Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reading the Road to Prophethood

Another prophetic road, to Prophet Job's village in Jordan.
IN the Jordanian desert north towards the Hijaz there is a Roman road. Brushed by the sand, its paving is in remarkable condition. But in Jordan, where there are hundreds of archaeological sites, an old road over a thousand years old is not that big a deal.

I was shown this bit of timeless master engineering en-route to ancient Bostra, where there is a Buttum tree under which a 12 year-old Muhammad (SAW) sat over 1,400 years ago. This was when he journeyed to Sham with a caravan led by Abu Talib, his uncle, and Bahira the monk recognised him as a prophet.  

The reason why I remember this road is because it where the Prophet (SAW) once walked. And whilst the Buttum tree is a surviving “Companion”, this road is one of the last physical vestiges there is of the Prophet’s (SAW) existence in our bleak Wahhabi epoch.

I have often thought of that road, now wandering into the sandy wastes of a forgotten trail. Metaphorically, it certainly has its message, but what I think it tells us is that the Prophet (SAW) had a life before Prophethood, and that this must have surely have influenced his later actions.

And whilst the Qur’an is resplendent with examples – provided by Qadi Iyad in his Ash Shifa’a – of the acute facilities prophets are born with, I’m convinced that their environments would have played a critical role in their make-up. A Prophet’s primary purpose is to deliver a message – and crucial to this task would be an understanding to whom they would have to deliver that message.

A personal criticism that I have of the mawl┼źd celebrations is that each year the Prophet (SAW) is dragged out of an abstract ether and re-created, often in a crude and fanciful form. What I mean is that there is never any context as to who exactly is Muhammad (SAW). 

Context is the key that unlocks history, not sentiment.

In the 21st century – which is a fragile era – idealised, one-dimensional prophetic caricatures can only serve the extremists and fuel the sceptics, such as Richard Dawkins, who snorts that we believe in a man who rode a winged horse.

Nonetheless, a question of context is: was it Prophethood, or was it just the message of the Qur’an that was brought down in Ramadan?  Was the Hira experience on the Mount of Light, then, the elevation of an already prophetic personality to that of a Messenger, the mantle moving from Ya Nabi to Ya Rasul?

Of course, it’s just a question. But I do feel that most conventional teaching so often ignores the early years – which is surely the context – the scene sitter, as it were, that raises the real questions of the Seerah, or Prophetic biography.

That is why this lonely Roman road in Jordan is so important to me. Every time I think of it, it helps me to understand for myself who the Prophet (SAW) really was. But before I get to it in further detail, there is also another road that must be mentioned.

This is the path to Madinah that the Prophet (SAW) took as a child with his mother, Aminah, to meet her Khazraj cousins. There the six year old boy learnt to swim and fly kites, showing the Prophet (SAW) at an early stage the value of play and leisure – and immediately raising the question as to why extremists hate kites.

Aminah, may Allah bless her, died en-route to Makkah after their visit, and was buried at Abwa. How many of us see her grave as a powerful, if not under-estimated, matriarchal symbol? The Prophet (SAW) might have been orphaned young, but already several women had been seminal influences in his life, his wet-nurse Halimah, his slave-girl Barakah, and his mother Aminah.

Not only would his orphanhood have imbued him with an understanding human vulnerability, it would have made him realise the value of compassion, qualities these women in his early years would have shown.

If one observes his monogamous 25 years with Khadijah, his first wife, and her influence as friend, lover, and counsellor (and was she not the first Muslim?) it becomes a travesty that so many contemporary scholars ignore the hugely significant “feminine side” of the Seerah. 
How could this have not influenced Muhammad (SAW), the Messenger?

But back to the Bostra road and the Makkan caravans. As part of these caravans, the young Prophet (SAW) would have learnt a lot about business; he would have learnt how to negotiate, how to handle money, how to deal with people, how to cope with contrasting cultures and how to understand the value of contracts – I’m convinced, for example, that these experiences informed his strategy on the Treaty of Hudaibiyya, which led to the conquest of Makkah.

Travel is the University of Life and as such, I resent the simplistic notion that the Prophet (SAW) was “illiterate”, a kind of autistic tabula rasa, a blank slate when he received the first Qur’anic revelation. The Prophet (SAW) was unlettered, yes, but he wasn’t “illiterate”. There is a huge difference.

The Prophet (SAW) understood the metaphor of language; in fact, he was master of dialect (yet another caravan influence?) and could speak to different tribes in their own idiom. This is certainly not the discourse of an “illiterate” man whose speech was described by Umm Ma’bad as a “string of pearls”.

My point is that life – the road – taught the Prophet what we would call “heart knowledge” and innate wisdom. For when the Angel Jibril came to him with the first verses of the Qur’an at the age of 40, he was already literate in terms of worldly matters. What the Qur’an did to him – an unlettered man in reading and writing, but not illiterate in experience, compassion, instinct and essential sagacity – was to give him the spirit of “iqra’”, the literacy of the universe.

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