Chapter 1: Muhammad's Cultural Context

1.1 Broadmindedness

In the pre-Islamic Arab peninsula the elemental principle of survival was loyalty to the clan - without any regard whatever to their being in the right or not. This aspect of clan membership - of paramount importance at a time when Arab clansmen roamed the isolated terrain intent on primeval plunder - was extended to allies with whom treaties of mutual protection had been established.

Thus, when Makkan clans jointly determined to assassinate the Prophet Muhammad' they designated a member of his own Hashemite clan to commit the heinous act on their joint behalf in order to forestall revenge attacks by his clan and its allies.

Nationalism and racism were also deeply rooted in pre-Islamic Arab society. No one could have envisaged a time in which non-Arabs would hold positions of status. It was inconceivable that a non-Arab, black or white, would ever be considered the equal of an Arab.

It was within this setting that the Prophet proclaimed the Islamic Principle of Equality - that all of humanity is equal and all are entitled to equal rights - regardless of race, background or tribal extraction. Astoundingly, shortly after he had done this, the first line of worshippers in congregational prayers - that included Persians like Salman, Roman slaves like Suhaib and black Abyssinians like Bilal - stood shoulder to shoulder with the most distinguished members of the Quraish tribe.

In one famous Hadith, the Prophet is reported to have said, 'All of humanity are as equal as the teeth of a comb.' Although today this doctrine may appear to be accepted, in those times it was regarded as a bizarre, revolutionary concept. So, what we refer to today as 'Human Rights' were in reality established 14 centuries ago - when Divine Will revealed the principle of equality to the Prophet Muhammad.

It was the broadmindedness of the Prophet's teachings that gave impetus to Islam and its principles being spread throughout the world. Compliance with equality and justice is a core value of Islam, even in dealings with those who have treated us, our family or other Muslims unjustly.

Allah tells us in the Qur’an:

Ill-feeling towards others should never cause you to behave unfairly. Act justly, for that is closer to piety. (5:8)

Ill-feelings towards those who barred you from entering the sacred mosque are not valid grounds for unjust behavior. (5:2)

It is recorded that once, while the Prophet Muhammad (S) sat with his companions, a funeral cortege passed by and he stood up out of respect. A companion remarked that this was only the funeral of a Jew, implying that that was far too unimportant for the Prophet's attention. He challenged this by asking, 'Was he then not also a human being?'

Myriad examples of Islamic broadmindedness are recorded in historical reports. Here are some examples:

Regarding justice, fairness and impartiality

When a Jewish person sued Imam Ali (a.s.) - then the Caliph - over a shield that the plaintiff claimed was his, the judge - who addressed the defendant by his title and the plaintiff by name - was criticized by the Imam for not being impartial.

Regarding openness to criticism

People confronted by a diversity of views often hold resolutely to their own opinions and are loath to accept criticism, or the validity of contrary views. Despite Islam teaching that only the Prophet and his error - free progeny are protected from error in their decisions and behavior, Imam Zayn al-‘Abidin (a.s.) declared, 'May Allah be merciful to those who make me aware of my shortcomings.' The Imam here emphasizes the need for people not to be irate when their opinions are contradicted or their faults exposed, but rather to be grateful to those who afford them the opportunity to improve.

Regarding forbearance and patience

In Surah 18 (the Cave), Allah relates the dialogue between the Prophet Musa (a.s.) and the person traditionally referred to as Khidr - who is renowned for his Divine gift of great wisdom. Musa asks permission to accompany Khidr to draw benefit from his wisdom. Before agreeing, Khidr warns Musa that his patience and forbearance are not adequate to comprehend Khidr's actions. So Musa (a.s.) promises to remain silent until Khidr has explained his actions.

On their journey together, Khidr smashes a hole in a boat's hull, murders a young man and rebuilds a wall without request or payment. Musa finds these actions inexplicable and unacceptable and on each occasion criticizes Khidr - who responds by saying, 'I warned you that you would not have the patience and forbearing to understand.'

In his later explanation, Khidr reveals that he had damaged a poor family's boat in order to prevent it being pillaged by an approaching tyrant; that the murdered boy was depraved and about to bring about the ruin of his parents; and that the wall he rebuilt was owned by two orphans whose parents had secreted their inheritance under it. He ended by saying, 'This is the interpretation of my actions that you were not patient enough to accept.'

This story is an illustration of the need to remain patient, regardless of how bizarre life's occurrences may occasionally appear to be.

Regarding considered decisions being better than hasty ones People's immediate responses reflect what they see as being of benefit or disadvantage to themselves. However, Islam teaches that decisions should not be made prior to considered reflection on the long-term benefit and/or disadvantage of situations. Indeed, Allah tells us in the Qur’an:

You may dislike a thing that is beneficial and love a thing that is potentially harmful. (2:216)

You may dislike something that Allah has endowed with abundant benefits. (4:19)

Regarding remaining receptive to a variety of opinions

To arrive at safe and sound conclusions in their inferences of rulings from Islamic sources, Muslim jurists employ rigorous intellectual analysis of the variety of relevant issues that need to be considered. While unstinting in their effort to seek out and examine the widest variety of possible opinion prior to issuing a ruling, they always leave room for the possibility of further opinions being considered later.

When a jurist relies on an unequivocal text, he/she presents the ruling as a 'fatwa' or independent binding opinion. However, when a text is equivocal or ambiguous, or if more than one potential interpretation of the facts is perceived, in place of a fatwa, jurists who follow Ahl al-Bayt traditionally issue a statement that underlines that their recommendation is to be followed as 'an obligatory precaution'. This, by definition, means that one may either accept their opinion or refer to the next most learned jurist for one.

There is no overarching central authority that issues 'diktats' for Muslims to adhere to. Everyone is free to consult the 'learned counsel' of their choice to resolve questions regarding rulings of Shariah, vis-a-vis their daily lives, or to pass judgements in their disputes.

Another sign of his broadmindedness is observed in the advice the Prophet gave regarding seeking the advice of those who are knowledgeable - regardless of their being believers or not.

Imam Ali (a.s.) said, “With the same relentlessness with which a person searches for a precious item they've lost, a believer's search for wisdom even includes consulting those without faith”1.

As the above examples clarify, broadmindedness was, indeed, an essential characteristic of the Prophet Muhammad's (S) personality.

1.2 Emphasis on the doing of good and the condemnation of evil

One of the most important teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (S) is his emphasis on it being the duty of every Muslim to work towards the establishment of a moral environment. In numerous ayat in the Qur’an, Allah counsels believers that it is their moral responsibility to enjoin that which is good and to condemn all things that are evil:

And there should be among you a group who call [humanity] to virtue, who enjoin good and condemn evil; it is they who will prosper. (Qur’an 3:104)

All nations are equal in the eyes of the Creator. Not one is superior to any other, except in its moral standards:

The best nations are those that believe in Allah, enjoin good and condemn evil. (Refer to: (Qur’an 3:110)

Asharite belief is that the human intellect is not able to distinguish between good and evil - in the absence of Sharia rulings. In contrast, Imamiyah and Mutazilite belief is that common values are shared by everyone who is of sound mind (regardless of their religious faith) and that this commonality is rooted in humanity's innate instincts - fitrah. Honesty, charity, fairness, truthfulness, modesty and all other moral values are commonly accepted as desirable, while dishonesty, greed, arrogance, deception and all other vices are commonly accepted as being undesirable qualities.

These teachings are clearly part of the Prophet Muhammad's (S) personality and attitudes, for in addition to preaching them, he exemplified and implemented them during his lifetime. The following narrations evidence his emphasis to enjoin good and condemn evil:

1. The Prophet said, 'My nation shall live in prosperity while they enjoin good, do not tolerate bad behavior and cooperate with one another in good works. When they abandon these, Allah's blessings will be withdrawn and some [i.e. tyrants] will overcome them so that they suffer without relief or refuge on this earth.'2

2. Imam Ali (a.s.) said, 'Always adopt the practice of virtue and enjoin others to do so too - and take care to practice what you yourself preach3.'

The Qur’anic term for a good deed is hasanah and for an evil deed sayyi'ah. Whilst the former may be committed by both humankind and Allah, the latter are only committed by human beings. He tells us in the Qur’an:

Whatever good befalls you is from Allah while all the ill that befalls you is from yourself. (4:79)

In order to encourage humanity to do good and avoid evil, Allah promises to multiply good deeds by a factor of ten but to consider each evil action only as a single unit. For, He tells us in the Qur’an:

While those who present a virtue will receive a tenfold reward, those who present a vice will only be accountable for a single act. (6:160)

Another Qur’anic term related to this subject is ihsan - derived from the word husn - the quality of being good and beautiful. Ihsan is referred to in the following ayat:

1. Indeed Allah enjoins justice and kindness and generosity to one's relatives, but He forbids indecency, wrong doing and aggression. (Qur’an 16:90)

2. Can the response to goodness be anything other than goodness? (Qur’an 55:60)

3. Allah's mercy is close for those who do good. (Qur’an 7:56)

See also Qur’an 2:195; 28:77; 4:36.

1.3 Mercy as the basis of all action

Allah tells us in the Qur’an that:

The Prophet Muhammad (S) was sent as a mercy to humanity. (21:107)

Many ayat of the Qur’an combine guidance and mercy to underline that both mercy and kindness are necessary to ‘guide people to the right path’. See, for example, Qur’an 6:157; 7:52; 7:154; 7:203; 10:57; 12:111; 16:64; 16:89; etc.

Allah's mercy encompasses all things. (Qur’an 40:7)

The Qur’an is itself a remedy and a mercy. (Qur’an 17:82)

Marriage is considered a source of tranquility, love and mercy. (Qur’an 30:21)

Allah is The Most Merciful. (Qur’an 7:151; 12:92; 23:109)

All but one Surah of the Qur’an commence with:

'In the name of Allah the Beneficent the Most Merciful'.

Affection and kindness between people is a sign of Allah's mercy to His creatures. According to one Prophetic Hadith, Allah Almighty created 100 different categories of mercy - each one as wide as the distance between the heaven and the earth. Only one of that hundred lies at the root of motherly kindness; the facility creatures have to find water; and the ability of humans to live in harmony and peace4.

When Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a.s.) was told that Al-Hasan Al-Basri had said: One should not be surprised at the numbers who perish, nor how they perished - but rather by the numbers who survive and how they survived.

The Imam commented: “One should not be surprised by the vast numbers who attained salvation, but rather by why the whole of humanity does not.”5

In order to receive Allah's Mercy on 'The Day of Judgement', the Prophet Muhammad (S) advised his followers to be kind to their fellow human beings:

The Prophet (S) said:

Those who are not merciful will not receive mercy.6

Those who are not merciful while on this earth will not receive mercy in heaven.7

Allah is the All Merciful and loves those who are kind.8

Convey mercy to three groups of people - those of distinction who have been humiliated; those who were rich but have lost their wealth; and scholars who live amongst the ignorant.9

Imam Ali (a.s.) said, 'Be kind to those in inferior positions to you, and the One who is above you will show kindness to you.'

As mercy is the basis of desirable behavior, violence and hatred are rejected by Islam. And Islam teaches that merciful treatment is to be directed to all of Allah's creation - not only to human beings.

Comparison between teachers who treat their students with kindness and those who treat them with indifference or contempt illustrates that kindness leads to improvement in learning and achievement. Similar effects may also be observed in the plants of gardeners, who tend them lovingly, compared to those for whom gardening is merely a chore; and the recovery rates of patients who are nursed with loving care.

So, we are in no doubt that we always need to remain merciful.

1.4 Education

Education is the distinctive activity that enables human beings to fulfill their mental and social potential. It is through this process of social normalization that humanity is endowed with its character. While individual biological characteristics, such as hair, eye color and physical features, are inherited, the mental and social constituents of personality are acquired through education. It is the only process by which maturity and improved spiritual, material and social character may be achieved. The objectives of education then are:

1. To inculcate individual discipline.

2. To promote social trends beneficial to society.

3. To encourage a broadminded approach to the search for knowledge.

4. To promote comprehension of the philosophy of life.

5. To promote commitment to the development of society.

6. To promote and develop individual artistic talent.

7. To promote rigorous research methodologies.

8. To enhance spiritual development and purification of the soul.

9. To promote professional development and competence.

10. To programme for academic, intellectual and economic progress.

The faith of Islam emphasizes the significance of knowledge and accords the highest social status to those who are learned. In the illiterate society of the Arabian Peninsula, bereft of educational structure or centers of excellence, the Prophet Muhammad encouraged everyone to seek knowledge.

Allah tells us in the Qur’an:

Allah will elevate to high status - those who have faith and those who have been given knowledge. (58:11)

Many ahadith refer to the significance of knowledge. The Prophet said:

The merit of a scholar, compared to that of a worshipper, is like a full moon compared to a tiny star.10

Scholars are the successors of the prophets.11

The most valuable people are those who are the most knowledgeable, and the least valuable, those who have the least knowledge.12

Those who leave home to seek knowledge in order to support truth or to remove confusion from the public's minds, will gain the reward of having worshipped for 40 years.13

Imam Ali (a.s.) is reported to have told his companion:

O Kumayl, knowledge is better than wealth because knowledge safe­guards you, while it is you who has to safeguard wealth. In addition, while knowledge is increased and deepened in being disseminated, wealth dwindles in being distributed.14

It is incumbent upon all Muslims to seek knowledge.15

Angels spread their wings for those who seek knowledge and plead for their forgiveness.16

The best charity is to teach what one has learned.17

It is the responsibility of the scholar to clarify and to guide.18

In the search for knowledge one should be prepared to travel as far abroad as China.19

At the time of the Prophet .even the many months-long journey to the distant centres of knowledge in China was considered to be worthwhile. The Prophet encouraged everyone to seek knowledge - from the cradle to the grave - for education and the pursuit of knowledge are not limited by time or distance.

1.5 Focus on the 'eternal' rather than the 'temporary'

Those who consider this life to be the sole manifestation of existence are surely short-sighted, for all Divine messages emphasize that this life is but one small step towards the eternal.

It was extremely difficult to uproot the materialistic attitudes of the Arabian Peninsula and convince people of the significance of the hereafter. Most of the Prophet's time in Makkah was spent promoting awareness of the life to come. For without any perception of the eternal existence of God, it is difficult to talk about eternal life.

Essential qualities of the 'eternal' are:

1. By definition, the eternal is self-existent - it has no beginning, because if we were to suppose it had a beginning, we would have to acknowledge that it had been non-existent before that beginning.

2. By the same token, the eternal has no end and is understood to be everlasting.

3. That which is eternal also has to be self-sufficient - for it cannot be in need of anything.

4. Thus, the eternal can be neither compound nor mixture.

5. That which is eternal cannot by definition be subject to change.

The above points may be summarized as follows:

A timeless God does not remember or forget; has neither future nor past; does not change; and there can be no temporal gap between His forming a plan and its execution.

Having explained the concept of an 'Eternal Creator', we now examine the concept of 'eternal life'.

The question is: have we been created for a temporary existence in this world - or for a more all-embracing existence? To quote Imam Ali's (a.s.) advice to his son:

O my son, know that you have been created for the next world and not for this are in a place that does not belong to you - a house in which to prepare for your passage to the next world.20

In a sermon Imam Ali (a.s.) describes the movement of the whole of humanity towards the hereafter, saying:

Oh people, this world is a passage but the next world is a place of permanent abode. So take all that you can in your passage to your permanent abode … here you have been put on trial, for you've been created for the next world.21

It is clear that Islamic teaching emphasizes the significance of eternal life and considers the materialistic world to be nothing other than a bridge over which to pass to arrive at the 'other side'.

All evil is the consequence of desires for the things of this world. On the other hand, focus on the eternal and preparation for it is the quality that leads to righteous behavior.

Although it is not possible to make comparison between that which is 'limited' and that which is 'eternal', Allah does tell us in the Qur’an that a single day in the life that is to come is equivalent to 50,000 years of life on this earth ...22

The Qur’an provides 76 references to 'eternal life', both for those who are to benefit from its endless bounty and bliss, and for those who are to face endless unpleasantness and grief.

Not only does focus on 'eternal life' broaden our perspective on the purpose of life, it also extends our ability to understand how to behave in order to ensure that we meet our objective.

No single act - good or evil - is missed, for all are 'bricks' for the construction of the life to come and contribute to the promised bliss or chastisement that we are warned about.

  • 1. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 78, p.34.
  • 2. Tahzeeb al-Abkam, Vol. 2, p.58.
  • 3. Ghurar al-Hikam, p.569.
  • 4. Ref. Kanz al-Ummal, Tradition 10407.
  • 5. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 78, p.153.
  • 6. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 82, p.76; Kanz al-Ummal, Tradition 5971.
  • 7. Kanz al-Ummal, Tradition 5972.
  • 8. Kanz al-Ummal, Tradition 10381.
  • 9. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 74, p.405.
  • 10. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 1, p.164.
  • 11. Al-Kafi, Vol. 1, p.32; Sunan abu Dawud, Vol.2, p.285.
  • 12. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol.1, p.164.
  • 13. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol.1, p.182; Kanz al-Ummal, Tradition 28835.
  • 14. Nahjul Balaghahh, Maxim 147.
  • 15. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol.1, p.177.
  • 16. Kanz al-Ummal, Tradition 28745.
  • 17. Bihar al-Anwar , Vol. 2, p.25.
  • 18. Nahjul Balaghahh, Sermon 3.
  • 19. Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 1, p.180.
  • 20. Nahjul Balaghahh, Letter No.31.
  • 21. Nahjul Balaghahh, Sermon 203.
  • 22. See Qur’an 70:4.