By: Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans
ALIM Core Scholar and Scholar-in-Residence
I have always maintained that our context makes a full embrace of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) difficult. Within our sacred history, Jesus Christ of Nazareth (upon him and his blessed mother be peace) is the direct predecessor of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace). Relative chronological proximity as well as being the central religious figures of the two largest religious communities in the world have linked inextricably the Christ and the Prophet (upon them be peace).
When prophethood is understood as a continuous process, beginning with Adam and culminating in the Prophet, the differences between the various Prophets of God (upon them be peace) are appreciated as alternations in form but not essence. In fact, speaking of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad (upon them be peace), their lives and respective ministries, offer the perfect complement to one another. But where the wise see connection and harmony, those with less expansive understandings see contradiction and sometimes (due to being chronologically later) attribute inauthenticity to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Thus, the Prophet has been misunderstood among many Americans. In my estimation, this is not because any single aspect of his life is demonstrably out of favor among modern Americans. Rather, the towering influence of Jesus (pbuh) has so effectively colored the religious and social imaginary of Europe—and by extension America—that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is mostly judged as an ersatz Jesus (pbuh). There is certainly a better way to understand the Prophet (pbuh). Whenever the Prophet (pbuh) is evaluated and understood on his own merit, our neighbors of other faiths (or no faith at all) find greater appreciation for his life and teachings.
Christians and Muslims are fundamentally divided on the question of the divinity of Christ (pbuh). Muslims also differ from Christians in that we maintain that God delivered His Messiah when his adversaries sought to execute him. However, those foundational differences notwithstanding, there is remarkable consistency in the manner in which the life of Jesus (pbuh) is covered in Christian and Islamic sources.
Conceived without a male progenitor; the Christ miraculously spoke from the cradle. He subsequently grew into a Prophet; preaching the word of God, calling people to submission, and performing miracles. Islamic scripture affirms that Christ (pbuh) cured those afflicted with leprosy, gave sight to the blind, and resurrected the dead. Additionally, Islamic scripture mentions miracles performed by Christ that don’t find mention in the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). It is mentioned that Jesus fashioned a bird out of clay and unto it breathed life and that Jesus was able to miraculously inform the Israelites of what they used to warehouse of their foodstuffs and produce.
If there was an overarching theme to be assigned to the life of Jesus (pbuh) it would be that of an itinerant preacher. He assiduously preached God’s word and served as a living embodiment of the fruits of the spirit. Worldly matters, on the other hand, were either addressed obliquely or remained completely outside the focus of his mission. Observe the contrast here. Many contemporary thinkers have (often unfairly) questioned why Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) limited his activity to be providing legal and spiritual incentives for removing people from enslavement and legislating humane and kind treatment to people in bondage—but without summarily abolishing the practice. However, very little scrutiny is directed to the Biblical treatment of the life of Christ in this regard. Jesus (pbuh) must’ve witnessed Roman slavery—one of the harshest iterations of the institution of human bondage in recorded history. And in spite of there being no recorded attempt from Christ to interdict or legislate the practice, history in no way associates Christ (pbuh) with condoning slavery. This example highlights the manner in which the religious message of Jesus has come to be seen as something completely distinct from the mundane historical context in which he lived. Conversely, the life and ministry of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) have been thoroughly historicized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The substance of his religious message is observed through the prism of the world in which he lived: we see his Prophetic (pbuh) teaching vis-à-vis 7th century Arabian attitudes concerning family (tribalism/patriarchy/female infanticide), commerce, politics, warfare, culture, etc. Whether one believes him to have been divinely inspired or not (and I thank God I do), his example can certainly be said to represent an ideal of God-conscious living in the world. As Muslims, we should appreciate this immensely. The Prophetic ideal being one that is deeply ensconced in the world offers us the ability to live righteously and fully. I fear that the alternative is a kind of schizophrenic religious ideal that might frustrate earnest attempts to lead a God-conscious life.
On a number of occasions I’ve conversed with Christian brothers and sisters who express strong misgivings about the legacy of the Prophet as regards martial combat. They offer by way of comparison that Jesus was the “Prince of Peace” and laud his pacifism. However, the same parties—on one occasion, even in the same conversation—might refer to relatives who served in the US Armed Forces with great deference and honor. Similarly, it would not be an exaggeration to say I’ve heard commentators deride our Prophet as a sensualist (on account of his plural marriages) only to turn around and celebrate a contemporary landscape of sex positivity and repudiation of shame around the idea of intimacy.
I’ve even heard the Prophet (pbuh) disrespectfully addressed as a “warlord.” This disgraceful attribution is supposed to call into question the sincerity of his (pbuh) religious ideals; suggesting instead that his concern was not the life of the spirit but rather the real world of politics and power. And yet we all understand politics and statecraft to be indispensable aspects of life.
This points to an important question: Can the modern West evaluate the legacy of the Prophet (pbuh) on the basis on its own merit? Or will the richness of his teaching continued to be neglected on account of the fact that he was given a mission different than that of his brother in prophethood, Jesus Christ (pbuh)?