The religion of Islam was founded by Muhammad, the 7th century prophet whom Muslims call "the messenger of God."
They don't consider him divine, but they follow his teachings closely. Good Muslims are taught to emulate the prophet in all matters, personal, spiritual and worldly.
Perhaps no time in recent history has it been more important to do as the Prophet Muhammad did — and not as someone says he did.
With terror groups like ISIS now invoking his name, many Muslim leaders say radicals who cite the prophet to justify violence misrepresent his teachings.
Some Muslim leaders argue that young Muslims need a firmer grounding in their own faith and the prophetic tradition, both to equip them better to counter religious propagandists and also to bind them more closely to Islam.
Most of what is known about how Muhammad lived is set down in the Hadith, which consist of recollections of the prophet's life by his companions, first passed on orally and later put down in writing. Taken together, they constitute what Muslims call the "tradition."
One effort to promote religious literacy among young Muslims is the CelebrateMercy initiative. Sheikh Hassan Lachheb, a Moroccan-born Islamic scholar from Knoxville, Tenn. — along with a slate of guest speakers — conducts a series of lectures around the country, titled "Portrait of a Prophet."
He reads selections from the Hadith, some of them apparently mundane stories about how Muhammad lived, and explains what young Muslims can learn from them. (Click the audio link above to hear the full story.)
Even what seems like the most trivial detail — what kind of sandal he wore, for instance — serves a purpose: humanizing Muhammad, making it easier for Muslims to emulate him.
Hassan argues that if Muslims had more knowledge of how the Prophet Muhammad actually lived and what he taught, they would be less vulnerable to extremist propaganda. Counterterrorism officials — who've focused largely on surveillance, sting operations and community policing — would have more success countering extremism, he says, if they supported efforts to deepen religious literacy among young Muslims.
He cites the abundance of examples from the Hadith that emphasize charity and respect for other faiths.
The tradition associated with the Prophet Muhammad, Hassan says, "has never been radicalized and has always produced beauty, always produced involvement in the community, always produced tolerance."
"If you're bypassing all of that to come with a political solution (to extremism)," Hassan says, "I don't think it's going to work."
Below are a few lessons from the life of Muhammad.
The Lifestyle Of The Prophet
- Among Muhammad's favorite foods were dates, melon and cucumbers. He enjoyed cool, sweet drinks, including a type of date juice, often mixed with milk and honey. His followers often brought him food from their gardens. He always sent them home with a gift in return.
- The prophet is said to have had a thick head of hair and wore it long. It was gray on the sides, and like many men he oiled it with a henna-like product that gave it a reddish tint. The streets were often filled with dust and to keep his oiled hair protected, he often wore a scarf on his head, like a bandanna.
- Before going to sleep each night, the prophet would blow on his hands. Even in his sleep, he could be heard blowing. It was not a snoring sound. He normally slept on his right side.
The Hadith contain many narrations about the Prophet Muhammad's personal appearance and habits. Muslims are encouraged to learn about these apparently trivial aspects of his story, because it helps them feel more connected to him.
"One of the things we're taught is that we should love the prophet, not just intellectually but experientially," says Dalia Mogahed, a guest speaker at a Celebrate Mercy course held in Maryland recently. "How do we do that without detailed information – the way he walked, the way, he stood, the way he looked. It's about imagining who he was."
Hassan, the sheikh, reminds his students that the prophet lived in a particular time in Arabia. Some of the things he did and said should be understood in their cultural and historical context, such as how many wives he had and at what age they were betrothed.
Guidance For Daily Life
- Muhammad and his family ate a type of bread made with barley. He often gave the bread away before sharing it with his family. By the time he distributed it in his household, the bread was sometimes as hard as a rock. He would dip the bread in water to soften it, but there was not much to go around. The prophet's family did not have their fill of barley bread until after he passed away.
- The prophet preached that living a life of ascetism and poverty does not mean one has to be scruffy. He often told his companions to bathe and sometimes admonished them for not cleaning their fingernails or brushing their teeth or combing their hair. Not being clean, he said, affects one's spiritual state.
- The prophet was never obscene in speech nor boisterous. He did not find fault in people. When he was angry with someone, he simply turned away. When he was happy, he lowered his gaze. When he laughed, he flashed his white teeth.
Some of the Hadith offer Muslims guidance for their daily lives. Moaz Hayat, 18, a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says one lesson he took from the course about the prophet is that he should take better care of his body, as the prophet did.
"He was a very well-built man," Hayat says. "He wasn't just a scholar sitting in an ivory tower."
Sheikh Hassan uses the story of the prophet's aversion to profanity to tell his students that "obscenity is not cool. We have to teach our children this," he said. "I'm sorry, but I'm talking from experience in the immigrant community. Too many think it's cool to say stuff like the N-word. It's not fun. We have to combat it. We do have racism in our community."
A Lesson On Inclusion And Politics
- When Muhammad moved to Medina from Mecca, he found it to be a far more cosmopolitan city, with a large and thriving Jewish community. In Medina, the prophet followed many Jewish habits, even if they differed from what the Muslims did. The Jews, for example, wore their hair in a distinctive style, and the prophet changed his hair style in Medina to match theirs.
The Prophet Muhammad "wanted the Jews to feel close," Hassan, the sheikh, says. "They were 'People of the Book,' (from the Abrahamic tradition and whose beliefs are based on a holy text)."
Elaborating on the story, Mogahed — who studies Muslim-American communities as director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding — says it showed the prophet "wanted to lessen the barrier between Muslims and Jews. He wanted to connect with them."
This was a story, she says, with implications for how Muslim-Americans should see their role in U.S. society.
"What this means is, we have to understand the culture and the context we live in," she says. "We should do all that we can to connect to people and respect their culture."