Muhammad is the prophet, the messenger of God. But for the vast majority of people outside the Islamic faith, he remains a mystery, and myths and misconceptions about him abound.
Born in is time of moral despondency and despair, Muhammad spent his entire life trying to transcend human pettiness, searching for absolute values, the meaning of life and what it meant to be a human being. The book of Muhammad recounts this journey- Muhammad's early struggles to bring his message to the people in Mecca, the Revelation, his flights to Medina and the establishment of Islam and an ideal city-state there, and his triumphant return to Mecca. Mehru Jaffer's own search to understand the teachings of Islam informs this lucid yet profound retelling of the life of one of the most mesmerizing figures to walk this earth, thereby making his teachings and spiritual significance accessible to all.
In this shot biography, Mehru Jaffer presents Muhammad as an extraordinary prophet and leader, a man of God who succeeded in uniting all of Arabia through his new faith and exerted enormous influence over centuries of human history. In her detailed introduction to the book she also examines why the fundamental tenet of his teachings- that to be a good human being is to be kind, compassionate and charitable- is particularly relevant in our troubled times today.
Originally from Lucknow, Mehru jaffer is a Vienna-based journalist. She is the author of The book of Muinuddin Chishti (Penguin India, 2008).
Once upon a time there lived a man who changed the course of history simply by being good. Years of intense introspection finally revealed to Muhammad Abdullah of Mecca that the natural state of all human beings is goodness. And if that fundamental law is violated, the meaning of life is lost. To be good is to be kind compassionate and charitable. And God, Muhammad believed, is the ultimate idea of goodness. Muhammad spent his own life living up to that ideal of perfection and asked others to do the same.
The propher's message is as simple as that. In fact, it is so simple that it is almost a disadvantage. Dr John A. Hall finds Muhammad's humanity so full-blooded that he feels the religion is too advanced for its own good. In theory at least, Hall says in powers and liberties, there is nothing to prevent human being from trying to perfect themselves in the image of God. The very austerity, the very openness of Muslim society, he adds, makes it impossible to respect anything that interferes in man's relationship to the creator.
Muhammad himself said 'You are all answerable to God. You have been given unlimited freedom to act as you deem fit and to forage whatever pasture you like without being answerable to anyone. Rather you shall be held accountable before your creator for each act, each word, in fact for the whole course of your life when you have been given autonomy. You will be raised after death and presented in the court of your Lord for reckoning.
But the way this simple message is put into practice today is at the root of many problems. Over time, the idea of Muhammad has come to mean many things to many people. To his followers he is a prophet, but for the vast majority the remains a mystery. About himself, he says, 'I am only a human being like you. God has sent me as an apostle so that I may demonstrate perfection of character, refinement of manners and loftiness of deportment.'
Surely Muhammad must be one of the most mesmerizing men to walk the earth, and also the most maligned. Therefore the yearning remains, even 1500 years after his time, to know more about the merchant who is remembered today as the messenger of God. The most interesting attempt is made by those constantly trying to free the memory of Muhammad from the common cage of cliché where he is imprisoned by a past blurred with age, by legends so loving that they make him seem unreal. But Muhammad is very real. He remains extraordinary as a prophet and a leader for having realized his dream in his own lifetime. Before his death in 632 AD, he succeeded in uniting all of Arabia through his new faith. In fact at no other time in history except for a few years at the beginning of the Islamic era has Arabia been united under a single power.
For years the different families of Arabia had felt fenced in by the encroaching influence of the Romans and Persians, the two super-powers of that time. They lived under constant fear that forces more powerful than their own cantankerous clans might colonize them one day. By uniting over 200 tribes under the banner of Islam, Muhammad also liberated the Arabs from the confines of a peninsula that they were forced to circle for centuries in search of the most basic necessities of life. He turned the tattered tribal strength of a scattered population into a single military movement that became legendary for its might. This eventually led to the united desert tribes swarming out of the peninsula in single strength to hold both cultural and military sway over most of the world for over a millennium, beginning with Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Carthage, the Indus Valley and Spain.
At the time of Muhammad's birth Arabia was dismissed as an arid, godless zone where a wild race of people survived in small gangs in search of opportunities to plunder and loot. The Greeks called the inhabitants of this sparsely populated area Sarakenoi, or those who live in tents. Muhammad was probably saddened by this reputation planted upon his people. His broad forehead mist have creased up with concern as he wondered what it was about the Arabs that made them appear so shabby in the eyes of the world.
The landscape of Muhammad's homeland, Hijaz- literally, barrier- is named after the vast, forbidding stretch of rough, treeless countryside that naturally separates it from the fertile plains to its north, east and south. There is not one river that flows from its source to the sea in the entire peninsula. Sharp, stony steppes rise knife-like from the west along the Red sea and slope gradually eastwards towards the coast of the Gulf. To this day the amount of land cultivated in Saudi Arabia is less than one per cent. The intense heat of the plains is enough to singe anything that dares to dream of breathing and the most difficult to nurture here is hope itself. Bands of people in tiny groups have roamed the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years, from even before Muhammad's time, trying to eke out a living literally from bare rocks, and in search of that elixir of life called water.
By the time Muhammad came of age, the city of Mecca, where he was born, had grown into an important urban centre of trade due to its excellent location in the middle of a road that went north to south from Palestine to Yemen and the presence of Zamzam, the only spring of freshwater in the vicinity that made Mecca so precious to both peddlers and pilgrims. The other roads at this junction went east to west, connecting the Red sea coast with the route to Ethiopia and the Persian Gulf. Weary travelers broke their journey around Zamzam, discovered it is said by Bedouins in the Biblical times of Abraham. Apart from the Zamzam, whose waters are described poetically as being sweeter than honey and made cooler than ice by the constant touch of seven heavenly creatures, Mecca was also home to the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine built beside the holy waters and that has been sacred to the Arabs from times not recorded by history. Till the time of Muhammad the Kaaba was home to hundreds of idols and was the site of polytheistic worship for all Arab tribes.
Traders and pilgrims who constantly came here to rest, to cut a better deal and to pray also brought affluence to Mecca. The caravan trade poured great amounts of money into Mecca, but wealth also made individuals eventually very selfish. Muhammad grew up in the midst of hectic commercial activity in an urban atmosphere where wealth was worshipped in the form of idols. Most Meccans, including Muhammad, belonged to the ruling tribe of Kuraish (shark) because they had settled in the hollow of the valley around the waters of the Zamzam. But countless other offshoots of the same family continued to roam the periphery of the desert and with time were divided into numerous smaller clans that forever fought for supremacy over each other. In the pursuit of more power and wealth, people showed little compassion even for members of their own family, and it was often the more upright and less cunning that suffered the most. In the name of trade, merchants practised usury at the expense of the weakest members of society. Muhammad was pained to witness the daily intrigues practised by the elite. There were many clever ones who benefited from the unjust profits they made- profits that brought them so much wealth that they thought nothing of wasting it- while the plight of the poor worsened.
Muhammad saw in this state of affairs the ruin of his people. He wanted the wealth generated in the city to be fairly distributed for the maximum good of the maximum number of Meccans. Throughout his life he angered authorities with his insistence that the city's earnings should also benefit the most needy. Muhammad did not disapprove of riches, only the immoral and cruel deeds of the rich. He said, 'God loves the pious rich man who is inconspicuous,' and often repeated, 'The best of you are those who have the best morals.'
Immorality and cruelty was what Muhammad saw at the Kaaba. He liked to be at the Kaaba and often meditated at the shrine of his forefathers. But it upset and hurt him to see some pilgrimages performed in the nude and ritual fornication acted out at the feet of hundreds of idols. Another favourite sport of the day was to tie up the limbs of those who were helpless and no longer useful or pleasing, and leave them to broil in the naked heat of the desert sun. Since women did not often become warriors, when it was thought that too many were born they were killed. Muhammad saw fathers bury newborn daughters alive, and young girls being traded as slaves, sometimes to appease the gods. All this turned him against polytheistic worship. He was consumed with thoughts of an alternative way of expressing his spirituality and the seed of monotheism began to take root into his mind. Instead of going through complicated lanes and by lanes to seek the source of all life he began to chalk out a single, straight path of righteousness to the creator. He gave up the adoration of all other deities as false worship apart from the only one ultimate reality, or God. In fact, he ruled later in his life that the greatest sin of Islam was the worship of material things and putting one's trust in idols to achieve either spiritual or worldly contentment.
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