Every year with the passing of the month of Rabi’ al-Awwal I am sure many of us are left thinking about a few things. This being the month in which the Prophet was born in 570, many Muslims throughout the world do something to remember, honour and celebrate his life. How we do this differs of course. Some increase sending salutations to the Prophet. Others also attend events like a Mawlid or sirah (biography) conference. Yet others read articles, watch educational clips on YouTube about the Prophet etc. Some remain completely oblivious, too. In all of this, we might get a glimpse into why the Prophet consistently comes at the top of any surveys of the most influential people to have braced the Earth.[i] But, just as populist distractions grip Muslim masses on lots of matters, too often, it seems, the idea that the Prophet was sent as a mercy becomes just another piece of information that doesn’t trigger deeper thoughts or actions.
The Prophet comes at the end of a long line of Prophets, a chain which started from Adam and includes Abraham, Noah, David, Moses, and Jesus, among others. They were chosen by God as message-bearers on Earth to guide human beings towards their well-being, virtue and righteousness and to enable them to carry out responsibilities laid upon them.
We know that God has given Prophets the ability to perform miracles of various forms to help convey their message. Many of these miracles are well-established not just in the Qur’ān but also in the Old and New Testaments. For instance, God gave Jesus the miracle of curing blindness and bringing the dead back to life among other miracles. Moses turned his rod into a snake[ii] and caused the sea to split. The Prophet Muhammad, too, had many miracles, the greatest of which was the Qur’ān itself – which, unlike perhaps the miracles of other Prophets, was auditory and preserved in time, consistent, if you like, with being the Prophet for all of time.
Whilst the Qur’ān is a literary miracle, at the same time, it conveys reality, story and meaning, from which a comprehensive spiritual paradigm, moral guidance, a place of solace, legal code and social, economic and political cosmos are brought into awareness. It is in this very Qur’ān that the Prophet Muhammad is described as a ‘mercy for all that exists/mankind.’[iii] Yet he was human and subject to physical conditions outwardly just as any other person. He suffered from fatigue, sickness, hunger, pleasure, and was afflicted with heat and bitter cold. Inwardly, though, he had spiritual-metaphysical qualities like, as he described, ‘My eyes sleep but my heart does not sleep.’[iv]
What perhaps distinguished him most was his character (shamail) as ‘the most beautiful example’;[v] details of which have come down to us in the Qur’ān as well as through corroborated reports and continuous practices of the Companions (Sunnah). They bespeak of his: justice, firmness, trustworthiness, sedateness, silence, excellent conduct, abstinence, fear of God and intensity of worship, integrity, modesty, probity in contracts and in maintaining kinship ties, compassion, good manner and good nature, courage and generosity, forbearance, intellect and sense of humour, and so on.
The word ‘mercy’ in Arabic is ‘rahmah’, which is derived from the root ra-ha-ma, which curiously, doesn’t mean ‘mercy’ but is the noun for the ‘womb of a pregnant mother.’ And so, importantly, ‘rahmah’ meaning ‘mercy’ is to be understood as complete protection, nourishment and unconditional care that we received while in our mother’s womb.
When we speak of the Prophet as a ‘mercy for all that exists/mankind,’ like many aspects of religion that have today become jingoistic or politicised, it is often the case that we say he is a ‘mercy’ without deeper contemplation and recognition of how or why that is. Most of us quite easily recognise and interchange the word ‘mercy’ with ‘compassion’ or ‘love,’ for example, in the sense that the Prophet was patient, kind, envied no one, never boasted, nor conceited, nor rude, never selfish, never one to take offence, and so on. But too often we stop here, and don’t look to see how ‘mercy’ has much greater meaning. As a result, we fail to benefit from Prophetic examples and wisdoms in a more fulfilling way.
For example, among the noble characteristics of the Prophet, is his character as Muhammad al-Amin (‘Muhammad the Trustworthy One’), which was a title he was widely known by even before receiving the first revelation. This was because what he said and did could be trusted; there was no pretence or disingenuous state or act involved; and despite the prevalence of idolatry he believed in One God and refrained from unpraiseworthy behaviours (backbiting, cheating etc.).
There are deep wisdoms in this. Trustworthiness is actually a function of ‘mercy.’ It is often not so much ‘what is being said’ that moves the human conscience but ‘who is saying it’ and ‘how it is said’. As human beings, we evaluate people’s trustworthiness – to be fair, just and well-intended. One is more receptive to a trusted friend than someone we dislike, has bad character or we perceive to harbour ill intentions or self-interest. By the same measure, when we evaluate trustworthiness, we need to be fair in order to be trustworthy ourselves.
Trustworthy also entails being straightforward, consistent, clear and meeting expectations that we set. And the Prophet emphasised these qualities in his teachings. For example, in him being ‘jawamiʿal kalim’: succinct in speech whilst still carrying the fullest meanings. For ambiguity is usually a cue for a lack of trustworthiness.
Much of the troubled world we live in bears the scars of a breakdown in trust between human beings and institutions. Whether it’s a breakdown in our families, communities, media, corporates, governments, processes, systems, or peoples, it seems, we cannot get away from the question of trustworthiness. By taking utmost attention to being trustworthy and building trust in processes, systems and interactions with others, we draw upon the sources of mercy that God has made implicit in creation. By doing so, we follow in the very footsteps of that unlettered, orphaned child, who God honoured as ‘mercy.’ Muhammad, the Trustworthy One, peace and blessings be upon him.