Going beyond the hype and discovering the legacy of Muhammad
Today is a special day, for it is today we remember a man who was without peer, who changed history more than any other person and would bring balance to the lives of his followers throughout the centuries. Strangely, the image that some of the world has of this man is in stark contrast to the vast literature of eyewitness accounts. This is perhaps because when there is ignorance, there is fear and when there is fear, a few words or images let the imagination loose and reality is a poor friend of fantasy.
The man is of course Muhammad, upon him be peace. But from the Song of Roland in the 11th Century to the Danish cartoons today, much of the world is fuelled by ignorance of the beauty of this man. Non-Buddhists can appreciate Buddha's abandoning of the palace for the truth, non-Christians can appreciate the love Christ had for his fellow person, but few non-Muslims can appreciate the humility and humanity of Muhammad, peace be upon him.
While the cartoons portrayed an ugly bearded man with a heavy, bomb-laden turban, this image would not have disturbed Muhammad in the slightest. When some of his fellow Makkans taunted him with nicknames, he would respond in thankfulness that his own name was not being made fun of but some other name. In a similar manner, false sketches only reveal our own ignorance of his real character.
But, you may ask, how can we reach a truer impression of who Muhammad was? The numerous accounts have been distilled into chronological biographies (Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources by Martin Lings; Muhammad, Prophet for our time by Karen Armstrong) and thematic biographies (The Prophet of Mercy: Muhammad by Osman Nuri Topbaş or In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan). But the man goes beyond the text, his is a living legacy.
Many of our traits are inherited through our most intimate contacts: our parents, close friends and teachers. Ever noticed yourself picking up a mannerism of a close friend and then having trouble stopping yourself saying it? Many of our mannerisms get picked up without noticing them. Much like a professor has her assistants in a modern university, the concept of association (suhba) was as important as the content of what was taught.
In the Qur'an it is said: "You who believe! Be mindful of your duty to God, and be with the truthful." (Tawba, 9:119) Rumi draws on this idea, by giving advice to the spiritual aspirant to: "Keep company with the people of spirituality, receive kindness and benevolence as well as spiritual strength; stay young, robust and healthy with Divine love."
Connected with this concept is the notion of silsila or a connection to the source. The silsila is an established line of teachers whose original teacher is Muhammad himself. The legitimacy of the current teacher is not just derived from her teacher but also from her teacher's teacher and so on. In this way, the text, whether it be the Qur'an or about the Prophet himself, can be understood through the lens of a living tradition.
Religion often has to contend with textual literalism, especially the monotheistic faiths based on revelation. However, Muhammad left behind thousands that knew him and hundreds that would go on to teach what they knew. Today, there are still those who can trace their learning to Muhammad and whose own character brings forth some understanding of the beauty, humility, thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, bravery, patience and love of God that Muhammad, upon him be peace, brought into the world and left as a legacy to us. They may not be as newsworthy as celebrities, but they are around if we but let our hearts think instead of our imaginations.