Sarah J. Williams: Aspects of the Prophet Mohammad’s Leadership in the Early Muslim Community

Sarah J. Williams

September  10, 2016

First Islam Response Paper

Aspects of the Prophet Mohammad’s Leadership of the Early Muslim Community

There have been untold numbers of small religious movements throughout history which emerged, blossomed briefly, and died shortly after birth. Without a strong central figure, it is a struggle for a new religion to meet with success. One of the strongest and most successful religions in the world, Islam, owes much of its growth to the spiritual and material leadership of its founder, the Prophet Mohammad. In the early years of Islam, Mohammad supported and led his community in many complex ways: he was a prophet, receiving revelation directly from God on all matters of discussion, as well as a civil and military leader, and he also served to provide an example of godly living for his followers, which lasted long after his death in the form of the ahadith. There are many aspects to Mohammad’s leadership, but these three are perhaps the most important, and number among the reasons why Islam survived its tumultuous early years to grow into the vast faith it is today.

The principal aspect of Mohammad’s role in early Islam was, naturally, as a prophet. From the moment when he received the initial revelation from Gabriel in his fortieth year (1) until his death, Mohammad was the recipient of a consistent feed of revelations on subjects that ranged from how to pray (2) to how to divide the spoils of war (3). As a prophet, Mohammad had both the privilege and the duty of receiving God’s instructions—instructions which covered not only how a Muslim should worship, but how a Muslim should live. Mohammad’s revelations laid out rules (moral, spiritual, social, or all three)  for the young Muslim community (4). When it became necessary for the Muslims of Medina to fight to defend themselves, God sent a revelation indicating that this was acceptable (5): when a criminal charge was brought against A’isha, the prophet’s wife, God sent a judicial message requiring there to be five eyewitnesses before any such charge could be brought in public (6). In several cases, Mohammad was even the transmitter of direct divine messages to people he had personally interacted with, such as in Sura 19 (7). Most importantly, God’s revelations to Mohammad were eventually written down in the form of the Qur’an, forming a religious and social base for all future Muslims. Without Mohammad’s role as prophet, Islam would never have come into existence.

However, without Mohammad’s other role as civil and military leader, Islam would likely have died an early death. In the first few years of the Muslim community, first in Medina and then in Mecca, Mohammad was responsible for almost all major decisions having to do with the welfare and movements of the group. When it became time to flee from persecution to Abyssinia, Mohammad was the one who urged his people to go (8). The same was true when the community relocated to Medina, then Yathrib (9). Once there, Mohammad wrote the Constitution of Medina, laying out rules for treatment of other religious groups, firmly establishing the Muslim community as an example of a new social order, and declaring himself arbiter of all disputes (10). During the stay of the Muslims in Medina, he personally approved their military excursions, including the raids they enacted on the Quraysh, and led at the Battle of Badr (11). As the needs of the community increasingly became more martial and focused on the idea of defense, Mohammad’s leadership style shifted in its turn. While in Medina, in addition to overseeing the military campaign against the Quraysh, he took charge of the siege of the Jews of the Banu Qaynuqa after their attempt on his life, and arranged the assassination of Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, a poet who published insulting verses about Muslims (12). However, six years after arriving in Medina, it was also Mohammad who negotiated the peace of al-Hudaybiyya and cemented the ideas of peacemaking and ethical war in Islamic tradition (. Two years later, he chose to take Mecca, but also to show mercy to the inhabitants there, forbidding that revenge be taken against specific individuals. It was in Mecca that he ended his life, shortly thereafter (13). The earliest period of Islamic history was in large part defined by Mohammad’s political and military shrewdness. His leadership of his people ensured that Islam survived its infancy and went on to grow even further.

The third aspect of Mohammad’s role in the early community is one which, in some ways, he still performs today. The virtues and values by which a Muslim was supposed to abide were radically different from those which were bred by the rising commercial culture of Mecca at the time; Islam encouraged unity, selflessness, and friendship (14). Mohammad was a model of correct living to all his followers. As the Qur’an says, “You have a good example in the messenger of God” (15). Mohammad gave constant advice on how to live a godly life. On the importance of the umma: “None of you truly has the faith, if he does not desire for his brother Muslim that which he desires for himself”. On law: “The blood of a Muslim is not legal (to shed)…except if he be one of three: the willful murderer, the married adulterer, and the man who has left his religion and forsaken the Collectivity” (16). On public morality: “Assist those who do good, ask forgiveness for those who do ill, pray for those who turn their backs, and forgive those who repent” (17). In establishing the blueprint for a new type of citizen—one which was defined by faith, community, and the desire to act in accordance with God—Mohammad was quite literally foundational, and that is a role that he plays still today, with the use of the ahadith. It is difficult to ascertain how many hadith the Prophet himself was actually responsible for, but it is certain that all of them have some basis in the fact of Mohammad’s position as a model for other Muslims, both those who knew him and those to come.

The picture of Mohammad which has been transmitted to us in the present day is one of a man of many talents, not least of which was his ability to shift to become what was necessary for the survival of his community. He gave Islam voice through revealing the messages of God, led his followers through great struggles to success, and left behind an example of how a Muslim should live and behave. The survival of early Islam is doubtless due in great part to his multifaceted and skillful leadership.

  1. Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam (Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 55.
  2. Ibid, 56
  3. Ibid, 63.
  4. Williams, John Alden, Themes of Islamic Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) 7—10
  5. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 60
  6. Ibid, 65
  7. Ibid, 57
  8. Ibid, 58
  9. Ibid, 61
  10. Williams, Themes of Islamic Civilization, 11—14
  11. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 62
  12. Ibid, 63
  13. Ibid, 65
  14. Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History (Location Unknown: Modern Library, 2002), 3
  15. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Islam, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 49
  16. Williams, Themes of Islamic Civilization, 10
  17. Ibid, 17

Bibliography

Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam. Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 

Williams, John Alden, Themes of Islamic Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. PDF E-book.

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. Location Unknown: Modern Library, 2002. PDF E-book.

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Islam. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.