Theologically speaking, the universality of Muhammad's (peace and blessings be upon him) message comes from the concept of one God who is the God of all, not only of Muslims. God describes Himself in the first chapter of the Qur'an, which is recited by all Muslims during their five daily prayers, that He is the God of all creation, "Rabb al-Alamin." Being aware of this fact or not, God is the God of all humans, regardless of their differences. All parts of creation are created by God. The Qur'an suggests that a gigantic star and an atom are shoulder to shoulder worshipping the same God; a fly and an elephant are brothers and sisters; all of creation is here to help us understand the meaning and the mystery of the universe.
Before talking about the universality of Prophet Muhammad's message, it is essential to focus our attention on the era when Muhammad's message first emerged: fifteen hundred years ago, in pre-Islamic Arabia. Although there were some positive characteristics of Arabs before Islam, such as generosity, courage, and dignity, the feudal system used by society was extremely harsh: marginalized groups did not have any rights; slavery was rampant; women were sold like property; and female infants were often buried alive as a part of the tradition of tribal honor. Wars between tribes occurred without cessation. People worshipped idols and made their own gods according to their own desires.
In the midst of such chaos, Muhammad was born in 571 CE on the 12th day of the third month of the Arabic calendar, Rabi Al-Awwal. Today, according to the Arabic calendar, the 12th of Rabi Al-Awwal is the Prophet's birthday. As he came into adulthood, he was not satisfied with the tribal traditions of his society. He would often go into seclusion and meditate for a long time, particularly for the whole month of Ramadan.
In the year 610 CE, he experienced the first revelation. This would forever change him and it transformed the world. The revelations continued for twenty three years, and these make up the Holy Scripture of Islam; its name, the Qur'an, literally means recitation. While spreading this message, over a very short period of time and despite hostile reactions, the Prophet's kindness and tenderness impacted the hearts of many in the city of Mecca. He did not consider himself a deity or a part of God, but rather the messenger of God sent to convey God's message to his people.
The Qur'an speaks of many Prophets. There are also particular verses about Muhammad, peace be upon him. In one verse, the Qur'an speaks of him as Rahmatan li al-Alamin, the "mercy for all spheres." In order to understand the meaning of being merciful to creation, it is important to think of the oppression that was occurring in the world into which he was born and the transformation that his message made possible.
Arabs, due to geographic proximity, were the first group addressed by the Prophet's message; but the message was not supposed to be limited to just Arabs. In fact, it is not limited to any nation or group. Many Qur'anic verses transcend locality, region, ethnicity, and nationality, by starting with the call, "O human beings," or, "O people."
The Prophet's message brings the idea that everything in creation is a living, chanting, obedient worshipper of God, regardless of whether they are human, animal, or another organism. The Qur'anic verse which says, "Everything in the heavens and earth praises God," invites the reader to enter the world in which the Qur'an was revealed and see the darkness that dominated it. In Arabia, before the Prophet, the meaning of creatures was not recognized. The Qur'anic revelation breathed life into the world of nature and taught humans that creatures around us are not static and meaningless. Instead, all of them praise God with great joy through their own languages.
Going back in time in our imagination to see the situation in Arabia before and after Muhammad, peace be upon him, would be quite revealing to witness the remarkable transformation he was able to accomplish. One should keep in mind that to change a little vice, such as a bad habit, is difficult enough; changing the minds and the hearts of an entire society, as the Prophet did, is exponentially more difficult. He successfully transformed a wild society into a civilized community and shaped leaders for a new civilization.
If one would like to see the power of transformation that the Prophet made, one needs only to look at the second caliph, Umar, before Islam and after Islam. Umar himself said that he remembered two things from his pre-Islamic life: one, he would cry; and two, he would laugh. He cried that he buried his own daughter alive and he could still hear the voice of her calling to him. He laughed that he made gods of flour, and people ate them when they were hungry.
The new Umar became a symbol of justice for the world. Umar after Islam, during his caliphate, is known for his following statement: "If a wolf attacks a lamb at the shore of the Euphrates, I am afraid that God would ask me why I did not protect the lamb against the wolf." Out of compassion, he would walk among houses at night and he would anonymously provide food for needy people. It was the universal message of the Prophet that transformed Umar into a person of such immense compassion and humanity.
Mercy and compassion constitute the foundation of the Prophet's message. The first verse of the first chapter of the Qur'an indicates that God is "All-Merciful and the All-Compassionate." Another Qur'anic verse says, "Muhammad, We have sent you as a mercy for all creation" (21:10). Being merciful towards all creation, the Prophet's personal life has become a reflection of this Qur'anic verse. In his relationship with people, he always smiled and no one ever heard a bad word from his mouth. His companion, Anas ibn Malik, who faithfully served the Prophet for thirteen years, witnessed his mercy, saying that he was never reprimanded for his service, despite his mistakes.
The Prophet was also very sensitive towards human suffering. When he heard of a slave being tortured, he commanded one of his companions to buy that slave's freedom. His famous hadith about the treatment of slaves is a great example of his universal teaching. He said, "They are your brothers; give them to eat what you eat, and give them to wear what you wear." On one occasion, he asked Zaid bin Haritha, a slave freed by the Prophet, if he would like to go back to his family. Zaid chose not to return with his father, but instead preferred to stay with the Prophet.
The Prophet's farewell sermon on the plain of Arafat also has remarkable aspects of the universality of his message. In this sermon, he spoke about the rights of women, the relationship between races, and slaves. About slaves, he said, "Fear Allah with regard to your slaves." In fact, because of his message, just thirty years after his death, it became difficult to find a slave in Arabia. The Qur'anic verse clearly says, "O people, We have created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes to know one another. The best of you is the best in conduct" (49:13). He said that all humankind is from Adam and Eve: an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, and a non-Arab has no superiority over an Arab. Also, a white person has no superiority over a black person, and a black person has no superiority over a white person.
Furthermore, of women he said, "It is true that you have certain rights in regard to your women, but they also have rights over you." He successfully established a sense of responsibility and conscience in the minds and hearts of his people.
The Prophet's universal message of mercy did not include only human beings, but also animals. Among the miracles narrated in the hadith, there was the story of a camel that had gone wild and would attack whoever attempted to come near it. When the Prophet appeared, it came to him, prostrated itself as a sign of respect, and knelt beside him, so that he could put a bridle on it. Then the camel complained to the Prophet, "They have employed me in the heaviest work, and now they want to slaughter me."
Muhammad asked the camel's owner: "Is it true?"
"Yes," he said.
The Prophet said to his companions, "These animals are communities, just like you. Be compassionate towards them." Regarding someone who used his donkey for more than he needed, the Prophet said, "Don't make the backs of your animals chairs." On another occasion, the Prophet saw a donkey on the road with a brand on its face, and said, "God's curse is on him who branded it."
The Prophet's mercy even extended to his enemies; he never took revenge. It is reported in the hadith collection that at the battle of Ghatfan and Anmar, the courageous head of a tribe named the Ghuras slyly approached the Prophet. Holding his sword over the Prophet's head, he asked, "Who will save you from me?"
Muhammad replied, "God!" And he prayed, "O God, suffice me against him."
In the same breath, Ghuras was knocked down by a mysterious blow between his shoulders, and his sword slipped out of his hand. The Prophet took the sword and asked him, "Now who will save you from me?"
But the Prophet forgave him and allowed him to return to his tribe. His people were all surprised that such a courageous man could not do anything against the Prophet. They asked, "What happened to you? Why couldn't you do anything?" He told them what had happened, and added, "I am now coming from the presence of the best of men."
In a fashion similar to this event, at the battle of Badr, a hypocrite from among his own men likewise approached him. He had just lifted his sword when the Prophet turned and glanced at him, causing him to tremble and drop the sword. Once again, the Prophet did not take revenge.
As we can see, the Prophet exemplified the virtues of his message at all times and in all situations. I'd like to finish with a quotation that I think captures the essence of the Prophet and his message. It's from British Historian Edward Gibbon:
"Mohammed was distinguished by the beauty of his person, an outward gift which is seldom despised, except by those to whom it has been refused... They applauded his commanding presence, his majestic aspect, his piercing eye, his gracious smile, his flowing beard, his countenance which painted every sensation of his soul, and the gestures that enforced each expression of the tongue. In the familiar offices of life, he [meticulously] adhered to the grave and ceremonious politeness of his country; his memory was capacious and retentive, his wit easy and social, his imagination sublime, his judgment clear, rapid and decisive. He possessed the courage both of thought and action; ... [and] bears the stamp of an original and superior genius."
Zeki Saritoprak is a Professor of Islamic Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, OH.