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The understanding of the Prophet in the 20th Century Islamic world

The move by European powers undoubtedly gave way to very deep changes in the internal structures of Muslim societies. It appears as though even the bloodshed of thousands of Muslims, during methods of traditional resistance in the face of technical and military supremacy of power, did not bring any benefits. While the Caliphate disappeared with the Ottoman Empire which broke into pieces, the Islamic world was left without leaders, scholars and teachers, becoming impoverished and lost its values.

The Islamic world, which demonstrated relative religious, communal and cultural unity up until the 18th century, entered a phase of regression against the West, which during the same century attained a high level of development. Following the trade and colonial incursions by the West, the Islamic world entered the 19th century in a disunited state. A large part of the Islamic world became colonialized by the empires established by European nations in line with the financial and political tug-of-war, giving way to the industrial revolution which was brought on by the West's desire to find cheap resources in other countries and find new markets in which they could sell their products.

The move by European powers undoubtedly gave way to very deep changes in the internal structures of Muslim societies. It appears as though even the bloodshed of thousands of Muslims, during methods of traditional resistance in the face of technical and military supremacy of power, did not bring any benefits. While the Caliphate disappeared with the Ottoman Empire which broke into pieces, the Islamic world was left without leaders, scholars and teachers, becoming impoverished and lost its values. Of course, during this time, there were hundreds of reactionary movements offering different solutions and ways out for the Muslim masses that were searching for hope. Some of these movements grew from a very sincere sentiment; however, they faced different fates. Some were squashed, used and embraced by the colonizers, while other were lost, others becoming the ideology of freedom with a large circle of support and others simply came into conflict with one another. Throughout this period wherein small differences within the Muslim world gave way to large divides, a large portion of Islamic societies were subject to a series of political, social and cultural changes brought on by the effects of changes taking place in the countries they were being colonialized. It was not only the local cultures which were affected by these changes, but their perception of Islam as well, which lead to the religion [of Islam] being questioned at times, degraded, reinvigorated and held to a series of reforms at other times. Following this period, the Islamic world, which carried all of the elements of oppression and waywardness, experienced a slew of complicated movements. Many streams of Islam emerged, from calls to returning to the essence of Islam to reviving Islam to stances that were reformist, modernist, apologist, laicist, nationalist, racist, socialist, militarist or downright terrorist - some of which still continue to call until today. 

A change in the perception of the Prophet

This period of change undoubtedly resulted in a shift of the understanding of religion and prophecy, which is a fundamental aspect of belief in Islamic societies. In this period, the Prophet did not stand as a barrier in front of those who wanted to cast religion aside, but also a figure that was abused by everybody looking to give Muslim societies a message. In this period, the personhood of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was degraded by people from within Islamic societies for the first time, while his model character was altered through [the constructs of] different ideologies.

In this period, the Prophet did not stand as a barrier in front of those who wanted to cast religion aside, but also a figure that was abused by everybody looking to give Muslim societies a message. In this period, the personhood of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was degraded by people within Islamic societies for the first time, while his model character was altered through [the constructs of] different ideologies.

On one side, there were ideas asserted that the miracle of the Prophet was "completely changing the political, social, ideological, moral and theological nature of Arabia" which honored ability of Islam's and the Prophet's message to civilize the Bedouins, while on the other side, there were ideas that divided humanity into two historical periods: "before and after Muhammad." This view saw Prophet Muhammad as the strong leader who "appealed to his era and the future" and placing the Prophet on the axis of history. According to this view he was a brave soldier who had the "spirit of a knight" and a master orator who had the ability to "convince and speak eloquently."

In the intense political and ideological approaches describing the Prophet, he was at times presented as "A short summary of Arab spirit" who served as an element becoming a catalyst in the nationalistic movements, and at other times as the "Imam of socialism" or "The greatest revolutionist" who was an element in justifying the ideological tendencies of the times to humanity.

The Prophet was examined not through the vehicle of his own time and message, but the expectations and standards of modern times. While works which removed Prophet Muhammad from a mystical element and saw him as a "perfect human" by looking at him solely through his lifestyle, his worldview and behavior, gained prominence. Meanwhile, there was coverage of how elements of our Prophet's appearance could not serve as an example for believers. There were messages given to Europe about how Islam is not just a religion that is compatible with development, but it implies "development" it's self.

Prophet Muhammad was tugged into these entirely tasawwuf (sufi) ridden descriptions, at times as a reaction to worldly descriptions of him, and he was viewed in a light that was detached from this world; however, the principal that the Prophet's religious status needs to be conserved while he is being pulled into the realm of humanity as a "human being" was overlooked.

The praiseworthy mentioning of Prophet Muhammad in all of these movements must have misled the followers of each of the respective movements. But Prophet Muhammad, who was at times sincerely but incorrectly and in a helpless effort, but mostly out of the need for a fraudulent discourse, misrepresented, has a very different historical (sub-historical) identity.

When we look at the modern descriptions of Prophet Muhammad we see that his worldly career, his humane, political, economic and social activities are scrutinized in many ways. We witness that the Prophet has been equipped with “superior” worldly qualities with the exception of wealth.

How should Prophet Muhammad be understood?

When we look at the modern descriptions of Prophet Muhammad we see that his worldly career, his humane, political, economic and social activities are scrutinized in many ways. We witness that the Prophet has been equipped with "superior" worldly qualities with the exception of wealth. He is a leader. He is a political genius, a military strategist, a capable merchant and an orator who can bring masses to their feet. He has many spouses. He is the father of his children, and he is in short, in the popular sociological term of today, an opinion leader. In these aspects, Prophet Muhammad is in quite a different place when compared to the other religious and belief leaders. Even though Prophet Muhammad is the concrete epitome of the sacred in Islam, in terms of his spiritual being, he has been pushed back in all publications which respond to the West, and his spiritual nature has been overshadowed by his human nature.

His worldly attributes, alongside being an aspect which the whole world came to be aware of, his religious and spiritual guidance has only been accepted by believers of Islam. The putting on the backburner of Prophet Muhammad's spiritual side by modern age, has undoubtedly contributed to the one of the realities surrounding the rise of tasawwuf or Sufism which accepts the Prophet as someone who should be praised with his miracles, whose mercy and role as a intermediary should be attained, and someone whom a spot should be sought after by his side on the Day of Judgment.

Not being able to truly comprehend Prophet Muhammad usually occurs through not being mindful of the 40 years of his life prior to the revelation of prophecy. Grasping these years is the only way in which the miracle of Prophecy can be understood for all its worth. Despite the fact that he was respected for his intelligence, honesty and his lineage - being from one Mecca's leading families - our Prophet was someone who liked solace and who was unable to find a place for himself in the worldly desire existent in the tribe of Quraish. He married at an age which was considered late during those days and spent a significant part of his days in seclusion in a cave on Mount Hira. He didn't know what to do with the message brought to him by the angel Gabriel and only became the lead of his society through the help and benevolence of Allah.

Naturally, his responsibility was not only to be a spiritual guide alone, he was to be the "organizer" of a new social order and take on all responsibilities which come with this role. But in the modern world where religion has been broken off from the other aspects of life, it has not been fully understood how a spiritual person like Prophet Muhammad was able to apply himself to a deeper social and political arena. It seems more impossible for the West, who were accustomed to Prophet Jesus who said "My kingdom is not of this world," to understand Prophet Muhammad who serves a dual role as a spiritual and worldly leader. For a Westerner, understanding the personhood of Prophet Muhammad is difficult.

Prophet Muhammad, who is the spiritual leader of people, is in every sense, someone who is immersed into a social world. He was married and established a family. He worked as an administrator and a judge. He took part in many wars which are filled with heart-wrenching experiences. He had to exert efforts and put up with many difficulties which came along with leading a human life and being the founder of a nation and society. However, he stood tall in the face of all these with the desire to please Allah in his heart, receiving his inspiration from the Almighty. His participation in social and political life, took place with the purpose of merging these two worldly arenas with a spiritual central force.

We can never truly comprehend Prophet Muhammad, an exalted person who took the caravan given to his trust from Mecca, taking it through the incredible silence of the desert that leads one to contemplate, to Syria, without knowing what he went through and by placing this knowledge against his experiences during days and nights spent in solitude on Mount Hira.

 

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