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20

The Prophet Muhammad:

 

Between Humanity and Divinity

by Carl Ernst

 

Prophet Muhammad was, to the Arabs of 7th-century Mecca and to a great many others, the vehicle for the manifestation of God. The problem of understanding his role and nature has remained, however, a difficult one. In an effort to clarify this problem, the Persian Sufi ‘Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani juxtaposed two remarkable statements: in the Quran (24.35), it is said that "God is the light of the heavens and earth," and Muhammad himself stated that "the first thing that God created was my light." What is the relationship between the light of God and the light of Muhammad? Are they somehow the same, and somehow different? These questions are not easy to answer. As Ayn al-Qudat forcefully explains, the relationship between Muhammad and God can only be understood by spiritual experience, and not by any theoretical construction. This insistence on experience over theory should not come as a surprise. To know the spiritual being of a light such as Muhammad's would be to open oneself up to an illumination that blinds the beholder. Theory can have no place in this condition.

 

‘Ayn al-Qudat provides no ready-made answer to the problem of understanding Muhammad’s relationship to God, but he subtly indicates the necessity of a spiritual approach to the figure of the man who brings God. After all, what do we really know of the nature of the God-man? Does our knowledge of him consist of facts from books, or of the vision of the heart? The Sufi maintains that it is only by inner knowledge that we have genuine experience of the reality of Muhammad. Ordinary books are valuable only insofar as they lead us to that inner experience, and books that deal with Reality are very different from the "factual" newspapers of today. Valmiki's Ramayana is no ordinary history, but the product of an ecstatic vision. Krishna's discourse in the Bhagavad Gita is reported from afar by the supernormally perceptive Sanjaya. In the cases of Buddha, Jesus, and Zarathustra, the distance of centuries has obscured their disciples' accounts of their words and deeds, but that does not diminish the spiritual power that brings them close to us. So in contemplating Muhammad the Prophet, let us not be deluded by the comparatively greater amount of historical material, nor imagine that we know him by these external details; we need the eye of the spirit to let us see through the events of history to the eternities that lie behind.

 

Nonetheless, it is good to begin with what is well-known about Muhammad's humanity. According to Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, Muhammad was "neither tall and lean nor overly short, but of medium height. His hair was neither curly ringlets nor lank, but straight locks . . . His eyes were deep black and large, his eyelashes long. His disposition was noble . . . His feet and hands were rough and coarse. When he walked, he moved his feet as if he were walking downhill. When he turned, he turned around completely."

 

Many stories are told about Muhammad's personality and way of life. His justice and trustworthiness were famous even when he was a child, so that while still a youth he was called on to solve disputes. One such case occurred when the Quraysh tribe was rebuilding the sacred Ka'bah in Mecca. They had gotten to the point of restoring the famous black stone to its place, and the leading men were arguing over who should have the right to install it. The young Muhammad appeared, and the men asked him to arbitrate the matter. Muhammad told the four most eminent leaders to place the stone on a blanket, and then each take a corner of the blanket and lift it. When the stone was up to the proper height, Muhammad then took the stone and set it in its place. Muhammad lived simply, patching his own sandals, doing household chores, and in lean times often going hungry. He was especially fond of children, and used to joke and play with them. Once he teased his wives by announcing that he had a present for the one he loved best; all waited in anticipation to discover who was the lucky one, as he finally handed the present to a granddaughter. He was also tender toward animals. And specifically ordered his followers to avoid hurting animals needlessly.

 

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