Have we neglected it? What is our duty towards it?
By Haidar Hobbollah
Translated by Shayan Shirazi and Moussa Al-Rufayie
The Prophet Muḥammad b. ʿAbdullāh ﷺ symbolises the greatest personality in Islam, for he possesses the divine message and bears news from God, the Exalted. He is our window to the celestial realm and our path to divine revelation; the one whose Sunna is authoritative and whose conduct is an inspiration for different generations and peoples. He is one of the symbols of humanity and one of its major characters who changed, altered and transformed history.
The personality of this magnificent prophet has entered the sphere of inter-faith debate and some of those who have rejected his prophethood have taken a negative stance about him on occasion. Some of them have accused him of lying, fraud and slander, while others have moderated and toned down their rhetoric by saying that he was a man who had delusions of revelation about righteousness and prosperity in his society. In recent times, these debates regarding Islam and the Prophet have increased. For example, the book “The Satanic Verses” depicted a bad image of the Messenger of God ﷺ. At the end of 2006, caricatures were drawn which were considered offensive and insulting for Islam and Muslims, and provoked tremendous outcry in different areas across the world.
- I do not want to speak here in the language of debate and rivalry. Rather, I want to exercise self-criticism so that we do not content ourselves with directing the blame on others who we also see as deserving of blame. Have we neglected the personality of the Messenger ﷺ? Have we contributed to this distorted image whether we perceive it or not? What is our obligation towards this great prophet?
We do not doubt that Muslim scholars have written many books about the Messenger ﷺ, his personality, his biography and his rights which is still a remarkable phenomenon until today. However, the first question is: have Muslim scholars presented the personality of the Prophet ﷺ as a civilisational figure or as an exclusively Islamic figure?
I believe that this question constitutes an extremely dangerous entry point. Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ al-Yaḥsubī (d. 544 AH), for example, wrote a book called ‘Healing by Recognition of the Rights of The Chosen One’ (al-Shifāʾ bi taʿrīf ḥuqūq al-Muṣtafā) and others have written similar works. However, didn’t Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ portray the Prophet to us as a man of the Muslims and therefore we speak of his rights upon us and so on? Did he think of presenting him as a man for all of humanity; did this thought dwell in the conscience of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ—who we take here as an example only—to portray the Prophet for someone who does not already believe in him and introduce him as a great human before a creedal and doctrinal portrayal to hail his behaviour and his project?!
Perhaps many of us Muslims depict an image of the Messenger of God that is far from the civilisational dimension within his character—namely, transcending the Islamic creedal framework regarding the character of this man in order to be able to generalise him as civilisational. Therefore, we find a focus on the Prophetic dimension within him, such as the traditions on the characteristics of the Prophet, such as what al-Suyūṭī (d. 911 AH) did in a large section of his book ‘The Great Characteristics’ (al-Khaṣāʾiṣ al-Kubrā) or the jurists in the beginning of their discussions in the book of marriage in the science of Islamic jurisprudence.
Truly, introducing the civilisational dimension of the Prophet—which cuts across creedal and doctrinal elements to present the Messenger of God ﷺ in a general human context—has become an urgent need today in the world of dialogue of civilisations. Muslims and their scholars must take this issue into consideration.
- If we go from the civilisational dimension to the intellectual dimension in the study of the character, history and biography of the Messenger ﷺ, we do not find many serious scholarly investigative contributions that reviews, refines and studies the Messenger’s ﷺ biography in order to identify what is authentic and reliable in it from what is weak and unreliable.
Descriptive historical annals, and other similar works, have predominated the books of Prophetic biography (sīra) and in the extensive texts that speak of the Prophet, we rarely find any serious and meaningful studies that judge these texts on the basis of historical criticism, ḥadīth criticism and rijālī criticism on one hand, and that accepts and rejects these texts on the basis and standard of criticising the content and subjecting it to the intellect, historical truths and the Qurʼān, on the other hand.
Yes, there are attempts to do so. However, they do not represent the predominant trend in dealing with the Prophetic biography. Sometimes, you may find a jurisprudential, philosophical or theological (kalamī) study that seriously and meaningfully addresses an issue in the Prophetic biography connected to his character. But rarely do you find a book on his biography and his history that engages with historical texts regarding him with intellectual, scientific logic and its criteria rather than the logic of oratory or emotion or sentiment. This is what necessitates the writing of an intellectual biography of the life of the Messenger ﷺ so that it may be the predominant culture among the Muslims in the image they carve of the character of the Prophet ﷺ in their minds and consciousness.
- If we go to the Shīʿī environment, there is an accusation directed at the Shīʿa that appears before us. They are accused of neglecting the Prophet ﷺ, of not writing books on his biography and his life except a small few. They claim that he is a character who is relatively absent from their lives due to the presence of the concept of the Imām. Some even speak of a creedal and doctrinal deviance of the Shīʿa because of this.
Perhaps there are some historical reasons that forced the Shīʿa—in some periods—to focus and concentrate on the character of the Imāms more so than the character of the Prophet ﷺ because they wanted to prove and establish the validity of their theological school vis-a-vis other schools. This forced them to address issues of dispute which were centred on the concept of Imāmate and its implications. Likewise, the existence of many accessible texts from the Imāms of the Ahl al-Bayt (upon them be peace)—especially al-Ṣādiq and al-Bāqir (upon them both be peace)—made the presence of the Imāms’s texts distinguished and prominent in the studies of the Shīʿa. Yes, all of this does not justify the aforementioned creedal accusation made against them, but the Shīʿa today are asked to come to contribute in this field, to avert doubts raised against them, to take away the chance from partial and biased individuals and to prevent and avoid shortcomings. For this reason, the Prophetic character, his history and his texts should be studied within the Shīʿī community across the spectrum and all social classes, and closely related concepts should be revived, in order for the Messenger—as he always is—to be present within both the conscious and unconscious mind, at the individual, social, and communal level, in intellectual research and daily life.
It is necessary for a Shīʿī renaissance and revival to occur in the study of the Prophet’s ﷺ life and everything connected to it. It is also necessary to gather all the Shīʿī heritage regarding the character of the Prophet ﷺ and to re-investigate them and extract information from the manuscripts, so that the disaggregated research in different books among Shīʿa scholars can be compiled, in order to express their historical contributions in the study of the Messenger’s ﷺ character. And with this, general consciousness of the Messenger will multiply and studies regarding him will evolve and develop. Just as it has occurred in the Qurʼānic sphere, where the recent Shīʿī renaissance in the field of Qurʼānic sciences and exegesis has been serious and has already begun enhancing the presence of the Qurʼānic text among the Shīʿa in a way which deprives many of the opportunity to accuse the Shīʿa regarding their belief about the Noble Qurʼān.
- Hence, we see that what drove some Western researchers and writers to form a negative image of the Messenger ﷺ was a lack of satisfactory study of what is in the sources of Islamic ḥadīth about the character of the Messenger. This led to the exploitation of some of the shameful and abhorrent narrations attributed to the Messenger ﷺ regarding his morals and his relations with his wives, with the aim of presenting a distorted image to the world, coming from the sources of the Muslims themselves. Truly, this is what multiplies the need to purify the books of ḥadīth from the myths, fabrications, and that which is certainly false in practice, and the need to disclose this with total epistemic courage, so that these texts are not used in a negative way by others.
Naturally, when we say that, it is necessary to know that we do not endeavour to purify the ḥadīth from what is academically false in order to please others. Rather, it is required that our criticism of the ḥadīth and the sources of the Prophetic biography is an academic and objective criticism that isn’t based upon a phobia of others. In fact, the aim is solely knowledge, and after that we will become responsible for defending the character that has been proven academically for the Messenger ﷺ. Otherwise, we are not obliged to exhaust ourselves and our energy to defend things that have never been subjected—as the need requires—to entirely convincing academic research, and bear its responsibility.
Likewise, we are not obliged, as some do, to distort the image of the Noble Messenger in order to polish the image of this or that companion, or to clarify the noble quality of this or that Imām, as each have their own fate and place. However, this is assuming that theological disputes do not cause us—unfortunately—to prove the theories of our theological schools on account of this great Messenger, and this is what we see scattered in the narrations of the Muslims here and there, with extreme regret.
- On this basis, the humanitarian image of the Messenger ﷺ should be presented, as well as his noble character and morals, the dimension of his mercy and tolerance, and the way he treats others. For the Qurʼānic text provided us with an image of the Prophet ﷺ that differs greatly from some of the images that have been presented to us by ideas that are based on some ḥadīth—which may be weak.
The Qurʼān has described the Prophet ﷺ:
And you are truly ˹a man˺ of outstanding character. (68:4)
And no one among the Arabs can be found who denied the exalted character of the Messenger of God ﷺ.
Moreover, God also says:
It is out of God’s mercy that you ˹O Prophet˺ have been lenient with them. Had you been cruel or hard-hearted, they would have certainly abandoned you. (3:159).
This verse reveals the merciful conduct of the Messenger of God, as well as his kindness, his compassion, and his impeccable manners.
Indeed, the focus on the Qurʼān within the study of the biography of the Messenger and his qualities is essential. This is because the Qurʼān is—for us—a definitive and conclusive source, and contains much that is useful in writing the biography of the Prophet ﷺ. Therefore, the Qurʼānic text should be made one of the most important bases and sources for studying the Prophetic biography. The books of ḥadīth and history are not enough, for the distinguishing feature of the Qurʼān is that it is the correct criterion by which to measure these historical books and references of the Muslims.
Hence, the appeal to write a (Qurʼānic) biography of the Prophet is stressed and emphasised as it is an image closer to certainty and truthfulness—for the Muslim—than any other image. Likewise, the study of the Prophet’s life must distinguish between the eternal elements of his character and the gradual elements that his historical circumstances called for.
It is out of God’s mercy that you ˹O Prophet˺ have been lenient with them. Had you been cruel or hard-hearted, they would have certainly abandoned you. So pardon them…. (3:159)
 This article was published in volume 45 of the al-Minhāj Journal, Beirut, Spring 2007