In the Name of the One Who is worshipped by all
May peace and blessings be upon Muhammad, the son of Abdullah
The Messenger of God to every soul who reads these words
It is remarkable that the very first words of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (may God send blessings and peace upon him) are about learning. Historians only really know anything about human beings from the past through the writings that have survived from earlier times. Each manuscript, cave drawing, and inscription is a precious window into the human experience, and researchers are to be applauded for their efforts at documenting and preserving the literary sources of human history. But the Qur’an, from its very first moments, is drawing our attention to something far greater than the accumulated knowledge of human civilization. It is reminding us of the most important knowledge: “that which they did not know.”
Read! In the Name of your Lord Who created
Created humanity from a clinging clot
Read! And your Lord is Most Generous
the One Who taught by the pen
Taught humanity that which they did not know
(The 96th chapter of the Qur’an, Surah al-‘Alaq [The Clinging Clot], verses 1-5)
If human beings, through the use of reason and empirical observation, were able to answer the greatest questions about existence, there would be no need for the Qur’an. For example, if science could describe what happens to us after we die, we would not need revelation to tell us. But it is precisely because the human intellect, unaided by revelation, cannot pierce every wall that we need someone to inform us about what is on the other side. This is the role of the Prophets, may peace be upon all of them.
When the Prophet Muhammad was first commissioned by God to publicly preach the message of Islam, he climbed up a hill in the city of Makkah and called out to his people. One of the early commentators on the Qur’an described it like this: “He shouted, ‘Come to me!’ And so all his tribesmen gathered around him. They said, ‘What ails you?’ He said, ‘If I were to tell you that the enemy is going to attack you in the morning or in the evening, would you not have believed me?’ They said, ‘Indeed, we would believe you.’ He said, ‘In that case, I am a warner sent to you.'” What was he warning them about? Simply put, that there is a life after death which leads to either unending torment or ever-increasing bliss. Needless to say, the crowd quickly dispersed.
The skeptical mind finds it hard to believe that God has commissioned specific people in history to act as messengers delivering news from the unseen, and the Qur’an is fully cognizant of the doubts of humanity. This skepticism is not modern – it was there in the 7th century when these words were revealed:
And We sent among them a messenger from themselves, [saying], “Worship Allah; you have no deity other than Him; then will you not fear Him?” And the eminent among his people who disbelieved and denied the meeting of the Hereafter, while We had given them luxury in the worldly life, said, “This is not but a man like yourselves. He eats of that from which you eat and drinks of what you drink. And if you should obey a man like yourselves, indeed, you would then be losers. Does he promise you that when you have died and become dust and bones that you will be brought forth [once more]? How far, how far, is that which you are promised. Life is not but our worldly life – we die and live, but we will not be resurrected. He is not but a man who has invented a lie about Allah, and we will not believe him.” (The 23rd chapter, Surah al-Mu’minun [The Believers], verses 32-38)
Ultimately, history preserves the mention of Muhammad and his message, and those who have chosen to believe that he was a Messenger from God are known today as Muslims. All of humanity is free to accept or reject the call of Islam, which is encapsulated in the statement of faith (shahada), which is the first pillar of Islam.
أشهد أن لا إله إلا الله و أشهد أن محمد رسول الله
I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God
Muhammad has informed us that God is real, Heaven is real, Hell is real, and that we will be resurrected after our deaths. That message has been preserved in the Qur’an, which Muhammad never claimed to have written himself. Rather, he said it was a revelation that came to him involuntarily. The stories that surround the revelations of the Qur’an help us to understand this at a deeper level. For example, when some of Muhammad’s followers accused his wife A’isha (may God be well pleased with her) of infidelity, he could have immediately concocted a revelation exonerating her. But God did not send the revelation immediately, and they went through a painful time of waiting and not knowing what to do. According to an early commentator on the Qur’an, A’isha said: “By Allah, I knew I was innocent and I also knew that Allah will clear me of this slander. However, by Allah, I did not think that a recited revelation would be sent down regarding me. I thought myself to be too insignificant for Allah to speak about me with something recited [i.e. the Qur’an]. I was merely hoping that the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, would see a dream vision in which Allah, exalted is He, would clear me of the slander. By Allah, the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, did not leave his position nor did anyone of the household go out until Allah, exalted is He, sent down a revelation to the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace. He was seized by the fever that usually seizes him upon receiving revelation, such that he sweated profusely even in rainy days, as a result of the heaviness of the speech revealed to him. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, was smiling when he relaxed again. The first thing he said was: ‘Good news for you, O A’isha! By Allah, Allah has declared your innocence!'”
This passage shows the humanity of the participants in this Divine drama. They do not know what is going to happen next, but trust in Allah that it will all work out in the end. A’isha knew she was innocent – she just didn’t know how she was going to be exonerated. She displayed humility in the face of the reality of revelation, thinking herself too insignificant to be addressed by God directly, even though she was a beloved wife of the Prophet! In this episode, she demonstrates for us the way to interface with Reality – trust and humility.
If you do not trust someone, you cannot go very far with them, whether in business, marriage, or any other endeavor. The followers of the Prophet Muhammad trusted him so much that they were willing to give up everything to follow him. The stories of the hardship that they endured are heartbreaking, and no one suffered more than the Prophet himself, for it was his job to demonstrate for them the true nature of selflessness. Everything he was and everything he had was for God and for other human beings, not for his own self. He prayed more than his followers, fasted more than them, gave more in charity than them, gave more of his time to those in need, and lived more simply than many of them – no one can say that he did not truly believe in his mission. Whether or not you believe that he was in fact a Messenger from God, or a well-meaning person who had deluded himself into believing that he was, is your choice. But the fact remains that every day, over a billion human beings ask in their prayers that God send blessings and peace upon him and his family!
One must be humble in the face of Muhammad, for he was the most successful human being who ever lived. Because of him, Arabic is one of the 6 official languages of the United Nations. Because of him, the Qur’an is the most widely memorized book in the history of humanity. Because of him, about 50 nations in the world have a Muslim majority, and almost all other nations have Muslim minority populations. He started one of the most enduring political institutions in the history of the world, the Caliphate, which existed in one form or another from 623-1924. No one can take these achievements away from him – these are simply socio-historical facts. But most importantly, he is considered by many human beings to be the best of us who ever walked this earth.
Muhammad teaches us about our own humanity, such as how to be a better spouse, parent, friend, teacher, and worshipper of God. The knowledge that has been transmitted from Muhammad, embodied in the Qur’an and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad and stories about him), contains the most enlightening insights and objective knowledge found on this earth. A clear faith that was established amidst the simplicity of the desert of Arabia can also address the deepest philosophical, historical, psychological, and spiritual questions of the most brilliant minds.
This is an invitation to Islam, a faith and tradition that is alive and well. Every year, hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world fast from sun-up to sun-down for a whole month – Ramadan – witnessing to the spiritual potential within every human being. Every year, millions of global citizens arrive in Makkah for the annual pilgrimage – Hajj – a witness to the entire world that religion is far from dead. Makkah is roughly the physical center of the world, and the spiritual center for all human souls. We are being drawn back to God involuntarily, whether we like it or not, and the Hajj is for those who choose to make the journey home willingly before they die. May we be counted amongst them, by God’s causeless mercy which pervades all existence, and may we all become true brothers and sisters in Islam.
R. David Coolidge
New York City
11 Sha’ban, 1434 AH
June 20th, 2013 AD