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… let us try with heart and soul that unity may dwell in the world, that all the peoples may become one people, and that the whole surface of the earth may be like one country – for the Sun of Truth shines on all alike.
All the Prophets of God came for love of this one great aim.
Look how Abraham strove to bring faith and love among the people; how Moses tried to unite the people by sound laws; how the Lord Christ suffered unto death to bring the light of love and truth into a darkened world; how Muhammad sought to bring unity and peace between the various uncivilized tribes among whom he dwelt. And last of all, Baha’u’llah has suffered forty years for the same cause – the single noble purpose of spreading love among the children of men …
How did Muhammad seek to “bring unity and peace between the various uncivilized tribes” in Arabia? Let’s briefly look at his life and see if we can understand.
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Why Was Muhammad “the Praised One”?
Muhammad was not the lying, battle-hungry, mentally ill false prophet many in the West have been erroneously and prejudicially taught. If he had been, Islam would never have grown into the global Faith it is today. Rather, as Islamic tradition relates, Muhammad was the best, the bravest, and the most generous of all the people. He gathered the noblest of followers around him. Abu-Bakr, Umar, Othman, and Ali, his first four deputies, were all spiritual giants among men.
He also attracted powerful, brilliant, and outspoken women. Notable among them was his first wife Khadijah, his last wife Aisha, and his daughter Fatima. He also won the respect and devotion of thousands of people who knew him.
Respect is not easily given in Arab culture; it must be earned. Thus, as the Qur’an announces (33:21) Muhammad was an upright example of how to behave to achieve God’s grace. Sincere people were naturally attracted to him. It could not have been otherwise, for had Muhammad been the caricature that we in the West have created, he would have been rejected, sooner or later, by his own society.
More than a billion Muslims now on the planet have examined Muhammad’s character and found him exemplary. This is reason enough to treat him and his religion with great respect and fair-minded consideration.
Who Was Muhammad?
Although he lived fourteen centuries ago, we do have some contemporaneous accounts of Muhammad. He seems to have been handsome. He was strongly built, of average height, had thick curly hair and beard, a radiant visage, and a winning smile. Not only did the common people like him, he often preferred their company. And this begins to get at what really distinguishes Muhammad. He was better than his contemporaries.
At a time when Arab men were known for their quick fiery tempers and hypersensitivity to insult, a trait Arabs call jahil, Muhammad exemplified the opposite quality – hilm: patience, forbearance, and mercy. The Quran notes (25:63) that “…(true) servants of the Most Gracious are (only) they who walk gently on earth, and who, whenever the foolish [jahilum] address them, reply with [words of] peace.”
Muhammad taught his followers to repay evil with good (23:96; 41:34), to act kindly as God has treated them kindly (28:77 and 10:26), and to forgive others as they hope to be forgiven by God (24:22). In his own actions he was gentle, forgiving, tolerant, and a peacemaker for the sincere.
At a time when the archetype of Arab manhood was unquestioned loyalty to tribe, self-reliance, independence, and nobility that approached arrogance, Muhammad was the opposite. He taught loyalty beyond the tribe (3:103), reliance on the community (umma), dependence on God’s teachings to cooperate with one another (5:2), the virtue of humility (31:18) and the error of speaking badly of others (49:11).
In short, Muhammad was a unifier. As the Baha’i teachings point out, he successfully unified and civilized dozens of battling Arab tribes. In a speech Abdu’l-Baha gave at New York’s Church of the Divine Paternity in 1912, he said:
Muhammad appeared at a time when the peoples and tribes of Arabia were divergent and in a state of continual warfare. They killed each other, pillaged and took captive wives and children. Muhammad united these fierce tribes, established a foundation of fellowship among them so that they gave up warring against each other absolutely and established communities. The result was that the Arabian tribes freed themselves from the Persian yoke and Roman control, established an independent sovereignty which rose to a high degree of civilization, advanced in sciences and arts, extended the Saracen dominion as far west as Spain and Andalusia and became famous throughout the world. Therefore, it is proved once more that the religion of God is intended to be the cause of advancement and solidarity and not of enmity and dissolution.
At a time when a few in Mecca were amassing great wealth, content to let the masses become impoverished and enslaved, Muhammad was the opposite. He taught that all people had an obligation to provide for those in need (2:177), and he cared for and fed the needy and dispossessed. He taught that you will never attain virtue until you spend something that you are fond of (3:92) and he set up a taxation system to care for the poor and the oppressed — the zakat.
At a time when powerful men could do what they wanted, when hot-headed men could act with impunity, and dishonest men could lie without consequence, Muhammad was the opposite. He taught that all men must abide by the law, that God commanded what was proper and forbade what was improper (3:104; 31:17), that believers must work righteousness (22:50; 34:4), that the believers were to be moderate (7:131; 6:141; 17:26), and that lying is forbidden (22:30). He hated duplicity and hypocrisy and taught his followers not to act in such ways (2:14, 63:1).
At a time when Arabs saw the birth of a girl as a liability that brought no income to the family and thus could be killed, Muhammad taught the opposite. He spoke of man and woman being made from the same soul (4:1; 7:189) and that they had equal standing before God (33:35). At a time when Arab women had no rights, when they could not own property, or inherit money; when they could not talk back to men, nor journey far from their parents’ house; Muhammad taught the opposite. Women had to be paid a dowry at marriage (4:24) and they had to be provided for in marriage (2:236). If you grew to dislike your wife, Muhammad counseled that it was dangerous to dislike someone God saw as good (4:19). If you divorced, Muhammad taught that you could not keep your wife’s possessions (2:229).
Muhammad’s teachings may not excel on every front when measured against modern Western codes of conduct — for example in the treatment of women — but in his time and within his context 1400 years ago, he was a progressive force on every dimension, moving human social evolution forward.
It may come as a surprise to many Westerners, but Muhammad’s values were drawn from the same well as our Judeo-Christian values.