Listening the Prophet – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (Introduction to “The Content of Character”, collected by Shaykh al-Amin Ali Mazrui)

Posted on September 7, 2010 by


Listening to the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa sallam)

By Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

[In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. passionately hoped that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In times where Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, it is becoming an increasingly popular trend to bash Islam and Muslims purely on xenophobic grounds or on the actions of a fringe extremist minority. For those with sincere intentions, do not judge Muslims because we look different and nor should you judge Muslims by the worst of us. Rather judge our community by the best of us and there is none better than the Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings be upon him). Judge the Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings be upon him) not by stereotypes conjured up by bigots, pundits, and politicians but by the content of his character.

The following excerpt is from the Introduction of “The Content of Character: Ethical Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sallahu alayhi wa sallam)“, collected by Shaykh Al-Amin Ali Mazrui, translation and introduction by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Subtitles are my own additions and are not contained in the original text]

[The Importance of Listening]

Can we change by listening? Can we be so touched and inspired by words that we are moved to renew and remake ourselves a better, nobler, and more merciful human beings? The impact that good words have had on humanity throughout history resoundingly declares we can.

These wise sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, collected here, are designed to do just that – to guide us to the very best in ourselves. Compiled by renowned East African scholar, Al-Amin ‘Ali Mazru’i, this collection brings together sayings that encourage good character, speaks to our conscience and our heart, and moves us to become better human beings.

For Muslims, Muhammad is a messenger from God. He occupies a central position in Islam, both as the vessel for God’s speech and as the primary interpreter of the Quran’s meanings. In Islam, hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, are second only to the Quran as a source for legal, ethical, and spiritual guidance. In essence, they are commentary on the word of God as expressed in the Quran.

Listening is the key. Many of us in the West have not listened to the Prophet Muhammad himself. We may have heard things said about him, but we have not actually listened to his own words. These sayings offer us the opportunity to do just that. They allow us the opportunity to enter into an internal dialogue with his words and through them to begin to know a man whom Muslims, and even some Western historians, believe to be the most significant human being who ever lived. They also offer us an opportunity to be introduced personally to someone whom many of our human family reverse as a fount of mercy, compassion, wisdom, justice, and love. All we have to do is listen.

[The Benefits of Studying the Words of the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa sallam) Today]

The Prophet’s words are as vital and relevant today as they were 1,400 years ago when they were first spoken. Whether you are a Muslim, a practitioner of another faith, or even someone who has no religious belief, these sayings have much to teach us. Sayings such as “A kind word is charity” and “Love for humanity what you love for yourself,” speak to us regardless of our personal creed; they speak to our shared essential nature.

They are also a way to understand better a large segment of our fellow human beings. By learning what Muslims around the world really believe, we edify ourselves regarding people about whom we may hold prejudicial and erroneous opinions.

Perhaps even more importantly for us as individuals, the hadiths are also a way to know our own selves better. They function as mirrors – by looking into them, we may come to see ourselves more clearly. We may come to see our humanity, the best and worst of ourselves. And through this seeing, this reflection, we may be moved to change ourselves to be more conformed to principled behavior. These sayings reflect back to us something that is within ourselves. If we see something noble that touches our hearts, we are seeing the best in ourselves. And if we see something we resist, it is perhaps something within ourselves that we resist. In a sense, we could say that these sayings read us as we are reading them. Each saying is an opportunity to know our selves more intimately.

Each saying is also a way to know more intimately the man who first uttered them. They can provide an opening into the one who, for Muslims, is the embodiment of impeccable character; the Prophet says, “I was only sent to perfect noble character.” These sayings are more than just his words; they are the verbal expressions of his personal conduct. As one of his companions, ‘Amr bin al-‘As said, “We saw everything the Prophet taught us embodied in his own character.” The Prophet’s teachings offer us a glimpse of what propelled his companions to love and cherish him to such a degree.

Another benefit of studying the Prophet’s words is that we can sense to some degree the power of words that impelled the Arabs to burst forth upon the theater of history with a vigor that restored vitality to countless peoples. Imam al-Busayri says in his Poem of the Cloak,

Finally his light dawned on the horizon.

And his radiant guidance suffused the world and brought life to

Countless civilizations.

For Muslims, the reason the Prophet’s words resonated so profoundly in the hearts of Arabs, and drove them from their homes with a passionate desire to convey them to others, is their celestial sources.

Humanity’s desire to receive guidance from heaven is universal. Whether it be the Confucian “Heavenly Mandate,” the Delphic Oracle’s adage “As above, so below,” or Emerson’s “Hitch your wagon to a star,” we seek celestial lights to guide us. The New Testament says that Christ, peace be upon him, prayed “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In this simple yet profound petition is that universal desire to connect with the heavens, to embody celestial character: to coordinate personal will with Divine will, to align the earthly with heavenly order. for in doing so, we achieve the pinnacle and full realization of our humanity. It is, in essence, Islam: submission to the will of the Divine.

[The Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa sallam) as a Model to Mankind]

According to Islam, submitting to the will of God is achieved through following the example of the prophets. The Quran says “You have in Abraham an excellent example.” Each age had its prophet and its practice; for the Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the paragon for humanity’s last universal phase. Following the Prophet means following his kindness to animals, his gentleness with children, his concern for the weak and oppressed, his care of the orphan and the widow, and his deep practice of justice always tempered with mercy. It means modeling oneself on his character.

[Love Causes the Desire to Model Another; 4 Types of Love]

The desire to model oneself on another emanates from love. There are four primary types of love, each corresponding to the respective experiences in the lover’s heart. The first is the initial attraction to the beloved’s sheer physical beauty. The second results from a recognition of the good received at the beloved’s hand. The third arises from a gnosis of the good received at the beloved’s hand. The third arises from a gnosis of the beloved’s internal beauty and merits. And finally, the fourth is the love that is solely for the sake of God, known in the West as caritas. Desirous of instilling profound love in the hearts of believers, the early Muslims left behind precise descriptions of the Prophet’s physical appearance, his actions, his character, and his rank with God. One contemporary describes him in the following words:

His face was luminous as the full moon. He was taller than average but not excessive in height. He had wavy hair, which he parted and which did not go beyond his shoulders, and he had fair skin and a wide brow. His eyes were black, his beard full, and his nose fine and aquiline. His cheeks were firm, and his teeth were brilliantly white with a small gap between the front ones. His physique was supple and lithe with a full chest and broad shoulders. His legs were powerful, his fingers slender, and his muscles fine and sinewy.

When he spoke, he was always brief and reflective. He spoke when he saw benefit and spent long periods in silent contemplation. His speech was comprehensive, being neither wordy nor laconic. He had a mild temperament and was never harsh nor cruel, coarse nor rude. He expressed gratitude for everything given to him, no matter how insignificant. When he spoke, his companions lowered their heads as if birds were perched upon them. When he was silent, they felt free to speak. He never criticized food nor praised it excessively. He never uttered obscenities nor did he find fault in people. He did not flatter people but praised them when appropriate.

[The Humor of the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa sallam)]

While the Prophet, peace be upon him, took matters most seriously and was a deeply contemplative man, he was also the most balanced person and was lighthearted and even humorous when appropriate. In a world wherein religion is often dampened with dourness, it is refreshing that the Prophet was known for his wonderful sense of humor.

The Prophet said, “I joke, but always truthfully.” A man once requested from the Prophet the use of a camel. He replied, “I can loan you a camel’s foal.”

“What use to me is a camel’s foal?” queried the man.

Laughing, the Prophet quipped, “Isn’t every camel the foal of another?”

Once, a gruff desert Bedouin urinated in the Prophet’s mosque, which greatly angered some of the companions; had not the Prophet constrained them, they would have attacked the Bedouin. The Prophet kindly told the man that mosques were sacred places that should be kept pure and clean. due to the companions’ harshness towards him and the Prophet’s gentleness, the man cried, “O God, forgive me and Muhammad and no one else.”

The Prophet laughed and said, “You are limiting the vast mercy of God.”

[The Urgent Need to Listen to the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa sallam)]

The Prophet Muhammad is a man of many facets. he was the founder of a religion that embraces a fifth of humanity. He inspired a yet-to-be-rivaled civilization with brilliant spirituality, tolerance, and longevity. While he is worth knowing for all these reasons, the real and most important reason is simply that he is a true and enlightened teacher who has much to teach us.

Although his historical and enduring meaning has always been worthy of interest, we have urgent need to listen to him today. Ignorance is greatly threatening the very real possibility of conciliation and conviviality among the diverse peoples of this planet, an ignorance that his teachings address directly. The Quran reminds us:

[God] created you from a male and a female, and made you a plurality of races and tribes for you to get to know each other. The most noble of you in the sight of God are those of you are who are most conscientious. And God is omniscient, fully aware.

Ironically, this dire need to listen to the Prophet Muhammad applies as much to some misguided Muslims as it does to peoples of other faiths and creeds. Perhaps if we in the West made greater efforts to remove the historical ignorance we have inherited by taking the Prophet as seriously as he deserves to be taken, many people in the troubled East might reevaluate their own shortcomings in grasping his universal message of mercy and compassion. The 13th century Egyptian poet,Ibn al-Farid, said,

If the fragrance of his remembrance radiates in the West

And a sick man resides in the East, he will recover

Let us then all set out, in our own unique ways, to help remove the obstacles of ignorance from the path to peace. We can begin by seeing embedded in the word “ignorance” the word “ignore” and by recognizing that the world can no longer afford to ignore the Prophet Muhammad, about whom the enlightened Victorian poet Edwin Arnold said,

… that marvelous and gifted Teacher created a vast empire of new belief and new civilization and prepared a sixth part of humanity for the developments and reconciliations which later times will bring. For Islam must be conciliated; it cannot be thrust scornfully aside or rooted out. It shares the task of the education of the world with its sister religions, and it will contribute its eventual portion to:

“that far-off divine event,

Towards which the whole creation moves.”

[How to Read the Narrations in this Book]

The sayings collected here are ultimately meant as an introduction to that “marvelous and gifted Teacher” whom the Quran describes as “a mercy to all the worlds.” Read each one slowly, contemplatively, letting it reveal its wisdom to you. As the Prophet reminded us, “Consideration is from God, and haste is from Satan.” Find one that speaks to you, and listen to it. Let it permeate you, and then in the example of the Prophet Muhammad, try to implement it in your life. And then return to them now and again as continual sources of guidance and wisdom.”

(p 4-11 of “The Content of Character: Ethical Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sallahu alayhi wa sallam)”, collected by Shaykh al-Amin Ali Mazrui, translation and introduction by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf)

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