Prophet Muhammad’s natural human struggles in the early revelations of the Qur’an

The writer, Sh Dr Imranali Panjwani (Chelmsford, UK) is a Senior Lecturer in Law, Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, UK and Head of Diverse Legal Consulting.

This article forms part of the series ‘ Muhammad – A Beacon of Hope, a Shining Star’ – an initiative to recall and appreciate the messages and lessons behind the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, its relevance, and connection to life today, for both Shi’a Muslims and the rest of the global population.

One of my earliest memories of hearing about our beloved Prophet, Muhammad (s.a.w), was from various majalis in the community I grew up in Chelmsford, Essex, UK. The Prophet was portrayed as the best human being for us to follow and none can doubt this. Whilst the portrayal of his personality in these majalis was inspirational, it was also not practical or realistic for me to implement in my life. I often used to ask myself, “how exactly did the Prophet control his anger?”; “how did the Prophet focus on his prayer?” or “how he could he be so honest?” These questions were never answered and to this day, I find my own generation and the next asking these same questions. When they are not answered, youths and indeed, all of us, may take others as role models and only regard the Prophet as an untouchable superhuman figure that we cannot relate to. What is the answer to these questions you may ask?

Over the last year, particularly since the start of COVID in March 2020, I have humbly been holding zoom tafsir classes every week free of charge for anyone to join. My intention is to remove my ignorance about the Qur’an and to learn from everyone’s questions. My focus has been on how Prophet Muhammad has been portrayed by the Qur’an itself – the book we regard as authentic and uncorrupted. My methodology has been to examine the chapters of the Qur’an in accordance with the order of revelation, not the way in which they were later compiled. This is known as al-tafsir al-tartibi (comparative exegesis) – a method which Shaykh Ja’far Sobhani himself comments on as an approach used by the companions of Imam Ali (a.s) and the remaining Imams to understand the Qur’an. 

This method helps us understand the circumstances of revelation and experiences of Prophet Muhammad from the earliest verses in Surat al-‘Alaq then Surat al-Qalam, Surat al-Muzammil and so on. This may, God willing, provide an answer on how Prophet Muhammad became so intimate with Allah and disciplined his spiritual and moral traits. One example suffices here though there are many with reference to the commentary of our Shi’a exegetes.

In Surat al-Qalam, Allah (s.w.t) states,

 “So submit patiently to the judgement of your Lord, and do not be like the Man of the Fish who called out as he choked with grief (makdhum). Had it not been for a blessing that came to his rescue from his Lord, he would surely have been cast on a bare shore while he were blameworthy. So his Lord chose him and made him one of the righteous” (68:48-50, translation by Ali Quli Qara’i).

The context of these verses is crucial to understand the moral and spiritual development of Prophet Muhammad’s soul towards God. Allamah Tabrisi (r.a) in Majma’ al-Bayan states these verses refer to Prophet Yunus (a.s) and Prophet Muhammad shouldn’t be like him because Yunus sought to hasten punishment and destruction for his people and left his community without the permission of God. Makdhum means choked with grief because a cure for Yunus’ anger could not be found. These verses were revealed to Prophet Muhammad because at the time, he was feeling anger in his heart towards the polytheists who were verbally and physically abusing him and rejecting his message. He would have acted in the same way as Prophet Yunus had it not been for these verses in which God commands him to “submit patiently to the judgement of your Lord” otherwise he would have been blameworthy.

The above context is not just confirmed by the verses themselves but other Shi’a mufassirin as well. For example, Allamah Fayd al-Kashani (r.a) in Tafsir al-Safi states that being patient on the judgement of your Lord means granting them respite. It refers to Yunus when he called upon his people but then left angrily towards God. Allamah Tabatabai (r.a) in Tafsir al-Mizan states God prohibited Prophet Muhammad from that which Yunus did because the Prophet was at the time of his public proclamation filled with sadness and distress. So God prohibited him from being led to an affliction like Yunus which was having limited forbearance and hastening punishment for them. Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi in Tafsir-e-Nemuneh is similar in his comments to the above commentators.

It is abundantly clear from the Qur’an itself and our respected Shi’a commentators that Prophet Muhammad went through the following relatable experiences:

  • He had to control the anger he felt in his heart so as not to react in the same way that Prophet Yunus did
  • He had to overcome the sadness and distress he felt and remain determined when people abused him and rejected his message
  • He constantly developed his moral and spiritual character towards God and what God liked him to do as opposed to these moral and spiritual traits coming to him without any effort on his part

These verses tell us a lot about the natural human struggles that Prophet Muhammad went through in his life. We can all relate to times when we have felt angry, lacking in determination and not putting in effort to improve ourselves. However, Prophet Muhammad was able to develop beautiful spiritual and moral traits because of his effort and thinking about what God wants first before himself. Perhaps we need to re-examine how we have understood Prophet Muhammad so that he becomes an active and realistic role model for us all, especially our children who today are surrounded by so many materialistic influences on social media. Perhaps the reason why God states Prophet Muhammad is a “good exemplar” for us is to ask honest and hard questions about the challenges he went through so we can learn from him:

“In the Apostle of Allah there is certainly for you a good exemplar, for those who look forward to Allah and the Last Day, and remember Allah greatly” (33:21, translation by Ali Quli Qara’i).

Feel free to participate in our zoom tafsir classes by messaging me on: +44 7479 311919 or e-mailing me your name and number on: ip*******@ho*****.com

May God bless Muhammad and his family.

1  See: Sobhani, Ja’far., Mafahim al-Qur’an, al-Juz al-‘Ashir, ‘al-Shi’a wa al-Tafsir al-Tartibi’

2  Al-Tabrisi, ?Ali al-Fadl b. Al-Hasan b. al-Fadl., Majma’ al-Bayan, Surat al-Qalam: https://www.hodaalquran.com/rbook.php?id=1560&mn=1 (accessed 16th November 2021).

3  Al-Kashani, Muhammad b. Murtada b. Mahmud., Tafsir al-Safi, Surat al-Qalam: https://www.hodaalquran.com/rbook.php?id=6951&mn=1 (accessed 16th November 2021).

4  Tabataba’i, Muhammad Husayn., Tafsir al-Mizan, Surat al-Qalam: https://www.hodaalquran.com/rbook.php?id=3441&mn=1 (accessed 16th November 2021).

5  Shirazi, Nasir Makarim., Tafsir-e-Nemuneh, Surat al-Qalam: https://quran.anhar.ir/tafsirfull-14421.htm (accessed 16th November 2021).

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