position of honour in Makkah, being the head of the Hāshimite clan. Abū ālib, however, was a man of limited means and a large family, but he was a model Arab chief. The standing of his family, clan and tribe was paramount in his mind. To him, Muhammad was not a mere orphan nephew: he was soon to be a young man with fine qualities. Abū ālib could see in Muhammad a bright child with great promise. His docile and loving nature augured well for his future, and Abū ālib thought that Muhammad could continue the tradition of his noble ancestors who enhanced the standing of their clan in Arabia. Abū ālib loved Muhammad as he loved his own children, with perhaps a little favouritism also, considering the particular situation of the child and the blessing that seemed to emanate from him.
In his uncle’s home, Muhammad was looked after by two women: Fāimah bint Asad (Abū ālib’s wife) and Umm Ayman (his nursemaid). Both showered him with motherly love. When Fāimah died some fifty years later, the Prophet, who was the ruler of Arabia, personally attended to her preparation of burial. Expressing his grief for her loss, he said:
May God shower His mercy on you, mother. You were to me a mother after I had lost my mother: you went hungry so that I could have enough to eat; you gave me clothes that you were in more need of; you denied yourself the good things of life so that I could enjoy them; and you sought only God’s reward for all that.3
Umm Ayman was a slave woman from Abyssinia who belonged to his father ʿAbdullāh. According to the traditions of the time, she belonged to him after his father’s death. Yet, in Islamic tradition, she is never referred to as a slave, rather, she is always described as his nursemaid. She was a kindly woman who witnessed his childhood from the moment of his birth. She was his only companion when his mother died on the return journey from Madinah when he was only six years of age. She brought him back to his grandfather, who instructed her to look after Muhammad and to never let him out of her sight. She needed no incentive to do that, for the child was dear to her. When he grew up, Muhammad acknowledged her role and reciprocated her kindness. On his marriage to Khadījah, when he was twenty-five, Muhammad set her free. He was later to give her in marriage to Zayd ibn ārithah, who was the dearest man to him. She gave Zayd a son, named Usāmah, whom the Prophet loved as his own child. When Muhammad (peace be upon him) became God’s Messenger, Umm Ayman and her family were among the early converts to Islam. She continued to enjoy his kindness to his last days. He used to say of her: “Umm Ayman is the last of my family, and she was to me a mother after my mother had passed away.”4
In his upbringing, then, Muhammad suffered the loss of his immediate relatives who cared most for him: his parents and grandfather. Yet, he was never away from a family home where he received love, kindness and motherly care. There were many women to love Muhammad and care for him, as he had six paternal aunts who were all kindly and loving.
When we look at Muhammad’s childhood and upbringing, we will not fail to notice that the guiding hand of God was always there to ensure that he did not lack what was necessary for a fine start in life. He lost his dear ones, but he did not lack tenderly love. The question is: how did his particular situation affect his character? For one thing, having to deal with the occurrence of death at such an early age would surely have led him to question the meaning of life. For another, living in an uncle’s home full of cousins would have given him the feeling of being an addition to the family, but not belonging to it. He would have a more detached outlook at whatever affected the family. As he grew up, this would make him more independent in his way of thinking and would broaden his outlook, as he would differentiate between Abū ālib and his other uncles. Moreover, it gave him a more conscious vision of his place in the family and in his tribe. Thus, we see him clinging to his uncle Abū ālib as he embarked on a business trip to Syria. He requested that he travel with his uncle, although it was unusual for a boy to join such a trip at that age. Abū ālib would not hear of it at first, yet not much persuasion was needed and the twelve-year-old boy undertook his first long journey.
alīmah, his wet nurse, reported that she felt a blessing coming into her family from the moment she took Muhammad from his mother. That blessing manifested itself in the provisions of the family. Bedouins lived on the produce of their sheep, camels and cows. Even in hard times, when grazing was a hard task, her cattle seemed to produce plenty of milk for the family. She associated that with having that fine baby. For this reason, she wanted to keep him beyond the normal term. Abū ālib felt t...