Sunday, December 25, 2011

Surah Yusuf: The Story That Brings Comfort (Part 1 of 5)

As earlier mentioned, Quran is not only a good source for the seerah of the Prophet Muhamad, but for the seerah or history of other prophets and their counterparts as well.  Not being the story book, however, the stories on those prophets and their counterparts are scattered everywhere in the pages of the Quran.

Such is not the case, however, with the story of Prophet Joseph (Nabi Yusuf).  In one whole chapter of moderate length (111 verses), the Surah Yusuf talks only about his story.  There is a special reason for this.

The stories of the earlier prophets and their people are meant to set as examples so that lessons can be derived from them.  For instance, if Muhammad was rejected by his own people, so were earlier prophets.  If the fledgling Islamic community under Muhammad faced persecution, so were the earlier communities.  If they face great difficulties, earlier communities encountered worse. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Quran In The Light Of Seerah, Vice Versa

Quranic commentary with no reference to the seerah would be dull.  Such a commentary would be like a body without its soul.  At the same time, Quran provides information alluding to a certain event, or an argument to a particular dispute, or a sentiment felt or affected by a certain personality involved, or the sociological, psychological and political conditions at a given time.

For that reason, Quran is an indispensable source for seerah.  At the same time, seerah enlightens Quranic commentary.   One complements and completes the other. 

Let's briefly review one surah in the Quran to illustrate the above points.

For the purpose of brevity, Surah Al-Masadd (no. 111) is selected.  Its translation is given here:
Damned the two hands of Abu Lahab, and damned he! [1] Neither his wealth availed him, nor what he earned. [2] He will soon enter a fire, full of flames, [3] and his wife as well, the wicked carrier of firewood. [4] In her neck there is a rope of twisted palm-fibre. [5] (Translation by Muhammad Shameem, Mohammad Wali Raazi and Muhammad Taqi Usmani, with the original word perish replaced with damned)
Now, anyone without any knowledge whatsoever about the seerah would be at a loss as to what the surah Al-Masadd is all about.  The interpretation of that surah could not be ventured unless one knows about the story and the actors involved behind it.  This is the case whereby the knowledge on seerah is indispensable for Quranic commentary.

But if one is well acquainted with the seerah, then he would know that this surah is directed to Abu Lahab, the uncle of the Prophet, whose real name is Abdul Uzza bin Abdul Muttalib, but was called Abu Lahab, the Father of the Flames, on account of the radiant look on his face, which look like a flame. 

He was the staunchest enemy of the Prophet from the same clan.  Other clan members who did not believe in the Prophet were willing to protect him on account of clan loyalty, but Abu Lahab broke his link with his clan and joined other polytheists fighting against the Prophet and the members of his own clan.  He was among the richest in the Banu Hashim clan, the clan of the Prophet. 

He was married to Arwa bint Harb bin Umayyah, the sister of Abu Sufyan bin Harb, another archenemy of the Prophet.  Known as Umm Jamil, she was among the women who caused the most trouble to the Prophet, both in her words and her actions.  As for her words, she was fond of lampooning and making fun of Muhammad. 

She was a beautiful woman (which is probably why she is called Umm Jamil) and had a knack for poetry, which she composed to lampoon the Prophet.  As for the actions, she was fond of throwing thorns, firewood, feces, rubbish, etc in front of the Prophet's house and along his path.  And sometimes on the Prophet's body as well.  Abu Lahab and his wife were the Prophet's neighbor.

With that background, one can start seeing the picture forming in the surah.  The allusion to the actors, their behavior, their status, their wealth, their feelings, sentiments, attitudes, etc., starts to make sense. From thereon, the commentator can proceed to the meaning and implication of the surah, or commenting on the beauty and harmony of the verses, such as the connection between the person Abu Lahab, who will be burned in the lahab (burning flames). 

Similar connection may be seen about his wife's penchant for throwing thorns, firewood and rubbish to the Prophet, and the wicked woman carrying firewood with the rope on her neck.

This surah was revealed after the Prophet gathered the Qurasyh nearby Kaabah to proclaim Islam publicly, which took place after the third year of his prophethood.  Right after the Prophet finished addressing his audience, Abu Lahab, in a fit of anger, shouted, "tabbak," which means damned you, doomed you, or perish you.  His full sentence was: "Damned you!  For this have you called us?" 

Immediately after that, this surah was revealed using the same word used by Abu Lahab.  The only different is that instead of "tabbak," meaning damned you, the words used are "tabbat yada," which means damned the two hands.  The two hands refer to Abu Lahab's power and his actions, which, along with his wealth and children, will be of no use to him in the Hereafter.  For what he had done with his power, wealth and children, Abu Lahab will be burned in the burning flames, the lahab.

With that background weaves together, it adds spice to the beauty and harmony of the surah, as well as heightens the significance of its message, namely, one reaps what one toils.  The bad deeds and cruelties directed by these couple to the Prophet will redound back to them in the Hereafter. 

Such is the significance of seerah to Quranic interpretation.  As for the Quran providing information to the seerah, in one short sweep, this surah highlights the moods, sentiments, and the reactions of the Prophet's enemies against him and his message.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Seerah Muhammad: Overview On The Grand Scheme

Prophet Muhammad's achievement, as can be seen from my earlier posting, Overview On Supremacy, is nothing less than spectacular.

His achievement is impressive but not spectacular, however, if measured by the area of lands conquered.  Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great achieved more.  These two figures are land conquerors and empire builders, of which Muhammad is not.

Muhammad, upon him be peace, is a prophet.  The measure of his greatness, therefore, has to be viewed from prophetic achievement, namely, the speed of the spread and the enduring influence of the message he brought, both in ideological (or theological) as well as practical lives.  Measured from this angle, his achievement was unsurpassed by any other prophets.  Even if we include the philosophers into this measure, none surpassed him.

But to compare the performance of one prophet to another is preposterous.  In fact, it is forbidden in Islam.  The Quran never belittles one prophet or elevates the other.  The Prophet Muhammad himself considers all prophets to be his equal, except that he is their leader.

It is unIslamic, therefore, to denigrate the Prophet Noah (Nabi Nuh), saying that he is not very effective in doing his job, for in spite of spending hundreds of years, he managed only to convert a handful.  His greatness lies in his perseverance, for in spite of his people refusing to listen to him, he persevered with them for hundreds of years.  Any other man would have given up long ago.

Neither can we say that the Prophet Jonah (Nabi Yunus) was no good, on account that he ran away from his duty, after his people were heedless to his call.  He was sent for different purpose, namely that one should not give up Allah's mercy.  Those who repent will always have a second chance, as the story of the Prophet Jonah illustrates.  After he repented and was delivered from the belly of the fish, he went back preaching and met with success.

Likewise with any other prophet.  All of them were sent for specific time to specific people for specific reason.

Similarly, we also cannot elevate the status of the Prophet Jesus on account that he commands the largest adherents.  True, the Christians are ranked as number one and made up slightly less than one third of the world population.  Bigger than the Muslims who are about one quarter, or the Jews, the oldest of the Abrahamic faith, who make up less than one percent (about 0.19% according to some estimate).   From Islamic perspective, the Christians are not the true followers of Jesus Christ.  His true followers are Muslims.  Neither are the Jews the true followers of Moses.  Again his true followers are Muslims.  It is a historical fact that the faith brought by Jesus had been hijacked and modified, first by St. Paul, and later by many others known as the Church Fathers.

The fact of the matter is that the achievement of the Prophet Muhammad has been decreed by Allah.  In His Grand Scheme of things, all prophets combined are like a building, each filling a structure making up that building.  Muhammad was the last structure that completes that building.  As he puts it in his own word:
"My similitude in comparison with the other prophets before me, is that of a man who has built a house nicely and beautifully, except for a place of one brick in a corner. The people go about it and wonder at its beauty, but say: 'Would that this brick be put in its place!' So I am that brick, and I am the last of the Apostles." -Sahih Bukhari 4:735
In Allah's Grand Design, the Prophet Muhammad is the last piece that is still missing.  With his coming, he seals and completes that Grand Design.  It is for that reason that he is called the Seal of the Prophets.

That, however, does not reduce even an iota of Muhammad greatness.  It is fair to say that while he is only one last piece, for all intents and purposes, and by any measure, it is the most important piece.  For in his life, teachings and accomplishment are combined all facets of other prophets' lives, teachings and accomplishments. 

For that reason, even if only his life we know, and only his teachings as per Quran and sunnah we know, whereby our knowledge on all other prophets and their teachings are oblivious to us, that would be sufficient already for us to lead our lives as Muslims.  That in itself is already a proof for his merit to be the Seal of the Prophets.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seerah Muhammad: Overview On Supremacy

Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, lived for about 63 years.  Two third of it was as ordinary man, the other one third as a prophet. 

He lived as a prophet for 23 years.  The first 13 years were spent in Makkah as the leader of the persecuted group, while the last 10 years were spent in Madinah as the leader of a sovereign ummah. 

In the 10 years of his Madinah period, the first half was defensive, while the other half was offensive. 

In the first half, he was engaged in three major wars with his archenemies, the polytheist Quraysh.  He won the first, the Battle of Badar.  He lost the second, the Battle of Uhud.  In the third battle, the Battle of Ahzab, there was no real war.  Only little skirmishes here and there.  The Quraysh left the battlefield, having failed to attack and destroy Madinah as planned.  As the Qurasyh and their allies left the battlefield, Prophet Muhammad said to his companions: "From now on, they don't come to us.  We go to them."  Thus, the mode switched, from defensive to attacking.

True enough, in the second half, there was no more attempt by the Qurasyh to attack Madinah.  It was now the Muslims' turn to go to Makkah.  The first expedition took place one year after Ahzab, in 6 AH (After Hijrah).  The expedition was to perform umrah (lesser pilgrimage), not to engage in a war.  But the Prophet and his companions were denied entry into Makkah, and the expedition ended in a peace treaty. 

The peace treaty itself at one look appeared one sided, which caused the Prophet companions to complain, but when one of the Quraysh allies violated the terms of the treaty, Abu Sufyan came to Madinah begging the Prophet for understanding and resettlement.   According to the treaty, if the Muslims or their allies violated the terms, the treaty would be automatically dissolved.  Likewise with the Qurasyh. 

Thus, when one of the Qurasyh allies violated it, the peace treaty automatically dissolved.  Abu Sufyan came begging for a settlement and an extension of the treaty, pleading ignorance about what his allies did, and confessed himself being innocence of the matter.  Hitherto it was the Muslims who always begged for leniency, understanding or clemency.   By then the matter had turned 180 degree, for the one who begs is always in an inferior position than the one being begged. 

Seeing that this 10-year treaty, known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, no longer served its purpose, the Prophet did not bother even to listen to Abu Sufyan, the head of the Makkans.  Two years after the Hudaybiyah treaty, he conquerred Makkah without shedding much blood.  The Makkans offered hardly any resistance but requested for clemency, which was granted.  The Makkan allies, however, fought against the Muslims and they were summarily defeated. 

For the remaining two years of his life, one delegation after another came to Madinah to pledge loyalty and to accept Islam.  Before the Prophet finally died in 632 AD (10 AH), the whole of Arabian Peninsular was subdued under his power. 

As soon as he died, however, major revolts immediately rose all over Arabia.  The only places immune to the revolt were Madinah, Makkah and Taif.  The situation was precarious.  His companions, however, were ready to face the challenge.  His successor, Abu Bakar, undertook the challenge to quench the revolt and reestablish the Muslims supremacy.  This time more firmly and more absolutely. 

In the midst of quenching this rebellion, the Persian and the Roman empires, the two superpowers at that time, took advantage by stirring troubles at the borders.  Even in his short reign, Abu Bakar managed to resolve this problem as well.  When he died some months later, having ruled for about two and a half year only, the Muslims were already inflicting major blows to the Persian and the Roman empires.

In less than five years after the death of the Prophet, under the leadership of his second successor, Umar, the Persian empire was practically no more and the Roman Empire had been dealt a definitive blow.

After the Battle of Qadisiyyah which took place in 636 AD, the Persian Empire lost its supremacy in the Western Persia, although it continued to exist until 644 AD, when it finally came to a permanent end.  Also during Umar's time, more than two third of the Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, fell to the hand of Muslims.  The Romans' control of the Middle East and North Africa, having dominated these regions for about seven centuries, thus came to a permanent end.

By the time Umar died in 644 AD, the Islamic Caliphate became the superpower, the largest single empire at that time.  It continued to dominate the world for about six centuries, with its capital first in Madinah, then in Damascus, and later in Baghdad, until the Mongols invasion in the thirteen century.  From the ashes of Baghdad, rose many dynasties to champion the cause of Islam, the most dominant being the Ottoman dynasty. 

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 AD, Muslims supremacy was no more.  But from a humble begining, Islam and the Muslims ruled supreme for the first six centuries, and continued to be the power to be reckoned with for another six centuries, until its power was vanguished with the fall of its last bastion in the WWI.

It has been a century that the Muslims have completely lost their supremacy, but it does not mean that it will be like that forever.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

All In The Family

The first and second successors to the Prophet Muhammad were his father in laws, while the third and fourth were his son in laws. 

The first successor, Abu Bakar Abi Quhafah, was not only the Prophet bosom friend, but also his father in law, because Abu Bakar was the father of Aisyah.  The second successor, Umar al Khattab, was the father of Hafsah, another wife of the Prophet.   Hence, Umar too was the Prophet's father in law. 

The third successor, Uthman Affan, became the Prophet's son in law because Uthman married two of the Prophet's daughters, Ruqayyah and Umm Kulthoom.  He married Ruqayyah first, and then Umm Kulthoom after Ruqayyah died.  The fourth successor, Ali Abu Talib, was not only the Prophet's son in law, but also a cousin to the Prophet.  He even grew up in the Prophet's household, as the Prophet grew up in the household of Abu Talib, the Prophet's uncle who happened to be Ali's father.

These four successors were known in the annal of Islamic history as the rightly guided caliphs.

After that the caliphate turned into dynasties, beginning with the Umayyid dynasty and followed by the Abbasid dynasty.  Still, the founders of these dynasties are those closely related to the Prophet. 

As for the first, it was founded by Muawiyah bin Abu Sufyan.  Muawiyah was the brother of Umm Habibah, one of the Prophet's wives, who was the daughter of Abu Sufyan.  He was therefore the Prophet's brother in law. 

The second dynasty was founded by Abu Abbas as Saffah and his older brother Abu Ja'far al Mansur, the descendants of Abbas bin Abdul Muttalib.  Abbas was none other than the Prophet's uncle.

This group of people who are closely linked with the Prophet had led the Islamic world with an almost absolute control for more that three hundreds years: about 30 years during the rightly guided caliph, about 90 years of the Ummayid dynasty and the first 200 years of the Abbasid caliphate. 

The Abbasid dynasty did not end until 1517, when the caliphate was transferred to the Ottoman family, but after the first 200 years, the family's control on the empire was very much weakened.  After the Mongols razed Baghdad to the ground in 1258, the Abbasid dynasty moved to Cairo, Egypt.  By then, their control was merely symbolic, since the family did not hold any political power at all. 

After the Abbasid dynasty, the caliphate moved to the Ottoman or Uthmaniyyah dynasty, which dominated the Islamic World until WWI in 1917.  Some sources said that the dynasty, which is not of Arab stock, but Turkic, derived its name from Uthman, the third caliph.  It is alleged that one of the descendants of Uthman Affan married a woman of Turkish origin, and from this family rose the Ottoman dynasty.  If the claim is true, it would appear that the long history of Islam is dominated by a few closely knit family, all related to the Prophet.

Sounds very much like the story of cronyism, nepotism and favoritism, is it not?  Well, such is almost always a case in every great endeavor.  The terms used of course are differents: companions, friends, associates, family members.  But they are essentially means the same thing.  After all, to whom would you rely, except those who you know very well and trust fully.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Best History is Seerah

Though actual work is always done in the present, our work is always for the future.  As for the past,  we look for the experience, inspiration, example and insight.  Therein lies the importance of the past.

History records and analyzes past event.  People or individuals involved in it are only one of the elements that make the total picture.  If the focus is on the individual, however, it is not called history, but biography. 

As a source, history is only good for insight, knowledge or enlightenment, because it talks more about the event.  People are only actors in that event.  For inspiration, experience and example, including insight and enlightenment, one must go to biography.  If one were to know the events and the destructions caused by Hitler in the WWII, then he should read history.  But if he wants to have deeper understanding of the reasons why Hitler embarked on such a catastrophe, he must read Hitler biographies, especially ones written by those who have accessed to his inner mind and his inner circle.  And one must also read his autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

History Is Supposed To Englighten, Not To Burden

Typical questions asked in a high school history class will go something like these?  One, in what year did Columbus discover America?  Two, when did the Portuguese conquer the Empire of Malacca and for how long they retained it before finally losing it to the Dutch?  Three, how many Makkan captives were held prisoners by the Muslims in the battle of Badar?  And four, who convoked and convened the Council of Nicaea held in 325 AD?

A dutiful student would answer: one, in 1492; two, in 1511 and for 130 years; three, 70 prisoners; and four, Emperor Constantine.

All of his answers would be correct, of course, but generally that's about all he knows, or cares to know.  His preoccupation tends to be on memorizing dates, numbers, or names, because these are what is generally required of them.  The interesting stuffs about history are generally lost.

The student generally does not know who is Christopher Columbus, the sailor who had made that great discovery, except that Columbus was an Italian sailor sponsored by Queen Isabella, and that the project was to go to Asia by sailing west instead of east, as other sailors did at that time.  If he is a dutiful student, he perhaps knows that when Columbus reached the Island of Guanahani, he called the people there red Indians (perhaps because their skin color was different from Indians he knew), thinking that he had reached India, not knowing he was actually in the group of Bahamas Islands.  If he knows all that, he is already above average student, because the students in history class are generally taught to memorize dates, numbers and names only.

But there are many exciting stuffs in the story of Columbus' discovery other than the fact that he had made a profitable mistake. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Light We Thread

Now that the tone is set, where to begin?  

I shall start by saying that I like history.  I did not read history in college; I read business administration.  I did not take any history course during my college years, nor during my high school, but history remains a subject that interests me the most. 

But it is not history per se that interests me.  It is not who did what where when that concerns me.  I also would not enjoy taking history lesson and be graded on my historical knowledge.  Neither do I fancy making a living being a history teacher.  None of those.  I like history because it helps me understand. 

One cannot fancy to understand the present without looking at the past.  What you are is where you were when, says Morris Massey in his video produced in 1986.  Well, Massey is not a historian.  He does not talk about history.  He is a management guru.  He talks about the three periods one goes through his life that develop his value system, which in turn influences his behavior and outlook.  In short, the three periods (namely the imprint, the modelling  and the socialization), all in the past, which mould his present.  In short, his history.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Setting The Tone

Mankind are rather greedy by nature.  They generally do not want to share what they have with others, especially with strangers.  But when come to opinions, however, they become over generous.  They want to share their thoughts even when others don't really want to listen.  This is hardly generosity, but rather vanity. 

Of this vanity, I could not plead to be innocent.  How could I justify creating another blog when there are already millions crowding the web space.  And yet hope to be heard?  Am I not busy enough with my work, trying to make a living?  Do I have so much times to waste, and in return, wasting others'?

But one does not live by bread alone.  Busyness with making a living is not a life.  It is only a part of life, something one has to do in order to continue living.  If it is just a matter of making a living, then we are no better than animals.  Those who work their bones out are not actually making a living per se; they work their bones out because that is what they are.  As Rene Descartes says "I think, therefore I am," these people are likewise "they are" because of their work.  And these works do not necessarily fall under the category of making a living.