When we say this name, we respectfully follow by asking Allah’s prayers for him, abbreviated as saw. I think it’s hard to get the gist of his continual importance in Islam and as I’ve said, I’m all about the living tradition. So, I’m not here to give a history lesson or to make a biography. There are biographies and documentaries aplenty (I think I mentioned I have the soundtrack from one I advised on a few years ago. It has the lovely four-minute prayer for waking). Anyway, I want to make a shift in how we might look at this important historical figure, and specifically about teachers, leaders, and guides.
I told you yesterday that part of the inspiration for making this entry about the Prophet Muhammad (saw) was through the reminders my own spiritual teacher has been making during our retreat. Well, there’s one more thing. I started this blog at Ramadan and I get comments from people who are following or who have a read a few about this being a Ramadan blog. My friend Mona posted a link on Twitter and said I was one of her heroes, and that I was writing a blog about Ramadan.
Since we’re almost through Ramadan, I guess I should catch a few people up. I never had any intention of simply writing a Ramadan blog, but I am grateful if that has been the inspiration for some people to read. Plus, it’s been a challenge to fast, travel, and keep it up, but keeping it up has a goal a bit broader than Ramadan. I’m making preparations for pilgrimage to Makkah: hajj. Almost all of my feminist Muslim friends who have gone tell me I will not be satisfied with some of the arbitrary restrictions on women. Then they recount specific challenges they faced on the hajj and things they did to get around it.
I’m writing a blog both as a way to get around some of the crappy stuff—so I don’t have to fight and yet I don’t have to be silent. It’s a part of the subversive strategies of what I deal with extensively in my book Inside the Gender Jihad. To survive with dignity as a woman, and to survive with love as a Muslim. Yeah, sometimes that is the paradox. Anyway, I asked my shaykh for his advice regarding the hajj some time ago, and he suggested specifically that I spend more time at the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah.
That was like the last thing I wanted to hear. Everybody says that is where they have experienced the worst restrictions. When I mentioned this, he said not everything is about the politics of gender. Well, on another occasion perhaps I might take the time to write about that, but the short of it is, only men can say this. No disrespect intended. It’s sorta like when people say, I don’t pay attention to race. In America, only white people say this. Nevertheless, and this is what motivates this entry, I intend to follow his advice.
I have a friend from graduate school who is happily living in Madinah and she adores her life there. She has told me, convincingly, just how beneficial the time limitations put on women’s visits to the Prophet’s mosque are. I mean, women can’t go all the time or any old time, but these same pesky old (or young) men who forcibly keep women out at other times are apparently equally vigilant about coordinating for women’s exclusive access at designated times. I have a plan, and Allah knows best. I will do whatever the rest of the day might dictate to get as much access within the limited times as I can.
I like my shaykh’s advice to seek as much of the nur or light of Muhammad (saw) as I can. My shaykh, and many Sufi teachers talk about Nur-Muhammad. Some go as far as to say the whole universe was created only after Nur-Muhammad. Or that the whole of the universe was created for Muhammad. I cannot go that far, but it’s important to say something about the love of a Muslim for the Prophet. I think people get the wrong impression because of controversies like the Salman Rushdie affair, or the Danish cartoons. I don’t know how the importance of the Prophet gets lost in the zealousness of certain defenders, but trust me, this is not about freedom of speech.
I have absolute confidence that you can understand that freedom of speech not only means you can say whatever you want, but also that certain things you say could have consequences. So, for example, if you call me a “black bitch” (a strong example of racist, sexist speech), there might be some consequences. Muslims love the Prophet Muhammad. Not only now (when the most we have are historical stories and our ideology about following the sunnah, or normative practices, of the Prophet), but they who lived simultaneously with his life, his companions, also loved him.
I came into Islam in 20th-century America and inherited the legacy of this love, but I can’t say I understood it right away, let alone actually felt it. I tried, but he remained too distant from me for quite some time. I was content with the Qur’an as an intimate read which quenched my existential thirst and soothed my soul in its quest for at-one-ment with the Sacred. The Prophet remained a distant idea, not yet resonant in my heart. I guess he seemed too big, too remote—a legacy, yes, but larger than life. Larger than my life anyway. Not just 14 centuries between us, but a whole world, a whole way of being in the world.
That changed in the 1980s actually, with one small book by an Arabic historian named Nabia Abbott. She has one book entitled The Beloved of the Prophet and it is about A’ishah, one of the wives of the Prophet. Maybe at another time I can say more about her or the other wives, but the thing about this book, for me at that time, was that some historical image was lifted off the page and came to life. Well, I don’t mean literally of course. I just mean, his living, breathing, nuanced personality unfolded. I could imagine him laughing, eating, bathing, and being challenged by the mission of revelation. He got to be ordinary and this made his special mission all of a sudden that much more believable.
Still, I would not say he was this light, this personal friend—not yet. I had to wait until I met my teacher to really come to understand how the Prophet can be so important to people today, including the zealots. This will not be the history of my relationship with my teacher (after all, I gave this post a title and if I were you, I’d expect me to get to that topic at some point). If you are like me, one of those people who balk at authority, especially the arbitrary kind and the oppressors, the idea of a spiritual teacher is hard to swallow.
But the true spiritual teacher is not some sort of task-maker: simply bossing you around expecting you to follow to prove you are on your way to enlightenment or some such. Nope. It’s more like that story about one of Buddha’s students. He held up a flower, and the student attained enlightenment. Every thing, every place, every circumstance contains ayat, or signs. A flower can be as much of a teacher as a person with a fancy set of qualifications, degrees, or lines of authority. It’s the state of the student’s heart that matters.
When my teacher accepts me as a student, he makes a commitment, he said, that extends beyond my willingness to respond. It even extends beyond this lifetime. That’s a lot of responsibility. But, over the years that I have known my teacher, including living in the same state, living in a different state, and living in different country, I live with the sense of his loving guidance.
That’s what the Prophet gave: loving guidance. Sure, he had this special relationship with Allah, such that he was the recipient of wahy or divine revelation. In Islam, we do not say that he was the only one. We accept that divine revelation came to Adam, Abraham, Moses, Noah, Joseph, and Jesus, and many more, may peace be unto them all. We also accept that the revelation was the same, in essence: worship none but the One True God and follow my example, my sunnah.
We hold that Prophets were selected for the mission of receiving the revelation from before their birth. That they were groomed to accept to carry the message in their lifetime, like Joseph on the well, Moses in the basket, Abraham in the temple. We hold that they were all as beautiful as Joseph and that they spoke eloquently. After all, it would not do for such an important thing as the divine message to get sidelined by something arbitrary like a personal disfigurement.
Most importantly, like with my teacher, we do not hold that Prophets ask for anything from us—and the Qur’an repeats that claim often. We ask nothing of you, our reward is with Allah. But there is this intimate sense of responsibility. This teacher who loves for us to get it right: not only are we loved by the teacher, we are loved by Allah. What response could we have but to love in return and to do our best to make them proud?
The Qur’an says wa maa arsalnaahu illa rahmatan lil-aalamin, “We” have not sent him (Muhammad) except as a mercy to all the worlds. First there is the negation. To erase any possible reason beyond the one given, a rahmah, a mercy. Usually this is translated as “we only sent him as a mercy,” but I wanted to offer the strength given in its original Arabic. Those who use the legacy of the Prophet to do harm, to do injustice, including injustices to women, in the name of the Prophet, or at the Prophet’s mosque, don’t get this. This is our mercy, this is our love: this one who carried the guidance on his heart, uttered it with his tongue and followed it with his actions.
Anyway, that is the one I follow, and that is the one I plan to visit in Madinah, to step where he has stepped, to pray where he has prayed and to give my greeting at his gravesite. Anyone who keeps me from that better answer to Allah. Anyone who seeks to ridicule him has to make the same answer. But because I know this to be true, I am neither bothered by those who seek abuse, nor am I curious about them. To this day, I have never seen those cartoons that caused so much controversy. I don’t need to; the Prophet has a place in my heart as a loving teacher, the rest is up to me: can I find enlightenment with the whiff of this flower?
Written by amina wadud 3/19/2011