It can be argued that some people believe the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (pbuh), to be a merciless and violent human being. However, one only needs to read the Qur’an, the authentic sayings of the Prophet, and his biography to understand that this is far from the case.
At this point, it is important to note that Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the infallible and unaltered Word of God. This means that if something is found in the sayings or the biography of the Prophet that is goes against the spirit and values of the Qur’an, that piece of information is not considered a true account. There is a lot of information across the internet that is just plain made up or misconstrued, which is why Muslims hold the Word of the Qur’an so importantly.
Even when approaching the Qur’an, however, there are still certain pre-requisites one should know. Here is a helpful guide on approaching the Qur’an for a non-Muslim audience.
Muslims know the Prophet as the ‘Mercy to Mankind’. This title is found in chapter 21, verse 107 of the Qur’an. From this, we can say that the Prophet was sent to practice leniency, kindness and gentleness to the people – an extension of the qualities of his Lord, who possesses these qualities in their absolute form. Every chapter in the Qu’ran par one introduces God as the Most Merciful.
God is very particular about His choice of words and no words are used by accident. The fact that He described the Prophet as a mercy to ‘mankind’ shows that the qualities that the Prophet possesses can be a source of inspiration and emulation for anyone. It’s not just restricted to Muslims. So even if you don’t follow or believe the overarching message the Prophet preached of monotheism and worship of one God, you can still observe his life and derive valuable lessons.
It is one such story during his life that I want to focus on, that exemplified this very title of being a mercy to mankind.
The Prophet and the lady who threw garbage at him
Throughout his life, the Prophet faced much opposition from the Arab society of his time for preaching the religion of Islam because it was contrary to what they believed in. The Prophet tried to move the Arabs away from their discrimination towards women and people of colour, as well many other things.
He was met with a lot of hostility and one example of this was the incident of the lady who would throw garbage at the Prophet or in his way whenever he walked past her house.
Already at this stage, despite facing this on multiple occasions, the Prophet remains patient and does not return this ‘favour’ with any hostility in words or actions.
How many of us can honestly say that we’d behave the same if somebody threw garbage at us even once, let alone more than once. At the very least, we’d show our disgust. Some of us may even argue that it’s our right to retaliate, which is true; even Islamic guidelines state that Muslims have a right to defend themselves against unprovoked attacks, and no one at the time or now would probably have blamed the Prophet for reacting. Perhaps the lady herself would have been expecting something in return as well.
The Prophet, however, had something much greater in mind.
Here is where the story gets interesting. On a normal day, the Prophet again finds himself walking past her house en-route his journey. He is probably expecting a repeat action from this lady, yet this time nothing happens.
Instead of being relieved and continuing on his journey, the Prophet asks someone nearby the whereabouts of this lady who has been so abusive to him. We’d all be glad to just move on, and asking about the attacker would be the last thing on our mind!
The reason for the Prophet asking was because he had concerns for this lady. The Prophet was probably wondering what had happened to the lady, and eventually learned that she was sick and resting at home.
If in the Prophet’s stead, any other person would be overjoyed and relieved. Some of us may even relish taking advantage of this in some way to exact revenge or just gloat. The Prophet had a different idea; he went to visit this lady and asked her how she was doing and offered to help her around the house to make life easier for her during the sickness.
The lady was not only shocked but humbled and embarrassed by her treatment of the Prophet and was in extreme admiration that he returned her evil with goodness and she ended up embracing to Islam.
Now the fact that she converted to Islam is very feel good for us Muslims who read this story. However, I want to focus on the lessons we can derive from the actions of the one who is referred to as mercy to mankind (not a mercy to just Muslims).
What I take from this story is the power of kindness and patience. Without any act of violence or harsh words, the Prophet was able to win over the lady. When someone beats the opposition by force, the latter has no choice but to submit, because they don’t have the power to retaliate. Not only did the Prophet win this lady over, but it was a willing acknowledgement on her behalf, in the sense that his behaviour was so powerful that she willingly accepted her folly.
Another important thing to note, is that the prophet never mentioned her previous behaviour – he gave her a clean slate and didn’t address her abuse at all. Treated her with genuine kindness from beginning.
Throughout this incident, the Prophet is epitomising his title of being a mercy to mankind. True mercy and forgiveness is when you willingly choose it, despite having the power to punish, even if that power is your right. The Prophet could have exacted his revenge, let alone that, he could have just left her alone and been glad it’s one day where he did not need to deal with garbage being thrown at him. Yet he still went to help her.
This is what is known as ‘makarim akhlaq’ in Arabic, roughly translating to ‘exemplar moral traits’. In Islamic thought, exemplary moral traits isn’t just being good to people; it is being good to people who are not good to you.
When the Prophet announced his Prophethood, he said “I am here to perfect noble traits” as the primary objective of his mission. This incident is just one instance of him leading by example and displaying his excellent character. Truly, we can all learn from him, regardless of age, gender, race or religion.
No wonder the Qur’an attests to this when the Holy Book says: “Verily in the Messenger of God, you have a good example” (33:6).
May we always remember and strive to follow in the example of the greatest man to have ever lived.