Dr. Michael H. Hart, in his now famous book, called The Hundred – A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, has held the Prophet Muhammad to be the most supremely successful man in history. But if the Prophet occupies this top-ranking position, it is not as a hero although he had many heroic qualities – but as a guide to humanity. Throughout his life, not only was he a supremely successful person himself, but he also stood out as a superb model for others to imitate. It is this aspect of his seerah, or biography, which is outlined in this paper.
Beginning with the Possible
At the time that the Prophet came to the world, Arabia was racked by a multiplicity of problems. The Roman and Sassanid empires had made political inroads into Arabia; society was beset by evils such as usury, adultery, excessive drinking and senseless bloodshed; there still stood in the Kabah no less than 360 idols.
It is significant that the first commandment in the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet was not about purifying the Kabah of idols, or waging war on the Persians and Byzantines, or punishing criminals and wrongdoers according to the Shariah. On the contrary, the first commandment was concerned with reading, that is, with education. This is a clear indication that the proper starting point for Islamic activism must remain within the realm of the possible. At the time of the Prophet's advent, the prevailing circumstances in Arabia did demand the purification of the mosque, political stability and the imposition of Shariah law, yet, in spite of all the urgency for and desirability of such steps, they were in practice, impossible to implement. On the other hand, a beginning made on, the basis of dawah, coupled with education, was conceivably within reach. The Prophet divinely inspired as he was, made a point, therefore, of shunning the impossible in favour of the possible, whenever he engaged himself in Islamic activism. There is a saying in English which goes: "Politics is the art of the possible". The way of the Prophet was also to begin from the possible.
Ease in Difficulty
When Prophet of Islam and his early companions began communicating the message of monotheism in Mecca, it seemed that Meccan soil would yield up little to Islam except problems and difficulties. At that point in time a verse of the Qur'an was revealed which offered consolation and guidance. It said, "Every hardship is followed by ease. Every hardship is followed by ease." (94:5) It was because the Prophet was inspired by this belief that he was able to define and pursue a course of action which would ensure success. This was a very important aspect of the Prophet's approach to any difficult situation. The fact of his success proves, moreover, that God never intended this world to be one of endless difficulties – with never a solution in sight. It was the will of the Almighty that all difficulties should be resolvable; alongside apparent disadvantages which were also a part of the divine scheme. It was just a question of human beings having the confidence to acknowledge this fact, and then to seek out appropriate solutions.
One instance of ease counterbalancing difficulty was the existence of believers alongside unbelievers, two notable examples being Umar and Abu Jahal, who both lived in Mecca in the early days. Then even if it was impossible at that time to cleanse Kabah of idols, it was still quite possible to convince people that the worship of these false gods was an evil. Seen in this light, the difficulties faced by the believers in the first phase of Islam were, in fact, challenges which awakened Muslim potential, ultimately transforming each Muslim – in the word of Margolith – ¬into a hero.
This aspect of recorded life of the Prophet shows that whenever believers find themselves in a quandary they should feel convinced from the very outset that, side by side with their problems, opportunities for their resolution do exist. Instead of lamenting over difficulties as if they were insuperable they must set about grasping such opportunities as will set them on the path to progress.
Emigration: Changing the Place of Action
In the early days of the Prophet's mission in Mecca his activities aroused such antagonism that his opponents made the ruthless decision to eliminate him. At that juncture, the Prophet chose to avoid confrontation by quietly leaving Mecca for Madina. It is this journey which is known as the hijrah, or emigration.
The Prophet's emigration, or self-exile, was a matter of strategy rather than an unwilling departure from his home town. He made this move advisedly in order to change the place of action. When he found Mecca an unfavourable place for his activities, he chose Madina as the new centre from which to continue his mission.
From this the principle was established that if believers found their environment so hostile that any continuance of their activities could lead to martyrdom at the hands of their enemies, it was quite proper for them to avoid direct confrontation and to move to a more suitable place for missionary action. Such a manoeuvre guaranteed keeping their mission alive, and also held out the possibility of eventually bringing Mecca within the fold.
Having Trust in Human Nature
The Prophet of Islam and his companions were repeatedly subjected to acts of antagonism by the unbelievers. They had to listen to provocative language, they had all kinds of obstacles placed in their path and they were even pelted with stones. At that time the Qur'an enjoined upon them the return of good for evil. And then, as the Qur'an added encouragingly, 'you will see your direct enemy has become your dearest friend'. (41:34)
From this injunction the important truth may be inferred that no matter how hostile a man may appear, he has, nevertheless, a nature which is God-given, and truth¬ loving. It is as if beneath the outer surface of his antagonism there lies a hidden friend. If one is a dayee, that is, a genuine exponent of truth, one may feel reassured at all times that one's dawah, or mission, will strike a chord in the heart of one's listener.
The surest way to uncover this favourable aspect of an ill-disposed person is to return good behaviour for bad behaviour. Our own continuing good behaviour will rub off the veneer of hostility so that the friendly inner core may stand revealed. It is a matter of historical record that in the first phase of Islam, tens of thousands of people entered its fold because they were encouraged to do so by dai’s acting on this principle. For example, there was an idolater who, on finding the Prophet alone, drew his sword to kill him, but he was so overawed by the Prophet's unflinching courage in the face of his threat, that the sword dropped from his hand. Then it was the Prophet's turn to retaliate. But instead of retaliating, the Prophet forgave him. His would-be assailant was so highly impressed by his extraordinary character, that he immediately accepted Islam.
THE POWER OF PEACE
An important lesson to be derived from the Prophet's life is that the power of peace is stronger than the power of violence. The power the Prophet made use of more than any other in his whole life was that of peace. For instance, when Mecca was conquered, all his direct opponents who had tortured him, expelled him from his home town, launched military onslaughts against him, and inflicted all sorts of harm on him and his companions, were now brought before him. These people were undeniably war criminals and as such, could expect to be put to death by the victor, that being the common practice at that time. Yet the Prophet did not utter so much as a word of blame. He simply said, "Go, you are all free."
This sublime gesture to men who stood on the threshold of the grave, demonstrated the superiority of peace over violence. The result of the Prophet’s elevated moral behavior was their immediate acceptance of Islam.
The Third Option
In the last days of the Prophet, a battle called Ghazwa Mu'tah took place between Muslims and Romans in the region, now known as Jordan. In a matter of days, twelve of the companions were martyred. At that point, Khalid Ibn Walid, who had just been appointed commander of the Muslim army, was advised that the Romans numbered two hundred thousand, while the Muslims numbered a mere three thousand. Considering this huge difference in numbers an insurmountable obstacle to Muslim victory, he decided to withdraw his forces from the battlefield.
When he and his men reached Madina, some of the Madinan Muslims gave them a humiliating reception by calling out to them as 'O deserters!' The Prophet thereupon said, "They are not deserters but - Insha Allah - action takers."
There was a kind of flawed dichotomy in the thinking of those Medinan Muslims. In their view, there were but two options: one was to fight the enemy courageously, and the other was to beat an ignominious retreat. Since they thought that the Muslim army should have stayed with the first option, even if it meant that each and every one of them was martyred in the process.
On this occasion, the Prophet of Islam pointed to the existence of a third option. And that was to remove themselves from the field of action to a place where, undisturbed by war, they could build up their strength and prepare intensively for a more effective campaign at a later date. The return of Khalid ibn Walid from Muta was not as such, a retreat, but rather adherence to this third option. History tells us, in fact, that the Muslims after 3 years of such preparation, went back under the command of Usamah ibn Zayd to the Roman borders and where they won a resounding victory.
A change in the Field of Action
When the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, the Meccan leaders, still not content, launched an all-out offensive against him. Several military engagements ensued without their being a decisive victory in sight. Ultimately, the Prophet entered into a pact with the Meccans at Hudaybiyyah. This, in effect, was a 10-year peace treaty which permitted the Prophet to change the arena of action and to look forward to a long and undisturbed period of missionary activity. Till then, the meeting ground between Muslims and non-Muslims had been on the battlefield. Now the area of conflict became that of ideological debate. Very soon after this agreement was signed, the one-time enemies began interacting with each other on a large scale. During this period of interaction, the ideological superiority of the Muslims so asserted itself that large numbers of their former enemies began to enter the fold of Islam. In this way, the number of Muslims continuously increased, with a corresponding decrease in the numbers of non-Muslims. Ultimately the Muslims came to occupy a dominating position-without doing battle-solely on the strength of their greater numbers.
The success, in this instance, of the Prophet's methods lends conviction to the view that if the believers are repeatedly thwarted in bringing their missionary struggle to fruition, it is only proper that their efforts should be re¬deployed in some other field of action where more positive results may be expected.
The Principle of Gradualism
According to a tradition related by Aishah, and recorded in the writings of Bukhari, when Qur'anic revelations began, the first verses to be communicated were those which mentioned hell and heaven. It was not until fifteen years later, when people's hearts had softened, that specific commands to desist from adultery and drinking were revealed in the Qur'an. Aisha makes the point that if these commands had been revealed in the beginning, the Arabs would have stoutly refused to give up either adultery or drinking.
This shows that the Islamic Shariah was built up on the principle of gradualism. People's hearts had first of all to be touched, then their willingness to conform had to become apparent, and only then were the pronouncements of the shariah to be put into practice.
Implementing the shariah does not mean using the whip or the gun. No good would ever come of such an imposition particularly on an unprepared society and would certainly not be in keeping with the methods favoured by the Prophet. No success can ever, in fact, be achieved by flouting his words of wisdom.
Pragmatism Instead of Idealism
In the Prophet's view, idealism was something to be striven for with reference to one's own thoughts and conduct, but he nevertheless felt that in one's dealings with others one had to resort, to pragmatism. This was an important principle evolved by the Prophet, and his entire life serves as an illustration of it.
There was a notable instance of his using this approach when the Peace Treaty between the Muslims and the Quraysh was being drawn up. When the Prophet dictated these words: "This is from Muhammad, the Messenger of God," the Qurayshi delegate raised the objection that they did not believe in his prophethood, and demanded that the wording should be changed from Muhammad, the Messenger of God, to Muhammad, the son of Abdullah. The Prophet realized that if he insisted upon retaining the words, 'Messenger of God.' the peace treaty might never be finalized. So he had the words 'Messenger of God' deleted, and in their place was written simply 'Muhammad, son of Abdullah.'
The great success achieved by the Prophet in Arabia owes much to this method of dealing with delicate situations. There are innumerable people in this world and everyone enjoys freedom. That is why no great success can be achieved here without adopting the ways of pragmatism.
The Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, was undoubtedly a highly successful man. However, this extraordinary success was achieved through following certain high principles. I have attempted to deal here briefly with only some of these principles.