Foundations of Identity
The main figure associated with the foundation of Islam is Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who Muslims believe was chosen by God as His last messenger to humanity. Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation in the year 610 at the age of 40 and which he continued to receive for 23 years until his demise in 632. The first person to become his follower was his wife Khadijah, and then his cousin ‘Ali and his uncle Hamzah. The Qur’an also acknowledges the previous prophets whose mission culminated in Islam as the most complete religion of all the revealed religions. In the Sunni school, the first four caliphs are considered as the rightly guided ones (al-khulifa’ al-rashidun). The first two caliphs especially help the spread of Islam. According to the Shi’ah, Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) and her progeny, the Imams, played an important role in the foundation of the faith. They are seen as the extension of Prophethood and the preservers of the message.
Stories regarding the Prophet are mainly found in the sunnah (traditions) as well as some history books or biographies of the Prophet, for example: The Prophet, aged 12, was accompanying his uncle’s caravan. When they stopped for a rest on their way to Damascus, a Christian hermit recognised the sign of prophecy on Muhammad (pbuh) and told his uncle that the boy was destined for greatness. On a night of Ramadan in the year 610, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was meditating in the cave of Hira when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and ordered the Prophet to ‘recite’ (iqra’!). The Prophet who was illiterate told the Angel he cannot recite, the Angel repeated two more times and the Prophet began uttering the words of the Qur’an. Even before the revelation, the Prophet was known for his remarkable reputation amongst his tribe and others. He was highly respected and trusted (he was named al-Aman, the trustworthy). After the revelation of his Prophethood, it is stories about his impeccable character, kindness, gentleness and love towards others, as well as his patience and endurance towards those who opposed and harmed him because they did not believe in his mission that teach us about the personality of the Prophet and how his personality helped found and spread the message of Islam.
Islam is clear that all prophets are ordinary human beings chosen by God for special missions. They have been sent to guide the people towards God and teach them about what is good for them and to warn about what is bad. The only way that people will listen to a prophet and follow him is if the prophet was himself a good person. Hence Islam asserts the infallibility of each and every prophet as God, out of His grace and justice, would not ask a people to follow a sinner.
Muslims view all prophets as examples to follow in the way they interacted with others (kindness and tolerance) and the way they were committed to God. The Qur’an describes Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as the most perfect example to follow (Surah 33:21). Muslims follow the Prophet by referring to the traditions (ahadith) that describe his actions and words.
The Qur’an says:
By the Star when it goes down—Your Companion is neither astray nor being misled. Nor does he say (aught) of (his own) Desire. It is no less than inspiration sent down to him. (53:1-4)
Every single word and action of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is in accordance with the revelation of God. Hence everything that emanated from him represented the highest and most perfect level of spiritual and moral values.
Muslims believe that the Qur’an, revealed over 1400 years ago, is the eternal word of God and hence can be interpreted for today’s world. A famous tradition (hadith) states: “What was permissible during the life of Muhammad will be permissible until the Day of Judgment and what was forbidden during the life of Muhammad will be forbidden until the Day of Judgment”. Hence the person of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is an everlasting example. Muslims look at the example of the Prophet and interpret his actions and words for the time and the society they live in. As the epitome of perfection, Muslims of all ages strive to follow in his footsteps in order to reach perfection which is the purpose of creation.
For Muslims this life can only have a meaning with a belief in the next life as the purpose of this life is the Hereafter. Hence any deeds, exertion, or gains in this world must have as an ultimate end the next world.
All that the Prophet did was in accordance with Islam and for the pleasure of God. The Prophet showed that material gains, worldly powers, and high status for example are all part of the temptations of this temporal world but which no one takes with them to the next life. It is only the deeds of peoples’ worldly life that will accompany them into the grave and which will determine their destiny. As a perfect role model, he put into practice all that he preached. He showed how humans can detach themselves from worldly temptations and overcome tests and difficulties. Nevertheless, he lived his life to the full; he was a husband, a father, a friend, a businessman, a leader, a teacher. He showed how people can contribute to society, help others and work hard to fulfil their material needs yet still remaining detached from the love of the world and its material temptations.
For Muslims, it is important to know that all belongs to God and the same way God gives it, God can take it away and that everything shall perish except the face of God. This life is no longer a goal but the means to bliss if one’s deeds are good or to hell if they are bad. As the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the perfect example for Muslims, he was the embodiment of obedience to the One God knowing that this life is a mere transition to the eternal life which awaits. Throughout his life he had complete trust in God at all times and bore with patience in any difficult situation. He was certain that the justice of God will come and he knew that there is nothing other than God as attested by the Qur’an:
And call not, besides Allah, on another god. There is no god but He. Everything (that exists) will perish except His own Face. To Him belongs the Command, and to Him will ye (all) be brought back. (Surah 28:88)
God is the source of inspiration. There is a saying in Islam that when a person takes one step towards God, God takes ten steps towards them (as in gaining closeness, not literal steps). Although God is the One who inspires and guides, the human being has to be ready to ‘receive’ that guidance.