Good manners and the Holy Prophet
Dr Imranali Sibtain Panjwani has lived, studied and worked in the UK, the Middle East and Australia as an academic, lawyer, chaplain and community worker. He researches Islamic and Western Law focusing on the subject of the law, interpretation of scripture, moral development and access to justice and human rights for minority communities. His country’s expert reports have been commented upon by judges and lawyers and draw upon his diverse legal, cultural and religious experiences. Dr Panjwani is the Head and Founder of Diverse Legal Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in country expert reports on Middle East & North Africa (MENA) for asylum seekers. Drawing upon his seminary and university studies, his work cuts across scriptural exegesis, jurisprudence, philosophy, logic and metaphysics. By re-examining the subject of the law, a critical evaluation of how laws are derived from religious and non-religious sources can take places. This also means broadening our notions of evidence to understand other legal systems better so that the dignity of minorities can be recognised. In his spare time, he engages in interfaith dialogue in Muslim and faith communities worldwide and likes playing tennis and doing charity work. He enjoys spending time with family and when possible, escapes into the world of fantasy football and all other idiosyncratic creative outlets.
The paradigm of akhlaq in the Qur’an with specific reference to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w)
he Qur’an, very early on, discusses human beings’ moral disposition or character through the example of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). It states:
[Shakir 68:4] And most surely you conform (yourself) to sublime morality.
[Shakir 68:5] So you shall see, and they (too) shall see,
[Shakir 68:6] Which of you is afflicted with madness.
According to Shi’a and Sunni exegeses, the verses above were revealed at a time when the Prophet was being verbally and physically abused by his enemies. They used to call him crazy (amongst other names such as being soothsayer or magician) for preaching there is One God, that he claimed to be Prophet and that he was able to recite these miraculous, eloquent verses without being taught by anyone. Many of us would have heard this context but perhaps we do not why Allah (s.w.t) tells him in verse 4, “And most surely you conform (yourself) to sublime morality.” What is the need for this verse if the Prophet already knows he has a moral disposition? Why emphasise the issue of moral character anyway? What is God trying to teach us?
Shi’a (and Sunni) exegetes have attempted to answer this question by analysing what ‘khuluq’ means. Firstly, khuluq is derived from khalaqa, yakhluqu which means to create, make, originate, shape or mould. When we say God is al-khaaliq (the Creator) we are expressing his ability to create, originate and shape whatever He creates. Khuluq, which does relate to the notion of creating or originating something, specifically means nature, temper, disposition, character. Khuluq (or khulq) is the singular of akhlaq (morals, morality character traits). So what we understand from the fundamental meaning of khuluq is that we are created with the ability to originate morals within us. The Prophet is described as having ‘khuluq ‘adhim’ – a great or sublime character/disposition.
When we dig deeper, we find that exegetes such as Allamah Tabrisi (r.a) who authored the famous work, Majma’ al-Bayan, states according to Ibn Abbas, Mujahid and al-Hasan, khuluqin adheem means ‘deenun adheemun’ which is the religion of Islam. Another meaning is that the Prophet was moulded with the morals of Islam; and on a noble nature. However, the reality of khuluqin is what human beings extract for their own selves from morals/rules of conduct (adaab). Here, Allamah Tabrisi makes a beautiful distinction within ‘khuluq’ which is between ‘acquired nature’ (al-tabu’ al-muktasab) and ‘innate/inborn nature’ (al-tabu’ al-gareezee).
Tabrisi states that all human beings are have these two aforementioned dimensions and this logically would include Prophet Muhammad. Acquired nature is the nature we develop ourselves through our intentions, actions and experiences (whether good or bad). We may acquire morals from our parents, friends, community, school and general environment. These may be nurtured in us or we are subconsciously influenced by all these factors. What gradually happens is that we make moral decisions based on what we have acquired and these become intentional, conscious moral decisions which positively or negatively shape our character. So Prophet Muhammad also acquired his moral traits from those around him – his father, mother, grandfather and surrounding environment but then made a conscious choice to be trustworthy and honest, hence his titles, al-amin and al-sadiq.
At the same time, however, we are born with an innate nature. This may come from our DNA and the moral and personality traits we inherited from our parents, lineage and ancestry. These traits which form our core personality – for example whether we are quiet or loud, smiling or serious and more are aspects we cannot change but we can shape them. We may be born with specific traits that could be moral or neutral such as courage, reflectiveness, propensity to be curious etc… These are traits which give us our core identity and make us individuals. We can shape these traits, heightening or weakening them but it appears, never removing them from our core personality. So Prophet Muhammad inherited traits from his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, who was a custodian of the Ka’bah and helped poor people. This appears to have been a core personality trait of Prophet Muhammad which he nurtured further with God’s grace.
The distinction above is a useful guide, stemming from the understanding of the Qur’an itself, of how we may understand the Islamic notion of morality and how Prophets developed themselves. Islam places equal value on nature and nurture and we must strive ourselves to create the best conditions for both aspects for ourselves and our children in order that we become good, moral human beings. There is no guarantee that just having good lineage that one will be moral; if that was the case then Prophet Nuh’s son should have followed him onto the ark but he didn’t; Prophet Ya’qub’s sons shouldn’t have beaten up Prophet Yusuf and put him in a well but they did etc.. Whereas we also see companions of Prophet Muhammad who may not have had the best lineage or environment but excelled far above many in their society to become honoured, righteous servants of God such as Bilal, Ammar ibn Yasir and Salman Farsi.
Our task, therefore, is to focus on creating the prime conditions for nature to take their course for our offspring so that they can nurture themselves in the best way. Secondly, to focus on how Prophet Muhammad and others developed their character rather than simplifying this issue or negating the humanness of the Prophet as otherwise we will not be able to learn from him as the ‘best model’ for us, as per the Qur’an.
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