It is one of the articles of faith of Islam to believe in the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. So when anyone casts a shadow on his character, the Muslim world feels deeply antagonized. Yet some remarks are extreme in their negativity and many non-Muslims really question the Prophet of Islam-who is he, and why do Muslims embrace him so completely? When I first came to Islam from Christianity almost two years ago, I asked myself this question, too. Muslims believed in him purely from their hearts. I admired them, but I was still captive of a secular, overly rational mindset. If I were going to accept the Prophet fully, it would have to “make sense” logically.
Muslim friends told me about his hard work, his impeccable character, and his innumerable virtues. Ironically, the more they spoke of his perfection, the more I resisted. It reminded me too much of the fervor of Christians regarding Jesus, peace be upon him. Risk comes with excessive praise
inadvertently a wonderful prophet can be raised to a status higher than a mortal man. Like many current and former Christians, I would not believe that Jesus was God, and I was scared of language which elevated any prophet too highly.
So every time I read about the Prophet, I prayed for protection from my own misconceptions, my own cultural prejudices. Then one day, I came upon a lovely story about the infant Prophet being nursed by a Bedouin. While he lived with the tribe, they enjoyed bountiful harvests and animals full of milk. The Bedouins soon became convinced this particular baby was very special. I had seen God looking out for the children in my life and providing for them inexplicably at particularly difficult times. So, by the grace of God, the Bedouin’s story opened a door for me.
Slowly, with more reading, the walls around my heart began to disintegrate. Polygamy was acceptable among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and polytheists at the time. But the Prophet had many wives, and non-Muslims eagerly cited this as evidence of perversion. What was the rational truth? First, he was loyal to one wife for 20 years, until her death, though she was his elder by 15 years. After her death, he married two women within a few years-one the elderly, destitute widow of an old friend, and the other the beloved daughter of his best friend and staunchest supporter. The latter, the lovely Aisha (may God be pleased with her) was a bright, beautiful, young woman he had known since her birth. She was one of the first converts to Islam and remained one of his most loyal confidantes throughout his life, as well as being a gifted historian. Having the option to marry only her, why wouldn’t he have done so? She was surely everything he could desire, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, and he chose her company on his deathbed. Yet he married others later, relative strangers, women from different cultures, age groups, physical attributes, and social positions-most bringing several children to add to his responsibilities, and most destined to a life of destitution as widows without the mercy of his offer. His marriages formed alliances between previously disparate peoples-Egyptian Copts, Jews, warring Arab tribes, and Africans-and shattered the roots of racism and social repression. Simultaneously, his home became the first school of Islam, as his wives and their children became ambassadors among their own peoples, thereby increasing both the acceptance and the reach of Islam. It is simply illogical to think that a man in his 50s and 60s, with a perfect young wife already, would seek to complicate his life by adding more people to his household, including many offspring of other men, just to satisfy his sexual needs. Clearly, his complex home life was part of his calling and in no way reflected deviance on his part.
The image of the Prophet as a warrior was another point of contention which I found myself debating with my own Christian relatives. For after extensive reading, my conclusion was that he was simply a man with an opinion far different from the prevalent viewpoint, and this is never easy in any place at any time. He fought to defend himself and his community, and to protect the right of himself and others to profess their faith. He did it superbly, but excellence is hardly something to hold against someone. A simple and factual look at his choices tells it best. He could have been at home quietly with a few children and grandchildren, in comfort and peace. Instead, he was on the battlefield with rocks strapped to his stomach to fade the feeling of hunger, washing his body with sand. He did not become rich, nor did he retire to a leisurely life. Instead, he remained poor, tired, harassed, and threatened. He did not become the object of worship for anyone-proof is in the fact that Muslims celebrate his birth, death, and calling simply as days of reflection and prayer. The Muslim high holidays relate strictly to the message of Islam-the submission to one God-and not to the man. If he were really a megalomaniac, as those strongly opposed to Islam argue, why didn’t he “invent” verses of the Qur’an to compel Muslims to recognize him as better than all the prophets and make himself the object of all prayers? Instead, he is respectfully referred to in the Qur’an as a beautiful example of humanity, an illiterate among his own people, and a simple messenger. The message is always clear-all praise is due to God, not the Prophet.
Yet in a further assault on his character, non-Muslims then and now insist that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was fed all his information by other people and simply “rehearsed tales of the ancients.” Yet this is illogical. First of all, the Prophet spent most of his time prior to his calling with salesmen, not scholars. These caravan merchants knew “a little about a lot,” having traveled extensively, but they could hardly be expected to know worldly subjects deeply. Most of them were illiterate themselves, with an education suited strictly to trade. Yet the Qur’an contains extensive details about past communities and religious doctrines, and about geological and human history. The depth of the knowledge conveyed is too great to be simply hearsay gleaned at a fireside chat among tradesmen. This knowledge requires full-time scholarship to acquire even today, never mind 1,400 years ago when there were few texts and scientific instruments, and even fewer translations. When do his opponents suppose he would have acquired so much knowledge anyhow? This would have required daily conversations with sages in the middle of numerous battles, an incredibly busy family life, countless daily prayers, and his own mission to deliver the message to others. Yet he was never seen with any mortal teacher, and even his enemies have never suggested that he had one.
In fact, some fervent opponents insist that the Prophet Muhammad was delusional-receiving inspiration from his own insanity. But if this were true, how could he simultaneously administer a massive, complex household with many wives and children, an intricate administration composed of alliances between peoples of different religious, socio-cultural, political, and economic backgrounds, and also strategize the stability of the Islamic empire for both the present and the future? The Prophet’s military and political savvy are enshrined in the historical record, in volumes upon volumes published by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And the basic reality is that he cannot have been insane and infinitely pragmatic at the same time. Besides, if his only goal had been to manipulate people, why didn’t he have more commonly accepted tactics? Magic, for example, is easy to learn. Yet the Prophet’s record, even as quoted by non-believers, is devoid of cheap illusions.
And what of the “new knowledge” contained in the Qur’an-the scientific revelations about the rotation of the earth, speed of light, layers of the atmosphere, creation of stars, separation of the oceans, types of rocks, origin of the rain, gender of plants, composition of human tissue, formation of the embryo, origin of iron, and so on? Of all the sacred books around the world, only the Qur’an contains verifiable scientific data. What mortal source could have imparted such things to the Prophet? None. And to what end? Since these facts could not be verified until very recently, what benefit were they in convincing anyone in his time? None. If the Prophet intended to persuade people with some sort of self-contrived document, why put in a lot of material that wouldn’t make sense to anyone for another 1,000 years or more?
Truthfully, if he simply hoped for personal gain, for an easier life for himself, he would have been better off to just keep quiet and forget about the Qur’an completely. I see how my own life would have been much smoother with my relatives if I hadn’t converted to Islam. The Prophet Muhammad had already lost his father, mother, and guardian grandfather. Why wouldn’t he want to please and protect the only family he had left, his beloved uncle, and adhere to polytheism? Why wouldn’t he have wanted to simply retire comfortably in Meccan society as a prosperous husband, good father, and prominent member of the community?
The fact is that the Prophet Muhammad was a hard-working, brilliant, courageous, and spiritually profound man who gave everything he had in this life to argue the faith of Islam amid tremendous opposition, sacrificing his wealth, his family, his health, and his personal comfort. His only purpose was to convince anyone who would listen to worship one God, not himself. In less time than most people spend getting a basic education, he engineered the first welfare system in the world, installed a national health policy of cleanliness, good diet, and preventative care that is still valid today; he abolished slavery, eliminated female infanticide, and gender discrimination in family life and inheritance, overthrew racism, inclined millions upon millions of potent, passionate people towards sexual conservatism, and he convinced entire nations and generations after them to abstain from alcohol. What is more, he is personally responsible for the fact that over a billion people around the world pray daily in constant remembrance of one God. With painstaking precision, he related a divine message, some of which-the scientific truths-meant no sense to anyone at the time. The Prophet was competent in all fields of existence and achieved more than anyone who has ever lived. What is more, his accomplishments are historical facts easily substantiated by any person with the inclination to read, in any library around the world. Thus we can understand why Muslims embrace the Prophet Muhammad so completely-because his life has been and will always be the light which makes the path to what is right more visible and more achievable.
Kathleen St.Onge is the author of Bridge to Light: Spiritual Wayfaring Towards Islam.