It may be easy to say that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the greatest personality humanity has ever known in its extended history. But to analyse the different aspects of this greatness – here one may face the difficulty.
Great? Yes. But how was he greater than everybody else?
How was he so highly adored and revered by his adherents throughout all those centuries since he was chosen by Allah until this present moment?
There is something outstanding about his personality, about his career, about his message, about his role in history of mankind that attracts the attention of all who try to know him. To say he is a Prophet is not enough to interpret that outstanding feature. Even to say he is the Prophet, or the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ is not enough.
In any case, let us try to approach out topic thorough a process of simplification that may assist us in our attempt to comprehend some aspects of this great personality.
When we hear in history about a man who found his nation scattered and dissected by different factors, unable to unite itself in one consolidated nation, who then tried his best to bring them together – with all the resolution and insistence liable to mankind, giving the matter his whole energy, sacrificing his own interests for the sake of his nation and able at last to realize the dream and bring out from that scattered nation, not only a consolidated one, but one that has a specified message and a specified role in the history of mankind – what can we call such a person, if he ever existed in the true sense of the word?
No doubt we shall call him a great man – even if he did nothing all through his life other than fulfilling this single, although, complicated task.
What then can we call the man who fulfilled that same task, not on the ordinary level, but on such a level that is unique in history, this task being at the same time only one of his great achievements during his limited human life?
When we hear in history about a military leader who found his country not only weak but also occupied in part by foreign powers, never dreaming of liberating the occupied parts, nay! of overcoming the great powers around them, then through his outstanding personality, his long perseverence, his strong resolution, be built up an army that not only liberated the country but became in a few years the greatest army in the region – victorious always, pressing always in the region against its enemies, never occupied by them – what shall we call such a leader?
Undoutedly, we shall call him a great man. Indeed, many so call persons such as Hannibal, Napoleon, Hitler, and other such pygmies of history. They are called great men, although they lived and died for their limited task and although some of them failed to realize their goal.
What then shall we call the man who built an army that aimed, not at liberating some occupied lands of a certain country, but at liberating the whole of mankind? And liberating it, moreover not from physical submissiveness to material factors, but from the submissiveness of the soul to any sovereignty other than the Sovereignty of Allah, Almighty. An army oriented not to conquer countries or to annex lands, but to conquer human despotism and human humiliation before the devil. And to offer man the real liberty that is worth being obtained because it fulfills the welfare of this world and the world to come: the army of creed, the army of principles, the army that sprang out from the heavenly Message and lived and liberated for its cause. And when we bear in mind that this great task of building up such a unique army was only part of the Prophet’s job and not his sole achievement, in what words or in what terms shall we qualify this greatness?
If we go on trying to deal with all the aspects of his greatness, the appointed time will fail us, and I fear the language itself may fail us. For one of the defects of human language is that it uses the same word or the same term for different degrees of the same meaning, although the difference might be so vast between one degree and another. The only way then for differentiation is to use the linguistic technique itself – great, greater, greatest and, in the end, the greatest.
But nevertheless let us have some quick snapshots of the Prophet’s greatness, Peace be upon him.
The first outstanding aspect of his greatness is that his personality is a combination of a vast variety of great personalities. We have just mentioned two different types: the great statesman and the great military leader.
Let us add, only as example, but not for comprehensive study, the great educator, the great household master, the great lover of humanity.
Any educator, great or ordinary, must have some qualifications. To begin with, he must be of a higher level than those who receives his instruction, or else they will not feel the need to listen or the need to follow. He also must have something to say to his adherents, or else they will not gather round him. He must be able to notice the different types and different conditions of his disciples, or else he will not be able to give them and give to each of them suitable instructions. He must have the ability to follow up, step by step, the process of education, or else the development of his disciples’ personalities will stop before reaching the stage of ripening and full maturity. It is very important to add also the ability to love those whom he is educating with that love which can convince them that his instructions are meant for their own good or else the process of education will not give its desired effect.
In all of these aspects the Prophet, on him be peace, was greater than any known educator in history whom we may describe as great, with the repeated addition that any one of those so-called great educators had only that job only as one of his different tasks, and fulfilled it at a higher level than any one of them.
Let us mention a hint or two of his greatness as an educator, his calling of his followers’ companions’, for instance. To what extent did it affect his adherents to call them ‘companions’ rather than ‘followers’, or ‘disciples’, or whatever nomination might be used? It was really intended to process to raise those followers to the high standard of their Prophet and it gave its produce. Another hint is what those Companions related about the behaviour of the Prophet toward them. They said that the Prophet treated them with such love that every one of them thought that he was the Prophet’s favoured one, the nearest to his heart, on him be peace. To estimate this behaviour, let every one of us try to treat his friends indeed, his children themselves such that every one of them may feel that he or she is the most favoured.
The personality of the great believer within the wide-dimensioned personality of the Prophet, on him be the peace, is outstanding.
Every one of us must have experienced, once at least in his lifetime, the feeling that he is near to Allah. That he is worshipping Him sincerely. That his love of Him is illuminating his heart. That His Almighty presence and existence is filling his soul.
How great is this experience! What loftiness and greatness one feels in one’s self while experiencing this rare moment! But for how long can the ordinary person maintain this high level amidst his continuous occupations, leading his attention and energy here and there?
Now let us come to the Prophet, on him be peace, and try to imagine just to imagine that state of mind, or rather that state of soul, that is continuously and deeply attached to Allah, the beloved God, filled all the time with His existence, His magnitude, His mercifulness, His sovereignty, and His overwhelming power.
It was only natural that the great believer should become the great worshipper, for the true knowledge of the true Divinity begets the true feeling of worship; I mean sincerity and devotion to Allah.
Allah says in the Quran (the translation of this verse I take from Mawlana Maududi), the erudite among His bondsmen fear Allah alone.
The outstanding feature regarding the Prophet, peace on him, is the depth of that feeling; the continuous feeling of the presence of Allah, and the continuous remembrance of this presence, either through devoted prayer, prolonged Dua or in continuously reminding his Companions of that presence whenever anything happened- rain falls, the crescent appears, the sun rises or sets, plants grow, a child is born, a creature dies.
For us now in the 21st century- the century of the Great Ignorance, as a I call it – this feature of the Prophet’s personality is quite important. For we live in a world that rarely feels the existence of Allah, and rarely remembers Him in the stunning turmoil of the materialistic life led b the people of so-called modern civilization.
No wonder if this false civilization is beginning to go asunder, despite all the wonderful progress it possesses in the field of science and technology. Useful as this progress might be, it cannot be a substitute for the spiritual life so necessary for mankind. Indeed, deep in the inner heart of human nature, there is a place for worship in everybody’s heart. And it is either filled by the worship of Allah or the worship of something else.
I remember a story told to me by my brother Sayyid. He lived in America for two years, between, between 1948 and 1950.
Once, he sat in a public garden. A white American came near to him and before sitting beside him, asked, “Are you an American?’
He said, “No.” Then the man took his seat. (You know of course that we are colored, or half-colored, and the white American should not sit beside a colored person or a half-colored! But when he knew that he was not American, he sat beside him.) “Where are you from?” he asked him.
“I am Egyptian.”
“O, then you are a Muslim.”
“Will you please tell me something about Islam?” Then for one whole hour, brother Sayyid was talking to the man about Islam. The man was listening very silently, very politely. But last he said,” All you have said about Islam may be true. But the only divinity I know is the dollar.”
Indeed, it is in Islam- and only in Islam- that scientific and technological progress is not put as a substitute for the worship of Allah, but rather as part of that worship oriented and controlled by spiritual worship, and thus giving man the balance and equilibrium so necessary in life.
But let us have a quick glance at the great worshipper, on him be peace, to learn from him how to worship Allah.
He went on praying during the night until his honorable feet swelled. ‘A’isha, the loving wife, may Allah be pleased with her, was in pain at seeing the swelling feet of the prophet. She tried to do something to relieve him.
“Not so hard, O Messenger of Allah,” he said to him. “Allah has forgiven all your sins, antecedent and forthcoming.”
But the great worshipper answered, “Shouldn’t I be a thankful slave to Allah.”
Now, the Prophet’s household consisted of several wives and daughters, and had its troubles and problems as any human household. Although his wives were the Prophet’s wives and were expected to lead a sort of life and behavior different from any other wives, yet human nature is human nature. The jealousy of one wife from another is a concrete fact, even in the Prophet’s household. But what a great household master was he.
Those who have married more than one wife may know very well what it means. Those who have married only one can still imagine. But under the leadership of the great husband, peace was the eminent feature of life and war the exception. It was the Prophet who said, “The best among you are those who give the best treatment to their wives- and I am the best to my wives.”
You know very well that he shared in household affairs, assisting his wives and doing whatever was wanted of him. But this statement, “The best among you are those who give the best treatment to their wives- and I am the best to my wives,” is very significan. It gives a profound criterion through which humanity may measure its elevation or its failure.
The true criterion of man’s elevation is not the way one treats another person whom one knows to be equal in status or in power. But it is the way one treats a person who is considered of weaker position or lesser status. Women are always treated unjustly during ages of ignorance because of their weakness. Yet the Prophet of Islam gives this human touch and makes the criterion of good behavior the way a man treats his wife.
(By the way, let the woman of modern civilization remember that it was Islam that first gave women the equality in humanity they are still calling for and gave them rights that women in the West only gained during the last century. Some rights, however, are still unavailable to them in spite of all the so-called liberation or salvation of women in the 20th century. Islam only did not give women the right of immoral indulgence because it forbids men also to be involved in such debasement.)
Considering this criterion which estimates human elevation by the way a human being treats another who is weaker than himself, it may not be off the point to remind of the way the so-called superpowers treat the developing countries, and see to what degree this false civilization fails to prove its humanity.
The man destined to be Messenger to all humanity and leader of all humanity was endowed by Allah with a great love for all people, black or white, red or yellow a love for mankind without discrimination. “There is no privilege for the white over the black nor the red over the yellow, except by righteousness,” he said.
This great love was indispensable for such a great task as his. It was not enough for him to be a great statesman, nor a great military leader, nor even a great educator. Without a great love for humanity, he could not have led upon the prolonged and patient path toward the great Truth, toward the liberation of mankind from the worship of the devil to the worship of Allah, the true Divinity.
Some so called great men in history were led to their task by hatred, wrath, or malignity. And, of course, they fulfilled some near or temporary goals because they employed the full strength of their energy to fulfill them. But when their lives came to an end, as all lives come to their ends, nothing, or indeed very little, was left after their departure. But not so the Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace. For he left this world fourteen centuries ago, but his Message his still alive and his heritage is still existing – your presence here being one of its products and achievements.
As an insight to this point, recall a rare situation the Prophet faced. When he was abandoned in Makkah by his near relatives through hatred and enmity to his cause, when he was persecuted under the violation and the tyranny of Quraysh, what did he do? He prayed to his Lord, “O Allah! May you forgive my people, for they are ignorant. They do not know the truth.”
We have been demonstrating one fact about the Prophet, on him be peace, that is, the wide scope of his personality that comprises within it a combination of great personalities of different dynamics. If this by itself is a sign of greatness it is not, however, the real core of his greatness. For, supposing these different personalities were detached one from the other, they could not make up a great personality. Integration of personality is very important and such integration was outstanding in the personality of the Prophet, on him be peace.
One never feels that his statesmanship or his military leadership is detached from his strong belief in Allah or his devoted worship to Him nor his companionship to his followers, nor his love for all humanity. If we add to all of this a rare equilibrium that gives every dimension the necessary attention at the suitable moment, then we can be near enough to attempt a contemplative glance at the great personality of the Prophet, and to comprehend, to any extent possible, how it is that this personality down through the ages has been so loved and so revered.
Yet everything about that outstanding personality was the natural thing regarding the Message this Prophet was sent to declare. It was Allah who molded his personality in the shape it was molded, and for a certain reason to fulfill a specific task. Allah knows best with whom to place His Message.
The Message of this Prophet is Islam in its broad and comprehensive sense and to speak about Islam in the space allowed now is an impossibility. But let us try in a few words.
Islam is the religion that Allah wishes all mankind to embrace. It is the blessing Allah wishes to bestow upon all humanity. This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favor upon you and have chose for you as a religion al-Islam.
Islam at the same time is the complete method of life that comprises faith, moral, politics, economics, social relations, the correct mode of thinking and the correct attitude toward the Divinity, life, nature, and mankind.
This comprehensive scope of Islam was in need of a human being to exemplify it for mankind. For Allah, the All-Knowing, knows that revealing a Book to human beings is not enough to make them believe and then adopt what they believe and implement in the correct manner, He knows that there must be a human example to carry out the revelation in a concrete manner in order to show the people how to do it. He knows also that such an example as needed for this task must have certain characteristics suitable for the task, again, as we know in educational methods that the example should be so finely complete that it can be both give the most effective impression and moreover the full guidance to those who are called to follow the example.
This, in brief, was the Prophet, on him be peace. Now we come to the important question: How are we to follow the example?
Allah says in the Quran, Verily, in the Messenger of Allah you have a good example, for him who looks unto Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much.
What does this mean? Does it mean that every one of us should become a carbon copy of the Prophet, on him be peace, in each dimension and every phase of life? This is simply impossible. And Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, the Merciful, the All-Merciful, knows the capacity of His creatures and does not commit them to the impposible. Allah takes not a soul beyond its scope. Should He not know what He created and He is the Subtle, the Aware!.
But still, He wants us to follow the example. Yes, follow the example within the limits of our human capacity on one condition: that we should try our best. That we should make our attempt to follow this example the jihad of our lives, to which we must dictate the full of energy, asking the guidance of Allah, who has promised to offer it to those who try.
As for those who strive for Us, We surely guide them to Our path, and, lo, Allah is with the good.
And whosoever strives, strives only for himself, for, lo, Allah is altogether independent of His creatures.
Let us give a few examples to finish with. In our modern civilization which, again, I call under my own responsibility the Modern Jahiliyya, that is, the Modern Ignorance we differentiate between the politics and morals, economics, and morals, technology and morals, art and morals. This is obviously against the example of the Prophet.
To follow the Prophetic model, we must stop this false and malignant differentiation and take life as one whole, as it is in reality, and as should be the behavior of the one, integrated, whole called the human being. There is no partition within the human being, between this side and that. For ever since Allah created man out of the earth’s crust and breathed into him of His spirit, the two elements became one and can never and should never be disintegrated.
When thy Lord said unto the Angels, Lo, I am about to create a mortal out of mud. And when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down before him prostrate.
We are usually so absorbed with our everyday preoccupations that we nearly forget the Day of Resurrection. We may only remember it, if ever, in the moments we are doing our prayers, while we read the Opening of the Book, reciting the verse, Maliki Yaum al-Din, The Owner of the Day of Judgment.
This is against the example of the Prophet, peace be upon him. For he was always in remembrance of that Day and was always reminding his Companions to prepare themselves for that Day through every deed they do, every word they say, and every feeling they feel, even in the secrecy of their inner hearts. For Allah knows our secrets, and even what is more obscure than our secrets. He knows the secret thought and that which is yet more hidden.
In educating our children also, we are usually keen to teach them everything that makes out of them successful personalities in this life, which is of course essential. But paying attention ignoring the Hereafter is against the example of the Prophet.
To follow his example, we must labor to achieve two tasks at the same time: successfulness in this life, and successfulness in the Hereafter, the latter being at least as important as the first. And the former is only achieved by sticking to the instructions of the Quran and Sunnah alike.
The example of the Prophet, on him be peace, was not, and is not, a temporary one, nor is it confined to a certain nation. This example was set by Allah for all nations, for all time, until the Day of Judgment.
He it is who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to prevail over all religions, and Allah suffices as a witness.
But we must be sure that we cannot propagate Islam to mankind until we ourselves have followed the Prophet’s way and became ourselves an example to mankind.
This is the greatest challenge before us, the challenge unto which we must direct all of our jihad…and then ask Allah for assistance and orientation.
Note: This article was published in some issue of Islamic Horizons in late 80s, the photocopy of which I have in my possession. Sheik Muhammad Qutb, the author, had delivered a key-note address in the ISNA Convention which was later published in Islamic Horizons. Jazakallah Khayr to Sr. Nadia Arif for typing this long article.