A commonly heard criticism of religion is that it is ‘blind belief’, belief unsupported by the fact of reality, it is a conglomeration of superstitions, a mass of myths, a hotch-potch of unfounded concepts and ideas and therefore it is irrelevant to our lives today.
I beg to disagree with this view of religion, and I would like to show that the teachings of religion are very relevant to our lives today as they were 1400 years ago. The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) was wise, sharp, clear thinking, and above all compassionate. Consequently, his teachings were wise, life-changing and beneficial for all aspects of human life, in brief, we can say that there are three great gifts that Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave to humanity, his legacy is that he:
- Explained the true perspective of reality
- Taught moral values and ways of developing human relationships
- Promoted the use of reason and intellect
The common perception of life held at the time of the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) was that life is merely eating, drinking and enjoying oneself and then dying.
Desires had become gods, idol worship was the way to express this belief about worldly life, material wealth was the ‘be all and end all’ of life and they did not realise that this is only a brief moment in history. They made physical idols, gods from stone or clay that represented their desires, fancies and whims, men created their own gods according to their own fantasies, gods would be hawkish or dove-like and easily manipulated, those that will scum to their desires and wishes.
Today people might not worship such stone-dead idols but the world of technology, fast cars, flickering screens and self-gratification at fingertips are idols that are the hallmark of our age.
A natural corollary to this belief was the denial of the human soul and its immortality and the fact that we will be raised after death and be accountable for the life that we lived here on earth. The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) message was very simple, he declared, believe in one God he said “He is the Lord. He is supreme. There’s no one like Him. And He alone is worthy of all praise!”
This was a breath of fresh air. He taught “there is no comparison to Him”, nothing is like Him, He is matchless, the peerless, the Almighty, the avenger, the majestic Lord of the universe. He taught that we should fear Allah since such fear is the beginning of all wisdom.
Yes it is true that most fears are unhealthy and unhelpful however the fear of Allah is not like that, it instils in man a sense of reality it takes away the delusional side of life and puts remorse and regrets for our sins, it removes illusions and deceptions that we may have, in fact there is nothing neurotic about the fear, because He is the being that we should be afraid of and there is nothing else besides this that we should fear.
Man being a control freak would love to have a God who he can control easily. However, the true God, the God of Muhammad (peace be upon him), in fact the God of all the Prophets; Abraham, Moses and Jesus is the one almighty, powerful, controlling God who is loving, patient and the exalted. This was the revolution that, Muhammad (peace be upon him) brought about.
This freedom from false gods also gave mankind freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, freedom from ignorance, freedom from suppression and freedom from fear. Such a belief makes life meaningful and purposeful, man becomes the divine representative on earth, life takes on important meaning, to worship the Lord and appreciate and value the gifts and bounties that He has blessed us with. The ultimate aim is to live a good life that pleases the Lord and be able to live in his proximity in heaven in the hereafter.
Human life is a journey on earth, a probationary period of doing good that then entitles us to Divine proximity in paradise and the beautific vision in the hereafter. This is beautifully expressed in the Majestic Quran. “We’ve made attractive what is on earth, to test who is the best in deeds” (Kahf: 7). It carries on. “Wealth and children are beautiful decorations of this life. However, good deeds will remain with your Lord, an excellent reward and hope” (Kahf: 46).
The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not teach us about how to gain wealth or how to make money or to thrive in business or how to better manage our accounts. He taught precious principles and values that enrich and make our lives worth living for. Principles that we will truly appreciate at the end of our lives, it is all we are really left with. “The riches of soul and spirit, dwarf all other riches as they endure like no other form of wealth we know.”
Moral values and ways of developing human relationships
Individualism and self-centeredness are two features of our society; this is placing the human being at the centre stage of everything. When people feel there is no need for empathy, kindness, forgiveness and patience, a liberal attitude to human behaviour. One result of this self-centred, individualistic society is that it is a society that is relationship-hungry, people are hungry for authentic, significant and mature relationships. On the other hand, the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) promoted the development of strong character and moral values so that human relations may flourish. Whatever the messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) taught, it was for our maximum benefit, in Islam what matters most is the inner values of love, kindness and charity rather than the counter attributes of power, wealth and fame.
Developing strong character
A major objective of Islamic teachings and preaching (urging people to accept good ideas) is to help people develop strong character that is reflected in their lives as kindness, generosity, patience, forgiveness. The aim is to produce good citizens capable of distinguishing right from wrong and capable of doing the right things. Our behaviour is in the end, an outworking of our beliefs. Or to put it the other way round, what we actually believe will inevitably become apparent through our attitudes and actions.
Three features of Islamic moral teachings
The first feature of Islamic moral teachings is that it’s interested in the entire person, providing guidance for emotional demands, development of moral intelligence and social responsibilities. In this way it integrates the different spheres of life, by encouraging wholesome living by building personal relationships and developing social ties, beginning with one’s self, their families and their communities.
The second feature of Islamic moral teachings is that it shatters the myth that humanity consists solely of a cognitive dimension and that we are intellectual beings, and we are just Aristotle’s rational animal or like Star Trek’s Captain Spock. Islam on the contrary stresses that intellectual reflection and the scientific enterprise alone cannot put us in touch with every dimension of reality or lead us to discover every aspect of Allah’s truth, we need to develop moral intelligence. Ralph Waldo Emerson eloquently conveyed this when he said “character is higher than intellect… A great soul will be strong to live as well as to think”.
The third feature of Islamic moral teachings is a vital ingredient for the building of a strong community. This is particularly relevant and needed in our time of social disintegration. Today social media; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become the surrogate community. Here the individual imagines himself to be part of a community, no matter how artificial or remote it may be, he is almost oblivious of the fact that it is virtual, however, it is considered as one’s community. Perhaps this is a powerful reaction to the radical individualism that is dominating the modern era, whilst modernity elevated individualism by creating an individualistic world and society, a society with free human beings who have inherited rights but seem not to have any responsibilities.
Islam, on the other hand, has always promoted the idea of community. It insists on self-sacrifice, kindness to others, taking care of others through generosity. So this postmodern trend of social networking in some ways appears as a reaction to broken lives, broken families and broken society, alarm bells are ringing to warn us of the dangers of living a cocooned and virtual life and emphasising the need to live in real human communities.
Since communities are important in the formation of personal identity and it is only through community that its members learn the transcendent story, which includes the moral virtues, the common good and the purpose and the meaning of life. Islam always emphasised the establishment of the community through ‘Amr bil Maruf and Nahi an munkar’ “to invite people to the common good, enjoin good and forbid evil” (Ale Imran; 104).
Gratitude and forgiveness
Here I would like to give examples of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) moral behaviour and two moral values that he promoted amongst his followers; gratitude and forgiveness. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “he who does not show gratitude to people cannot be grateful to Allah either.” Researchers have shown that having the virtue of gratitude enhances their well-being and health.
Two psychologists, Michael McCullough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Robert Emmons of the University of California wrote an article about an experiment they conducted on gratitude and its impact on well-being. They split several hundred people into three different groups and all of the participants were asked to keep daily diaries.
- Group 1 were told to write about either good or bad things
- Group 2 were told to record their unpleasant experiences
- Group 3 were instructed to make a daily list of things for which they were grateful and pleased.
The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy. In addition, those in the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, and were more likely to help others, exercised more regularly, and made greater progress toward achieving personal goals. A higher level of happiness regardless of outside circumstances.
The Quran presented the Prophet (peace be upon him) as the supreme, in the most beautiful role model for mankind. “You have an excellent role model in the Messenger of Allah” (Ahzab: 21).
He is an exemplar par excellence in all respects from the purity of his beliefs, the goodness of his behaviour to the beauty of his character. He was a splendid role model, we all recognise the need for role models, children imitate their parents, students reflect the manners of their teachers and those who yearn for perfection in character and devotion to the Lord can find no better model than the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him).
The Prophet forgives his tormentors
The intense trials and tribulations of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) trip to the city of Taif illustrate in abundance the virtues of forgiveness and forbearance, which were the hallmark of his gentle, stoical personality. This trip came soon after the death of his beloved wife and constant companion of 25 years Khadija as well as that of his patron uncle Abu Talib who had been an impenetrable bulwark that stood between his nephew and the brutal Quraish.
The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) life was in emotional turmoil at this time with no moral support from Khadija or protection from Abu Talib. With his uncle gone, the Quraish sensed the Prophet’s vulnerability and sped up their vicious and relentless campaigns of hatred and hounding. He decided to try the nearby city of Taif hoping that his call to Islam would find more willing recipients there than he was having at that time in Makkah. However, the tribe of Thaqif, who ruled the city, not only declined to listen to him but mocked and ridiculed him mercilessly and expelled him from the city.
In the face of such fierce opposition, the beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) had no choice but to retreat hastily. They ran after him, pelting him with stones, which caused him severe injuries. In excruciating mental, physical and emotional pain, bleeding and exhausted, he took refuge in a vineyard. Feeling dejected, forlorn, helpless and humiliated he raised his hands and prayed a prayer, which has become an iconic symbol of utter submission to the will of Allah in the face of complete and total despair. Read the intensity, the beauty and the moving humility of this magnificent supplication;
“Allah! Please consider my weakness, my shortage of means, and the little respect people have of me. Oh, most Merciful Allah! You are the Lord of the oppressed and you are my Lord. To whom would you leave my fate? To a stranger who insults me? Or to an enemy who dominates me? Would I that you have no wrath against me! Your pleasure alone is my objective.”
The Prophet sends charity to famine-stricken Makkah
The Muslims had been attacked three times by the Makkans, at Badr, Uhud and third time when they gathered all their allies to wipe out the Muslims. However, look at the goodness of the messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), when he heard that people in Makkah were facing famine, he immediately sent them a supply of food and 500 gold coins as charity from the Muslims of Madinah.
The conquest of Makkah
The conquest of Makkah is perhaps the most striking example of the Messenger’s (peace be upon him) forgiveness and moral character. After twenty years of hostility and persecution, he returns to Makkah with a mighty army the likes of which the Quraish had never seen. However, he entered with utmost humility, with a bowed head, no swagger, and no trappings of an all-mighty conquering hero, no revenge or retaliation. Not a single person was killed in this phenomenal conquest.
Promoted the use of reason and intellect
The Quran constantly encourages readers to use their reason and logical faculties when experiencing and observing physical realities around them. This way of thinking brought about a seismic change in human history, it taught people to use reason, logic and observations. These are the basis of scientific and empirical method, so Muslims laid the foundations of modern science.
Prof. Maurice Bucaille has pointed out the existence in the Quran of several scientific statements that are amazingly accurate in the light of modern science, for example, the Quran describes the origins of life in general and devotes a great deal of space to the morphological transformation undergone by man, repeatedly emphasising the fact that Allah fashioned him as He willed.
We likewise discover statements on human reproduction that are expressed in precise terms that lend themselves to comparison with the secular knowledge we today possess on the subject. A concept of the creation of the world, which is fully in keeping with today’s general theories on the formations of the universe. Statements that are in perfect agreement with today’s ideas concerning the movements and evolution of the heavenly bodies. Notions concerning the water cycle in nature and the earth’s relief, which were not proven correct until many centuries later. This is contrary to the notion of blind faith in science and technology; this is the notion that science and technology will eventually solve and cure all human problems.
Science is rediscovering some of the realities and facts that the Muslims have always been familiar with since the middle ages. Similarly, the social sciences and humanities are rediscovering some of the perennial truths that the Quran taught 1400 years earlier.