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Z A Y T U N A I N S T I T U T E

THE ETHICAL STANDARD OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD œ


By Imam Zaid Shakir February 22nd, 2006

The ongoing “Cartoon Crisis” raises several idolaters much abuse. If you patiently
issues. One of the most important is the persevere, and remain mindful [of God],
incumbency of seeing the ongoing crisis as an surely in this is a manifestation of firm
resolve. [Al-Qur’an 3:186]
opportunity to educate people in the West
about our blessed Prophet, peace and blessings An examination of the ethical standard of
of God be upon him ( œ)1. Along those lines, the Prophet Muhammad œ relevant to the
one of the greatest things we can do is teach current crisis, must begin by looking at certain
about the exalted ethical standard introduced by critical Qur’anic verses. We will begin by
our Prophet œ. That ethical standard is the examining the above passage. This verse was
bedrock of his mission and message. preemptively revealed as consolation to the
In an age of instantaneous communications Prophet œ and his followers in anticipation of
and globalized media it is important for the abuse that would be heaped upon them
Muslims to reaffirm our commitment to the from parties amongst the Jews, Christians, and
prophetic ethical ideal. Under prevailing idolaters. In the face of that abuse a course of
conditions, the sensationalized excesses of some action was prescribed; namely, that they
Muslims, excesses that contradict the ethical patiently endure those abuses and remain
teachings of our Prophet œ are often used to mindful of God in the face of the negative
distort the perception of Islam in the West. propaganda that would increase as their worldly
That distortion in turn helps to create power grew. The implication of that course of
prejudiced attitudes towards Islam and action is beautifully captured in the words of
Muslims. the great 18 th Century Turkish scholar Imam
I would argue that the images that insinuate Ismail al-Burusawi in his commentary of the
a connection between our Prophet œ and Qur’an. He says, “God is going to treat you as
terrorism are more informed by the hijackings, one undergoing a test in order to show your
kidnappings, beheadings, and cold-blooded mettle in persevering in the truth and righteous
murder of unsuspecting civilians, all of which deeds.”2
characterize many of our recent political Imam Burusawi then summarizes one of the
struggles, than to any inherent biases or main lessons of the verse:
prejudices among the people of Europe and
You should know that reciprocating vile
America. If we Muslims are going to contribute deeds with vile deeds would only increase
to changing how Islam and our Prophet œ are vileness. Therefore, the command to
viewed in the West, we are going to have to patiently endure abusive transgressions
change what we ourselves are doing to minimizes those things that bring harm to
contribute to the caricaturing of Islam. That the worldly realm. Similarly, the command
change can only be affected by sound to remain mindful of God minimizes those
knowledge coupled with exalted practice, and things that jeopardize the life hereafter.
reviving the lofty ethical ideal of our beloved Hence, this verse combines the etiquettes
essential for [success in] this world and the
Prophet œ.
next. 3
You will surely be tested in your wealth and
your lives. And you will hear from those given
It is interesting to note that this verse was
the scriptures before you and from the revealed after the migration to Medina.
The Ethical Standard of the Prophet Muhammad œ

Therefore, it was a pronouncement of state devotion and remembrance of God. As for the
policy for the nascent Muslim polity. The fate of his enemies, God would deal with them.
strategic benefits of this policy would be He would be reminded years later that his
realized years later in the bloodless conquest of actions would never affect the fate of those
Mecca. That conquest was made possible in opposing him. God mentions in that regard:
large part because the Prophet œ did not You have nothing to do with the outcome of
cultivate a spirit of vengeance and retaliation in their affair [O, Muhammad!] Whether He
his followers. Nor did he cultivate in them a accepts repentance from them, or punishes
deep hatred for the people he was them, they are indeed wrongdoers.
commissioned to call to Islam. It was on the [Al-Qur’an 3:128]
basis of this spirit that he was able to fully In this verse, God reminds His Prophet œ that
accept and welcome into the fold of Islam his He is in control. The control of the affair of the
bitterest enemies; Abu Sufyan, ‘Amr bin al-‘As, universe is with Him. As for the Prophet œ, his
Khalid bin al-Walid, Ikrima bin Abi Jahl, and job is to convey the message, and not to burden
many others. himself by worrying about the ensuing
Therefore, proclaim openly what you have outcome. In conveying the message, the
been ordered [to convey], and turn away from Prophet œ is instructed to adopt the highest
the idolaters. We will suffice you against those ethical standard, a standard that is established
who mock you. Those who make another god by God, not by himself, nor any other human
with God; soon they will know. We know that
agent. God says:
your heart is greatly grieved by what they say.
Glorify the praises of your Lord and be Surely, you are on an exalted standard of
amongst those dutifully and consistently character. [Al-Qur’an 68:4]
prostrating [unto Him]. And worship your
‘A’isha, the blessed wife of the Prophet, may
Lord until death comes to you. [Al-Qur’an
15:94-99] God be pleased with her, was asked to describe
the character of the Prophet œ. She responded:
This group of Qur’anic verses revealed in
He was not foul in his actions, nor in his
Mecca also involves consolation for the Prophet
speech; he was not boisterous in the
œ in the face of his people’s abuse. The gist of
marketplace; he did not retaliate in kind to
this passage is that God will assume the vile acts perpetrated against him; rather he
responsibility for taking revenge against his pardoned and forgave.”6
tormentors. The Prophet œ is commanded to
turn away from his enemies, leaving God to This tradition involves a detailed explanation of
deal with them. Abu Su’ud, a 16th Century a more general description given by ‘A’isha of
Qur’anic scholar, comments on this instruction, the Prophet œ. She mentioned that his
“That is to say, do not pay any attention to character was an embodiment of the Qur’an.7 In
what they say, do not be concerned with them, other words, his character was godly, for the
and do not begin to think of vengeance against Qur’an is the eternal Speech of God.
them.”4 It is mentioned that these verses were Here we should pause and reflect on the
revealed concerning five of the notables of the mission of the Prophet œ. He mentioned,
Quraysh who were especially abusive towards describing that mission, “I was only sent to
the Prophet œ. God dispatched the Angel perfect good character.”8 Consistent with what
Gabriel to deal with them and they all died we mentioned above, we could interpret the
terrible deaths, with the exception of Al-Aswad tradition to mean, “I was only sent to make
bin al-Muttalib, who lived, but went blind after people more godly.” This idea that Islam is a
Gabriel pointed to his eyes. 5 The Prophet œ is path to godliness has to be stressed in these days
instructed to proclaim the message, to forge on when many Muslims view it strictly as a path to
in his work of propagation, and to deepen his worldliness. That worldliness has contributed to
the Muslim community, generally speaking,

2
The Ethical Standard of the Prophet Muhammad œ

falling ever further down the slippery slope of with him, is related as saying concerning this
political expediency. Political involvement is verse:
certainly a critical aspect of Islam. However, God commands the believers with patience
political expediency cannot provide ex post facto in the presence of anger; forbearance in the
determinants of our values and principles. face of ignorant acts; and pardoning when
Those have been determined, a priori, by God. offended. If they do that God will protect
This idea of godliness is not something them from Satan and subdue their
strange in our religion. The 12 th century jurist, enemies. 10
Al-‘Izz bin ‘Abd as-Salaam, one of the greatest Imam Al-Burusawi mentions in his
latter day scholars, mentions in his book commentary:
Shajara al-Ma’arif w’al-Ahwal:
Not equal are good character traits and vile
No one is suitable for the supporting ones in the reward they incur and the
friendship of The Judge (Almighty God) outcome [they lead to]. If you patiently
until he rectifies himself with the etiquettes persevere in the face of their abuses and
of the Qur’an, and he adorns himself with ignorance, leave off pursuing revenge
the Attributes of the Most Merciful, to the against them, and pay no attention to their
extent humanly possible. He (God) is most foolishness, you merit exaltation in this
excellent and He commands [His servants] world, and a great reward in the next. They
with excellence. He is most generous and [your enemies] will merit the opposite. Do
He commands generosity. He beautifies and not allow their boldness in entertaining vile
He commands beautification. He is the character traits prevent you from engaging
Benefactor and He commands extending in good ones.11
benefit. He relieves and He commands
bringing relief. He is All Forgiving and He No single verse could better embody the
commands forgiveness. He conceals faults spirit of Islamic ethics [Al-Qur’an 41:34]. Not
and He commands the concealment of only does it prescribe a lofty course of action, it
faults. He repairs and restores and He also shows how that action, far from leading to
commands restoration...9 worldly weakness, is a source of worldly
Enduring trials, tribulations, and bearing strength and exaltation. However, if one is not
abuses are the crucibles through which the in touch with God, one cannot perceive the
ability to move towards this state of godliness is veracity of His promise, or the scope of His
forged. Because the Prophet œ is our leader in power. Regardless of our perceptions, God has
guiding us to this standard, in word and deed, the power to transform our enemies into
no one was more tried or abused than he. He friends. However, in a worldly sense, we
could not order anyone to adopt these unleash that power through principled, ethically
characteristics, until he himself had adopted lofty behavior. As the verse after the one being
them, just as he could not urge the arduous discussed proceeds to remind us:
traversing of the obstacles leading to them until No one is granted this lofty state except those
he himself had traveled that difficult road. It is who patiently persevere; and no one is granted
by traveling that road that we turn away from it except the possessor of a great portion.
the creation and orient ourselves towards the [Al-Qur’an 41:35]
Creator. Imam Burusawi describes that great portion as:
Not equal are good and evil. Repel [evil] with […a great portion] of personal virtues and
what is best; you will unexpectedly see one spiritual strength. Preoccupation with
with whom you had enmity become an revenge only exists because of the soul’s
intimate friend. [Al-Qur’an 41:34] weakness, and its propensity to be affected
The Prophet’s œ cousin and close by external stimuli. When the soul is strong
companion, Ibn ‘Abbas, may God be pleased in its essence it is not affected by external
stimuli. When it is not affected by such

3
The Ethical Standard of the Prophet Muhammad œ

stimuli, it is easy for it to bear abuses and ‘Uqba bin ‘Amir relates that the Prophet œ
not be preoccupied with revenge.12 said to him, “O, ‘Uqba! Shall I inform you
of the loftiest characteristic of the denizens
One of the great losses we suffer as Muslims
of this world and the next? Join relations
when we make politics our first priority is that with those who break them with you. Give
we lose sight of the fact that our Prophet œ has freely to those who deny you. And pardon
introduced to the world the most refined system those who oppress you.”19
of spirituality and ethics known to humanity.
K
Inaugurating and laying the foundation for the
perpetuation of that system was at the heart of Abu Hurayra relates that the Prophet œ
said, “Seek exaltedness with God.” It was
his mission. It is only on the basis of that
said, “What does that involve, O,
system that any meaningful worldly
Messenger of God?” He replied, “Join
accomplishments are possible. It is therefore relations with those breaking them with
fitting that the Prophet œ proclaimed, “I have you. Give freely to those who deny you.
only been sent to perfect noble character.”13 And forbear with those offending you out
of ignorance.”20
Some Ethical Sayings of the Prophet œ 14
K
The following is a collection of some of the ‘Amr bin al-‘As relates that he heard the
ethical sayings of the Prophet œ. They are Prophet œ say, “There are forty character
selected from the work of the great master of traits, the loftiest of them is to lend
someone your ewe [to benefit from its
prophetic tradition, Ibn Abi ad-Dunya. He
milk]. No one acts on any one of them,
mentions these sayings in his book, Makarim al-
anticipating its reward, affirming the
Akhlaq (Noble Character Traits).15 They are promise associated with it, except that God
related without comment to encourage personal enters him into Paradise because of it.”21
reflection on their deeper significance for our
K
current condition.
Ibn ‘Umar relates that the Prophet œ said,
Ibn ‘Abbas relates that the Messenger of “Two traits are among the characteristics of
God œ said, “Whoever would be pleased to the Arabs and are religious pillars, you are
be the noblest of people, let him be mindful on the verge of leaving them: shyness, and
of God. Whoever would be pleased to be noble character.”22
the strongest of people, let him trust in
God. And whoever would be pleased to be K
the wealthiest of people, let him be more ‘Amr bin ‘Abasa relates that he asked the
confident in what God possesses than with Prophet œ, “What is faith?” He replied,
what he finds in his own hand.16 “Patience and a magnanimous spirit.” ‘Amr
K then asked, “What is the best form of
faith?” He replied, “Good character.”23
Sahl bin Sa’d relates that the Prophet œ
said, “Surely, God is munificent, He loves K
munificence. He likewise loves noble Anas bin Malik relates that the Prophet œ
characteristics and hates pettiness.”17 never confronted anyone in a manner
K disliked by that person.24

Anas bin Malik relates that he heard the K


Prophet œ say, “Noble characteristics are Sa’id bin al-Musayyib relates that the
among the actions of those destined for Prophet œ said, “A paucity of shyness is a
Paradise.”18 form of disbelief.”25
K K

4
The Ethical Standard of the Prophet Muhammad œ

‘Imran bin Husayn relates that he heard the Anas bin Malik relates that the Prophet œ
Prophet œ say, “Shyness embodies all said, “A man whose neighbor is not safe
good.” Al-‘Ala bin Ziyad responded, saying, from his wickedness will not enter
“We find in our books that it involves Paradise.”34
weakness.” ‘Imran rejoined angrily, “I am
This presentation concludes with a selection
relating to you what the Messenger of God
said and you are qualifying it with your of traditions concerning the rights of neighbors
books!”26 for we have all become neighbors in the “Global
Village.” As the ongoing “Cartoon Crisis”
K
illustrates, what happens in one corner of the
Malik bin Dinar relates that ‘Umar bin al- village affects us all. The current situation was
Khattab said, “Whoever has a lack of initiated when the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten
shyness will have a lack of scrupulousness.
chose to disregard the rules of civility governing
Whoever has a lack of scrupulousness will
have a dead heart.”27
relations between neighbors in that village.
Those rules are nowhere better articulated than
K by the Danish Penal Code which states that any
Anas bin Malik relates that the Prophet œ person “threatening, insulting, or degrading a
said, “Every faith community has a group of persons on account of their race, color,
distinguishing characteristic. The national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual
distinguishing characteristic of Islam is orientation, shall be liable to a fine or
shyness.”28
imprisonment…” Clearly, the editor of the
K newspaper made a conscious decision to break
‘Imran bin Husayn relates that the Prophet the law prevailing in his home country.
œ said, “Surely, shyness only brings However, now that the transgression has
good.”29 occurred, how should we respond? Do we
K answer with transgressions of our own, as some
have done? Or do we all redouble our efforts to
‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin al-‘As relates that
the Prophet œ said, “Surely, the best of demonstrate to people, in the clearest terms
companions with Allah are the best of them possible, what Islam and the teachings of our
with their companions, and the best of Prophet œ are all about. Clearly, the latter
neighbors with Allah are the best of them option is far more desirable, productive, and
with their neighbors.”30 closer to the spirit of the prophetic teachings.
K
Conclusion
‘A’isha relates that the Prophet œ said,
“Gabriel continued to admonish me During the Battle of Uhud, the Prophet’s œ
concerning the neighbor until I thought he incisor was broken. His lower lip was ruptured,
would make him an heir.”31 and he had a bleeding wound on his forehead.
K He was constantly drying up the blood to keep
Abu Shurayh relates that the Prophet œ it from falling upon the ground, saying, “If any
said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the of this blood falls on the ground, Divine
Last Day, let him treat well his neighbor.”32 Punishment would descend upon them (the
K Quraysh).” The situation weighed on the
Companions, and they implored, “Why do you
‘A’isha relates that the Prophet œ said,
not pray against them?” He replied, “I have not
“Good neighborliness, maintaining blood
ties, and good character are the basis of
been sent to damn people. I have been sent as a
civility, and they enhance civilization.”33 caller and a mercy. O, God! Forgive my people
for they know no better.”35
K

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The Ethical Standard of the Prophet Muhammad œ

These are glimpses of the character of our


6
noble Prophet œ. As he said, he was sent as a Imam Abu ‘Isa Muhammad bin ‘Isa at-Tirmidhi,
Jami’ at-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Dar As-Salaam,
caller and a mercy. That call and mercy should
1999/1420), p. 465, no. 2016.
be available to all people, even in the West. The 7
See Imam Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir at-Tabari,
mercy that his mission embodied hinged on his Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-
uncompromising commitment to the ethical Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997/1418), 12:179-180, nos.
standard God established him on. Hence, his 34559, 34560, 34561, 34562.
8
Imam Abu Bakr al-Husayn bin ‘Ali al-Bayhaqi, As-
ethical standard made the gift of his mercy Sunan al-Kubra (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya,
possible. 1994/1414), 10:323, no. 20782.
Now is the time for us to share the great 9
Imam ‘Izz ad-Din ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin ‘Abd as-Salaam
gift of our Prophet œ and his guidance to the as-Sulami, Shajara al-Ma’arif w’al-Ahwal (Beirut: Dar
al-Fikr, 1998/1419), p. 67.
world. He described himself as a gift of mercy. 10
Imam Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti, Ad-dur al-Manthur fi
His mercy led him to be deeply concerned Tafsir bil-Ma’thur (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya at-Turath al-
about the guidance of his people, even when Islami, 2001/1421), 7:282.
11
they were opposing him in the dastardliest Al-Burusawi, 8:351.
12
ways. We should be just as concerned about the Ibid. 8:353.
13
Al-Bayhaqi, 10:323, no. 20782.
guidance of our own people, even though some 14
For an excellent compilation of general ethical sayings
of them may be opposing us. And we should try of the Prophet Muhammad œ, see Shaykh al-Amin
at all costs to avoid anything that would ‘Ali Mazrui, The Content of Character: Ethical Sayings
prejudice our people against Islam because of of the Prophet Muhammad, trans. Hamza Yusuf
(London: Sandala LLC, 2005).
our own actions. As our Prophet œ instructed 15
Imam Ibn Abi ad-Dunya, Makaram al-Akhlaq (Cairo:
us, “Call people and do not repulse them.”36 Maktaba al-Qur’an, n.d.).
These are dark days when all peoples are 16
Ibid. p. 19.
17
abandoning their loftier ethical standards in the Ibid. p. 19.
18
name of the amoral pursuit of worldly power. Ibid. p. 20.
19
Ibid. p. 22.
Let us be the people who pursue power through 20
Ibid. p. 23.
the strength of our commitment to our ethical 21
Ibid. p. 25.
standard. This is the sure basis of true ascension 22
Ibid. p. 29.
23
in the world and enduring esteem among Ibid. p. 31.
24
Ibid. p. 37.
nations. As the great bard of Egypt, Ahmad 25
Ibid. p. 37.
Shawqi, reminded us, “Communities are none 26
Ibid. pp. 37-38.
other than the ethical code existing along with 27
Ibid. p. 40. This type of narration, related directly
them; when that ethical code goes, they will from Umar, the second Caliph, after the passing of
soon follow.” the Prophet Muhammad œ, is referred to as Hadith
Mawquf. It is mentioned by Ibn Abi Dunya in his
collection. We have retained it even though it is not
related directly from the Prophet œ.
1
The Arabic inscription œ, which translates as “peace 28
Ibid. p. 41.
and blessings of God be upon him,” is a short prayer 29
Ibid. p. 41.
that Muslims recite after mentioning the name of the 30
Ibid. p. 92.
Prophet Muhammad œ. Such prayers are recited 31
Ibid. p. 101.
after the names of all recognized Prophets (i.e. Moses, 32
Ibid. p. 102.
Abraham, Jesus) and others figures considered worthy 33
Ibid. p. 103.
of veneration and respect in the Islamic tradition. 34
Ibid. p. 106.
2 Imam Isma’il Al-Burusawi, Tafsir Ruh al-Bayan 35
Quoted in ‘Abdullah Siraj ad-Din, Muhammad
(Beirut: Dar Ihya’ at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2001/1421), Rasulullah (Halab, Syria: Maktaba Dar al-Falah,
2:172. 1990/1410), p. 254.
3 Ibid. 2:173. 36
Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad bin Isma’il al-
4
Abu Su’ud Muhammad bin. Muhammad al-Hanafi, Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (Sidon, Beirut: Al-Maktaba
Tafsir Abi Su’ud (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Ilmiyya, al-‘Asriyya, 2005/1426), p. 532, no. 3038.
1999/1419), 4:36.
5
Ibid. 4:37.