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What Studying Muhammad Taught Me About Islam

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Muslims worldwide have recently joined together to celebrate Mawlid al-Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. This day is an opportunity for Muslims and non-Muslims, such as myself - a Catholic - to reflect upon the life and legacy of the prophet of Islam. In this short essay, I want to share with you what I have learned about Muhammad and how his legacy informs my understanding of Islam.

Muhammad's beliefs on how to treat religious minorities make him a universal champion of human rights, particularly as it pertains to freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, and the right for minorities to have protection during times of strife.

Muhammad initiated many legal covenants with Christians and Jews after establishing his Muslim community. For example, in one covenant with the Christian monks at Mount Sinai, Egypt, Muhammad called on Muslims to respect Christian judges and churches, and for no Muslim to fight against his Christian brother or sister. Through this agreement, Muhammad made it clear that Islam, as a political and philosophical way of life, respected and protected Christians.

Similarly, in the Treaty of Maqnah, the Prophet stated Jews "may be in peace... you are in security [under Muhammad's rule]... Towards you is no wrong and no enmity. After today you will not be subject to oppression or violence." In the Constitution of Medina, a key document which laid out a societal vision for Muslims, Muhammad also singled out Jews, who, he wrote, "shall maintain their own religion and the Muslim theirs... The close friends of Jews are as themselves." In safeguarding the rights of Jews, Muhammad made it clear that a citizen of an Islamic state did not have to follow Islam and that Muslims should treat Jews as they would their own friends. In developing these agreements with his fellow Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Muhammad clearly rejected elitism and racism and demanded that Muslims see their Abrahamic brothers and sisters as equals before God.

According to Muhammad, humanity was at the heart of Islam. In my reading and interpretation of his last sermon at Mount Arafat in 632 AD, I learned that the Prophet fought against racism long before the days of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. In the sermon, he argued "An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab... a white person has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action." Muhammad's final sermon informed me that Islam teaches Muslims to be tolerant of difference and welcome to diversity.

My research has also highlighted how Muhammad had similar beliefs to that of George Washington, a key founding father of America. In a January 2013 article for the Huffington Post titled "An Unlikely Connection Between Muhammad and George Washington," I examined how these two great men virtually shared identical opinions on social conduct, modesty, humility, respect, and even hygiene. In making these connections, it seems to me that Islamic values as expressed by Muhammad, and American values as expressed by Washington, are quite similar. Muslims and non-Muslim Americans can look to the example of Prophet Muhammad and George Washington as a way to build bridges of cross-cultural understanding.

Studying Muhammad has taught me invaluable lessons on the fundamental principles of Islam, but more importantly, principles of life itself. His treatment of religious minorities and his basic moral beliefs have encouraged me to further promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and to improve my own everyday character and conduct. Without a doubt, my research into the Prophet's life has showed me that he is a role model for both Muslims and non-Muslims and that humanity can benefit from Islam.