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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Memories of Muhammad: Muhammad as human and prophet

Memories of Muhammad
I have spent the better part of the past 15 years speaking with diverse audiences about religious issues. These audiences have been mixed ones, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, atheist, and others.

In order to find out my audience’s starting point of understanding, I ask people what they know about Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and the founders of other religious traditions. Most of my audience can always point to specific teachings of Christ (“love”, “forgiveness of one’s enemies”), as well as very particular narratives and stories (“Jesus on the Cross”, “Jesus and the Moneychangers”, “The Prodigal Son”).  They could remember Moses as bringing the Law, and delivering his people from bondage in Egypt.
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However, when it came to the Prophet Muhammad, the response of non-Muslims is invariably one of deafening silence. The overwhelming majority of non-Muslims cannot name a single spiritual teaching traced back to the Prophet Muhammad, and they do not know any stories or anecdotes about Muhammad.

This seems shocking, particularly in light of the fact that Islam has dominated the media headlines at least since September 11th, 2001, and even further back. One would have to imagine a bizarre universe in which Christianity had dominated the headlines for 30 years, and yet most people knew nothing about Christ.

This is precisely where we are about Islam.

It was for this reason that I wrote “Memories of Muhammad.” I spent years researching the life, legacy, and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in multiple Muslim contexts. I was reminded time and again of how Muslims are great storytellers. Even when Muslims discuss the spiritual and ethical teachings of the Prophet, they never do so in the theoretical abstract, but always come to see those teachings as illuminated through particular stories of the Prophet’s life.

It is one thing to speak of mercy, love, and forgiveness when one is in a position of powerlessness and weakness. It is entirely another matter to practice mercy and forgiveness when one has the might and the weight of precedence to crush one’s enemies.

It is these types of stories that Muslims tell and re-tell, remember and transmit, to illuminate what they mean by Muhammad as being the Mercy to the Worlds. If we truly wish to understand Islam not through its perversions but rather through its foundation, we need to listen carefully to these well-loved stories of the Prophet’s life.

In writing “Memories of Muhammad,” I came to see that every faithful Muslim today speaks of returning to the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad. And yet if this is to be more than just a bumper-sticker slogan, we need to ask which understanding of the Qur’an, and which telling of the Prophet we are going back to. Show me your understanding of Muhammad, and I’ll show you your Islam.

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