Today, November 20, coincides with the 12th day of the Islamic month of Rabi’ al-awwal, marking the anniversary of the birth of the founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
1,400 years ago in Arabia, a child was born to Aminah bint Wahb and Abdallah ibn Abd al-Muttalib, a child who would grow into a man so influential that he would ultimately change the course of history forever. According to his prophetic biography, written by Abi Mohammed Abdel Malik Ibn Hicham, the Prophet (PBUH) grew up an orphan after the early death of his father and then his mother. Now, as we look back into history and read about the gradual but arduous rise of Islam under the leadership of Mohammed (PBUH), we can draw many inspiring lessons from this exceptional man: lessons of resilience, courage, patience, perseverance, kindness, generosity, modesty, pleasantry, caring, and many other positive attributes.
When Mohammed first announced that he had received a revelation from the Archangel Gabriel in the vicinity of Ghar Hira (the Cave of Hira), people reacted to the news with mockery, disdain, and contempt. Mohammed (PBUH) told the Arabs that their polytheism and belief in hand-carved, inanimate idols was pure blasphemy. He preached instead the belief in one God (Allah), as did the previous monotheistic prophets Jesus Christ and Moses who came before him. The leaders of Quraysh accused him of being possessed by evil spirits or being insane. Quraysh, at the time, was the major tribe in Arabia, at the crossroads between trade routes from Yemen, the Levant, and Ethiopia. The strategic location of Mecca made it one of the richest pre-Islamic places in Arabia, as not only a trade center, but also home to many pagan gods and goddesses such as Hubal, al-Lat, Al-Auzza, and Manat.
During pilgrimage seasons, pilgrims flocked to Mecca from every corner of the earth, boosting its economy and making the city even richer. With the revelation announcement of Mohammed (PBUH), the economic, religious, and social status of Mecca became threatened. The new religion was perceived as a big threat to the Quraysh. Therefore, they exhausted all possible means to try to dissuade him from pursuing the new religion, but to no avail. According to Ibn Kathir’s biography of the Prophet (PBUH), the Quraysh offered him money, power, and the opportunity to become a leader, but he told his uncle Abu Talib:
“O! My Uncle, if the Quraysh place the Sun on my right hand and the Moon on my left, I shall not refrain from proclaiming the oneness of God until I die.”
The evocation of death in the Prophet’s response indicates that he was fully aware that his mission would not be an easy one and that he could receive the most brutal treatment from his tribe.
From the very beginning, Mohammed (PBUH) demonstrated an irrevocable belief in his mission and in what he set out to preach. His perseverance and persistence made the Quraysh resort to another strategy. They used excessive violence against Mohammed (PBUH) and his followers. He and the early converts, thus, were subjected to heinous forms of persecution and physical abuse. The Yassirs (the first family to convert to Islam) were brutally slain, while their son, Ammar, miraculously managed to survive the brutal torture. The Quraysh also incited all the tribes to inflict violence on the new converts among them to deter them from pursuing the path of Mohammed (PBUH). Bilal Al-Habashi, for instance, who later became a close companion of the Prophet and his muezzin endured the most atrocious forms of torture under the scorching sun of Arabia. Yet, his faith was stronger than the pain that his body withstood.
After ten years of preaching in Mecca, Mohammed and his early followers suffered many forms of persecution by the Quraysh, especially after the death of Khadija, Mohammed’s (PBUH) loving and supportive wife, and Abu Talib, his uncle and protector. Mohammed (PBUH) labeled the year Khadija and Abu Talib died as “the Year of Sorrow” because Muslims suffered immensely during the course of this year. The Quraysh had expelled them to the valleys of Mecca and boycotted them for a whole year. Despite this ordeal, neither Mohammed (PBUH) nor his followers gave up their faith, giving a concrete example of stoicism, resilience, and perseverance.
Facing increasing obstinacy and aggression by the Meccans, especially after the death of Abu Talib, Mohammed (PBUH) decided to move to Taif, some 37 miles south of Mecca and preach his new religion there, thinking that the Taif people would be more welcoming. To his dismay, he was rejected and pelted with stones until he bled profusely from his legs and feet. What hurt the Prophet was not his wounds and injuries, but the idea that ten years after the revelation he could not deliver God’s message. In a state of despair and profound emotional pain, Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) made one of his most rhetorically profound duaas (prayers). He said:
I complain to You about my weakness and inadequacy before the people.
O, You, most Merciful of all,
You who are Lord of the oppressed,
You who are my Lord,
To whom would You entrust me? To those far away who greet me with displeasure, Or to some enemy to whom You entrust me?
As long as you are not angry with me, I will not care, but I would prefer your favor.
I take refuge with the light of Your face that brightens the shadows, repairs the troubles of this world and the hereafter, ensuring that Your anger or discontent not alight upon me.
May You be content and be pleased; all power and strength stem from You.
This prayer tells volumes about the Prophet’s character. In physical and emotional pain caused by people’s rejection of his message, he did not curse them or seek God’s retaliation against them for their ill-treatment. His most reiterated duaa during times of harsh treatment from his people was “O, God! Please guide my people for they do not know!”
Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) spent thirteen years in Mecca, preaching Islam and trying to convince the Meccans of the validity of the new faith, but had little success. Despite the conversion of a few rich people such as Hudhayfa bin Utba and Arqam bin Abil-Arqam, the majority of the early converts were poor and not necessarily influential figures within their communities. It was not until his migration to Yathrib (Medina) in 622 C.E. that a true Muslim state was founded. In Medina, Mohammed (PBUH) set up his own army, which subsequently enjoyed a sweeping victory over the Meccans in the Battle of Badr 2 years after his migration. In 630 C.E., he conquered Mecca with an army of 10,000 men, which was the largest Muslim force ever gathered at the time. Mecca and its Qurayshi leaders eventually fell under the sway of Mohammed (PBUH). Instead of seeking revenge on his Qurayshi opponents as they themselves expected him to do, he famously said, “Go, you are free!,” giving a stunning example of forgiveness.
After Mohammed (PBUH) fell ill and died in June, 632 A.D., his companions and close friends, who were deeply inspired by his character, completed his mission of spreading Islam and pushing it to the edge of the globe. In a matter of few years, Islam reached places as far as Europe, Asia, and Africa and became the greatest empire for centuries to come. When Okba Ibn Nafi’, the conqueror of North Africa, reached the Atlantic Ocean on horseback, he pushed his horse a few meters into the water and said “O, God! If it had not been for this sea, I would have proceeded to fight the disbelievers until no one is worshipped on earth but You!”
In fact, Mohammed (PBUH) had great success in instilling the values of sacrifice, self-effacement, courage, modesty, and subservience to God in his friends and companions. Many people today, out of ignorance or mere denial of the truth, claim that Islam was spread by the power of the sword. In fact, the success behind the story of Islam lies in the leadership and character of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Mahatma Gandhi wisely said in this respect:
“I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind . . . I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and his own mission. These, and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every trouble.”
Today, as Muslims are marginalized for their sectarianism, violence, “backwardness” and many other social and political ills, we are in need not only of learning about the values of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), but also of internalizing them. The world needs his resilience, perseverance, stoicism, honesty, modesty, audacity, forgiveness, respect for the environment, women and the elderly, care for the poor and orphans and wayfarers, and contentment with what we have instead of greed and avarice.
“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
As the Quran says in chapter 13, verse 11: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”