The Humanitarian: The Prophet’s Civilising Mission by Shaykh Faid Mohammed Said
Our universal notions of compassion and decency adhere to the laws and institutions that serve mankind, whether spiritual or temporal, insofar as they cultivate innate goodness in humanity. Social constitution in its particularity may determine the nature of manners and morals, and statutes may become obsolete with the passage of time, but the principle of inherent goodness is as universal as it is timeless. And religion, as an organising framework, functions to establish justice, guiding humanity to what is most virtuous and illuminating the unity of innate goodness through diversity.
In this regard, the Muslim belief in the essential unity of God’s messengers is particularly illuminating: central to the message of Islam is belief in all divine emissaries and scriptures. Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus—peace on them all—are specifically mentioned as bearers of God’s Word (although not all of these messages are extant in record), whilst others are mentioned as inheritors. The Qur’an, being the most universal form of the Divine Word, rounds off the distinguished list of emissaries with Muhammad—on him peace and blessings. The Qur’an thereby addresses the universality of humanity:
‘Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus, and that which has been vouchsafed to all the prophets by their Sustainer; we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”’¹
Whilst the centrality of God’s Oneness runs like a red thread through all Divine messages, the attention to individual and social responsibility is amplified in both the Qur’an and Islam’s secondary literature:
‘And remember! We accepted this solemn pledge from the Children of Israel: “You shall worship none but God; and you shall do good unto your parents and kinsfolk, and the orphans, and the poor; and you shall speak unto all people in a kindly way […]”.²
By emphasizing the whole of the ‘Children of Israel’, the verse just cited draws attention to both the Torah, the Gospel, and the shared testimony of earlier traditions to uphold and spread humane ideals.
The Prophet Muhammad—on him peace and blessings—in his own teachings emphasized the essential connections between all apostles and their missions:
“I am the nearest to Jesus, son of Mary, in this world and in the next, for all prophets are brothers on their father’s side and share the same religion, and there has been no prophet between me and Jesus”’ ³
And, like his ‘brother prophets’ before him, the last of God’s messengers also valorised personal and civic responsibilities, saying: ‘I have been sent only to perfect manners and morals.’4
Good morals and humane conduct are coextensive with worshipping God, as evidenced by the injunction to the newest recipients of the Divine Writ and the reminder to earlier recipients. Doing good to one’s own (‘parents and kinsfolk’) as well as the dispossessed in society (‘the orphans and the poor’), and good communication (encompassing the ideas of happy coexistence and cohabitation) are therefore inseparable from commemoration of God. In the memorable verse of the Qur’an that enjoins the ritual fast, God reveals,”O you who have attained to faith, fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.”5 Jesus—on him peace—is famously abstemious in older religious literature as well as in the literature of Islam, but in the Qur’an, we find that his self-denial conjoins prayer and alms-giving, thereby underlining the equal importance of self-realization through worship (of which fasting is the highest form), charitableness, compassionate care, and graceful conduct:
“And He has made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live. And He has endowed me with piety towards my mother; and He has not made me haughty or bereft of grace.”6
The shared traditions of worship and the pledge to benefit mankind means that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have always been in conversation, in a past-and-present simultaneity. This is a dialogue that cannot be broken off. The need for dialogue is even greater in the face of the myriad challenges to peaceful coexistence and social harmony in our globalised world. These come not only in the traditional battlegrounds of religion, race/nation, political, and economic organisation, but also in the competition of generations, the so-called battle of the sexes, the destabilization of gender and identity, to name but a few of the challenges faced by humanity.
With their monotheistic counterparts, Muslims share a common fount from which universal principles spring. The Qur’an reveals a relationship conceived and consummated in a primordial realm:
“And indeed! We did accept a solemn pledge from all the prophets—from thee [O Muhammad], as well as from Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus the son of Mary; for We accepted a most solemn, weighty pledge from all of them; so that He might ask those men of truth as to [what response] their truthfulness [received on earth]…7”
As each of these Prophets was to become a guiding force of human societies—in many cases, as tribal patriarch and common-progenitor of later communities—their collective pledge to convey the Divine Message was always sensitive to time, place and audience. While the Messengers did indeed guide to the truth, by implication we, too, are plighted to uphold the Divine Writ, to ‘perfect manners and morals’. The ways and means may be conditioned by time and place, but all the principles that pertain to good morals and humane conduct are universal.
Shifts in thought and behaviour are undeniably the cause of variation in environment. Therefore, social interaction necessitates sensitivity and consideration of others’ psycho-social conditions, best expressed by the formula ‘you shall speak unto all people in a kindly way’. Thunderous sermons from the pulpit, threatening fire and brimstone on a society that has lost its moral compass might once have been fashionable in particular settings (its efficacy is debatable), but humans respond far better to reason and humane overtures that adhere to the principle,’speak unto all people in a kindly way’.
In this regard, it is well worth remembering that if the Prophet Muhammad—on him peace and blessings—defined his mission as the perfection of morals and manners, he certainly made good on that claim, and to a superlative degree. Where others variously distinguished between Jew and Gentile, freedman and bondsman, between priest and layman, man and woman, the Prophet’s message is an address to all humanity, embracing, in fact, all of our conceptions about the known universe: “And We have sent thee as mercy towards all the worlds.”8 While the content of the message is obviously universal, one aspect of its dissemination, the Messenger’s living example, is greatly instructive. He patiently received and taught Revelation. Just as patiently, he explained the purpose of his mission, literally winning over a great many with his smile, and a great many others through his sheer forbearance.
If the thematic and formal properties of Qur’anic revelation awed follower and opponent alike, its duration (twenty-three years of the Prophet’s mission) and gradual disclosure allowed for easy ingestion and lasting effect. The Qur’an itself draws attention to the process:
‘A discourse which We have gradually unfolded, so that thou might read it out to mankind by stages, seeing that We have bestowed it from on high step by step, as one revelation.’9
The point, of course, is that even the best discourse—whether glad tidings of a happy afterlife or exhortations to liberal values and meritorious conduct in civil society—will always find a responsive audience and lasting impression if the approach is compassionate and graceful. For that very reason, the Prophet’s example remains the indispensable model. In commending the Prophet—on him peace and blessings—God commends his timeless example:
“Even as We have sent unto you an apostle from among yourselves to convey unto you Our messages, and to cause you to grow in purity, and to impart unto you revelation and wisdom, and to teach you that which you knew not.”10
Embodying what the ancient Roman moralists liked to call virtuoso capacities, involving wisdom, patience, justice, ardent sincerity, courage and liberality, the Prophet—on him peace and blessings—was tireless in his efforts to remedy social malaise, correct misconceptions, and imbue universal values, even when these found expression in other sources. In this, he was true to his word, that he had ‘come to perfect’ (the very expression revelatory of his own deep humility and recognition of the contribution of his brother-prophets).
The Qur’an itself insists that it is a confirmation of what came before, and that the Prophet—on him peace and blessings—is the last, complete, role model. God thus confirms the Prophet’s stature: “Verily, in the Apostle of God you have a good example for everyone who looks forward to God and the Last Day, and remembers God unceasingly.”11 As the consummate example for humanity, the Prophet—on him peace and blessings—is the pattern for all times (to ‘the Last Day’), and emulation of the prophetic paradigm is no less than the measure of God-consciousness (‘and remembers God unceasingly’). Translated into lived experience, what defines the prophetic paradigm is the Prophet’s fusion of a moral standard that is, above all, humane and universal, as well as ethical principles laid down in the Qur’an which, broadly speaking, aim at justice and equality, social cohesion, and good governance.
The Prophet’s virtuous conduct—in the classic sense of one in possession of virtu—in fact pre-dated his actual ministry, for he was already feted as ‘al-Ameen’, the Trusted, in his pre-Islamic society. The Prophet’s moral rectitude simply did not permit expediency, whether personal or political. The moral course is always the rational one. His epithet as ‘the Trusted’ was sealed by his refusal to favour any one interest group during the rebuilding of the Ka’ba. All of the special signifiers of virtuous conduct were on display at once in his negotiation of the Treaty of Hudaybiyya: steadfastness, cool courage, temperance, sincere goodwill, and liberality. If these qualities proclaim God-consciousness, their tangible benefit in the here-and-now is peace and stability.
All the distinctions that we associate with the Prophet—on him peace and blessings—attract superlatives in their own right, but apropos of our discussion, it is the consummation of manners and morals in his own character and conduct that deserve special mention. They certainly elicit the highest praise: “…Behold, thou [O Muhammad] keepest indeed to a sublime way of life”12 Consistent with interpretations of the term khuluq in Arabic,’way of life’ also encompasses shades of meanings that include ‘character’ or ‘innate disposition’, as well as the concept of ‘habitual behaviour’ or ‘manner’. When asked about the Prophet’s character, the simple reply of the Lady ‘Aisha, God be pleased with her, stressed the same: “His way of life was the Qur’an.”13
And those who came into contact with him could not fail to be impressed by the Prophet’s special traits, to the extent that in his own lifetime began the ripple effect of elevated thought, individual, and social progress, and universal enlightenment—a phenomenon we may broadly describe as ‘civilization in Islam’. The ‘coming to perfect manners and morals’ is the humanitarian mission of Islam. His companions, most obviously, but also succeeding generations, basked in the honour, glory even, of civilization in Islam precisely because they imbibed those special traits bequeathed by the Prophet—on him peace and blessings.
In one sense, the compilation of the Qur’an, signalling the end of Revelation, announced that ‘perfection’. However, in another sense it set down the pattern for emulation, always accessible and always discernible in the Prophet’s own life. Thus, God says: ‘Say [O Prophet]: “If you love God, follow me, God will love you and forgive you your sins; for God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”14’ There is an additional set of meanings here: moral standards may be destabilized by variation in environment, but fidelity to God will be measured by emulating the one whose characteristics He has so exalted. Rather than weaken in faith, the Prophet’s example, synonymous with divine love, responds with forbearance and grace.
The Prophet’s humanitarian mission thereby not only wrought an ocean of change in social attitudes that we have elsewhere described as ‘global thinking’, but, as a root-and-branch project, it also focused on personal development that sought to elevate the individual from baser instincts. As the basic unit of organized society, the elevated individual would inevitably produce a humane culture. Accordingly, self-image rested not on power over others, but self-control. The literature of Islam abounds with the Prophet’s moral didacticism.’The strong person is not the powerful wrestler. Rather, the strong person is the one that controls their anger,’ he counselled in Hadith Tradition.15
In the same vein, the Prophet—on him peace and blessings—warns against suspicion, which includes notions of slander and baseless rumour, saying: “Avoid suspicion, for it is the falsest speech,”16 and,”It is enough of a lie for a person to narrate everything that they hear.”17 The larger point here is the Prophet’s conflation of individual and social conscience. Our supposedly ‘modern’ assumptions about motivational drives and impulses have produced conflicting analyses of psycho-social relations in the realms of gender, class, and local and national sovereignty. The Prophet—on him peace and blessings—recognised that personal regulation is complementary to social harmony. He thereby warned against behaviour that presages cycles of violence:
‘The bankrupt will arrive on the Day of Resurrection with prayers, fasting, and charity, but having also reviled others, spread falsehood, unlawfully devoured wealth, and attacked and shed blood of others. In recompense, the bankrupt’s good deeds will be transferred to their victims. If his good deeds are insufficient, the victims’ poor deeds will be transferred to the bankrupt, and they will thereafter face severe recompense.”18
These traditions may be read in conjunction with the explicit warning in the Qur’an against the disruption to communal ties occasioned by suspicion or misrepresentation:
“…If any iniquitous person comes to you with a slanderous tale, use your discernment, lest you hurt people unwittingly and afterwards be filled with remorse for what you have done.”19
These are fragmentary insights into the ethical codes and moral precepts that underpin Islam’s humanitarian, civilizing mission, which is the foundation of all religious truth. Civilization in Islam, with its heightened focus on human development as the pivotal feature of social progress, effectively turned the page on humanity’s dark past and opened a future lit by the sun of freedom. Its rays point to compassion, grace, justice and tolerance. If the sun is momentarily eclipsed, we must nonetheless constantly strive to realize the future in the present. We have the best of guides to lead us into that ever-present future: Muhammad—on him peace and blessings—the one who embraced all humanity and extended his hand to even the most implacable foe.
And God reminds us: “Tell those who are bent on denying the truth that if they desist, all that is past shall be forgiven them…”20 Our world is being shaped by a new era, and we must respond to the challenges that mark this transition with those universal principles that first lit the world.
1. Al Baqarah, 2:136
2. Al Baqarah, 2:83
3. Sahih Muslim: 2365
4. Bukhari, Al Adab Al Mufrad: 273
5. Al Baqarah, 2:183
6. Maryam, 19:31-32
7. Al Ahzab, 33:7-8
8. Al Anbiyaa, 21:107
9. Al Israa, 17:106
10. Al Baqarah, 2:151
11. Al Ahzab, 33:21
12. Al Qalam, 68:4
13. Bukhari, Al Adab Al Mufrad: 308
14. Aal ‘Imran, 3:31
15. Bukhari: 6114
16. Bukhari: 6724
17. Muslim: 05
18. Muslim; 2581
19. Al Hujurat, 49:6
20. Al Anfal, 8:38
Sheikh Faid Mohammed Said was raised in Eritrea, where he was educated by Sheikh Hamid, the Senior Judge of the Sharia Court in Asmara. He later moved to Madinah al Munawarah, where he continued his studies under Sheikh Atiyyah Mohammed Salim, the Resident Scholar of al Masjid al Nabawi and Senior Judge of Madinah. Since that time, Sheikh Faid has been invited to lecture all over the world, particularly in Canada, Germany, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UK. He has also headed Madina College, a centre of learning in London.