In a world rife with mindless violence, how did Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) understand, conceptualize and reject pointless violence and destruction? How did he negotiate the extraordinary political and strategic challenges of his time without resorting to the kind of violence so commonplace in our geopolitical condition today? In this article, Tasneem Ataullah explores the ways and means.
The embodiment for peace can never be concluded without referring to the Hudaybiyya treaty; the leaders of Makkah were bent on waging war. The Ka’abah was in their possession, they had expelled the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions out of their hometown and taken possession of their properties. There were only two options before the believers; one was to fight, and the other was to remain patient in the face of immediate loss. The Prophet (PBUH) chose the second one, to which the Quran quotes, “Verily, we have granted you a manifest victory.” Chapter 48, verse 1.
Islam is one of the world’s major religions, with over 1.8 billion followers globally. It promotes peace, compassion and non-violence as core principles. Non-violence in Islam is a crucial aspect of faith and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the torch bearer of this ideology has shed light most practically on this often misjudged aspect.
Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life plays an instrumental role in the lives of Muslims today as he is considered the pinnacle of humanity whose words need to be implemented in every way possible and his actions to be replicated in everyday life. Hence, studying and interpreting Seerah (the life history of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)) in its truest context and fullness becomes crucial. Every instance from his history depicts the Prophet’s stride towards non-violence and the establishment of peace. He proved through his actions that Islam is the religion of peace; rather it is the very embodiment of it. War was only carried out with the explicit purpose of establishing peace, when all other options were exhausted or the enmity was intractable or was causing strife in the land
Muslims use the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as an inspiration to become peace activists, referring to the Prophet as a peace-loving human being who was sent as a mercy to humankind; to live a life filled with love, compassion, forgiveness, patience and peace at the forefront. He is seen as a role model for establishing a pluralistic society where differences are not only tolerated but even respected.
In the most genuine attempt to understand the non-violence and peacefulness of the Prophet’s life, innumerable instances can be studied from the Makkah era where he spent 13 years and then the Medinah era another 10 years. But purely for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Prophet didn’t have much say to dictate and rule in Makkah, as he and his Companions were very few, highly rejected by the majority and oppressed in many ways; thereby unable to rebel or rise. Even though igniting strife would have been easily plausible, given the quantum change of ideology he was propagating, and the lengths of enmity, physical harassment and hatred the believers had to face, some were even prosecuted before everyone just for the sake of accepting Islam, nothing as such ever occurred. The very first commandment revealed by Allah is “read,” the believers peacefully gathered to read, understand and implement Islamic principles in their lives.
However, the dynamics in Madinah were different. The Prophet (PBUH) and his companions were in different conditions – hence, pondering on the incidents from his latter life unfolds his committed nature to establish peace, compassion and a non-violent way of life. Hypothetically, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) could have used the power he had to reprimand actions as per the societal norms of the time, however, he always preferred a gentler and forgiving approach; he was a leader whose foremost priority was peace.
Madinah was a plural society then; there were Muslims, polytheists, Jews and hypocrites all sharing the same land and under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) hence, there were many instances of disruptive behaviour and tension in the community on various occasions – it will suffice to focus in Abdullah Ibn Ubayy Ibn Salul, who was the leader and archetype of hypocrites in Madinah. Out of the many incidents, on one occasion the Prophet (PBUH) was going to visit Sa’ad Ibn Ubada who was sick. On his way, the Prophet came across a group of people and decided to stop next to them. When the Prophet (PBUH) stopped his ride, dust covered the group and Ibn Salul immediately reacted by saying “You left us in the dust!” The Prophet did not respond to the aggressive tone and used this opportunity to offer advice to the group and to convey his message, after which Ibn Salul once again intervened and said, “If these things are true, they sound like good things! However, do not approach us to talk about these matters. You should inform people when they approach you! Sit in your home and do not disturb us with these kinds of matters!”
The Prophet (PBUH) did not respond to these abusive comments and chose to remain silent. Another companion, Abdullah ibn Rawaha, who noticed the Prophet’s silence, responded on his behalf, which led to a dispute between him and Ibn Salul. The Prophet (PBUH) intervened, stopped the argument, and calmed everyone down. Nevertheless, Ibn Salul continued to ridicule and express his discomfort by citing a poem that insulted the Prophet; he was relentlessly cruel. The Prophet (PBUH) immediately left, even though there were other possible reactions that he could have engaged in at this moment. Not only was he insulted as an individual, but also as the Messenger of Allah and the leader of Madina. Instead of retaliation, he chose to stop an argument that had started from abusive behaviour and left the scene.
Ibn Salul took the lead in many incidents, causing conflict and tension, including a slander incident where the Prophet’s wife, Aisha (RA), was accused of being unchaste. The slander incident was a false allegation that had a significant impact on the Prophet (PBUH), Aisha (RA) and the Muslim community at large. When Aisha was found to be innocent, Prophet Muhammad could have easily sought justice and had Ibn Salul punished for defaming a Muslim woman and causing tension within a society where certain individuals were looking for any opportunity to undermine his power and authority.
Despite all, the Prophet (PBUH) forgave him and even wanted to lead his funeral prayer when he died, if it were not for a verse that was revealed that commanded him to abstain. Ibn Salul had died, so leading his funeral prayer would not have benefited their relationship in any way; it was not a strategy with worldly benefits. It was a gesture that stemmed from the Prophet’s forgiving and compassionate nature, which helped to maintain a peaceful society.
Some Jews were hostile too to the Prophet (PBUH). One example is the way some Jews greeted the Prophet; they played with the wording of the Islamic way of greeting and used to say as-samu alayka (“death be upon you”) instead of as-salamu alayka (“peace be upon you”). The Prophet would respond wa alaykum “likewise, upon you as well.” On one occasion, Aisha (RA), the Prophet’s wife, could not stop herself from saying “The death and the curse of Allah be upon you all” in defence of the Prophet (PBUH). She was distraught at death being wished upon her husband, who was also the Messenger of Allah.
The Prophet (PBUH) disapproved of her response and asked her to be calm and not to be led by emotions, saying “O Aisha! Do not speak badly. Allah does not like nasty words and those who use them. Allah is generous and loves those who are gentle. Allah grants to peace what he does not grant to violence” (Bukhari)
According to other reports, companions such as Umar (RA) could not bear this attitude and asked for permission to execute these individuals. However, each time, the Prophet (PBUH) stopped him and advised his companions to respond with ‘wa alaykum’, if it was necessary to respond at all. What is important to note is that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was not merely refraining from retaliating with harsh words to keep the peace, but he was setting firm limits on how Muslims should react to moments of tension and conflict.
On another occasion, some men physically abused a Muslim woman at a marketplace and she started to scream. A Muslim man ran out to protect her and, in the dispute that arose, killed a Jewish man and was killed by Jews. The Prophet (PBUH), as a leader, preferred to talk to them. Though the Jewish tribe arrogantly and bluntly challenged the Prophet, the situation did not escalate and peace was not destabilized.
In another highlighted incident, the Prophet fell sick for a long time after the act of witchcraft. When the culprit was caught and brought before the Prophet (PBUH) he forgave him. In a society where a signed constitution had been violated and there had been an attempted assassination of the leader, no one would have questioned the Prophet if he had punished the perpetrator. However, he preferred forgiveness over vengeance.
Many other incidents cite the ill-treatment of Bedouins, their use of foul language, and unethical aggressive behaviour to the extent of tearing down the Prophet’s clothes in one instance – yet the Prophet (PBUH) smiled and forgave them and said, “Hilm (mildness of manner and forbearance) is a trait that elevates one almost to the level of prophets” (Ibn Kathir)
The embodiment for peace can never be concluded without referring to the Hudaybiyya treaty; the leaders of Makkah were bent on waging war. The Ka’abah was in their possession, they had expelled the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions out of their hometown and taken possession of their properties. There were only two options before the believers; one was to fight, and the other was to remain patient in the face of immediate loss. The Prophet (PBUH) chose the second one, to which the Quran quotes, verily, we have granted you a manifest victory.” Chapter 48, verse 1.
There are infinite examples from the Prophet’s life where retaliation in the form of violence was highly possible and equally expected. However, changing the attitude to that of peace during moments of oppression, discrimination, and torture was not easy but beautifully displayed by the Prophet.