Muhammad's Personality and Islam Essay

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Muhammad's Personality And Islam

Muhammad's Personality and Cultural Islam

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It has been said that "To say 'and Muhammad is the Messenger of God' is to commit oneself to a belief, not about the person of Muhammad, but about the validity of what he brought. The personality of Muhammad is essentially irrelevant." This statement is provocative. It forces thought about the various historical images of Muhammad, and how important they are for Islam. A recent example raises the issue. In 2005, a Danish newspaper published twelve cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad in various configurations. This triggered in some quarters a strong reaction related to the representation of Mohammed, which some Muslims thought was forbidden, idolatrous, blasphemous, or at least slanderous. It highlights what Rosen calls the "unspoken assumptions about the relation of individual believers to this central religious figure" (Rosen 105). It also highlights the suspicion that remains between Islam and the West. While no Muslim would claim that Muhammad is divine, many are emotionally incensed at such portraits of Muhammad, showing how central the cultural meaning of the Prophet is to understanding Islam. That being said, this paper will argue that the personality of the Prophet, while important as shown, for example, in the hadith, is not as important as the Qur'an and its system of belief. It is hard to go so far as to say that Muhammad's personality is "irrelevant." There have been many significant figures of him in Islam that have affected belief and practice. However, it is true that the system he brought through Scripture goes far beyond his personality. In addition, much of contemporary Islamic religion is shaped by cultural issues that do not directly refer to Muhammad's historical or figurative being. Three specific examples of the cultural forces that shape contemporary Islam will be examined in support of the idea that Islamic practice is influenced far beyond Muhammad's personality. For these reasons and with some qualification, it is best to see this statement as an accurate generalization.

Essay on Muhammad's Personality and Islam Muhammad's Personality and Assignment

The status of Muhammad in Islam may be compared usefully with the status of Jesus Christ in Christianity. The historical personality of Muhammad has not been obsessed over quite as much as that of Jesus Christ. In both cases, the historical data is limited. Both religious founders were responsible for authoritative words that became Scripture. The written products that stemmed from their lives and experiences with God became the source of spiritual revelation for their followers. However, in Christianity, Jesus was ultimately deified as part of the Trinity. To this day in most churches, Jesus is considered not only the Messiah, but also equal to God. The search for the "historical" Jesus has done little to alter the fact that it is the "Christ of faith" or the resurrected divine being that defines Christian dogma. In Islam, by contrast, this process did not take place. Muhammad's status is prophetic, not divine. Rosen says, "Unlike earlier prophets and Christ himself, Muhammad did not prove his legitimacy by miracles. Rather, as the Quran repeatedly states, it is the message itself -- which no human being could have created -- that is the sign and proof of its own veracity" (Rosen 112). Rosen views Muhammad as primarily a master of wisdom who was (and is) loved and emulated for knowledge but never worshipped. This is true despite the fact that his words in the Qur'an are considered holy and divine revelation. But this in itself is huge. The holy scriptures of Islam would not exist without the person of Muhammad who received them. As such, he is revered as the true prophet.

The personality of a prophet is always important, even if not considered divine. But like Jesus, Muhammad's real personality is hard to isolate. Ernst says that "on closer examination one finds it is equally hard to isolate the historical Muhammad from the Muhammad of faith" (Ernst 74). Muhammad played different roles as a historical person. As a result, many diverse portraits of Muhammad have grown up over the years. Yet Islam does not rest on a comprehensive interpretation of Muhammad's personality or life. It rests on the revelation that he brought into the world with the Qur'an.

This is not to say these figurations of Muhammad are not important. Outside of his status as revelation bearer, he is viewed culturally in different ways. For one thing, Muhammad's life represents a model for many aspects of human life. Ernst says, "He has served as an ongoing model for ethics, law, family life, politics, and spirituality in ways that were not anticipated 1,400 years ago" (Ernst 74). His impact as a model has been tremendous. For example, early accounts show him as a fierce warrior. Here is the image that Gabriel can write about, claiming Muhammad as Islam's first great military general. Gabriel styles him an insurgent who revolutionized warfare in the role of Messenger of God, creating an army motivated by a system of ideological belief (including jihad and martyrdom). He writes that Muhammad "established a revolutionary ideology attractive to that segment of the Arab population that lacked status, wealth, and protection from the harsh life of the poor and weak" (Gabriel 75). This is one image of Muhammad and his belief system that has had major repercussions through history. This legacy of Muhammad's personality influences today segments of militant conservative Islam.

Other images of Muhammad exist. Ernst points to the Muhammad of grace, who intercedes with God for humanity. This person has semi-mythical qualities and is perceived mystically (Ernst 84). Ernst points also to the Muhammad of authority, who gives the law that is the basis for social organization. Here the man is a trustworthy and charismatic arbitrator for social justice within a founded community of believers. The image is more political, taking into account his devotion to family, children, and worldly affairs. These are sometimes competing images with some reformist Muslims claiming that the Muhammad of grace, with all its celebrated iconography of the Prophet's physical beauty and ideas of intercession for others, is heretical and idolatrous. On the other hand, Ernst says, "For those who revere the Muhammad of grace, the historical details of his life and his legal pronouncements are of less interest than his beauty and his compassion for those in need" (Ernst 79). Thus, there are within Islam different approaches to the person of Muhammad. There is even a socialist Muhammad -- the figure who embodies ideals of social justice and liberation. These various attitudes range from seeing Muhammad as a political warrior spreading the message of God to the infidels to Muhammad as socio-political law-giver or as a compassionate spiritual mediator. Without question in all these images he is revered as an important figure, the seal of the prophets.

Whatever figure is emphasized, it rarely trumps the importance of the belief system he made possible. In fact, the diversity of portraits of Muhammad points to the fact that one image cannot serve as the basis for all of Islam. Besides receiving the Qur'anic revelations, Muhammad's other sayings are gathered in the hadith. While it is hard to imagine that any Islamic community could exist without the special status of the Qur'an as an ethical and legal guideline (transmitted verbatim and faithfully by Muhammad), the hadith is also authoritative for the community. Ernst writes, "In the subsequent elaboration of Islamic law, the hadith sayings formed the body of material from which one could extract the Prophet's ethical and religious model of exemplary behavior (sunna)" (Ernst 80). These collections of sayings and deeds formed Muhammad's important prophetic example. Many Islamic communities rely on them as a source for moral rules and traditions. Khalidi refers to the hadith as the "record of the relationship between the prophet and his people, Muhammad and his umma, or community of followers" (Khalidi 35). At the same time, Muslim intellectuals have debated the validity of these sayings as religious guides. Some turn back exclusively to the Qur'an, rejecting the succeeding traditions which are thought to be biased and misrepresentative. The important point here is not the content of the debates but the fact that stories about Muhammad's life and personality can be embedded in religious tradition. Rejecting them, however, does not mean rejecting Islam. While the Prophet's example has shaped Islamic understandings of society, social relations, and religious foundations, the ultimate authority remains the Qur'an and its belief system. The Prophet is held in esteem and emulated, but his message is of primary importance, not his person. We can turn to several varieties of contemporary Islam to show how more than the Prophet's figure, it is the socio-historical, political, and cultural context of faith and practice that is most influential.

Take Sudan, for example. Here we see a country whose leaders have attempted to establish an Islamic state out of a post-colonial situation of poverty and famine. The image of Muhammad functions in the Sudanese government as both as warrior in the fight against secularism, and as community sage… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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