Dr Akbar Ahmed
WHEN the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings on him) returned to Makkah at the head of a large victorious army, the people of that city waited anxiously for what he would do to them. They had planned assassination attempts, thrown garbage on him, and taunted and insulted him at every turn. They had even killed his beloved uncle Hamza in a cruel and notorious manner. Hamza was known for his generosity and nobility of character. If they could not get to the Prophet (PBUH), his enemies understood that by removing Hamza they would hurt and harm the Prophet (PBUH). Wahshi bin Harb, the Abyssinian slave-warrior therefore had been tasked with killing Hamza and in return promised freedom. Wahshi tracked Hamza like a hunter pursuing his prey, killed him and then sliced his body so that he died a painful death. Then Hind, belonging to the aristocratic Quraish who were vigorously opposing the Prophet (PBUH) and his message, cut out Hamza’s liver and chewed it in public to show her contempt for the Prophet (PBUH). So, when the Prophet (PBUH) declared a general amnesty, the citizens of the city were relieved. But they wondered what the Prophet (PBUH) would do to Wahshi and Hind.
When the Prophet (PBUH) asked to see Wahshi and Hind, the people of Makkah expected that the customary laws of revenge would prevail. They were sure that these two would receive the most severe punishment possible and according to the laws of revenge it would surely be death. When Wahshi and Hind appeared before the Prophet (PBUH) in trepidation, they were surprised he did not order their execution on seeing them. The Prophet (PBUH) explained why he asked to see them. You were the last to see my beloved uncle Hamza alive. I wanted to hear from you everything about him in the last moments of his life. As the two recounted the story of Hamza’s death, the Prophet (PBUH)’s eyes filled with tears. It is said that he found the recounting of the killing of his beloved uncle Hamza by Wahshi so painful that he asked the latter to stop the narration. To hear of the pain and humiliation Hamza went through was almost unbearable for the Prophet (PBUH). Yet he forgave them. After a pause, though, he had a request. He asked Wahshi to avoid crossing his path as seeing him would remind the Prophet (PBUH) of his beloved uncle and the painful manner in which he had died which may provoke anger in the Prophet (PBUH). Avoid walking in front of me or crossing my path as every time I see you, I will be reminded of the death and circumstance of my uncle’s last minutes on earth. That would be too painful for me.
Wahshi and Hind could not believe their luck. They had gone to the meeting convinced it would be their last. Now they were free to go. Not long after both converted to Islam. Wahshi made his name fighting the enemies of the Prophet (PBUH) and Hind’s family served Islam.
The Prophet (PBUH)’s life had seen many trials and tribulations. But it was also one of dizzying triumph. Within his lifetime, he had successfully introduced a new religion based in compassion and justice to the world. He had led armies, been a loving husband and father, and a law giver –an aspect which would be recognized by the Supreme Court of the US and Lincoln’s Inn in London. And within four years of his passing, Muslim armies would defeat the two greatest empires of his time — the Romans and the Persians.
The life of the Prophet (PBUH) was also important for providing us with some of the most extraordinary figures in history. These figures included such names as his celebrated wife and rock of support Khadija; his cousin and son-in-law, the heroic warrior-scholar Ali (AS) of whom the Prophet (PBUH) said, “I am the city of knowledge, and Ali is its gate;” Fatima his saintly daughter married to Ali; their son, the champion of the oppressed, Husain, who was martyred at Karbala; and their daughter Zainab who survived Karbala to become an iconic role model for women everywhere. They were – and are – superstars in the Islamic firmament.
Mighty emperors like the Chinese Ming ruler and famed scholars like the German philosopher Goethe, alongside celebrated Muslim scholars and mystics like Rumi, Ibn Arabi and Iqbal would write panegyrics in verse in his honor. Thomas Carlyle has an entire chapter on him, the Prophet (PBUH) as hero, and he becomes the second subject of Carlyle’s lectures after the first one on gods. Napoleon in Cairo was so impressed by the Prophet (PBUH) and his religion that he declared he had accepted the faith. He was even said to have taken the name Ali, after the son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH). Celebrated Hindu spiritual leaders like Vivekananda called the Prophet (PBUH) a “world mover” and Mahatma Gandhi described the sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) as “the treasures of mankind.” Parents across the world would name their sons Muhammad, Ahmed, Mehmet, or Mustafa after him.
Authors sometimes cannot resist the temptation to make lists of the inspirational figures of history and rank them. One of the well-known books of this kind was written by an American professor called Michael Hart. His book was simply titled The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History (1978). It gave the names, as the author saw them, of the hundred most important men and women in history. What he had done was rank these historical figures. The question immediately arises as to who is number one? Who is the most important figure in human history? There are several candidates that come to mind. Jesus, Buddha and Moses are obvious religious choices. “What about Marx and Lenin?” say the socialists. “Adam Smith and Henry Ford,” shout the other side. “What about me as the greatest?” yells Muhammad Ali. But no, the number one choice – and the author gave his reasons why he had made it – was the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him). A few years later, Hart revised his book to update the list. Once again. the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam was selected as the most influential person in history.
Tributes are recorded from across the Muslim world, from the high and mighty to the peasants in their fields. But the tributes by non-Muslims are especially noteworthy. I am reproducing the poems by the Chinese Emperor and the German philosopher as a neat dedication from the East and the West by non-Muslims. I suggest the reader enjoy them in full to appreciate their impact as having been written by non-Muslims.
From the East we have the First Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Below, we present the extraordinary poem The Hundred-Word Eulogy written by the Emperor, in honour of the Prophet (PBUH) and engraved on some of the oldest mosques in China.
The Hundred-Word Eulogy
by the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (r. 1368–1398)
From the beginning of the Universe,
Heaven has already appointed
The Great Sage born in the West,
who transmits and teaches.
He received Heavenly Scripture
In a thirty-part book,
To guide all creatures.
Master and teacher of myriads,
Leader of countless sages,
With support from the Divine,
To protect his nation’s people
With five daily prayers,
Silently wishing for peace.
With his heart toward the True Lord,
Inspiring the poor ones,
Saving them from calamity,
Seeing through the Unseen,
Redeeming souls and spirits,
From all wrongdoings.
A mercy to the world,
Leading the Path for the past and the
Reducing evil to the One.
The name of his teaching: Pure and True.
Muhammad, the most noble sage.
From the West we have Goethe the great German poet-philosopher. In European literature Goethe combines the dramatic genius of a Shakespeare and the philosophic scope of a Socrates and Plato. Goethe’s brilliant poem called Mahomet’s Song in honor of the Prophet (PBUH) contains sparkling images and joyous verses that take the breath away. The poem is so passionate in its reverence and love for its subject that we are tempted to suspect that the poet is in fact a Muslim.
By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
(Translated by J. S. Dwight)
See the rocky spring,
Clear as joy,
Like a sweet star gleaming!
O’er the clouds, he
In his youth was cradled
By good spirits,
’Neath the bushes in the cliffs.
Fresh with youth,
From the cloud he dances
Down upon the rocky pavement;
Leaps to heaven.
For a while he dallies
Round the summit,
Through its little channels chasing
Motley pebbles round and round;
Quick, then, like determined leader,
Hurries all his brother streamlets
Off with him.
There, all round him in the vale,
Flowers spring up beneath his footstep,
And the meadow
Wakes to feel his breath.
But him holds no shady vale,
No cool blossoms,
Which around his knees are clinging,
And with loving eyes entreating
Passing notice;—on he speeds
Add their waters. Now he rolls
O’er the plain in silvery splendor,
And the plain his splendor borrows;
And the rivulets from the plain,
And the brooklets from the hillsides
All are shouting to him: Brother,
Brother, take thy brothers too,
Take us to thy ancient Father,
To the everlasting ocean,
Who e’en now with outstretched arms,
Waits for us,—
Arms outstretched, alas! in vain
To embrace his longing ones;
For the greedy sand devours us,
Or the burning sun above us
Sucks our life-blood; or some hillock
Hems us into ponds. Ah! brother,
Take thy brothers from the plain,
Take thy brothers from the hillsides
With thee, to our Sire with thee!
Come ye all, then!
Now, more proudly,
On he swells; a countless race, they
Bear their glorious prince aloft!
On he rolls triumphantly,
Giving names to countries. Cities
Spring to being ’neath his foot.
Onward, with incessant roaring,
See! he passes proudly by
Flaming turrets, marble mansions,
Creatures of his fulness all.
Cedar houses bears this Atlas
On his giant shoulders. Rustling,
Flapping in the playful breezes,
Thousand flags about his head are
Telling of his majesty.
And so bears he all his brothers,
And his treasures, and his children,
To their Sire, all joyous roaring,
Pressing to his mighty heart.
I am also including my own humble dedication to the Prophet (PBUH) in the form of a poem called The Night Journey. The Night Journey is an event celebrated enthusiastically every year by Muslims throughout the world.
The Night Journey
My name is Buraq
From lightning or radiance
And I am both;
Half-angel, half-horse, half-bird
I am not an angel nor a horse
Yet I am both.
Poets have written verses
about the beauty of my face
The luminosity of my eyes
and the span of my wings
which is that of an angel.
One night there was a rustling and swooshing
And before me stood the majestic figure
Of the archangel Gabriel.
He had a special mission for me.
Not accustomed to command
I bucked and snorted.
Then Gabriel chided me gently,
“No one is more beloved of God
In all creation
than the one you are to carry
to the presence of the Lord.”
My passenger was none other
than the Seal of the Prophet (PBUH)s,
the Beloved of God,
As the enormity of the task sank in,
and the magnificence of the honor,
sweat poured over my body.
When the beloved of God was summoned
From on high
we left from the Kaaba in Makkah
to the noble sanctuary in Jerusalem
the holy Prophet (PBUH) joined the others beloved of God,
Abraham, Moses and Jesus,
and we then ascended to the heavens
all the while accompanied by angels
and guided by the venerable Gabriel himself.
Planets and stars orbited around us
suns and moons set and rose in front of us.
I saw the moons of Jupiter
Dance on its shoulder
And beams from distant planets
almost threw me off my course
There was a sublime silence
that filled every corner of the universes
and a million stars sparkled around us.
When we had crossed the seven skies
and the seven heavens
we arrived in the presence of the Almighty.
The brightness around Him
Was that of a thousand suns
a sight I had never seen
and yet a blissful calm permeated everything.
There the messenger of God
took instructions from the Almighty.
Then we turned and began the return journey
Creation and creator had met
worshipper and worshipped had
come face to face
even I knew the magnitude
of what had happened.
Poets would sing
about this night journey, Shab-i-Miraj,
painters capture it in their imagination
and every year
worshippers would pray in its memory
but nothing could compare to what I saw.
The savants argue interminably
With rulers and maps
Round and round
’till I get a headache.
There are more things in heaven and earth
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The hand of the holy Prophet (PBUH)
brushed against a glass of water
and he reached for it–
between the time the glass began to fall
and he caught it
we had completed our travel;
space and time were compressed
into a fleeting moment.
My name is Buraq
I am unique in the heavens
and legendary on earth
for I carried the Beloved of God
to the seventh heaven
and brought him back safely.
For me the Prophet (PBUH)’s treatment of Wahshi and Hind sums up the essence of the man. When an individual can control his anger or thirst for revenge and convert it into an act of compassion, he has mastered himself. The Prophet (PBUH) had emphasised forgiveness as a virtue, and he was addressed as a “Mercy unto mankind” in the Quran. In this episode from his life, he illustrated the meaning of his title.
Yet his name today evokes hostility in certain situations among non-Muslims. This is certainly true in what I experienced. I felt this high tension and humiliation on nearly every flight I took in the US after 9/11. Every time I walked up to the airline counter and presented my ticket, a glazed look came over the face of the airline official. Discreetly a phone was picked up. I was politely told to step aside and asked questions about my identity and what I was doing in that city—and why I was flying. Nothing that identified me seemed to matter except that my name was “Ahmed”. I was assumed guilty and had to prove my innocence.
I recall one incident in particular because of how explicit it was at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. I was flying to a university in the Midwest to lecture on promoting better understanding between Muslims and Americans. I was already pre-checked and had my boarding pass. I stopped an official of the airline to ask about the security gate. She was a friendly African American woman. She smiled and said no problem, but then she looked down at my boarding pass. There was a flicker of recognition on her face as she saw my name, Ahmed. She said “Oh no, you must come to the counter and check in there before proceeding to the security gate.” I asked her why, as I had already obtained my boarding pass. What did she see that necessitated this scrutiny? “Is it because of my name Ahmed?” I asked. She nodded in sympathy as she proceeded to type in my name, make discreet phone calls and start the procedure to check whether I was on some no-fly list. My age, profession, and status did not matter. My name was Ahmed and that was sufficient to alert the system and merit scrutiny. Perhaps we Muslims could have done a better job in explaining the principles of our faith to non-Muslims. But any Muslim approaching any official counter in the West will feel the lack of understanding as I did.
On such occasions which perhaps involved overt forms of racism and religious prejudice, I was tempted to give a lecture on the meaning of the word Ahmed. The name meant “highly praised” and was an esoteric name for the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam. It was a derivative of Muhammad, the popular name of the Prophet (PBUH). Muhammad, Mustafa, Ahmed, these were the names of the Prophet (PBUH) whom Muslims blessed as “Mehboob -e-Khuda,” or the “Beloved of God” and “Habibullah” or “Friend of God.” His names contain the most beautiful human attributes and every time Muslims mention them, they add the words “peace and blessings be upon him.” The name of the Prophet (PBUH) is also one of the most popular throughout the world. “It is number one for boys in the UK,” we were told during our fieldwork trips there, and it is especially popular in Muslim lands. My father’s name was Muhammad Salahuddin Ahmed. Yet here in the United States, Ahmed could attract negative attention.
World-shaking revolutions are protracted and bloody affairs that alter the lives of millions and herald a new order. The French revolution in the late 18 century, the Russian revolution in the early 20th century, and the Chinese and the Iranian revolution later in the same century were all world -shaking violent events that turned the established order upside down. In sharp contrast, the Islamic revolution led by the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam, which in its significance was no less world-shaking than the other revolutions, was conducted with virtually no loss of life. By declaring a general amnesty, the Prophet (PBUH) had anticipated and resolved the tribal compulsion for vendetta and revenge. In his celebrated Last Sermon at Mount Arafat he declared an Arab was not superior to a non-Arab, nor a white man to a black man; and that a person will be judged only by their piety and good action. In his life and actions, the Prophet (PBUH) had emphasised justice, compassion, the pursuit of knowledge and enquiry, and a broad embrace of humanity. There are lessons there for both Muslim and non-Muslim societies in our own troubled times.
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.