Jonah Gelfand: The Character of the Prophet

There are few figures who have altered history quite as much as the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Through his divine revelations, Muhammad was able to alter the religious and political landscape of not only Arabia, but the whole world. But what were his qualifications for his prophethood and subsequent political leadership? This essay will argue that it was his humble and tragic upbringing that rendered Muhammad just and kind enough to be a prophet, while hardening him enough to be a politician, and that his character shaped the revelations he received.

Muhammad was born in 6th century Arabia in the city of Mecca. After conceiving him, “[his mother] learned quickly that her son would be no ordinary man. One night she heard voices saying ‘you carry in your womb the lord of his people and when he is born say, “I place him in the protection of the one God…”’ ” His father died before his birth and his mother when he was six, leaving him orphaned. After living the following six years with him, his grandfather also passed away, placing Muhammad in the care of his uncle. Needless to say, Muhammad’s childhood was one of strife, teaching him early on the transience of this human birth. Many people might have been emotionally and psychologically ruined from this calamitous upbringing, but Muhammad did not let his modest beginnings slow him. He became a mediator at a young age, solving quarrels in Mecca, and then took up merchantry under the employment of a rich women named Khadija. After proving his honesty to her (which was an attribute around which he had gained a reputation) she proposed that they should marry. Later, she would be one of the first people to believe in his message.

At the age of forty, Muhammad began to retreat to a cave hermitage outside Mecca for meditation and prayer. In 610 CE, this became the blessed site of his first revelation. While absorbed in contemplation, Muhammad heard a voice. God was speaking through the Angel Gabriel and commanding him to “read(recite).” After a brief discussion about Muhammad’s lack of literacy, the first revelation was bestowed upon him. Muhammad received this divine message humbly- and was terrified. After wandering home, he told Khadija of his terrifying experience, admitting that he feared he was losing his mind. She comforted him, saying “God would never afflict you with this, since you are known for your truthfulness, character and kindness.” This seems to be one of the great things about Muhammad; his humanizing fear and his initial reluctance to accept his prophethood. These humanizing qualities make his position as role model – as ascribed to him the Qur’an: “and you are of a character most noble” (Qur’an 68.4) – a more realistic one to emulate for Muslims.

Muhammad’s pain-ridden early life, along with his honest career as a merchant, could be considered his biggest qualifications for prophethood. As in all Abrahamic faiths, the main message of Muhammad is social justice-oriented. Being born into a recently enriched Mecca with a market economy upsetting old, egalitarian tribal norms and leading to economic injustices, Muhammad’s goal was to remedy these inequities. He took the old tribal morality and revamped it, as explained by Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: “The key value of generosity is no longer to be shown through camel sacrifice, great feasts, or giving one’s life in tribal warfare. Rather, it is to be channeled into a concern for social justice, a continual willingness to give  a share of one’s possessions to the less fortunate” This sentiment is also extolled in sura 93:

Did he not find you orphaned

and give you shelter

Find you lost

and guide you

Find you in hunger

and provide for you

 

As for the orphan-

do not oppress him

and one who asks-

do not turn him away

and the grace of your lord-

proclaim

 

This revelation acts as the divine reminding Muhammad of his firsthand knowledge of the necessity of a charitable heart. As an orphan in a society based on clan protection, Muhammad would have been terribly vulnerable if not for the people who took him in. Therefor, Muhammad and his followers must be charitable unto those less fortunate than themselves.

As time progresses, and Muhammad begins to act as a political leader of a new Muslim community in Medina, his revelations begin to reflect this situational change. God begins to instruct him with less moralistic revelations and more logistical instructions. This shift enables readers to divide the Qur’an into two types of suras: Meccan, which reflect a time of no Muslim community and have a softer, moralistic tone, and Medinies, which reflect a time of political rule over a Muslim community and have a harsher, more legalistic tone. In the latter grouping, the revelations are centered around developing a orthopraxic Islam in an attempt to foster community- an ideal that is reminiscent of tribal morals. Additionally, as Islam gains more traction, the initial civility shown to “People of the Book” seems to wane. For example, during his Ascension, Angel Gabriel introduces all previous prophets to Muhammad as his ‘brothers,’ and in the early days of Muhammad’s rule, Jews and Christians were allowed to remain in Medina. Eventually the Judeo-Christians were forced to leave and Jesus’ divinity is brutally renounced in the Qur’an: “they say: ‘The All-Merciful has taken to Himself a son!’// You have uttered a most terrible thing!(Qur’an 19.88-89)

Some folks might compare Muhammad to Jesus Christ. Although they are both the most important figures in their respective traditions, this is a incorrect comparison. There are many reasons negating this resemblance but the largest is that “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men. Rather he is the Messenger of God,” (Qur’an 33.40) while Jesus is the divine incarnate. Additionally, the two figures’ historical contexts greatly affect their preaching. Jesus was born into the Roman Empire, in which there was already a large institutionalized law system, leading to his message mainly being one of morality. Muhammad’s context, on the other hand, was a tribal society in desperate need of institutionalization and a law code. As per this distinction, Muhammad became the unchallenged political leader and religious prophet of Arabia by the end of his life.

While on the topic of earlier religious figures, it is important to note how Muhammad is viewed in regards to his relationship with earlier prophets. Called the “Seal of Prophecy,” Muhammad confirms all Abrahamic religions and prophets, as well as Arabian prophets. There is said to be 124,000 prophets with the main five chronologically listed as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. All these prophets received the same message and chose not to reveal it all to their contemporaries, with the consecutive prophet revealing slightly more. This culminated in Muhammad’s Qur’anic revelations of all God has to offer. Despite Muhammad’s sealing of the prophetic line, he is ultimately understood as another prophet.

One might argue that this long list of prophets is an attempt by Islam to put into perspective that which humanity can’t comprehend: the Nature of the Divine. Muhammad is just one of many who was preaching, and despite the fact that he is the last, he is not the Ultimate; Only God is the Ultimate. Muhammad’s reputation as a kind mediator despite his tragic childhood and early vulnerability enabled him to understand this Supreme fact and made him the perfect candidate for placing the Prophetic Seal.

 

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Works Cited

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Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Class Lecture 2/13/18”. Presentation, Oberlin College, 2018.

Essack, Farid. The Qurʼan: A User’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2005.

Donner, Fred. The Cambridge Companion To The Qur’ān. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge

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