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Salient Features of the Prophetic Community

Islamic tradition emphasizes themes of sisterhood and brotherhood by commanding Muslims to pray with one another, perform the Hajj pilgrimage, and gather to break fast, among numerous other rituals.

Islamic tradition places a great deal of emphasis on community and its central role as a tool to foster the progress of all within it. The presence of a vibrant environment that welcomes people from unique backgrounds and different levels of religiosity is meant to be a mechanism for our spiritual development, and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) established this as part of his practice soon after the early proclamation of his blessed message. In a contemporary frame, we see that our religious communities, mosques, and Islamic centers have a role to play in illuminating the same values of the prophetic community instituted by the Messenger (pbuh&hp). Naturally, any community is going to take motivation and inspiration from their leadership, and within the Islamic context, that inspiration is taken from the best of all creation and the “mercy to mankind.”[1] The values that he demonstrated in formulating a model for how communities should be built and advanced are also applicable today.

Community Building

Prophetic traditions are unanimous when it comes to the importance of establishing a community. Unity and brotherhood are notions that the Quran speaks to and emphasizes, and they are valuable assets for the establishment of any long-standing institution: “Believers are each other’s brothers. Restore peace among your brothers.”[2] Values like mercy, compassion, and generosity are all meant to be a means of growth in our communities, and all were qualities emanating from the Prophet (pbuh&hp) and his family. Imam al-Sadiq (p) sheds light on this reality by advising, “In no way is God worshipped better than by fulfilling the right of a believer.”[3] Through those around us—our brothers and sisters in faith—we have an opportunity to use a stepping stone to reach our Creator. Thus, it becomes necessary to recognize the value of the strides made by the Prophet in the early years and see what steps forward we should take to build a prophetic community in the manner that he did.

In a powerful tradition narrated by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) himself, he said, “My Lord has commanded me to organize people in the same way He has commanded me to fulfill religious obligations.”[4]  What the Prophet worked toward is evident as he created a space that allowed the spiritual advancement and progression of individuals from all unique backgrounds. We see examples like that of Bilal al-Habashi, Abu Dhar al-Ghifari and Salman, and as such, the message was inclusive and did not limit its scope to a particular people or region. Where only years earlier the community was pagan and void of a semblance of morality, it was the magnetic personality of the Prophet (pbuh&hp), due to his impeccable character, that brought people into his space because they saw it as an opportunity for growth. Many of the people that the Prophet (pbuh&hp) preached to, both in Mecca and Medina, were idolaters and distant from the values espoused in the Quran and divine revelation. Like the practice of the previous prophets and messengers—Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, for instance—Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) remained patient and did not alienate members of his community for their behavior and belief systems.

To this point, God states in the Quran, “Only through the Divine Mercy have you (Muhammad) been able to deal with your followers so gently. If you had been stern and hard-hearted, they would all have deserted you a long time ago.”[5] The attraction that the community had to the Messenger (pbuh&hp) is vital for us to recognize in contemporary spaces. Are we creating the same entry points for people of all backgrounds to enter?

An Opportunity for Cultivating Community

 As mentioned, the prophetic community established by the best of creation allowed for people of every background to enter his sacred proximity embracing people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, the Prophet (pbuh&hp) was able to stop the practice of racism and discrimination in the community of his time, and more importantly, he was able to bring Islam to all people, regardless of where they were spiritually.

In the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula, where engaging in vice and sin was so predominant, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) recognized that there is potential within everyone and an opportunity for them to find faith and embrace Islam. The Messenger (pbuh&hp) brought his community from darkness into light and away from ignorance to knowledge and continues to do so today. He did not just use the Quran and his impeccable manners to transform their ideologies, but allowed them to reach the highest of heights, as the Quran describes, “Muhammad is the Messenger of God and those with him are stern to the disbelievers yet kind among themselves. You can see them bowing and prostrating before God, seeking His favors and pleasure. Their faces (foreheads) are marked due to the effect of their frequent prostration. That is their description in the Torah and in the Gospel they are mentioned as the seed which shoots out its stalk then becomes stronger, harder, and stands firm on its stumps, attracting the farmers. Thus, God has described the believers to enrage the unbelievers. God has promised forgiveness and a great reward to the righteously striving believers.”[6]

In many religious communities, those who have been distant from their faith and not engaged in the religious community are often marginalized. Furthermore, the challenges become compounded if the mosque or its members are dismissive of them due to their lack of this community relationship. Utilizing that which the Prophet (pbuh&hp) offered his community, our Islamic centers should be a nurturing space and one of spiritual healing, where everyone can benefit. In Karbala, the compassion offered by Imam Hussain (p) to his companion Hurr al-Riyahi is an anecdote that is well known, but putting it into action is often a challenge. Religious spaces should work closely with those who are struggling with their faith or have drifted away from Islam and create mechanisms to allow for their growth and progress in the same way the Prophet welcomed those who rejected God entirely.

Characteristics of the Prophet in Community Building

 In an examination of the characteristics of the prophetic community, beginning with his leadership and the role he played in its cultivation, we see that there are three unique features which we can and should take lessons from today.

Accessibility to the Prophet

Among the most important directives we learn from the Prophet, especially for individuals in leadership roles within their respective communities, is direct access for the constituency. There is often a very clear divide in many communities, for instance,  between the religious leaders of an Islamic center and the individuals they serve. It was a custom of the Messenger (pbuh&hp) and his immaculate family not to have such a barrier. In fact, the early Meccan community was critical of the Prophet and rejected him because he was too accessible. God quotes their criticism when He states, “They say, ‘Why does this Messenger eat food, and walk in the streets? Why has not an angel been sent to him so that they could preach the message together?’”[7] Perhaps they could not fathom that the divine representative of God on earth would be someone so similar and relatable to them. To this point, religious leadership should not be divorced from the challenges and affairs of the community that they serve, and that would require that the guardians and custodians of a mosque or community center be involved with their fellow brothers and sisters in faith.

Compassionate and Active Listening

A key trait of any leader is their ability to listen to others. When we imagine certain characteristics of a leader in our mind and examine the socio-political state of the world today, we often characterize heads of state as being forceful, loud, and powerful, at least on the surface. But, when juxtaposing those characteristics with that of the Prophet (pbuh&hp), we see it was his gentleness, approachability, ability to lead by example, and listening skills which were unique to his grace and nobility as a leader. God states, “Among them are those who torment the Prophet, and say, ‘He is an ear.’”[8] Every person has unique challenges, and often they look to others to address the obstacles that they face on a day-to-day basis and provide guidance and solace. The Prophet and his family (pbut) saw their responsibility as a service to the people they lived with, and they demonstrated this by the way they would actively listen and show real care and compassion for fellow believers. It is vital that community leaders also are willing to hear the thoughts and perspectives of those around them.

Clear Communication

 The magnetic character of the Holy Prophet was observable in how he would serve anyone who came to his door. One of the ways that the Ahl al-Bayt (p) would do that, again in the mold of building community, is that they would always address everyone in a way that was understanding and digestible. The Prophet states, “We are commanded to speak to people according to the level of their intellects.”[9] In our mosques and religious centers, there are elderly immigrants and children, along with men and women from different ethnic backgrounds. It is vital that we impart and share knowledge with members of our community in a way that everyone can feel invested in the religious and spiritual experience. For more about this topic, read our article titled: Building Religious Centers for Future Generations.

Conclusions

Islamic tradition emphasizes themes of sisterhood and brotherhood by commanding Muslims to pray with one another, perform the Hajj pilgrimage, and gather to break fast, among numerous other rituals. The idea is to be a cohesive community that is wholesome and helps in building our deep connection with our Creator, communally and not solely as an individual. We are meant to be social, spend time and engage with others, and come to a common understanding with one another. Through the teachings of the Quran, and the Messenger of God, we receive wisdom and much insight in terms of how we can continue to build community and, at the same time, build our spirituality.

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References

[1] 1. Holy Quran 21:107, M.H. Muhammad Sarwar translation. قال تعالى ((وَما أَرسَلناكَ إِلّا رَحمَةً لِلعالَمين))

[2] The Holy Quran 49:10, Muhammad Sarwar translation. قال تعالى ((إنَّمَا المُؤمِنونَ إِخوَةٌ فَأَصلِحوا بَينَ أَخَوَيكُم ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُم تُرحَمونَ))

[3] Al-kafi, vol. 2, p. 170. روي عن أبي عبد الله الصادق(ع): “ما عبد الله بشيء أفضل من أداء حق المؤمن”

[4] Al-Shahrudi, Mustadrak safinat al-bihar, vol. 3, p. 277. روي عن الإمام الصادق (ع): ” قال رسول الله ((صلى الله عليه وآله) أمرني ربي بمداراة الناس كما أمرني بأداء الفرائض”

[5] The Holy Quran 3:159, Muhammad Sarwar translation. قال تعالى ((فَبِما رَحمَةٍ مِنَ اللَّهِ لِنتَ لَهُم ۖ وَلَو كُنتَ فَظًّا غَليظَ القَلبِ لَانفَضّوا مِن حَولِكَ ۖ فَاعفُ عَنهُم وَاستَغفِر لَهُم وَشاوِرهُم فِي الأَمرِ ۖ فَإِذا عَزَمتَ فَتَوَكَّل عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ))

[6] The Holy Quran 48:29, Muhammad Sarwar translation. قال تعالى ((مُحَمَّدٌ رَسولُ اللَّهِ ۚ وَالَّذينَ مَعَهُ أَشِدّاءُ عَلَى الكُفّارِ رُحَماءُ بَينَهُم ۖ تَراهُم رُكَّعًا سُجَّدًا يَبتَغونَ فَضلًا مِنَ اللَّهِ وَرِضوانًا ۖ سيماهُم في وُجوهِهِم مِن أَثَرِ السُّجودِ ۚ ذٰلِكَ مَثَلُهُم فِي التَّوراةِ ۚ وَمَثَلُهُم فِي الإِنجيلِ كَزَرعٍ أَخرَجَ شَطأَهُ فَآزَرَهُ فَاستَغلَظَ فَاستَوىٰ عَلىٰ سوقِهِ يُعجِبُ الزُّرّاعَ لِيَغيظَ بِهِمُ الكُفّارَ ۗ وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذينَ آمَنوا وَعَمِلُوا الصّالِحاتِ مِنهُم مَغفِرَةً وَأَجرًا عَظيمًا))

[7] The Holy Quran 25:7, Muhammad Sarwar translation. قال تعالى ((وَقالوا مالِ هٰذَا الرَّسولِ يَأكُلُ الطَّعامَ وَيَمشي فِي الأَسواقِ ۙ لَولا أُنزِلَ إِلَيهِ مَلَكٌ فَيَكونَ مَعَهُ نَذيرًا))

[8] The Quran 9:61, Ali Quli Qarai translation. قال تعالى ((وَمِنهُمُ الَّذينَ يُؤذونَ النَّبِيَّ وَيَقولونَ هُوَ أُذُنٌ))

[9] Muhammad Rayshahri, Mizan al-Hikma, vol. 1, p. 550. روي عن النبي (ص): “أمرنا أن نكلم الناس على قدر عقولهم”

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