How could one human being, inevitably situated in his time and place, be a role model for all? Are moral truths universal? If so, and there exists a “natural law” so to speak, why did the Almighty not just reveal a book with a list of such rules rather than sending a living human teacher? And if not, were the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ limited to his time and place, now rendered obsolete by modern developments? Such questions are often raised in the name of some ethical paradigm that happens to be in vogue, be it freedom, equality, progress, social justice, or the current state of scientific knowledge. Muslim theologians, as we shall discuss below, entertained both of these paradigms. Another error that surreptitiously makes its way into the thinking of even many well-meaning Muslims is to reduce the Prophet’s ﷺ role-model to a selection of feel-good stories divorced from his divine message of belief in (tawḥīd
) and submission to God (sharīʿa
), thus turning him, as secular Christians have done with Jesus, into a darling sage always ready with quotable quotes rather than a role-model to be followed earnestly for guidance in this world and salvation in the next.17
In the rest of this essay, we dive deep into the meaning and import of the Prophet’s role-model by exploring these questions.
The alternative paradigms
To understand why it is the example of the Prophet ﷺ, and not a set of abstract principles or the insights of rational contemplation, that lies at the center of the Islamic system of ethics, we need to understand why alternative ethical groundings have proven inadequate. Our ideas of ethics—of what is right and wrong, or morally beautiful and ugly, respectively—are naturally grounded in our fundamental worldviews, sometimes formulated in theological or philosophical discourses. Modern philosophers distinguish the practical question of which actions are right and wrong (‘first order’ concerns) from the theoretical question of the status of moral values and the nature of moral valuation (‘second order’ questions, the concerns of metaethics). One may further subdivide first order concerns into applied ethics (specific policies and decisions in particular spheres of life, answering questions such as, “Is it right for one to tell a white lie to make peace between spouses?” and “Ought I to use the printer at work to print my son’s homework?”) and normative ethics (questions such as “What are the general principles of good conduct?” or “Ought I to do that which pleases God, or maximizes human benefit, or what a virtuous community considers to be good, or do to others what I would have them do to me?” etc.). This division is merely conventional, as the line between metaethics and normative ethics is often blurred, and hence the two can be lumped together as ‘theoretical ethics,’ which in Islam has been dealt with in theological discourses found in the works of Kalam, falsafa, usul al-fiqh, tafsir works, and numerous other genres.
Metaethics has profound implications for normative as well as applied ethics. For instance, most modern Western philosophers, given their field’s largely atheistic or agnostic approach, think that the idea of right and wrong is merely a man-made fiction or social construction—the debate often revolves around what kind of fiction.18
The only ethics possible in their world are based on secular notions such as utility, emotion, or survival. In contrast, for ancients like Plato, Aristotle, and their disciples (including the Muslim falasifa
), right and wrong were matters of rational inquiry, and the good was inscribed in the nature of things which a philosopher could read through systematic reasoning. Insofar as reason to them was a divine quality, their systems in fact were at once deeply religious and philosophical, and far nobler than modern secular ethics, but as we saw in the first article, without the benefit of revelation, prone to grave errors.
Because all ethical systems are part of a larger worldview (ʿaqīda), any comparison is of limited validity. All ethical comparisons must pay attention to both the grounds for similarity between any two systems as well as the disagreements. Ethics can be likened to the skin of an organism, and comparing the softness of bird feathers to the roughness of alligator hide misses the fact that the two perform different functions. Any comparison, furthermore, must be made from within a given framework, which we take to be the shared human nature. And although the shared fiṭra (God-given human nature) is a valid ground for comparison, humans have also been given an oversized capacity for self-deception, and fiṭra discloses itself only to the discerning.
With some holistic discernment, however, we can see the superiority of the revealed wisdom. Think of the contention by Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), purportedly the greatest modern ethical philosopher, that the way to be ethical is to obey the categorical imperative—a rule that you would accept being practiced by everyone. In other words, a universal law. Kant’s ethical system, known as deontological ethics, went so far as to decry the force of human feelings of love, friendship, or altruism in the performance of the rational, ethical duty. This is an abstract and ultimately unusable formulation of the ancient, revealed wisdom recorded in the Biblical tradition as well as the Prophetic hadith, known as the golden rule. The Prophetic injunction, “One does not believe until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself,” is a rule of thumb that inhabits an entire ecosystem of relationships, beliefs, imperatives, and sentiments that together prevent its misuse and abuse. Now imagine a morally depraved person, like today’s billionaire capitalists. What do they love for themselves? Instant gratification without end, even at the expense of ending all that lives on Earth, and all that is good. What would they choose for others if they want everything on the planet for themselves? Perhaps death (“If I had a life as worthless as yours, I would prefer death”) or some prosperity gospel of equal opportunity (“We had equal opportunity, I won billions and you, the billions, got nothing, fair deal!”).
Alternatively, imagine a fanatic believer forcing everyone to his faith, to his truth. In a perfect Kantian world, such a believer would want to be forced to believe as well as forcing others to believe, for the truth and its consequences in the afterlife do not depend on one’s erroneous belief that denies it. Whereas Islamic ethics teaches us that “there is no compulsion in religion” and hence people who choose to hold erroneous beliefs are to be given freedom and rights, such divinely mandated generosity would appear illogical to a Kantian liberal. In the liberal worldview, tolerance can be premised only on the unknowability or irrelevance of the truth. In short, modern liberal ethics grounded in the Kantian imperative is at heart the translation of a religious principle that made perfect sense in shared communities of faith, but has since become a soulless idiom of Enlightenment-era secularism in which empty universalism replaces commitment to the truth. In Islam, as we shall see, we love for our brethren in faith what we love for ourselves: eternal success in the afterlife. And yet, for our brethren in humanity for whom we desire faith, we are constrained by the divine law not to coerce them into faith.
Similarly, humans are driven to do good not merely by a sense of abstract rational duty, as Kant insisted they must, but by a combination of acquired virtuous habits, sentiments of love or mercy, desire for reward or fear of punishment or loss in this world and/or the eternal afterlife, and the best of them, for the love of the infinite good that is God. Another modern approach to ethics, called consequentialism, judges actions by their consequences. But it is as unhelpful as Kant’s duty-based ethics, because of at least two obvious reasons: first, consequences of actions are typically unknowable in the real world, and second, what consequences should be desired falls into question-begging.
A moral philosophical tradition nearer to human nature (and hence Islam) is the ancient tradition of virtue ethics, often attributed to Aristotle. It prioritizes not abstract duty but acquisition of virtues recognized within a morally alert community such as charity, benevolence, courage, temperance, and so on, turning the focus from Kantian mental gymnastics to the habits of the whole human person. One good example of virtue ethics is the tradition of Arab chivalry (murū’a) before Islam, one that the Prophet ﷺ both encouraged and often corrected or redirected. Virtue ethics is, however, fundamentally incomplete. What counts as a virtue requires not only the use of rational thinking but also, and this is the crucial part, individual and communal well-being defined by a worldview. In a community of pickpockets, one could become a skillful thief with virtues of speed and nimbleness; among ruthless capitalists, being a heartless shark is a compliment. Virtue ethics does not account for the ultimate consequence of one’s actions and the purpose of one’s life.
Classical Islamic theories of ethics
None of these approaches, notwithstanding the insights they offer, fully encompasses the Islamic approach to ethical formation, for they ultimately neglect or decenter the question of truth. In contrast, notwithstanding its great diversity and intellectual depth, Islamic tradition is committed, metaphysically, to an Omnipotent and Ever-Living God who created humankind to worship Him and, in the social sphere, to the central fact of divine law. As such, Muslim thought derived not from endless puzzlement about the nature and possibility of the good, but from the great, transformative fact of the good revealed by God and embodied in the Prophet ﷺ and in the community he created. Muslim scholars, therefore, did not immediately need to attend to the question of metaethics, and their intense moral lives drew their inspiration from the divine command embodied in the Prophet ﷺ.
Even as classical theology expanded into abstractions forced by polemics and reflection, Muslim theologians tended to be guided by the centrality of God’s law in Islam. Consider classical Muslim theologians’ discourse on the well-known “Euthyphro’s dilemma” posed by Plato over a thousand years earlier: Is an action good because “the gods” command it (to use Plato’s language), or do “the gods” command it because it is good?19
Whereas the early scholars had silently assumed a harmony between the two, the Muʿtazilites, who were the first Muslims to theologize about ethics and developed a rational system that became known as Kalam, contended that it was the latter, that Allah commanded only what was already good. This had the unintended effect of binding God to do what human reason demanded. In response, the Ashʿarites, the first Kalam-based defenders of scripture, insisted that it was the former, thus articulating a Divine Command Theory of ethics. To them, ethical value had no ontological existence—acts are not actually good or bad but God, through revelation, freely and arbitrarily labeled certain acts as licit and hence rewarded in the afterlife, and others as illicit and punishable in the afterlife. Precisely because the leading Ashʿarites held to an extreme version of the Divine Command Theory, they sought purely psychological and utilitarian explanations for why and how humans universally assign ethical value to acts. On this view, people call good what they see as benefiting them, or that which evokes a positive reaction in them (a view today called emotivism
). This prompted leading Ashʿarites like al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) to attend to and write masterfully on psychological aspects of human action, while restricting the source and knowledge of ethics to divine revelation. Human reason, nevertheless, could reflect on values declared or implied in the divine law, and such reflections gave birth to a discourse on the higher objectives of the law (maqāṣid al-sharīʿa
Unlike today’s postmodernists who deny the ontological reality of ethics and are left with nothing but arbitrary power, Muslim skeptics of rational ethics were not nihilists but advocates of ethics embodied in the divine law, and thus still vigorously believed in ethical norms. Ultimately, even when they assigned different relative values and took different epistemic routes to the Prophet’s Sunnah, its normative value was central to all of their systems. The Traditionalists (the heirs of the early Muslims who rejected Kalam as a heretical innovation altogether), Muʿtazilites (a school that became established among the Twelver Shiʿa), the Ashʿarites and the Maturidites (who sought to defend Sunnism using Kalam) were all committed to upholding the divine command and the Sunnah of the Prophet.20
Akhlāq and fiqh
Turning to reflection on the nature of the Prophet’s ﷺ ethics, we begin with the Almighty’s declaration:
And indeed [O Prophet] you are possessed of a great character (khuluq).21
The Qur’anic word for character is khuluq
In Arabic, khuluq
(same as khulq
, plural of which is akhlāq
, or khalāʾiq
refers to the non-physical part of a human being, or ‘second nature,’ in contrast to khalq
, the physical form of a human being. Khuluq
refers to both the outwardly qualities known as manners
, such as courteousness, gentleness, forbearance, etc., and the inner qualities referred to as morals
(from Latin mores
(from Greek ethos
), or character,
like integrity, honesty, truthfulness, patience, courage, etc.24
Humans use language, however, in creative and supple ways that do not admit of rigid classification, and often, a reference to outward manners
means inner morals
and vice versa.
To appreciate how the meaning of khuluq in Islam encompasses both morals and manners, consider the following widely reported saying of the Prophet ﷺ:
There are four habits, whosoever has them is a complete hypocrite. If one of these habits is found in him, he will have one habit of hypocrisy until he gives it up: When he speaks, he lies, when he makes a promise, he breaks it, when he makes a covenant, he is treacherous, and when he quarrels, he is abusive.25
Three of the vices listed here are moral flaws—lying, breaking promises, and treachery—and all can be classified as pertaining to moral integrity. The fourth one, absence of self-control in a dispute, is a vice of behavior, although it too suggests a meanness of character. At the risk of reading too much into it, we might say that even the proportion of three-fourths inner virtue and one-fourth outer courtesy is an apt depiction of prophetic ethics. This hadith stresses the most emphasized Islamic virtues: truthfulness, reliability in promises and contracts, patience, and forbearance. But it also includes in the meaning of akhlāq good cheer, politeness, and simple kindness.
Since the early days of Islam, the Qur’an and the Prophetic character were seen as substantively the same, and the meanings of the Qur’anic ideal were sought in the akhlāq
of the Prophet ﷺ. In fact, Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh
) was, in the first instance, nothing but a comprehensive response to the divine commands and prohibitions, without any formal distinction between worship and other aspects of life. Allah commanded all that was good and prohibited all that was bad. Manners and morals were taught through role-modeling, reminders of heaven and hell, and moral stories. Authorities or scholars were consulted only in cases of disagreement; matters that elicited disagreement and required expert knowledge became the preserve of the specialists, and those that were largely agreed upon and required mastery of practice fell under akhlāq
. Rather than thinking of fiqh
as equivalents of the modern notions of law and ethics, in my view, the most helpful way to differentiate between the two is precisely this: fiqh
is that part of Islam where the challenge is expert knowledge and management of differing interpretations, while akhlāq
is that part of Islam where the challenge is the internalization of commanded virtues, habit-formation, and cultivation of virtuous sensibilities.26
Over time, fiqh
became concerned with knowing God’s commands in specific situations, such as ritual worship (ʿibādāt
, whose form is defined in revelation) and social relationships and transactions (muʿāmalāt
). The discipline of akhlāq
, in contrast, came to focus on the acquisition of virtues and refinement of outward manners and inner states. The challenge posed by virtues is to acquire them, make them a habit, learn how to prioritize when they compete with each other, and most importantly, direct them to God rather than selfish or other non-godly ends. It is for this reason the discipline of ethics is closely related in Islam to the inner, psychological disciplines of tazkiya
, and taṣawwuf
Unsurprisingly, then, the cultivation of good character was sought ubiquitously in Islamic civilization:
in parental discipline at home, Qur’an schools, madrasa
s, mosques, the battle field, the marketplace, the Sufi orders,
and so on, and incorporated in the instruction of every science and craft. It was also discoursed on in dedicated treatises and “self-help” books. These included titles such as Adab al-Dunya wal-l-Din
(Worldly and Religious Etiquette) by Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058) and al-Ādāb al-Sharʿiyya
(Divinely Mandated Etiquettes) by Ibn Mufliḥ al-Maqdisī (d. 763/1263), to mention just two prominent ones, in addition to sections on adab
in nearly all comprehensive collections of prophetic hadith.28
Different Muslim traditions of ethics, some taking their cue from hadith reports, others from fiqh, and yet others from taṣawwuf, kalam, and falsafa, have variously emphasized divine command, rational analysis, and psychological reflection, but all sport features of each, and to the extent that they are truly Islamic, they are all grounded in the Prophetic model. I propose, therefore, that as the Muslim ummah strives to understand, revive, and embody Islamic ethics, rather than resolving theoretical conundrums or constructing abstract principles—which no doubt have academic value—it is prophetic ethics with which we must begin.
What is prophetic ethics? A complete moral ecology
Because real life is bigger than words, only a living, breathing exemplar confronted by the enormity and complexity of real life—followers and detractors, ups and downs, surprises and tragedies—could express the fullness of the divine moral teachings. This is why it is the role model, the Sunnah, of a human being ﷺ, who was sent as “Mercy to all the worlds,”29
that is at the heart of Islamic teachings on right and wrong, their nature and consequences, and ways to acquire virtues and avoid vices. Islamic ethics involve three complementary elements:
(i) obedience to divine commands--this being the most distinctive dimension of Islamic ethics that orients the believer towards an afterlife and infuses moral actions with an eternal concern;
(ii) rational comprehension and reflection for the purpose of appreciating the truth, knowing appropriate ways and occasions to practice, prioritizing competing values, reconciling general principles and particular teachings, and the like; and
(ii) finally, love, the proper drive for being virtuous, which prompts one to seek God’s pleasure and love.
In the following, we show how God embodied the elements of obedience, reason, and love in the person of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
It is important to differentiate at the outset between the Prophet’s personal traits and the normative aspects of his role-model. As a complete human being, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ had a unique combination of personal traits, such as a preference for gentleness, patterns in speech, and preferences in dress, cuisine, perfume, and appearance, etc., traits that do not have normative value. Every prophet had such personal traits that allow us to relate to them as human beings. Moses, for instance, is known to have possessed the strong, dominant character of a leader, whereas Jesus had the gentle and patient character of a sage. Both types of traits are fitting in their place.
What we shall call prophetic ethics
refers to the character not only of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ but all the prophets through whose example Allah Almighty taught our Prophet and us (as in 4:26: “Allah wishes to explain to you and guide you by the examples [sunan
] of those who were before you”). And precisely because a number of moral exemplars are included in this Sunnah, the diversity of their personal characters enriches this guidance. Prophetic ethics
, therefore, is
inclusive of the virtues of all the prophets like Jesus, Moses, Noah, and Abraham, upon them be peace, whom Allah has praised as role models, as well as the virtues that the Prophet ﷺ cultivated and encouraged in his disciples, the Companions, in whom we witness a great variety of human personalities. Following the prophetic character, then, is not merely a matter of imitating a single text or a single personality type on every matter, but the employment of revealed teachings and the best of our rational capacity—as Allah says in the Qur’an, “those who listen to speech and follow the best of it”30
—to understand and emulate the moral import of the entire ecosystem of prophetic ethics
Consider, for instance, the remarkable Qur’anic story of Moses’s harshness toward his assistant and brother prophet, Aaron, upon them both be peace, when he found upon his return from his meeting with God that the Israelites had fallen into worshiping the calf. In rage and sorrow, Moses pulled his brother’s hair, until Aaron explained how he pleaded with them but due to their obstinacy decided to wait for Moses to return and strengthen his hand rather than aggravating the situation. Moses understood Aaron’s wisdom and turned to Allah to seek forgiveness. In this case, the prophetic ethics does not consist merely in the imitation of any one person in the story, but understanding the priorities and complexities of action in real life. We can appreciate both Aaron’s patient diplomacy and Moses’s overpowering personality; Moses's rage and sorrow are prophetic ethics, as are Aaron’s patience and wisdom. In this one story, we learn all three virtues of obedience, reason, and love for God.
How prophetic ethics is relevant for all times
As the site and embodiment of God’s final revelation, the Prophet ﷺ was made to live a full, complex, and eventful life. Earlier prophets were presented to him as his role models, and he was to become the role model for all humans to come:
Surely there is in the person of Allah’s messenger an excellent example (uswa) for you: for those of you who seek Allah and the Afterlife and remember Allah much.31
This verse states the fundamental principle of the Islamic ethical system, which is that for all those who seek Allah and success in the eternal hereafter, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ must be the role model and exemplar. In turn, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself was called to follow the role model of earlier prophets, in particular our father Abraham, upon him be peace and blessings, who had lived over 2,000 years earlier. The essence of prophetic character, we learn, is timeless. It follows that in its essence, the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ example is identical to that of all the great messengers and comprises the core of all that is truly good. This also means that by role model (uswa) what is meant is not the peculiar personal traits of any given prophet, but their moral mission to respond and call to God and hence to goodness.
Yet, there is another reason why the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ Sunnah
is relevant for all times. He ﷺ lived among a people and under conditions that were closest to nature, fitted with the bare necessities of life and uncorrupted by artificial luxuries that conceal the fullness of life from human experience. Like all prophets, he ﷺ was taught the bare nature of human beings as a shepherd: “Allah did not send any prophet but that he herded sheep.”32
Although there is nothing morally wrong with power and wealth, he ﷺ was given, and loved, a life of austerity, postponing extraneous pleasures to the eternal afterlife with God. This self-sacrifice was stressed by the Almighty through an angel sent down to the Prophet ﷺ offering him a choice between being a “prophet-king” or “servant-messenger”—he chose the latter, the servant messenger (ʿabdan rasūlā
To live like a servant is both physically and symbolically closer to nature than to live as a king.
Encompassed within his mission was the entire gamut of human experience. He ﷺ was like Jesus in Mecca and Moses in Medina. He was like Joseph in his forgiveness in the moment of triumph, Job in his patience, and his father Abraham in his sincerity and nearness to God and in his concern for his ummah
. Just as the Qur’an is encompassing (muhaymin
) of all the divine scriptures sent before it,34
the Prophet’s ﷺ example encompasses the righteous examples of all the prophets before him. And in contrast to nearly all prophetic missions narrated in the Qur’an, his is the only mission that succeeded through a human struggle; rather than supernatural interventions such as parted seas, cooled fires, and great floods, God gave him success through his unrelenting struggle, beautiful character, and supporting cast of Companions. This is not to deny that Allah guided every step of the Prophet’s ﷺ mission, granted him miracles, and indeed aided early Muslims through angels (as in the Battle of Badr) as well as natural events (as in the Battle of the Trench), but to underscore that rather than annihilating the enemy through supernatural events named above Allah used the believers to combat the forces of unbelief. This makes the Prophet’s struggle accessible as a model to believers in any time and place, a fact in which Muslim scholars and revivalists have always found inspiration.
In the rare cases that he ﷺ chose anything less than beautiful, he was corrected by the Almighty Himself. Far from being a scandalous secret, these corrections were recorded in the Qur’an. Even his frowns, for instance, could become an occasion for divine attention. During his converse with Meccan leaders, with whom he stood pleading to embrace faith, a blind believer interrupted and a most understandable frown appeared on the Prophet’s ﷺ forehead. But God chose to raise His Prophet ﷺ to an even higher rank. A sūrah was sent down announcing this incident:
He frowned and turned away
Because the blind man accosted him.35
And the believers have since recited in their prayers these divine correctives to their Prophet ﷺ, feeling in their hearts the Prophet’s ﷺ humanity and assured of God’s eyes watching over His most beloved creation. Similarly, when the Prophet ﷺ was moved to pray against the unbelievers of Quraysh after the Battle of Uḥud, Allah corrected him that it was the Almighty’s will whether to forgive or punish.36
When he ﷺ vowed to give up eating honey to please his wives, Allah corrected him, for as a role model even his private choices were consequential.37
Far more numerous than these rare occasions are the instances when the Prophet ﷺ was praised for his judgment38
or guided before taking an action through divine inspiration or through the Archangel Gabriel, as recorded in countless edifying anecdotes in hadith.39
The character of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, therefore, is to be emulated because, on the one hand, it is natural, practical, and feasible, and on the other, it embodies the timeless ideal of prophetic ethics, one which comprises a loftier and more comprehensive answer to the nature of the good than any alternative. Other philosophies often ground ethics in rule-following, from answering to an abstract universal imperative to maximizing ‘happiness’ (setting aside the question of true happiness for now) to cultivating virtuous habits. Prophetic ethics, however, is a judicious use of all of these strategies in service of the ultimate good and for the attainment of true happiness, in light of the divine revelation and the guidance of the concrete role model in the form of the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ.
“His character was the Qur’an”
Who doesn’t appreciate virtues such as truthfulness, forgiveness and justice? Yet, a preacher of peace who always forgives powerful bullies and tyrants but seeks justice from the weak and the poor is not a moral person, but a sniveling hypocrite. Someone who speaks truth about other people’s flaws and weaknesses with the intent of harming them while hiding his own flaws is not a truth-teller. A loudmouth who publicly plays up sin and debauchery, others’ and his own, in the name of being “real,” candid, and funny, may be a comic hero in American society, but he is an immoral scoundrel in Islam. A dressed-to-a-tee religious preacher who has mastered every pleasantry and memorized every religious text and yet uses his fine manners to maintain his status and secure his fortunes, failing to speak truth to power, defend the weak, and uphold truth is an empty shell, devoid of Prophetic character. Being virtuous, it turns out, is not as easy as it might seem at first.
Enter the Prophet ﷺ. As the following will make clear, his example would never permit the divorce of doctrine from practice or morals from manners, nor perversions of virtuous ideals for selfish ends. Those closest to him were the most aware of this deep harmony. He ﷺ was not only praised by God for his virtue and unmatched faith in God, but also given a personality that was most receptive to virtue. Even his gentleness, demeanor, and natural habits—traits in which even prophets as humans differed among themselves—set him ﷺ apart and made him shine. The Prophet’s beautiful manners and personality are singled out by the Almighty for consistent praise in the Qur’an:
And indeed [O Prophet] you are possessed of a great character (khuluq).40
The great Imam of Ahl al-Bayt, Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad al-Ṣādiq (d. 148 AH) said, “Allah enjoined upon His Prophet ﷺ the noblest of manners, and there is no verse in the Qur’an that sums up these virtues better than this one,” reciting:
Make forgiveness your habit, enjoin righteousness, and stay away from the ignorant.41
In this Meccan sūrah, Allah does not merely command the Prophet ﷺ to forgive, but to take it on as a habit. Later, in a Medinan sūrah, Allah attributes the Prophet’s ﷺ success in winning hearts to his being gentle, rather than harsh and grudging, as a matter of habit and character, thus testifying in 3:159 that the Prophet ﷺ had responded most beautifully to the divine teaching in 7:199.
This truth is reflected even more clearly in the following teaching of the Mother of the Believers. When Saʿd b. Hishām, a Basran Successor whose grandfather ʿĀmir had been martyred at Uḥud, sought to give up his family, divorcing his wife and selling his property to seek martyrdom on the frontier, he was advised against it and told that this immoderation contradicted the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. He took back his wife and then visited the Mother of the Believers ʿĀʾisha, God be pleased with her, in Medina to inquire about the Prophet’s character. She asked in response, “Do you not read the Qur’an?” He said, “Of course.” She said, “The character of the Prophet ﷺ was the Qur’an.” “Due to the comprehensiveness of this response,” Saʿd added, “I thought to get up and never ask anyone for any guidance until I die.”42
Particularly dear to the Muslims is the verse in Sūrah al-Tawbah in which Allah describes how the Prophet ﷺ deeply cared for his ummah:
[O humankind], there has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves, anything that causes you suffering is hard on him, [he is] full of concern for you; and to the believers he is [especially] affectionate and merciful.43
Scholars of exegesis observe that the first part of the verse is directed to all humankind, the ummat al-daʿwa
, and the last part is explicitly addressed to the believers.44
A bulwark against fanaticism
The Prophetic example protects us from religious fanaticism and perversion. The Qur’an is God’s announcement of something immeasurably vaster than the span of this life and its petty, mundane problems: the infinite greatness of God, the eternity of the afterlife, the infinitesimal smallness of this life, the boundless urgency of our short worldly life, the moral import of worshiping the One True God. Humans, especially those whose fiṭra (innate nature) is clouded, need to be shaken up, as if with a violent power of diction and rhythm that characterizes the Meccan Qur’an, to sense this urgency. The hauntingly powerful, eloquent, and urgent ethos of the Qur’an warns us that this life is merely deception, a thing of play, a mirage, and the Day of Judgment is near, almost here, and so on. It is not unlikely for some limited minds to interpret this message as suggesting a radical rejection of this life and with it the laws, morals, and actions that seek to improve and beautify it. If the other life is eternal and infinitely more important, why should I respect this life at all—why should I seek earthly mercy, beauty, and convenience for myself, let alone for others? Practicing forbearance toward others, especially those who are heedless of the truth, sounds illogical. Is Allah really asking us to allow the error of the unbelievers and the decadence of the heedless to stand, to be kind and charitable to them, and to even protect their rights?
The Kharijites, the first sect in Islam that departed from the moderate path of the Sunnah,
grew out of this seemingly logical but radically misguided reading of the Qur’an precisely because they were ignorant of the Prophetic example and rejected the Companions’ teachings about the proper meanings of the Qur’an. They excommunicated and massacred Muslims, justifying their actions by erroneously invoking the Qur’an. The Prophet ﷺ had so frequently cautioned against “those young, foolish gangs who read the Qur’an but it does not go past their throats” that we have numerous (mutawatir
) reports confirming this warning. The Kharijites also justified their slaughter of non-combatant children and women, violating the Companions’ consensus against such heinous practices, by incorrectly citing the Qur’anic story of Moses and Khiḍr.45
In fact, already during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ, some Companions wanted to abandon the comforts of this life, even their families, for the celibacy, perpetual fasting and self-abnegation of Christian monks. They were sternly prohibited by the Prophet ﷺ from doing so:
By Allah, I am the most fearful and mindful of God among you, and I fast but also some days break my fast, I pray [at night] but I also sleep, and I marry women: whoever renounces my Sunnah is not part of me.46
With our knowledge of the prophetic model in hindsight, we might struggle to understand the desire of the Companions who wanted to stop enjoying life. But one has only to read the Qur’an as seriously as the Companions did, and recall its descriptions of heaven and hell and the insignificance of this life, to appreciate why they wanted to give up the world altogether. The Prophet’s Sunnah, in fact, is necessary to understand the Qur’an as life-affirming rather than life-denying, or else a simply “logical” reading of certain ayat may lead one to join the fanatics. Alternatively, a selective reading of certain verses stressing God’s lenience might tempt one to neglect duty to God and God’s creation both.
Allah sent the Prophet ﷺ to teach us how to understand the Qur’an properly. The Qur’an is not a Book that asks us to abandon this life in favor of the next, but to live this life in a balanced, beautiful, and respectful way for ourselves, to learn the ways of this world and hence establish order and civilization in service to God, all while calling the whole of humanity to Him. The divine law assists us in attaining this goal and living a felicitous and full life.
Prophetic ethics against empty claims of faith
An even more common problem than excess and fanaticism that the Prophetic model solves is laxity and neglect toward the divine command. The two extremes, in fact, are deeply related, as one often leads to the other, and balance and moderation are absolutely key attributes of the Prophetic character. The Qur’an is not merely a book of precepts or a mine of quotable quotes, the Sunnah
tells us, but the blueprint for an entire life of submission for the individual and the community. Merely recognizing the truth of the message does not suffice to make one Muslim let alone lead one to success. “They know him like they know their sons,”47
the Qur’an said of the People of the Book, but by failing to join his community and his mission they rendered their knowledge worthless. What Allah demanded from the Muslims was to “follow him, strengthen him, and aid him, and follow the Light [the Qur’an] sent down with him.”48
When the Bedouin Arabs joined the Prophet ﷺ claiming that they “believed,” Allah corrected them for confusing entering into Islam with true faith, declaring, “Say to them: No, you have not believed, but rather say, ‘We have submitted,’ for Islam has not yet entered their hearts.”49
In order to claim faith, they had to join the Prophet ﷺ and follow his Sunnah, the greatest Sunnah
being his jihad, his struggle to establish Allah’s religion, and give their wealth and life for it.50
The Prophetic role model, in short, is the cure to the extremism, fanaticism, and self-destruction of pious warriors on the one hand and neglect, heedlessness, and lackluster claim of faith by the opportunists and weak-hearted on the other. To understand Prophetic ethics, one must understand and join the mission of the Prophet ﷺ, not merely select convenient anecdotes about creed, law, or stories of how he treated the poor and the weak and the like, isolated from his overall mission of guiding humankind to salvation. Only when understood in the light of his mission do his myriad virtues, to which we turn below, assume their transformative potential. Properly understood, the Sunnah turns the various precepts, stories, laws, and nuggets of wisdom in the Qur’anic revelation into a full, vibrant, and dynamic picture of life that God has intended to serve as the ideal and aspiration for all peoples, while offering practical, detailed guidance for individual, family, and communal life, until the end of time.
How prophetic ethics help us confront secular modernity
He ﷺ is praised by God as the “mercy for the worlds,” and his numerous acts of mercy and compassion are appreciated by anyone who learns about them without prejudice. But the truest manifestation of his mercy was that he embodied servitude to Allah: he was the freest and greatest of human beings precisely because his will was one with the will of the Truth Almighty. Nothing oppresses human beings more than their inner demons of desire, especially the desire to conform to and please other mortals, who are merciless, petty, and fickle. To take him ﷺ as our role model and hence seek “God and the Hereafter” is the surest way to free ourselves from the servitude to others’ opinions and find joy and strength in the Almighty, All-Merciful God.
Rarely has a civilization been more moralizing and less moral, more obsessed with judging all others as falling short and yet so fundamentally bereft of coherent standards by which to judge any good, more filled with hubris about its ethical superiority and yet less sure about how to cultivate moral selves than the modern, secular West. The reason for this paradox may lie in the following. The modern secular West may be the first civilization in history to so starkly isolate the question of “What is life?” from the moral question of “How ought we to live?” thereby reducing life to merely its material substrate. From ancient Greek philosophers to various religious traditions, all human cultures treated the two questions as one, and none more clearly and powerfully than Islam. The idea of goodness is not an afterthought in Islam. The source of life, God’s final message declares, is one God, who is ultimate in goodness and justice, and who created life as a moral test
thus answering both questions at once. This means that Islamic reason
, or Islamic philosophy, is fundamentally moral. Knowledge is sought for a moral end, and any question Islamic reason asks about any phenomenon has a moral dimension.
Even from his or her most rudimentary thought, it is impossible for a believer to eliminate the question “What do I owe God and His creation?”52
In this sense, even when sharing the same physical space and time, it would seem that the believer in God and the non-believer experience two utterly different lives.53
For all things, living and nonliving, share in the attribute of being God’s creation, and those who know this cannot be the same as those who deny it. The Qur’an puts it with matchless beauty and force: “All that is in the heavens and the earth glorify Allah!” and in places, declares, “There is nothing that fails to glorify Him in praise, but you do not understand their glorification, and yet He is Forbearing and Forgiving.”54
This has profound implications for Islam’s attitude to all things; there is no need for escaping into spirituality, as dualist philosophies55
tend to, for the matter itself is endowed with meaning and consciousness.
Witness the effect of this realization on the most mundane things. Even the water that we use to wash ourselves has a moral right over us, as the Prophet ﷺ said: “Do not waste water, even when purifying yourself for prayers, and even if you are on the bank of a flowing river!”56
Consider, in the same vein, the advice of the Prophet ﷺ to not waste even a morsel of food remaining on your dish or your fingers for you do not know which one God has especially blessed.57
The entirety of Islamic life reflects this spirit.