I will readily admit that a look at Muslim nations today paints a rather bleak picture. Some have spiraled into chaos, while others are choking under the pale of dysfunction and directionless, corrupt leadership. Extremism, violence, and intolerance seem unstoppable.
Further exacerbating this perilous state of affairs are biased mouthpieces of Islamophobia — amplified by the media — who promote hastily drawn conclusions and fear in the West. Recently, a Muslim school boy was arrested for building a clock as a project which was suspected to be a bomb. And then you also have political opportunism from the likes of presidential-hopeful Ben Carson, whose anti-Muslim statements result in generalizations condemning the entire faith.
Whether you are an intolerant ideological extremist or a biased politician, here are five things about the founder of Islam that will really surprise you:
1. He was also a secular leader.
When Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) was invited to serve as chief arbitrator of Medina, he had no military experience. However, he was a believer in the biblical prophets, had lived among polytheists, and placed a great emphasis on justice (oft-repeated in the Quran), so he was tapped for the job. He had the potential to moderate the ethnically diverse but feuding community of Jews, polytheists, and heterodox Christians tearing the city of Medina apart.
Muhammad worked tirelessly to foster agreements between the tribes and reciprocated the trust and power placed in him by the citizens of Medina. Today, the United States Supreme Court honors him as one of the greatest administrators of justice in history.
In an environment hardened with feudalism and the warring super powers of Rome-Byzantine and Persia-Sassanid, armed conflict had, inexorably, fallen upon the Muslims. But even in conquest, Muhammad stayed true to secular principles, declaring there could be no compulsion in religion (Quran 2:256). Later he authored a charter to St. Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai that no Muslim is to ever exact hostilities against Christians on the basis of religion — an order binding until the Day of Judgement.
When historian Michael Hart picked Prophet Muhammad as the most influential person in history, he explained, “My choice of Muhammad to the lead the list of world’s most influential persons may surprise some and be questioned by others but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.”
2. He was a champion of women’s rights and status.
Battling disturbingly sexist mores and attitudes, Prophet Muhammad publicly called for an end to female infanticide. Those who wanted to convert to his new movement would now have to abide by the injunctions of the Quran — they could no longer marry women without their consent and women would have rights of inheritance and property ownership.
But greater than these injunctions was the social uplift of women. Muhammad led by example. He worked with such dedication and commitment for his boss, Khadijah, that it won her heart in marriage. He religiously consulted her wisdom in key decisions as his movement grew, gaining attention and enemies.
His second wife, Ayesha, was such a renowned activist and preacher that Muslims have fondly declared they wouldn’t know half their religion if it wasn’t for her. The prophet’s daughter, Fatimah, is so highly revered for her exemplary piety that a traditional incantation praising the Lord upon conclusion of the five daily prayers is named after her: Tasbih-e-Fatima.
Remarkably, this legacy continues to breathe life some 1,400 years later as some of the largest Muslim nations — Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey — have all hosted women heads-of-state in the twentieth century.
3. He was a staunch proponent of education.
As the legacy goes, Muhammad himself was illiterate. When first visited by Archangel Gabriel, he was told to recite, but answered that he did not know how. The angel implored again, “Recite in the name of thy Lord . . . who taught by the pen . . . taught man what he knew not” (Quran 96: 2-5).
When Muslims defeated the Meccans in their first battle at Badr, the prophet passed an order that any prisoner of war who would teach five Muslims to read and write would go free. He placed a great emphasis on education, exhorting that one should even travel to China (a daunting journey in those days) to learn.
The rest, as they say, is history. Ibn Sina is known as the founder of the scientific method; Ibn Khaldun as the father of modern sociology. Muslims made strides in medicine, architecture, chemistry, economics, and mathematics. If it wasn’t for the Arabic-translated depository of world knowledge established in Alexandria, Egypt, the works of the great Greek thinkers would have been lost forever when they were plundered by the Barbarians. University of Karueen, the oldest known university in operation today, was founded in the ninth century in Fez, Morocco.
In the documentary film When the Moors Ruled Spain, narrator Bethany Hughes explores the aesthetics and mathematical ingenuity of the Alhambra palace in Spain with Professor Antonio Fernandez-Puertas:
The Alhambra is so enchanting it’s all too easy to view it as a fairy tale palace isolated from history, but that is romantic nonsense! This palace was the product of a very real very gritty history. It was built by a religious empire that had the wealth and intellect to build such masterpieces, an empire whose history goes back to the deserts of seventh century Arabia . . . a merchant called Muhammad asserted that he had been visited by the Archangel Gabriel.
4. He was a social revolutionary.
Historian Bernard Lewis writes in his book The Islamic Revolution, “Historians generally agree that Islamic social reforms in areas such as social welfare, family structure, slavery, and the rights of women and children improved on the status quo of Arab society.” Lewis also states that one of the reasons for the rapid success of early Islam was its rejection of traditional privileges and hierarchies for an emphasis on talent and merit.
The Islamic movement had begun the emancipation of slaves. Quranic verses pronounced the manumission of slaves as a deed of righteousness and expiation of sins. By the time of the Islamic Medieval period, the vast majority of labor was free and paid. This social revolution propelled former slaves to prominent status, such as Salman the Persian, who became governor of Al-Madain (modern-day Iraq), and Suhaib the Roman, who became a religious leader.
In the contemporary American emancipation movement, Thomas Miller in his book Americas Alternative Religions, says that The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam was one of the influencers of the American Civil Rights movement. Ahmadi-Muslims were the first Islamic missionaries to arrive in the U.S., producing Islamic literature in English that propagated racial equality and justice.
5. He predicted the violence we see today.
The prophet Muhammad predicted that, with the shifting sands of time, Muslim leadership would fall to self-serving kings, tyrants, and errant clerics. Eventually, the true teachings of the Quran would be lost. In a well-known prophecy, he stated that, “things will happen to my followers as did to the Jews.”
When Jesus Christ (peace be on him) appeared as Messiah to the Jews (per Islamic and Christian beliefs), the rise of violence in the Jewish religion had been so intense that legendary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was compelled to call it the fourth philosophy, in addition to the Jewish sects of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.
Terrorist groups like the Zealots pursued violent cleansing of the holy land from Roman rule, the Hellenized Jewish aristocracy, and those Jews who dared submit to Rome’s authority for a return to the glory-era of David and Solomon (peace be on them).
In a remarkable parallel, groups like ISIS, per their ideological zeal, use violence against Muslims and non-Muslims alike to cleanse Muslim lands from the yoke of Western neo-colonialism and usher back the era the Islamic Caliphate.
As an Ahmadi-Muslim, I believe this is why Prophet Muhammad used the terminology of Second Coming of Jesus Son of Mary for the coming of the Messiah in his following — to draw the parallel with Jesus and the violence in his time. We believe that Messiah was Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (peace be on him) who in 1900 wrote in his book British Government and Jihad:
It should be remembered that today’s Islamic scholars completely misunderstand jihad and misrepresent it to the general public . . . I know for certain that clerics who persist in propagating these blood-spattered doctrines are in fact responsible for murders . . . who know nothing of why Islam was forced to fight battles in its early history.
Today, in the Messianic tradition, Ahmad’s fifth successor, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (the Khalifa of Islam), works tirelessly around the world to propagate the truth for the benefit of extremists like ISIS and those with ill-perceived notions like Ben Carson. Let us pray they hearken to it.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.