THE PROMISE OF THE PROPHET:
How to Respect the Prophet
Nâbi (pronounced “Nobby”) was an Ottoman poet who flourished in the 17th century. Master Ahmet Kayhan once related the following about him:
The poet Nâbi goes to Medina with the sultan [Mehmed IV, or perhaps with an envoy of the sultan]. The sultan lies down with his feet extended. Nâbi says:
Beware of breaching courtesy,
this is the land of God’s Beloved
It’s the place where the Divine looks,
the station of the Chosen One. (1)
[This is the first couplet of a longer eulogy. Note on the meanings of the Prophet’s names: Mohammed: “highly praised,” Mustapha: “chosen.” Medina is his final resting place.]
The sultan says, “If you said this out of spite, I know how you’ll be punished. If it was with divine inspiration, I know how you’ll be rewarded.”
At the Morning Prayer-call, exactly this same praise is recited from all the minarets of Medina. Nâbi runs to a Prayer-caller: “Where did you learn this?”
“In my dream the Prophet of God came, he taught me. He said, ‘One who loves me has recited this.’ His name is supposed to be Nâbi.”
He makes him repeat it three times, on the fourth the Prayer-caller exclaims, “Enough, man! What do you want?” He replies, “If you’d said it one more time, I would’ve given up my soul. I’m Nâbi.”
This anecdote draws attention to the high esteem in which Moslems hold their Prophet.
God’s Praise for the Prophet
In the Koran, God clarifies the value of His Prophet in no uncertain terms. Here are just a few instances of God's acclaim for the Prophet:
These are not the only examples of this sort to be found in the Koran, but they are enough to prove the point. If God Himself praises the Prophet so highly, who are we, as mere mortals, to disagree?
The Living Koran
Despite all the mud and dross of the world, some people are, with great effort, able to overcome its obstacles and display a Godly morality in the face of all adversities. And God loves them for that. The Prophet was the one to achieve this to the highest degree. The following sentence can be considered a summary of his life: His moral conduct never wavered, even as he overcame incredible odds stacked up against his success. Which is why God called him His “Beloved” and raised him to the Station of Praise (maqam al-mahmud).
One day, some people visited the Prophet’s wife, Aisha, and asked her to tell them about the Prophet’s character traits/morality (khulq, plural akhlaq). Aisha replied: “Haven’t you read the Koran? The Prophet’s morality was that of the Koran.” Or, equivalently, “His character traits were those of the Koran.” (Muslim, Salât al-Musafirîn, 139.) God Himself praises the Prophet in the Koran: “You are indeed upon a mighty morality” (68:4).
This means that the Prophet was the living embodiment of the Koran, which has prompted some to call him “the living Koran.” Since the Koran is the Word of God, it would not be inappropriate to call the Prophet “the Word of God made flesh.” The Koran (as holy book) has also been called “the silent Koran” (qur’an al-sâmid) and the Prophet “the speaking Koran” (qur’an al-nâtiq).
The Prophet told his Companions: “I leave you two things. The Koran, and my Way.” Indeed, there are many things that a written book cannot deal with, or can cover only implicitly. These are made explicit by the Prophet’s exemplar as a living, breathing human being, by his words and deeds (sunnah).
Of course, Moslems stop short of deifying their Prophet, but clearly they otherwise hold him in the highest regard. They accept him as the best of men, as the best Moslem, and therefore as their role model. And this is as it should be: to reduce the Messenger of God to the status of a postman, who came, delivered God’s message, and left, is to radically misunderstand the office of prophethood. A person chosen by God for this task, though human, can be no ordinary man. A prophet represents humanity to God and God to humanity. Just think of Moses, and it will become clear how difficult this is.
Christians love and revere Jesus. Buddhists love and revere the Buddha. Certainly Moslems are entitled to love and revere Mohammed.
This also implies that Traditions attributed to the Prophet that exhibit less-than-exemplary ethics are of dubious truthfulness, even if they may appear in canonical collections of Traditions (the “Six Books”). The Koran is the only book for which God vouchsafes divine protection. The Prophet himself advised us to consult our hearts, and to reject any Tradition that leaves us with a queasy feeling. I have said this before and I will say it again: Any report—no matter how authentic or reliable it may be deemed—that represents the Prophet as having less than perfect ethics, is automatically suspect. Over the centuries until the Traditions were compiled, spurious Traditions seem to have crept in, despite the compilers’ best efforts. These, however, are in a tiny minority, so that in practice, the collections are by and large reliable.
I have said this before and I will say it again: Any report—no matter how authentic or reliable it may be deemed—that represents the Prophet as having less than perfect ethics, is automatically suspect.
The Prophet in Sufism
Sufism is the deeper understanding of the Koran and the Traditions. The purpose of Sufism is to take human beings and make them better, to improve them and, ideally, to perfect them, to make them “Perfect Humans” (insan al-kâmil). For Sufis also, the Prophet is the archetype of the Perfect Human, the example to be imitated and emulated.
Master Ahmet Kayhan will someday come to be recognized as the Saint of the Age. Based on long years of close association, I and many others can testify to the fact that he was free of flaws. If one who was the most accomplished follower of the Prophet in our times had no personality blemishes, it stands to reason that the one who was followed must have been even more impeccable.
Every religion has had its role model for the improvement of human beings. The historical/biographical circumstances of a particular human being rarely disclose much regarding the wisdom s/he possesses. Only as one delves into the details do certain indications become apparent. The broad outlines of the life of the Prophet, or indeed of any prophet, may conceal more than they reveal.
In a purported Holy Tradition, God tells the Prophet: “If not for you, I would not have created the heavens.” (2) In the Koran, God also says: “We have not sent you, except as a mercy to the worlds” (21:107).
The following Turkish Sufi couplets highlight the importance of the Prophet for Sufism:
This universe is a mirror,
everything stands with God
From the mirror of Mohammed
God always is seen.
Mohammed was the outcome of love
Without Mohammed, what outcome has love?
In the words of Maximo Lameiro,
... the Prophet Muhammad was “a living Koran.” But to say that is the same, in the strict sense, as saying that the Prophet was a Perfect Human. For it is not only that the Prophet was a man consistent with the Revelation he received, since he practiced its precepts and lived according to its values, but that his own nature was that of the Koran. And just as Revelation transcends the empirical limitations within which ordinary consciousness perceives it, so the reality of the Prophet transcends the historical individual who lived in the Arabian peninsula during the seventh century. ... the reality of the Prophet is inexhaustible because it is the image of God. (3)
The potential for spiritual excellence resides in us all.
Following the Tradition(s): “The first thing God created was my light/spirit/intellect, and all else He created from that,” “the Reality of Mohammed” is regarded by Sufis as the originator of the entire universe. (4) According to Abdulqader Jilani (Geylani), one of the very topmost Sufi saints:
God Most High first created, from the divine light of His own Beauty, the light of Muhammad. He declares this in a Holy Tradition related from Him by the Prophet:
“I have created the soul of Muhammad from the light of my Manifestation (wajh).”
This is declared by the Messenger of God in his words, ‘God first created my soul. He first created it as a divine light;’ ‘God first created the Pen;’ ‘God first created the Intellect.’ What is meant by all that ... is the creation of the truth of Muhammad, the hidden reality of Muhammad. He is also [like his Lord] called by many beautiful names. He is called Nûr, the Divine Light, because he was purified of [all] darkness ... God Most High says in the Koran:
“There has come to you from God a Light and a perspicuous Book” (5:15).
He is called the Total Intellect (aql al-kull) because he saw and understood everything. He is called the Pen (al-qalam) because he spread wisdom and knowledge, and he poured knowledge into the realm of letters.
The soul of Muhammad is the essence of all beings, the beginning and the reality of the universe. He indicates this with the words, ‘I am from God and the believers are from me’. God Most High created all souls from his soul in the realm of the first created beings, in the best of forms. ‘Muhammad’ is the name of all humanity in the realm of souls (âlam al-arwâh). He is the source, the home of each and every thing. (5)
Hence, all human beings belong to Mohammed: they are his constituents, whether they realize it or not. And because of this they participate, at least potentially, in much that was bestowed on Mohammed—with the exception, of course, of his Prophethood. The potential for spiritual excellence resides in us all. (Since the Prophet was a True Human, it is a mistake to diminish human beings by using bestial names for them, despite the obvious fact that they share many traits with the animal kingdom.)
In an early work, the Sufi Grand Master Ibn Arabi defines the place of man within the cosmic symphony as follows:
When the Holy Spirit was breathed into man, he bound himself to the Absolute Existent [mawjud mutlaq, namely God] with a sanctified, principial attachment. Such is his participation in the Divine Activity. That is why we acknowledge man as having two dimensions, one external, the other internal.
His external dimension corresponds to the world in its totality, conforming to the categories we have identified.
His internal dimension corresponds to the Divine Presence [hadra ilahiyya].
Man is the Universal (kulli) par excellence, since he is capable of receiving all of the categories together, be they eternal or temporal, while other existents do not possess this property.” (6)
When a human being becomes endowed with the whole range of innumerable Divine Names/Attributes, s/he becomes a Universal Human. This will not produce a change in appearance, because it is a matter of inner transformation. But it will become subtly—sometimes massively—apparent in one’s conduct. And the Prophet Mohammed possessed these inner qualities to the highest degree. This is why the Sufis uphold the Prophet as a role model, and why they regard him as the zenith of human perfection.
(1) Ali Fuat Bilkan (ed.), Nâbi Divanı (Turkish), Ankara: Akçağ Y., 2011 , vol. 2, p. 952.
(2) Although the authenticity of this Tradition has been disputed because of chain-of-transmission problems, several other Traditions support its meaning, and famous scholars and saints alike have agreed that its meaning, if not its wording, is authentic. See this discussion: http://www.sunnah.org/msaec/articles/hadith_of_lawlaak.htm
(3) Maximo Lameiro, “The Perfect Human in Buddhism and Islamic Gnosis” (Spanish), March 2016. Rough translation by Google, polished by yours truly. http://laescalera-sophia.info/teosofia/Hombre_perfecto_budismo_tasawwuf.pdf, p. 6.
(4) Similar concepts also exist in other religions. As Maria Reis Habito has pointed out, there is a parallel here with “Buddha-nature” in Mahayana Buddhism. Originally, this was conceived of as the “Buddha-seed” (tathagatagarbha), meaning that every human being possessed the potential for Enlightenment, the ability to become “Awakened” (a buddha). This, of course, is the same thing as the potential within every human being to become a Perfect Human in Sufism. Later, Dogen claimed that Buddha-nature (Chn. Fo xing) resides within all beings, in a manner quite similar to the way in which the Reality of Mohammed is within all beings as their primordial Essence. (See Maria Reis Habito, “The Notion of Buddha-Nature: An Approach to Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue,” in The Muslim World, April/July 2010, Vol. 100, Issue 2-3: Special Issue on Islam and Buddhism, pp. 233–246. http://traditionalhikma.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Muslim-World-100-no.-2-3-2010-Special-Issue-on-Islam-and-Buddhism.pdf.)
Again, the concept of the Perfect Human in Sufism has its exact equivalent in the Taoist/Daoist concept of “Real Man” or “True Man” (shen-jen/zhen-ren). In Chinese Chan (Jap. Zen) Buddhism, Lin Chi (Linji, known in Japan as Rinzai) took this and rephrased it as “True human of no rank” (zhen ren wu wei). Compare this with the great Sufi mystic/poet Rumi: “My rank is no-rank (bî-nishân)” (has also been translated as “My trace is the traceless.”). And as another great Sufi poet, Niyazi Misri, observed: “The People of Truth possess no signs/rank.” This is also what Ibn Arabi calls “the Station of No Station” (maqam lâ-maqam).
The understanding of such concepts has reached its culmination in Sufism.
(5) Abdul-Qadir Al-Jilani, The Secret of Secrets (interpr. Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi), Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2014 , pp. 5-6. Edited for clarity.
(6) Ibn Arabi, “The Book of the Description of the Encompassing Circles” (Kitab insha ad-dawa’ir al-ihatiyya), translated in Stephen Hirtenstein and Michael Tiernan (eds.), Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi: A Commemorative Volume, Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1993, p. 29. (Slightly edited.)