Islamic Perspectives

The Prophet of non-violence - i

The title might come as a surprise for many readers as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has been very frequently projected as the Prophet of violence by media and religious extremists. A Danish cartoonist even showed bombs in his turban. But here in this paper I want to show the Prophet (PBUH) was indeed a Prophet of non-violence. For this I would not fall on traditional sources as Maulanas and muftis (who give religious opinion) but use Qur’anic values and discuss circumstances in which the Prophet lived. And on these grounds there are no disagreements among Islamic scholars.

First of all a question: what is non-violence and is absolute non-violence possible? It is crucial to discuss these questions if we want to form opinion about any personality whether he is violent or non-violent. Also, in order to be non-violent, what are the crucial pre-conditions? Can non-violence be practiced in any given circumstances? Also, can non-violence depend on one person’s philosophy? Let us take these questions now. What is non-violence? Non-violence is not mere act of non-aggression. A meek or a person totally lacking courage can also apparently be non-aggressive but this meekness or lack of courage becomes a store of aggression within him or her and strikes in devious ways including conspiracies and even can deliver mortal blow. Thus absence of violence cannot be treated as non-violence.

Non-violence is based on deeper inner conviction of a person even if he cannot control all forces operating around him. We must remember that a non-violent person without such deeper conviction cannot be truly non-violent person. This is a crucial point here. A person without such deeper conviction may not ever resort to violence if circumstances do not so dictate to him and a person with deeper conviction about non-violence may, in certain extreme circumstances, have to resort to violence. We have several examples of this in history.

This leads us to second crucial question: Is absolute non-violence possible in society? I think answer, contrary to my desire, is in the negative. Society around us is an extremely complex entity. Around us operate highly contradictory forces which go into dictating themselves on us. As it is said human beings are neither absolutely free to act nor totally dependent on others.

A human being is a complex mixture of freedom and "unfreedom". To the extent there is unfreedom our deeper conviction also cannot help. Thus whether a person is non-violent or not will have to be judged by his/her deeper conviction and, to an extent, what strenuous efforts he/she put in to check violence and simply not by whether one succeeded in creating non-violent society.

Thus a modern historian knows even persons like Mahatma Gandhi who undoubtedly had very deep conviction for non-violence failed to create non-violent India and Independence accompanied by Partition saw unprecedented violence. Yet, he is known as apostle of non-violence. Much before him Christ, who is known as prince of peace and love, ended violently himself nor his followers except for first three centuries during which they were highly persecuted minority, remain peaceful and even Church participated in Crusades bringing about killing of thousands of innocent people or Church even allowed burning at stakes of all those who deviated from the Church fiats.

Also, the question whether one can create non-violent society out of one which is based on acute injustices and unequal distribution of economic resources? Of course one can certainly launch non-violent struggles to achieve the aim and that is what it should be, but the question is those whose interests are hit would remain non-violent, allow you to achieve your aim. Certainly not. Many peace activists who worked ceaselessly for non-violent struggle were killed at the hands of vested interests.

All this is not to argue even for a moment that we should resort to violence and give up non-violent, peaceful struggles. Far from it. But it should be accompanied by deeper understanding for various forces working in the society and the extent they can go to ward off all threats to their interests. I would like to stress here that non-violence as a value, is absolute, not ensuring it in the society - society as a whole which is beyond our control.

To create a non-violent society we have to create a just society and creating just society itself evokes at times rivers of blood as it happened in Muslim history (which I do not refer to it as Islamic history which creates needless confusion). As we will see, all this was deliberately or otherwise, though to be result of Islamic teachings and some Muslim scholars and historians are no less responsible for this. Jihad became much misunderstood word right from beginning of Muslim history.


Struggles: In the light of all this let us now turn to the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam and examine his convictions and his struggles and understand him whether he ever preached violent revolution or tried to employ violent methods to bring about transformation of Arab society. As I pointed out above, I am using here interpretative historical, social and political analysis to understand this rather than traditional sources which often Muslim scholars do.

We must divide the Prophet’s struggle in two main phases, and others before me have done that. First is the Meccan phase from his birth to his migration to Medina which became his ultimate resting point. Second phase is his stay in Madina until his death. Some point out that Meccan phase was of peaceful nature and that of Madina of rather violent nature. I do not agree with this categorization of one phase being peaceful and the other violent. Basically as far as the Prophet (PBUH) there is no such contradiction, Contradiction is of circumstances, not of choice.

As we all know, non-violence is not possible without truth. Truth and non-violence are inseparable from each other. And there is complete unanimity among Muslim scholars, historians and non-Muslim historians that the Prophet’s reputation was that of very honest and trust-worthy (amen). Thus, a truthful person cannot become violent at any stage of life. He was as peaceful and non-violent in Madina as in Mecca though of course in Medinese state circumstances changed drastically which we will take note of. Any discussion without proper social and political context becomes bereft of its roots and at best remains doctrinal, The Prophet, when he appeared on the scene at Mecca was in his prime youth and very sensitive soul.

He was greatly distressed to see Meccan scene - complete turmoil, social anarchy, sharp class differences between poor and dispossessed on one hand, and powerful international business corporations owned by some tribal and clan chiefs. They were indulging in international trade exchanged at Mecca. Slavery added to the acuteness of the scene. Women were the worst sufferers except some powerful elite women.

The Prophet was so distressed by this scene that he began to retire in a cave - known as a cave of Hira on the fringes of Meccan city and would contemplate seriously on the Meccan scene. But he was no mere recluse. He wanted to actively intervene in the situation and as Muslims believe, he got revelation from Allah to show the way. It was his wife Khadija, 15 years his senior, who accepted him as a prophet and congratulated him.


Basic tenets: The Prophet (PBUH), who was otherwise leading peaceful life with his wife and four daughters, now began preaching his divine message and all the hell let loose. What the Prophet preached can be summarised as follows:

1) Unity of all human beings and unity of all tribes across Arabia which was causing so much conflict and bloodshed. Inter-tribal unity was greatly needed. Thus he preached ukhuwwah (brotherhood-sisterhood as the word is inclusive of both the genders). This could best be realized by tawhid (oneness of Allah). It became basic doctrine of Islam. So many gods and goddesses were the source of all kinds of inter-tribal conflicts and superstition at the cost of direct, rational thinking. 

To relieve distress of the poor, orphans, widows slaves and other weaker sections of society - several Meccan chapters and verses of Qur’an are proof enough of this. He wanted to bring about redistribution of wealth to realize social peace and gave us the institution of zakat (though Qur’an did not set its quantum, the Prophet said it should be two and half percent of one’s wealth at the end of the year.
 

2) Uplift of women by giving them dignity and individual rights. He wanted to bring about social revolution in this respect. What we call today ‘empowerment of women’ was achieved by the Prophet. But later, as usually happens, it was sabotaged by powerful and conservative Ulama. What Qur’an did to enhance empowerment of women was indeed revolutionary. 

3) To establish just, peaceful and non-violent society through these means and give every human equal dignity and rights irrespective of ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural differences. 

Since the Prophet’s teachings deeply disturbed the vested interests in Mecca who were engrossed in accumulating profits, neglecting all their tribal social obligations and perpetuating gross injustices. Also, a section of youth and the poor enthusiastically flocked around the Prophet (PBUH). The powerful traders and tribal chiefs gathered together to silence the Prophet. When they failed they approached his uncle Abu Talib who, according to tribal tradition, was his chief protector. 

When Abu Talib conveyed to him what those tribal chiefs wanted, he replied: if they put sun in one hand, and moon on the other and ask me to shut up, I would not. When Abu Talib saw his deep moral conviction he assured his nephew of full protection and gave him full liberty to preach his ideas. Not succeeding in their efforts, the tribal chiefs started insulting the Prophet, mocking him and persecuting, in many cases of weaker unprotected sections, severely. 

One of his followers was an Ethiopian slave Bilal Habshi who had embraced Islam right in the beginning. He was one of his most loyal followers as he saw in the Prophet a great liberator of slaves. The Prophet too, never neglected him and often showed preference to him above more powerful and richer of his followers. He appointed him as his mu’addhin (caller for prayer) which was great honour to which many of his companions were aspiring for.

Continued in the next issue

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 August 2010 on page no. 28

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