They say that reading biographies is perhaps the best way to learn real life lessons. That is because a biography is a record of practice. Of what worked and what didn’t. The life of Muhammadﷺ is perhaps one of the most well documented in human history.
Having said that one may ask why his life and all the detail is important at all? I am not speaking from the perspective of a Muslim for whom to study the life of Muhammadﷺ and to live his life in accordance with it, is a religious requirement. I am asking this from the perspective of a neutral reader, Muslim or not, who is looking for biographies to read.
The answer lies in the facts related to his life which are public knowledge. Here was someone who in a period of 23 years, took his people from being the weakest, most despised and oppressed in their community to being the leaders and role models in the same community. And he did all that without lies, cheating, corruption, violence or bloodshed. My question is, ‘Would you like to know how to do that? Would you like to know how to bring about not incremental but transformational change in your society? Then read the life of Muhammadﷺ.’
In the words of J. Krishnamurty, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’
I don’t think there is anyone, including the 1% who appear to have it all who will disagree that we are very sick. Humanity is sick. The earth is sick. We are all very sick. This is no longer an academic issue for people to write scholarly papers about. It is something that we, the people of the world, need to address recognizing it as the dire emergency that it is. If we don’t, the clock is ticking backwards for us and fast. And the time is very close where we will make our own position as the inhabitants of this earth; not its owners as we like to believe; completely untenable. We need action. And we need it now.
Call it a strange coincidence but 5th Century Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. Let me describe the Makkah that Muhammadﷺ was born, grew up and lived in, until the age of 50. That is a long time for someone to spend in one town but that is what Muhammadﷺ did.
Makkah was a town with one single claim to fame – the Ka’aba. This is the House of Allahﷻ built by Ibrahim (Prophet Abraham) and was a place of pilgrimage from times immemorial. Access to the Ka’aba was open to anyone who wanted to come. The environs of the Ka’aba were declared a sanctuary with all killing, hunting and fighting banned within that sanctuary. This was the main reason why Makkah developed as a town, because it was a safe haven for everyone from any of the many frequently warring tribes.
Another similarity that 5th century Makkah had with our modern society is that it was a world of business. Businessmen were its leaders and they ran the town. Acquisition of wealth was the primary concern. Makkan society was materialistic based on a free market economy. Markets were not regulated by any central authority. Traders charged the best price they could get, hoarded in times of scarcity and sold at great profit and bought goods from as far afield as Syria and Yemen to sell in Makkah. Makkah being as sort of aggregator of people from all of Arabia, was a great seller’s market where high prices could be commanded as goods sold in Makkah were simply not available in any other part of Arabia. That is how Makkan traders became its nobility and created a sort of oligarchy. You can draw similarities with our capitalist society today and see how close 5th century Arabia was to most of our 21st century world.
Makkah was also a multicultural and pluralistic place as all centers of trade tend to be. That is because if you want to promote trade you must make it easy and safe for people from multiple origins, belief systems and cultures to coexist peacefully. All that is good for business. And so it was. In Makkah, the local people mostly worshipped idols. But Jews, Christians, Magians all came and went from Makkah, each practicing his religion without any interference from anyone else. Very much like what happens in most Western countries today. And for the same reason; it is good for business.
The reason I’ve spent so much time on drawing a picture of Makkan society of the 5th century showing its similarities to our 21st century society is because I want to hypothesize that because Muhammadﷺdespite being a person with almost no resources, support or political power, could bring about a complete transformation of his society, then we have reason to hope that the methods he used can work today for us as well.
To quote Alphonse de Lamartine, in his book, ‘History of Turkey’ who said, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”
Muhammadﷺ didn’t focus on bringing about any materialistic changes in the lives of people. The changes he brought about ideological, ethical and moral, changed not only their lives but also changed the structure, laws, freedom and behavior of Arab society. Muhammadﷺ brought about changes in the way people thought, in their ideals and benchmarks which led to a change in what they considered important, which in turn led to a change in their behavior which brought about a change in society. As they say, it all begins at the top; in the mind. Once we change our attitude, our behavior changes which leads to perceptible results in and around us. All change must begin with us internally, with how we view the world, what we want from it, what we find satisfaction in and what we are prepared to do (and not do) to get it. We need to define the meaning of a ‘good life’, and be clear about what investment we are prepared to make, to get it.
I mention this here because in our race today, to garner all resources for oneself without a thought about others, we have created a society that is crying out in pain and grief. It is inconceivable to imagine that the resources of the world can possibly be concentrated in the hands of so few, but as they say, ‘fact is stranger than fiction’. I can imagine the derision if any author dared to suggest that 62 people would own 50% of global assets and the rest of the world would watch silently. But that is not fiction. That is fact. For perspective, let me state that a bus has 65 seats excluding the driver’s seat.
What was the change that Muhammadﷺ wrought in his society?
In my view, there are three major principles that he promoted:
- Accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden
- Spreading goodness all around
This is the essence of the religion he brought, Islam. That is why he said, ‘The best of you is the one who is the most beneficial to all people.’
Let us look at each of these principles in the life of Muhammadﷺ briefly.
Accountability to Allah ﷻ from whom nothing is hidden
What makes a mistake a crime is that the criminal knows that what he is doing is illegal, immoral and wrong. People don’t commit sins, oppress others, commit violence or evil because they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. They do it because they think they can get away with it. Muhammadﷺ taught that this belief is a fallacy because no matter what we think, speak or do is known and seen by our Creator to whom we will return and to whom we must give an account of what we did.
Muhammadﷺ taught that good and evil are absolute values. They don’t depend on who does them or who these are done to. He taught that human values apply to all humans, not only to Muslims. On the contrary Muslims have an additional responsibility to act according to the values of their religion because they believe in Muhammadﷺ and in Islam.
He said to his daughter Fatima, ‘O! Fatima, don’t think that you will be favored by Allahﷻ because you are the daughter of His Messenger. You will stand before your Creator on the basis of your own deeds.’
Muhammadﷺ was known among his people even before he started preaching Islam as As-Sadiq ul Ameen – The Truthful and Trustworthy. And that is what he taught his followers; to be truthful in every aspect of life. Someone asked him, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may be a coward?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may commit adultery?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked him, ‘What is it that a Muslim cannot possibly do?’ He replied, ‘A Muslim cannot tell a lie.’
He taught that virtue and vice are absolute values. They are not relative to your personal worth, religion, race or anything else. Right and wrong don’t depend on who does them. That is why truthfulness is the basis of all goodness. He held himself to this value of truthfulness to such an extent that when he was migrating to Madina from Makkah and his life was threatened, he still had valuables that his enemies had entrusted him with. Before he left, he gave them to his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib and instructed to return them to their owners. What can you say about the truthfulness of someone who was trusted by his own enemies?
Spreading goodness all around
Muhammadﷺ said to his people, ‘The best of you is the one who is best to his neighbor.’ He didn’t say, ‘Muslim neighbor’. He said, ‘Neighbor.’ In Islam, there is no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims in respect of the rights of citizenship.
He said, ‘A Muslim is responsible for the welfare of his neighbors, up to seventy houses on either side of his house.’ Imagine a society that is based on this value of responsibility to one’s neighbors.
On another occasion, someone asked him how he could determine if he was a good man. Muhammadﷺsaid to him, ‘If you neighbor says that you are good, then you are good. If your wife says that you are good, then you are good.’
Finally, on the issue of women’s rights which everyone today accuses Islam of denying. Women in Muhammadﷺ’s time were treated as property owned and inherited by men, to be used and abused at will. Women had no rights at all. Many Makkan people buried their newborn daughters to escape the cost of raising a girl child. Sounds familiar in today’s context? Let us see what Muhammadﷺ gave women in the 5th century.
- Right to own property and income and to keep whatever she earns without sharing anything of it.
- Right to be paid to bring up her own children including nursing them.
- Right to marry anyone of their choice.
- Right to divorce the husband even without his consent and to have this written in the marriage contract.
- Wife need not serve his parents or family at all.
- Right to receive the Mehr (bridal gift) and not to pay any dowry at all.
- Right to retain the Meher if she gets divorced. It remains her property to do with as she likes.
- Right to inherit from her parents, children and husband.
- Wife has a right in the husband’s property and income. It is the duty of the husband to support the wife unconditionally. He has no right in her income or property, even if it was purchased with his money.
The reality is that to this day many of these rights are denied to women in so-called advanced countries which don’t operate under Islamic law.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that Muhammadﷺ left for us all, Muslim or not alike, a way of life, a code of conduct and behavior that is as applicable today as it was in his time. It is my contention that if people followed his way, then we would be able to cure the sickness of selfishness, cruelty and indifference that we are plagued with and create a society based on compassion, mutual responsibility and accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden.
Now, how’s that for a new world order?