The Ethos Created by the Messenger

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It is difficult for us to understand Prophet Muhammad fully. As we tend to compartmentalize the universe, life, and humanity itself, we have no unitary vision. However, Prophet Muhammad perfectly combined a philosopher’s intellect, a commander valor, a scientist’s genius, a sage’s wisdom, a statesman’s insight and administrative ability, a Sufi master’s spiritual profundity, and a scholar’s knowledge in his own person. Philosophers produce students, not followers; social or revolutionary leaders make followers, not complete people; Sufi masters make “lords of submission,” not active fighters or intellectuals. But in Prophet Muhammad we find the characteristics of a philosopher, a revolutionary leader, a warrior and statesman, and a Sufi master. His school is one of the intellect and thought, revolution, submission and discipline, and goodness, beauty, ecstasy, and movement.

Prophet Muhammad transformed crude, ignorant, savage, and obstinate desert Arabs into an army of skilled fighters, a community of sincere devotees of a sublime cause, a society of gentleness and compassion, an assembly of sainthood, and a host of intellectuals and scholars. Nowhere else do we see such fervor and ardor combined with gentleness, kindness, sincerity, and compassion. This is a characteristic unique to the Muslim community, one that has been visible since its earliest days.

The “Garden” of Muhammad.

Islam, the school of Prophet Muhammad, has been a “garden” rich in every kind of “flower.” Like cascading water, God has brought forth from it such majestic people as Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, ‘Umar ibn Abd al-‘Aziz, Mahdi al-‘Abbasi, Harun al-Rashid, Alp Arslan, Mehmed the Conqueror, Selim, and Sulayman. These were not only statesmen of the highest caliber and invincible commanders, but also men of profound spirituality, deep knowledge, oration, and literature.

The blessed, pure climate of the Messenger produced invincible generals. Among the first generation we see such military geniuses as Khalid, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, Abu ‘Ubayda, Shurahbil ibn Hasana, and A’la al-Khadrami. They were succeeded by such brilliant generals as Tariq ibn Ziyad and ‘Uqba ibn Nafi, both of whom combined military genius with human tenderness and religious conviction and devotion.

When ‘Uqba, the conqueror of North Africa, reached the Atlantic Ocean, 2,000 miles away from Arabia, he cried out: “And now, God, take my soul! If this sea didn’t stretch out before me, I would convey Your holy Name across it to other lands!” We can hardly imagine Alexander the “Great” thinking such thoughts as he set out for Persia. Yet as conquerors, the two men achieved comparable feats. ‘Uqba’s idealism and his “possibility” with respect to the Divine Will would be transmuted into irresistible action in this world. Alexander’s empire crashed after his death; the lands ‘Uqba conquered still retain Islam as their dominant worldview, creed, and life-style 14 centuries later, despite attempts to change this reality.

Tariq was a victorious commander, not only when he defeated the 90,000-man Spanish army with a handful of self-sacrificing, valiant men, but also when he stood before the king’s treasure and said: “Be careful, Tariq! You were a slave yesterday. Today you are a victorious commander. And tomorrow you will be under the earth.” Yavuz Selim, an Ottoman Sultan who regarded the world as too small for two rulers, was truly victorious when he crowned some kings and dethroned others, and also when he silently entered Istanbul at bedtime, after conquering Syria and Egypt, to avoid the people’s enthusiastic welcome. He also was victorious when he ordered that the robe soiled by his teacher’s horse be placed over his coffin because of its sanctity—it had been “soiled” by the horse of a scholar.

During the rapid conquests after the Prophet, many conquered people were distributed among the Muslim families. Those emancipated slaves eventually became the foremost religious scholars: Hasan ibn Hasan al-Basri (Basra); ‘Ata ibn Rabah, Mujahid, Sa’id ibn Jubayr, and Sulayman ibn Yasar (Makka); Zayd ibn Aslam, Muhammad ibn al-Munkadir, and Nafi’ ibn Abi Nujayh (Madina); ‘Alqama ibn Qays al-Nakha’i, Aswad ibn Yazid, Hammad, and Abu Hanifa Nu’man ibn Thabit (Kufa); Tawus and ibn Munabbih (Yemen); ‘Ata ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Khorasani (Khorasan); and Maqhul (Damascus). They all opened as splendid, sweet-smelling flowers in the garden of Muhammad. They established the Islamic legal code and brought up thousands of jurists, who wrote and complied volumes that are still valued as legal references.

One of these jurists, Imam Abu Hanifa, founded the Hanafi legal school, which has hundreds of millions of followers today. He brought up such great scholars as Imam Abu Yusuf, Imam Zufar, and Imam Muhammad Hasan al-Shaybani, who taught Imam Muhammed Idris al-Shafi’i. The notes Abu Hanifa dictated to Imam al-Shaybani were expounded centuries later by Imam Sarakhsi (the “Sun of Imams”) in the 30-volume work Al-Mabsut. Imam Shafi’i, who established the methodological principles of Islamic law, is regarded as reviver or renewer (mujaddid) of religious sciences. However, when his students told Imam Sarakhsi that Imam Shafi’i had memorized 300 fascicles of the Prophetic Traditions, the latter answered: “He had the zakat (one-fortieth) of the Traditions in my memory.’

Imam Shafi’i, Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, or Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and so many others, were brought up in the school of Prophet Muhammad.

And then there are such Qur’anic interpreters as Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Ibn Kathir, Imam Suyuti, Allama Hamdi Yazir, and Sayyid Qutb. In addition, there are such famous hadith collectors as Imam Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Ibn Ma’ja, Nasa’i, Ibn Hanbal, Bayhaqi, Darimi, Daraqutni, Sayf al-Din al-Iraqi, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, and many others. They are all ever-shining stars in the luminous sky of Islamic sciences. All received their light from Prophet Muhammad.

According to Islam, God created humanity on the best pattern, as the most universal and all-embracing theater of Divine Names and Attributes. But people, because of their heedlessness, can fall to the lowest levels. Sufism, the inner dimension of Islam, leads people to perfection or enables them to reacquire their primordial angelic state. Islam has produced countless saints. As it never separated our metaphysical quest or gnosis from the study of nature, many practicing Sufis were also scientists. Such leading saints as ‘Abd al Qadir al-Jilani, Shah Naqshband, Ma’ruf al-Karkhi, Hasan Shazili, Ahmad Badawi, Shaykh al-Harrani, Ja’far al-Sadiq, Junayd al-Baghdadi, Bayazid al-Bistami, Muhy al-Din al-‘Arabi, and Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi have illumined the way to truth and trained others to purify their selves.

Being embodiments of sincerity, Divine love, and pure intention, Sufi masters became the motivating factor and the source of power behind the Islamic conquests and the subsequent Islamization of those lands. Figures like Imam Ghazali, Imam Rabbani, and Bediuzzaman Said Nursi are revivers or renewers of the highest degree, and combined in themselves the enlightenment of sages, the knowledge of religious scholars, and the spirituality of great saints.

Islam is the middle way. Its elaborate hierarchy of knowledge is integrated by the principle of Divine Unity (tawhid). There are juridical, social and theological sciences, as well as metaphysical ones, all deriving their principles from the Qur’an. Over time, Muslims developed elaborate philosophical, natural, and mathematical sciences, each of which has its source in a Beautiful Name of God. For example, medicine depends on the Name All-Healing; geometry and engineering on the Names All-Just and All-Determiner, and All-Shaper and All-Harmonizing; philosophy reflects the Name All-Wise.

Each level of knowledge views nature in a particular light. Jurists and theologians see it as the background for human action; philosophers and scientists see it as a domain to be analyzed and understood; and metaphysicians consider it the object of contemplation and the mirror reflecting suprasensible realities. The Author of Nature has inscribed His Wisdom upon every leaf and stone, on every atom and particle, and has created the world of nature in such a way that every phenomenon is a sign (aya) singing the glory of His Oneness.

Islam has maintained an intimate connection between science and Islamic studies. As a result, the traditional education of Islamic scientists, particularly in the early cneturies of Islam, was broad enough to comprise most of the sciences of that time. In later life, each scientist’s aptitude and interest would cause him or her to become an expert and specialist in one or more sciences.

Universities, libraries, observatories, and other scientific institutions played a major role in the continuing vitality of Islamic science. These, together with students who would travel hundreds of miles to study under acknowledged scholars, ensured that the whole corpus of knowledge was kept intact and transmitted from one place to another and from one generation to the next. This knowledge did not remain static; rather, it continued to expand and enrich itself. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Islamic (mainly in Arabic) manuscripts in the world’s libraries, a large number of which deal with scientific subjects. [1]

For example, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Kindi (the “Philosopher of the Arabs”) wrote on philosophy, mineralogy, metallurgy, geology, physics, and medicine, among other subjects, and was an accomplished physician. Ibn al-Haytham was a leading Muslim mathematician and, without doubt, the greatest physicist. We know the names of over 100 of his works. Some 19 of them, dealing with mathematics, astronomy, and physics, have been studied by modern scholars. His work exercised a profound influence on later scholars, both in the Muslim world and in the West, where he was known Alhazen. One of his works on optics was translated into Latin in 1572.

Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni was one of the greatest scholars of medieval Islam, and certainly the most original and profound. He was equally well-versed in mathematics, astronomy, the physical and natural sciences, and also distinguished himself as a geographer and historian, a chronologist and linguist, and as an impartial observer of customs and creeds. Such figures as al-Kharizmi (mathematics), Ibn Shatir (astronomy), al-Khazini (physics), Jabir ibn Hayyan (medicine) are remembered even today. Andalucia (Muslim Spain) was the main center from which the West acquired knowledge and enlightenment for centuries.

Islam founded a most brilliant civilization. This should not be considered surprising, for the Qur’an begins with the injunction: Read: In the Name of Your Master Who creates (96:1). The Qur’an told people to read when there was very little to read and most people were illiterate. What we understand from this apparent paradox is that humanity is to “read” the universe itself as the “Book of Creation.” Its counterpart is the Qur’an, a book of letters and words. We are to observe the universe, perceive its meaning and content, and through those activities gain a deeper perception of the beauty and splendor of the Creator’s system and the infinitude of His Might. Thus we are obliged to penetrate into the universe’s manifold meanings, discover the Divine laws of nature, and establish a world in which science and faith complement each other. All of this will enable us to attain true bliss in both worlds.

In obedience to the Qur’an’s injunctions and the Prophet’s example, Muslims studied the Book of Divine Revelation (the Qur’an) and the Book of Creation (the universe) and eventually erected a magnificent civilization. Scholars from all over Europe benefited from the centers of higher learning located in Damascus, Bukhara, Baghdad, Cairo, Faz, Qairwan, Zeituna, Cordoba, Sicily, Isfahan, Delhi and other great Islamic cities. Historians liken the Muslim world of the medieval ages, dark for Europe but golden and luminous for Muslims, to a beehive. Roads were full of students, scientists, and scholars traveling from one center of learning to another.

For the first 5 centuries of its existence, the realm of Islam was a most civilized and progressive area. Studded with splendid cities, gracious mosques, and quiet universities, the Muslim East offered a striking contrast to the Christian West, which was sunk in the Dark Ages. Even after the disastrous Mongol invasions and Crusades of the thirteenth century ce and onwards, it displayed vigor and remained for ahead of the West.

Although Islam ruled two-thirds of the known civilized world for at least 11 centuries, laziness and negligence of what was going on beyond its borders caused it to decay. However, it must be pointed out clearly that only Islamic civilization decayed—not Islam. Military victories and superiority, which continued into the eighteenth century, encouraged Muslims to rest on their laurels and neglect further scientific research. They abandoned themselves to living their own lives, and recited the Qur’an without studying its deeper meanings. Meanwhile, Europe made great advances in sciences, which they had borrowed from the Muslims.

What we call “sciences” are, in reality, languages of the Divine Book of Creation (another aspect of Islam). Those who ignore this book are doomed to failure in this world. When the Muslims began to ignore it, it was only a matter of time before they would be dominated by some external force. In this case, that external force was Europe. European cruelty, oppression, and imperialism also contributed greatly to this result.

The present modern civilization cannot last for long, for it is materialistic and cannot satisfy humanity’s perennial needs. Such Western sociologists as Oswald Spengler have predicted its collapse on the grounds that it is against human nature and values. On the other hand, Islam has been around for 14 centuries. In addition, it is fully capable of establishing the bright world of the future on the firm foundation of its creed, ethics, spirituality, and morality, as well as its legal, social and economic structures.

[1] George Sarton, in his monumental Introduction to the History of Science, divided his work into chronological chapters, naming each chapter after the most eminent scientist of that period. From the middle of the second century ah (eight century ce) to the middle of the fifth century ah (eleventh century ce), each fifty-year period carries the name of a Muslim scientist. Thus we have the “Time of al-Kharizmi,” the “Time of al-Biruni,” and so on. These chapters also contain the names of many other important Islamic scientists and their main works. (Tr.)