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Making the Prophet’s Teachings Relevant Today

Learnings from Mutala-e-Seerat by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

A general perception that we have of the Prophet Muhammad is that his aim was to become a ruler over people by subjugating them under his political authority and coercing them into following his religion. This perception is a fallacy owing to incorrect portrayals of the Prophet in books written by Muslim biographers of the Prophet. In their Seerah, the Prophet is depicted as a warrior who would constantly be waging war at people, conquering their territories and forcing them into obedience. In his book Mutala-e-Seerat (A Study of the Prophet’s Life), Maulana Wahiduddin Khan explains that this image of the Prophet is not only factually untrue, but if this had been the case the very purpose of prophethood would have remained unfulfilled. The Quran describes the Prophet’s message as one that gives life to people by reviving the soul from darkness (8:24). Such spiritual enlightenment cannot be imparted by way of war and violence, rather it is kindled through sincere counsel delivered with compassion and feelings of well-wishing. This is an effort aimed at addressing the hearts and minds of people by awakening God-consciousness and instilling a sense of accountability in them, and reforming them in terms of thought and deed. This is why, a special attribute of the Prophet was patient perseverance which enabled him to unilaterally endure people’s bad behaviour and continue to reach out to them with fatherly concern and magnanimity. In the words of the author, the Prophet’s greatest strength was in keeping the peace and not in wielding the sword. He didn’t crush his enemies to put an end to their opposition, rather he changed their enmity into friendship by his sublime character (Quran 41:34).

The Prophet came to introduce us to the Creator and inform us about His creation plan for us. His concern was to help people have faith in a living God, one with whom they build a relationship of love, in whose thoughts they spent their days and nights and who is their greatest source of strength. The Prophet not only conveyed this message to his contemporaries, he also imbibed it himself. In this book, the author reconstructs the life of the Prophet as a person who was spiritually transformed by his faith in God. This could be seen in the way he lived and in his dealings with people around him. In the beginning of his prophetic mission, when he was alone and without resources, an angel came to him with the offer of converting his city into a valley of gold. This would forever make the Prophet free from destitution. However, the Prophet refused saying that he wanted to experience moments when he was left without food and water. This state of helplessness would make him humble and help him to remember his Lord much. Preserving the emotions that brought him close to his Creator was paramount. The Prophet would counsel people to never forget the eternal world of the Hereafter while leading their life in the present world. In spite of being a prophet, he wasn’t above accountability to God. His own life was an embodiment of a person who lived with this realization every moment. This was reflected in his acute sense of justice. When he was the head of state, a person came demanding the loan the Prophet had taken from him. Even though this person spoke derisively, the Prophet didn’t reprimand him. Instead of taking revenge for his rude behaviour, the Prophet gave consideration to this person whom he believed was fully within his right to demand the money he had lent. Since he had discovered God as the greatest, his own being was cut to size. He lived among people without feelings of superiority or sense of personal glory. Once he and two other companions were taking turns to mount the camel. When it was his turn to walk, his companions requested him to mount the camel in their place. But the Prophet continued to walk saying: “You are not stronger than I in walking nor am I less in need of God’s reward than you two.”


The author clarifies that the Prophet was able to achieve success in his divine mission not by miraculous means or by imprudent adventurism. On the contrary, he deliberated deeply on matters and decided his course of action based on the demands of the existing situation. He followed wisdom at every step instead of zealously going ahead with his plans unmindful of the consequences. For example, when opposition to his mission grew in Makkah, the antagonists finally plotted to kill him. The Prophet along with his followers could have met the opponents in battle, but since Muslims were weak and only few, such a step would have led to their complete annihilation. This is why, the Prophet avoided confrontation and decided to migrate to another city. This was a policy of realism, which the author believes was an essential ingredient in Prophet’s method. It showed that the Prophet was not an exponent of laying down one’s life in fanatic zeal for the “honour” of religion whenever any dispute arose between Muslims and other communities. He believed in the principle of moving away from the point of controversy to conserve energy and resources and utilize them more efficiently for fulfilling one’s higher purpose. Islam doesn’t advocate getting one’s head cut off in a fit of passion, rather it exhorts its followers to do something meaningful with their life. For the present Muslims, the Prophet set a sublime example when he was faced with ridicule and contempt. When Abdullah ibn Ubayy, who outwardly professed Islam, made several blasphemous utterances, someone suggested to the Prophet to get him killed. The Prophet refused saying that people would think that Muhammad had no qualms about killing his own people. In his eyes, scorn poured at him was lesser evil. The greater evil was distortion of the image of Islam in people’s eyes. This is why, the Prophet forbade Muslims from any action that would create misconceptions about the religion of Islam, even if it involved enduring hurt and ridicule.

The book also discusses the lessons we gain from the life of previous prophets. According to the author, Quranic references to previous prophets are guidance for believers. If we find the example set by any previous prophet relevant to our situation today, we must faithfully adopt that precedent in our life. For example, Prophet Yusuf accepted a position in the administration of a polytheistic king (Quran 12:55). From this experience, the author derives the principle that being a monotheist does not mean that in practical matters partnership can never be formed with non-monotheists. Monotheism does not demand that confrontation must continue between monotheists and non-monotheists until the non-monotheists are given a death blow, surrendering complete power into the hands of monotheists. While adhering steadfastly to monotheism in one’s personal life, a Muslim must adopt the policy of cooperation with people in practical and social affairs.

A crucial sunnah or practice of the Prophet which is not mentioned in books of the Prophet’s biographies is the sunnah of Hudaybiyah. The author has delved into great detail in explaining the wisdom of Hudaybiyah. When the Prophet was heading with his companions toward Makkah to perform the pilgrimage, the Makkan leaders barred their entry into Makkah. After days of negotiations, the Prophet entered into a peace agreement with his opponents which involved accepting all of their conditions. Many Muslims observed at that time that this was a humiliating pact, one that required them to give up their rights and endure injustice. The incident of Hudaybiyah teaches us to not confront unnecessarily with the situation. People would generally turn such delicate situations into one of prestige. Unilaterally accepting the conditions of the other side would appear as lowering of their prestige. To safeguard their pride, they would go headlong into confrontation with the situation. The Prophet, however, rose above this psychology. He returned to Madinah without performing the pilgrimage in Makkah. The peace agreement, however, ceased all hostilities on both sides. In this atmosphere of peace, renewed interaction took place between Muslims and their opponents whom they had till now met with suspicion and animosity. Although the Muslims had lost politically at Hudaybiyah, they now got an opportunity to successfully convey the message of Islam to the other side without threats of war. Within two years from the agreement, majority of the Makkan opponents came over to Islam and became followers of the Prophet. Opposition was put to an end through peace. The Prophet’s sunnah, the author explains, is not to initiate one’s actions by confronting with the problems in the name of achieving justice. Rather it is to avoid the problems and find out ways for utilizing the opportunities available. In the future, one will achieve justice and all that one aimed for.

There is a very central issue concerning the aim and objective of the prophetic mission. The author provides a scholarly analysis of the principles that we must bear in mind before making a statement about the purpose of the prophetic mission. Here we must give arguments directly from scripture. For example, if someone were to claim that the goal of the Prophet was to establish a political state, then this would be a case of understanding the prophetic mission from the historical conditions that surrounded the Prophet. The conditions of seventh century Arabia allowed the Prophet to establish a city-state, but the Quran doesn’t say that establishment of a state was the reason why the Prophet was sent. A statement of the mission must be derived from the fundamental teachings of the Quran and not from the historical circumstances in which the Prophet found himself. In the words of the Quran (33:45-46 and 62:2), the Prophet is sent to convey the realities of life such as the existence of God, the creation plan of God for humans, the inevitability of death and accountability in the Hereafter. The purpose of the Prophet’s mission is to help people lead God-oriented lives, provide spiritual nourishment to their soul, guide them to perfect their morals and make them purified personalities capable of being settled in Paradise.

The Prophet’s life presents us with various models. Some people suppose that the model he demonstrated in the latter part of his prophetic life is to be followed eternally, while the model he followed in the earlier part of his prophetic mission is to be abandoned. This is an incorrect distinction. In this book, the author explains at length that every example set by the Prophet is equally worthy of being followed. We cannot say, for instance, that the prophetic model of patience and avoidance now stands abrogated in favour of war and violence. If a Muslim group finds itself in a situation where it is required to endure hardship and difficulties with patience, it must follow this sunnah of the Prophet without complaints or protests. But if in a different situation, a Muslim state is attacked by another state, there is allowance to enter war in defence after peaceful negotiations have failed. We have to identify our present circumstances and find out what the Prophet did when he faced a similar situation. We must then adopt the course of action that the Prophet took in that particular situation.

The book ends with prophetic guidance for Muslims in the modern age. The author discusses the many changes brought about in the present age. Earlier prophets were persecuted for mere belief in one God, but today we have freedom of religion and freedom of thought. If the prophets in the ancient age could only impact their local community, we have the opportunity to convey the divine message globally through modern means of communication. Similarly, scientific discoveries offer us remarkable insights into the creation of the universe and the laws of nature. They help in strengthening our faith in the Creator and using arguments from human knowledge to present the case for an intelligent designer. All these developments, for the author, imply that today God Almighty wants believers to continue the prophetic mission of conveying the divine message with greater enthusiasm. This is peaceful intellectual and spiritual activism which Muslims must devote themselves to in present times.

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