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7 Things About Prophet Muhammad: A Clarification

01/28/2013 06:50 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2013

In her recent piece, "7 Things That May Surprise You About Muhammad," author Lesley Hazleton offers unique insights into Prophet Muhammad's life. Giving credit where it is due, I've enjoyed Hazleton's TED talk on Prophet Muhammad, and many of her writings on Islam. In fairness, however, several of her "7 Things" are incorrect. This article mentions and clarifies these matters.

1. He was born an orphan.

Hazleton accurately summarizes Prophet Muhammad's early years but perhaps it is semantically more accurate to say "he was orphaned as a young child." The foster mother who cared for him as an infant and young child was a woman named Haleema. Prophet Muhammad loved her dearly.

2. He married up -- and for love.

Hazleton accurately summarizes Prophet Muhammad's marriage to Hazrat Khadija, but I offer two minor matters of clarification.

First, while Hazleton is correct that the marriages were "a means of diplomatic alliance," Prophet Muhammad was in fact married 11 times, not nine times, after Khadija's death.

Second, Hazleton writes that Muhammad had "[no children] with any of his later wives." Perhaps she meant to say "no children who lived to adulthood" as Prophet Muhammad in fact had at least 11 children with his later wives, each of whom died in infancy or when only a few years old.

3. His first reaction to becoming a Prophet? Doubt and despair.

Hazleton accurately states Prophet Muhammad's fear upon the Angel Gabriel's appearance to him. Imam Bukhari records Prophet Muhammad's initial reaction.

Allah's Apostle returned with the Inspiration, his neck muscles twitching with terror till he entered upon Khadija and said, 'Cover me! Cover me!' They covered him till his fear was over and then he said, 'O Khadija, what is wrong with me?' Then he told her everything that had happened and said, 'I fear that something may happen to me.' Khadija said, 'Never! But have the glad tidings, for by Allah, Allah will never disgrace you as you keep good relations with your Kith and kin, speak the truth, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guest generously and assist the deserving, calamity-afflicted ones.' [1]

Khadija then took Prophet Muhammad to her cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, a Christian Nazarene priest and Biblical scholar. Waraqa further reassured Prophet Muhammad not to fear, but recognized that he experienced precisely what past true Prophets of God experienced. He declared to Prophet Muhammad:

This is the same angel who appeared in times long past to Moses. Would that I might still be alive when you will be turned out of your native city. I could then help you to my heart's content.' Prophet Muhammad responded, 'Shall I be banished from my native city?' Waraqa replied, 'Any man who came with something similar to what you have brought was treated with hostility; and if I should remain alive till the day when you will be turned out then I would support you strongly. [2]

Sadly, Waraqa bin Nawfal died shortly thereafter, but his predictions and recognition of Muhammad's truth were fulfilled in their entirety.

4. He led an early form of Occupy Wall Street.

Hazleton inaccurately compares the Occupy Movement and Prophet Muhammad's propagation of Islam. The two are substantively opposites.

For example, despite facing immense social, economic, and civil injustices Prophet Muhammad wholly forbade causing any form of public disorder or interruption. He did not form any public protests, marches, or resistance movements. No "Occupy Mecca" or "Occupy Kaba" existed. Instead, he preached quietly among family and friends during the first three years of his ministry.

When active persecution began, Prophet Muhammad ordered his companions to worship privately in their homes as to avoid public disorder as much as possible. When persecution intensified, he ordered his followers to migrate to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and seek refuge under the righteous Christian King Negus. When persecution yet further intensified, he and his companions were boycotted and exiled from Mecca for a near three year period. They lived in a barren valley on the brink of starvation. Even during this intense period of suffering he forbade any form of public protest and disruption. Finally, when persecution reached its climax, he still forbade any form of public protest, and migrated with his companions secretly and peacefully to Medina -- some 240 miles away -- all to preserve peace and avoid public disorder.

Yes, Prophet Muhammad protested social and economic inequality, but not by any comparison to the Occupy Movement. Rather, it was through prayers, patience, and private preaching for peace.

5. He was a pacifist -- at first.

Hazleton mischaracterizes Prophet Muhammad's decisions on when to, and when not to, fight. Dictionary.com defines a pacifist as one who "is opposed to war or violence of any kind."

Though he loathed violence, Prophet Muhammad openly and repeatedly declared his willingness to take up arms to defend his Jewish allies in the Charter of Medina, defend all Christians in his letter to St. Catherine's Monastery, and to follow the Qur'anic commandment to defend all "Synagogues, Churches, Temples, and Mosques" from "being torn down." (22:41) That is, Muhammad considered fighting a last resort but would employ force if it meant defending universal religious freedom. This does not make him a pacifist "at first" or ever, but instead demonstrates his logical rationale, practicality, and recognition that at times, force is needed to ensure self-defense and universal freedom of conscience.

6. He knew how to say he was wrong.

Hazleton is correct that Prophet Muhammad did not let ego dictate his decisions, but her "satanic verses" example is incorrect. In fact, the entire "satanic verses" incident is fabricated. Addressing this alleged incident, esteemed historian and Islamic scholar Hadhrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad cites accepted and ancient scholars, concluding: [3]

...this story is entirely a fabrication, and its forgery is clearly evident from every rational aspect. Hence, the great Muhaddithin and leaders of Hadith, such as 'Allamah 'Ainī, Qazi 'Ayad and 'Allamah Nawawi have expounded with conclusive argumentation that this occurrence is false and nothing more than a fabricated Hadith. Thus, 'Allamah 'Aini writes in debate of this issue: 'This story is evidently negated, both in light of narration and common sense.' [4]

Then, Qazi 'Ayad writes:

'Prudent and reliable individuals have not accepted this narration due to the fact that the narration of this story is confusing, and its authenticity is very weak. Moreover, the manner of its narration is also weak and feeble. In addition, no narrator has successfully traced this narration to the Holy Prophet or any of his companions.' [5]

Furthermore, 'Allamah Nawawi writes:
'Nothing of this narration is correct, neither in the aspect of narration nor in the aspect of common sense.' [6] On the other hand, many A'immah-e-Hadith (scholars of Hadith) have not even made mention of this occurrence. For example, the Sihah Sittah has not even hinted towards it, though mention of the recitation of Surah An-Najm and the prostration of the Quraish is present in it. It is apparent that this narration passed the eyes of the Muhaddithin, who rejected it with belief of its forgery and unreliability. In the same manner, many great Mufassirin [commentators of the Holy Qur'an], such as Imam Razi have declared this instance vain and devoid of truth. [7] Moreover, among the mystics, sagacious ones, the like of Ibni 'Arabi, have stated, 'There exists no truth in this occurrence.' [8]

Thus, no such verse was revealed that compromised the worship of one God and not a shred of evidence traces the incident back to Prophet Muhammad or any of his companions.

Hazleton would more accurately have stated that Prophet Muhammad employed Qur'anic guidance to take consultation from his companions before making a decision. This proved fruitful on many occasions. For example, during preparation for the Battle of Badr, Prophet Muhammad chose a particular camp location for his army. One of his companions suggested an area that would provide a better tactical advantage. Prophet Muhammad, recognizing his companion was correct, readily agreed and moved the entire camp. On another occasion while leading prayer, Prophet Muhammad completed zuhr (afternoon) prayer after only two rakaats instead of the correct four. When his companions inquired whether the prayer had been changed, Prophet Muhammad realized his mistake and immediately completed the full prayer.

7. His tragic failure came at the end.

Hazleton is incorrect both when she states that "he died without designating a successor," and that Prophet Muhammad "paved the way for the divisiveness between Sunni and Shiite that persists today."

First, the Sunni-Shia split did not occur until roughly 30 years after Prophet Muhammad died. While three decades is not terribly long, Muslims remained united through four separate Khalifas during that time, demonstrating that their ultimate divisiveness was their own doing, not Prophet Muhammad's.

Second, the early Muslims did in fact follow Prophet Muhammad's guidance and united under Abu Bakr as the first Khalifa. Before his demise Muhammad declared, "It does not behoove a people who have Abu Bakr among them to have anybody other than him as their imam." [9] Today -- centuries after the Sunni/Shia split -- Muslims argue and dispute over what a hadith may or may not have meant. But actions speak louder than words, and actions demonstrate that all Muslims did in fact unite willingly under the Khalifa of the time, Abu Bakr.

Third, Shia Muslims today claim that Prophet Muhammad clearly appointed Ali as his successor. If that is the case, then the onus is still on Muslims for not obeying Prophet Muhammad's orders. In other words, whether we believe the Sunni rendition or the Shia rendition -- both renditions prove that the split occurred because of a disagreement among Muslims, not because of any failure on Prophet Muhammad's behalf.

Finally, and all of the above notwithstanding, Islam is a religion which forbids compulsion. Islam is not a political ideology or sovereign nation that demands absolute loyalty. What religion on Earth did not divide into sects over dogmatic disagreements after its founder's demise? The Sunni/Shia split -- while not desirable -- is a reflection of Islam's protection of freedom of conscience and permission to have disagreements. To allude to such protection as a "tragic failure" is incorrect.

Summary: In short, Hazleton has historically provided worthwhile analysis on Islam and Prophet Muhammad and should be commended and appreciated for doing so. In this piece, however, Hazleton commits a few errors, and I hope these clarifications help set the record straight.

Footnotes:
[1] Sahih Jami' Bukhari Vol. 1, Book 1, #3.
[2] Sahih Jami' Bukhari Vol. 4, Book 55, #605.
[3] Mirza Bashir Ahmad, Seal of the Prophets Volume 1 209-11 (2011) available at http://www.alislam.org/holyprophet/Seal-of-Prophets-Vol-1.pdf.
[4] 'Umdatul-Qārī Sharḥu Ṣaḥīḥil-Bukhārī, Vol. 19, pg. 313, Kitābu Tafsīril-Qur'ān, Sūratul-Qamar, Under the verse "Fasjudū lillāhi wa'budūhu" [An-Najm (53:63)], Dārul-Iḥyā'it-Turāthil-'Arabī, Beirut, Lebanon, Edition 2003.
[5] Sharḥul-'Allāmatiz-Zarqānī 'alal-Mawāhibil-Ladunniyyah, By Muḥammad bin 'Abdul-Bāqī Az-Zarqānī, Vol. 2, pg. 25, Bābu Dukhūlish-Sha'bi wa Khabriṣ-Ṣaḥīfah, Dārul Kutubil-'Ilmiyyah, Beirut, Lebehon, First Edition (1996) (emphasis added).
[6] Al-Minhāju bi-Sharḥi Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim bin Al-Ḥajjāj, p. 533, Kitābul-Masājid wa Mawāḍi'iṣ-Ṣalāh, Bābu Sujūdit-Tilāwah, Dāru Ibni Hazam, First Edition (2002).
[7] At-Tafsīrul-Kabīr, By Imām Muḥammad bin 'Umar bin Al-Ḥusain Fakhr-ud-Dīn Ar-Rāzī, Vol. 23, pg. 44-48, Tafsīru Sūratil-Ḥajj, Verse 53, Dārul-Kutubil-'Ilmiyyah, Beirut, Lebanon, Second Edition (2004).
[8] Sharḥul-'Allāmatiz-Zarqānī 'alal-Mawāhibil-Ladunniyyah, By Muḥammad bin 'Abdul-Bāqī Az-Zarqānī, Vol. 2, pg. 25, Bābu Dukhūlish-Sha'bi wa Khabriṣ-Ṣaḥīfah, Dārul-Kutubil-'Ilmiyyah, Beirut, Lebehon, First Edition (1996).
[9] Tirmidhi:3673