Lessons from the Prophet’s Life

Osama Alkhawaja
16 min readFeb 22, 2023

The following notes were taken by me during the 2017 ALIM program. I am sharing them here so others may benefit from what I learned. The first section is a broad overview of why and how we should study the Seerah. The second section very briefly touches on the major events of the Prophet’s life. The third section is a collection of lessons/universal principles that are extracted from the Seerah that we can apply today. To the extent I’ve made any errors in either understanding or communicating a concept, that fault is entirely my own, and not that of my teachers. Allah knows best.

Background

Purpose of studying the Seerah

How do we give meaning today to the life of the Prophet to give service to Islam in the context of our own society? How do we find value of the Seerah in the modern world? What power does Islam have to heal the modern condition? Can we be a transformational force in society?

SJ: “those of us entrenched in the study of the modern world are better suited than ‘pure’ Islamic scholars to do so” In liberalism, we are socialized in a certain society, and if a scholar can’t understand liberalism, he can’t deconstruct liberalism to explain, study, and teach Islam

How do we go from “believing in God” to “believing God” and his prophets.

Modernity

Most people today“see God” in nature but they can’t/won’t hear him (they won’t listen to his command). The modern world effects how we see Islam. There are various lenses that filter our view: Liberalism; Liberty of the individual; Choice; Rights end where others begin; Secularism; Scientism; Capitalism; Race; Nationalism

When we lost connection between Islam and the human condition, it becomes a static doctrine that loses its relevance.

Context matters

Seerah (Macro) and Sunna (Micron) used to be the same thing. It is only a modern distinction. Today, we need the Seerah (Biography) to contextualize the Sunnah (individual habits)

For example:

  • Project did (X) in context (A)
  • Prophet did (Y) in context (B)
  • What should you do in context (C?)

Which action is “following the sunnah? You might do what the project did in context A, but not understand why he did it, and therefore, NOT be following the sunnah.

Pre-Prophet Arabia

Society

The unit of society is the tribe, not the individual. Individual can be kicked out of the clan. Tribe is broken into clans. Tribe has a cap of roughly 600 people. Might makes right. Shaykh is the tribal leader. Receives ¼ of booty of raids and spoils of war to manage duties.

Tribes

When the prophet was born, Quraysh (Tribe of Mecca) was subdivided into three groups:

  • Prophet’s clan: Banu Hashim. Alliance with Banu Muttalib, Taym (Abu Bakr), Zuhrah, Harith, Banu Fihr. Reputation: Religious prestige
  • Uthman’s clan: Abd Shams, Nawful, Asad (Kadijah), Amir
  • Makhzum, Jumah, Sham, Abd Al Dar 1. Reputation: Most powerful economically and militarily

SH: Prophet tore apart tribalism even as it protected him. Prophet was Muslim & Qurayshi.

Economy

Long distance trade. Trade route from India to Gulf to Arabia to Syria. Spice was to the ancient world what oil is today.

Culture

  • Asabiyah” = “usness” me, my clan, my allies
  • Muruwah” = Pride. Defined as manliness, bravery in battle, persistence in revenge, chivalry
  • Pride. Bravery in battle. Persistence in revenge. Strong oral poetry tradition. High chivalry → value in caring for the week. Generosity highly valued. Stinginess was a sign of weakness.

Religion

Believed in God (at a very high level). Accepted the idea of Rabb. But polytheist

Illah: the object of which I am trying to appease the unseen powers that control the destiny of the Universe (Rab)

  • Their Illah’s were idols; their Rab too far removed
  • The object of their worship was these idols
  • Tawheed: “there is no Ilah but God.” You are making your Ilah and your Rab one.
  • Shirk: Attributing supernatural power to anything other than Allah
  • Shadaha: Liberating yourself from other “Illahs”

Arabian religion was devotional, not moral. Ultimate goal is to appease the Gods v. Kahin: Oracle reader. A priest. Spoke in rhymed prose.

SH: The fact that the companions fought is a sign of their tawheed and confidence in their knowledge. They had done their homework and soul searching to prove their position, and they were confident in it. They stuck to their deen and they weren’t bullied when people made them feel uncomfortable (to say the least).

SH: Tawheed is hard to be guarded on an individual basis. It must be guarded communally. Insan forgets. The Quran is thikir (reminder).

Before Prophethood (570 — 610 AD)

Rough Timeline

  • 570: Birth
  • 610: Prophethood
  • 615: Abyssinia
  • 617–620: Boycott / years of sadness
  • 621: Ta’if
  • 622: Aqabaa II
  • 623: Hijra

570

Mohammad born an orphan (father Abdullah died while his mother pregnant). Amina his mother dies when he was six, he goes under the care of Abdul Muttalib. Halima is his wet nurse. Abdul Muttalib dies when prophet is eight, he goes under care of his Uncle Abu Talib (father/son relationship). Marries Khadijah when he was 25. She was a wealthy widow. They have six children, 4 girls, 2 boys.

590

Hilf Al-Fudul — The Alliance of the Virtuous. The prophet signed onto a treaty that upheld the protection of the weak, from the abuses of the strong. Mainly stronger clans protecting weaker clans

Meccan Period (610–623 AD)

610 — Hira — Prophethood

The prophet used to retreat to a cave to meditate — contemplate the situation of reality. The revelation came when he was 40. Mohammad begins by collection a small group of followers that collectively disrupt the status quo.

Criticism from society: he is attacking our way of life, he is turning father against son, brother against brother. He is attacking our social fabric and our religion.

re: Satanic Verses. They relate to Surah al-Najim: the Prophet allegedly recites verses to Quryash that validates their Gods. Either b/c he was confused by God or as a compromise. Ibn Taymiyah says this happens. Overwhelming majority of scholars reject that it happened. Salman Rushdie argues that if it happened, the entire revelation is compromised. SJ: All we know about Mohammad is that he is honest; not that he is perfect. Let’s suppose it happened, it would only falsify the Quran if he denied that it happened, but he didn’t, he admitted it happened and correct it proving his reliability. Asiha: I know this revelation happened for if he would have hid anything from the people, it would have been this.

615 — First Hijra

First hijra in Islam is to Abyssinia. Al-Najashi was known as a just King. The Meccans sent Amr bin Al-‘as to retrive the Muslims. The Muslims selected Jafar to represent them (he was related to Abdul-Mutalib, the former ambassador to Abyssinia [OPTICS MATTERED].

Jafar critiqued the Jahiliya days and presented Islam in a positive light. The Mecans brought Jesus up as a means of creating a dispute. Jafar is asked about Jesus and tells them that: We know what the Quran tells us: 1) The Quran tells us Jesus is a slave of God 2) and he was born to the virgin Mary. Jafar then reads the first verses of Surah Maryam and Al-Najashi cries and allowed them to stay.

The Muslims lived in this Christian society for almost a decade. There was an attempted coup while they lived there, and they prayed for Al-Najashi to have success over his enemies. They recognized their own party in society that was not Muslim.

617—Boycott

No intermarriage between “us” and the Muslims. No purchase of Muslim owned goods. Banu Hashim and Banu Mutalib took this as an attack on them so they came to the defense of Mohammad and the Muslims.

620 — Year of Sadness

Abu Talib and Khadija die. Abu Lahab becomes leader of Banu Hashim. After the year of sadness, the Prophet started to look around for protection.. He even told people: “I don’t need you to accept Islam. I need a place to live in Peace.”

SJ: Was Political protection all the prophet wanted? No. But he understood priorities, and he was accepting what he could get at. (CHESS NOT CHECKERS)

621 — Taif

Prophet appeals to them to embrace Islam. They refuse to give protection. They refuse to keep appeals a secret. Prophet was humiliated — told Aisha this was the worst part of his life.

Mut’im b. Adi was instrumental in ending boycott. Under his proection, Mohammad was allowed back in Mecca after Taif. Prophet said after Bader: If Mut’im was alive, I’d give him all these booties of war. → Never forget to repay favors.

Following Taif, Mohammad begins communicating with people from Madina and this year, the first pledge of Aqabah occurs. They give him a pledge of support but no commitment of physical defense. Roughly 13 people.

622— Taif

Prophet meets with newly converted Muslims of Medinah. Mecca has become inhospitable. On the verge of war. Prophet asks his uncle Abbas, who was not Muslim at the time, to accompany him.

623 — Hijra

Slow moving of Muslims. Quryash plan to kill Mohammad — he escaped with Abu Bakr. Omar: “if you want your wide widowed, come meet me.” Abd Allah B. Arqat, was the Prophet’s polytheist guide.

Medina Period (623–632 AD)

Parties and Alliances of Medina

  • Muhajireen: immigrants from Mecca
  • Ansar: Aws/Khazraj from Medina
  • Yahood: Qaynuqa, Nadir, Qurayza (Mizrakhi). They did not identify as a single unit. Qaynuqa exiled after incident with woman. Nadir exiled after assassination attempt on prophet.
  • Munafiqoon: Fake belief in Islam for pursuit of political interest. Do not exist in Mecca b/c nothing to gain for being fake Muslim there. Chief: Abd Allah b. Ubayy
  • Alliances: Group A: Khazraj, Qaynuqa, Nadir. Group B: Aws, Qurayza

Background on Medina

Media was won/given, not conquered. Prophet migrated as an outside mediator. He told them: “your blood is my blood. Your alliances are mine.”

Prior to his migration, the residents had battled a civil war. They wanted to establish a system of maintaining peace without tilting political power in favor of existing parties. Mohammad was chosen to maintain an impartial peace.

Delegation to the Prophet:

  • Power: compel/coerce (Prophet built this)
  • Authority: enlist voluntary compliance (Prophet was given this)

Constitution: Promulgated by Mohammad: “we as Medians agree to cooperate for collective security against outside aggressors and inside aggressors.” The ones who signed this constitution are a single ummah (Yahood included). Empowered Muslims to be Muslims, Yahood to be Yahood, and Pagans to be Pagans.

2 AH — Battle of Badr

Battle of Badr: Started when Muslims tried to invade a caravan up to Syria led by Abu Sufyan. Quraysh was offended and decided to respond with force. Muslims had an internal debate: their pledge was to defend Prophet in Madina, not outside in Badr. 300 Muslims (83 Meccans, 231 Ansar [61 Aws, 170 Khazaraj]) vs 1000 Quriash. Abu Jahl died. Muslims win. Abu Sufyan now in charge. Uthman bin Affan missed Bader b/c he was with wife who was sick. After fight, Omar suggested family members execute family members. Prophet decides to ransom instead.

Treatment of Banu-Qaynuqa: Prophet hoped he would find fraternity with them. Instead he was perceived as a wanabe. He wore his hair like them in a show of solidarity (with his brothers in dean). Prophet fasted Ashura (day Moses fled Egypt) like them. But later changed to fast a day before or after b/c they spurred him. Quran: “when they hear your Athan they laugh at you.” Quran: “do not mimic them. Do not die your hair like them etc.”

SH: It’s not what he did, it’s why he did it. Anytime you mimic from a sense of inferiority, it is wrong.

Incident with Muslim woman: Muslim woman goes to the market. A couple of members of Banu-Qaynuqa expose her dress. A Muslim man then kills the Banu-Qaynuqa and another man kills the Muslim. Prophet decides to lay seize on Banu Qaynuqa. Prophet exiles the Banu-Qaynuqa and seizes their land.

3 AH — Battle of Uhud

Abdullah B. Ubay (munafiq) on the way to the battle took his people and abandoned the Muslims. Hamza killed. Khalid ibn Walid flanked the Muslims.

4AH — Bir al-Ma’unah

Exile of Banu Nadir: Abu Baraa asked for ambassadors and promised safe passage. On the way there, Abu Baraa’s nephew kills the scout and tries to get Banu Amr to massacre the Muslims. They refuse. Banu Amr gets Banu Sulaiman to kill the Muslims. A sweeper scout sees the massacre, and runs back to Madina. He runs into two Banu Amr and kills them (b/c of what he had seen, he assumed they were all after Muslims). By the time the scout gets to Madina, Banu Amr is there asking Prophet for Blood money for people scout killed. Prophet knows that Banu Amr, Nadir, and Quraysh are working together, and demands that Banu Nadir, pay the money. Banu Nadir invites the Prophet over. He takes Omar and Abu Bakr. On the way there he got a wahi warning him that it was an assassination attempt. He leaves to Madina and calls the army and lays seize to Banu Nadir. Banu Nadir forced to leave Madina.

Other happenings: (1) Wine prohibited. (2) Prophet marries Umm Salma

5AH — Battle of Khandaq (trench)

Siege begins at instigation of (1) Banu Nadir, (2) Quryash, (3) Banu Gatafan. Intel reached the Prophet that Banu Qurayza would betray the Muslims and join the seize. The Prophet solicited advice from the companions regarding war/strategy. He was a leader who was humble enough to inspire his followers to give their opinions.

6AH — Treaty of Hudaiybiah and Expansion

Incident of Aisha and infidelity: Ali advised the Prophet to divorce her even if she was innocent b/c of the optics. It took revelation to establish her innocence.

The chief hypocrite, Abdullah Ibn. Ubayda dies. The prophet prayed at his funeral. Quran comes down to tell the prophet he should not have done this. But the original act was done and we can learn from this

Treaty of Hudaiybiah: “Verily oh Mohammad, we have granted you a manifest victory.” This is a peace treaty that was supposed to last 10 years 3. The time of peace with Quriyash allowed Islam to expand. Prophet sends emissaries to the West.

8AH — Conquest of Mecca

Conquest of Mecca: Treaty of Hudaiybiyah broken by Quraysh. Prophet decides to march on Mecca. Muslims demonstrated overwhelming force due to peaceful conversions. Prophet appoints a governor of Mecca.

Taif: Prophet compromised a lot with their accepting Islam on a political level; he gave them what they wanted and didn’t press too hard b.c he wanted the Meccans to feel a sense of ownership in the religion. He did not want to rub salt in their wounds.

Other happenings: Islam increases in numbers exponentially. Muslims begin traveling North. Battle of Mu’tah.

9AH–11AH

  • 9AH: Year of delegations. Mass conversions and political expediency. Many of these Muslims likely did not have the “right” Aqeedah but a new political context was being established. Omar takes Muslims on hajj.
  • 10AH: Last pilgrimage. Farewell address.
  • 11AH: Prophet falls ill and stays in Aisha’s house. He instructs Abu Bakr to lead the Salah. People couldn’t find Abu Bakr so Omar led. Prophet stopped the prayer and said they should wait for Abu Bakr. Monday, June 6th, Prophet passed.

Lessons

On Prophethood

  • Seerah: Do not think of the seerah as a neatly organized enterprise. It was a mess. At any point, people doubted what would come next. It was a struggle.
  • Prophet as a man: There was a two-year break between the first and second revelation — he was so scared he even contemplated suicide (according to some narrations). Prophet is chosen by God. He is not a poet. During battle of Badr, sahaba (Al-Hubab ibn Munthir), asked the Prophet, “Is this revelation or is this just your idea for a good battle plan.” Prophet said it was his idea. Sahaba responded: “well then I have a better plan.”
  • Ismah = infallibility = divine protection from sustained error, not momentary mistakes “I am just a human rasool to give you a place in a relationship with God. The rest is on you/us/me. You can accept/deny. You will be rewarded/punished accordingly.”
  • SJ: Search of abstract perfection: “if it is not perfect it is not from god.” Be careful trying to make the Prophet fit an abstract notion of perfection. If he is supposed to be a model for our behavior, how can he be a model if he is never angry, scared, lustful? People want to erase his humanity or use his humanity as a means of discrediting him. We learn from his words, actions, thoughts, struggles, and mistakes.

On Textualism

  • Wahi: Communication through God undetectable by anyone but the messenger and the one giving the message. Prophet received revelation from God that is word for word God’s command (Quran). Prophet was a receiver of divine intervention and guidance that gave a framework for the Quran/revelation (Sunnah).
  • Response to Wahi: The response of the companions to the Wahi lets us know when a command was “must,” “may,” or “should.” They are the anchors that allow us to capture original intent of revelations.
  • Textualists”: We are different than Protestant America in which “Sola Scriptura.” Which cuts out the “sunnah” and only focuses on the text. That is why when they “use” the text of the Quran against us and just point to the words, they don’t realize that for us, the context and Sunnah informs the meaning. We must reject a Protestant Impulse to do the same in our religion. However, many protestant Christians believe our Sunnah is too corrupt — similarly “mad-made” as allegations of the bible.

On Islamic Literary

  • If we are uncomfortable when people “judge us,” part of that is our insecurity. If we were confident in our positions, no one can make us feel uncomfortable in our belief and positions.

On Faith

  • Our society expect prayer to yield instant results, and when it doesn’t, we reject God. Tawhid is hard to guard on an individual basis. It must be guarded as a community. Insan forgets. The Quran is thikir. A reminder.
  • When we lose connection between Islam and the human condition, it becomes a doctrine that comprises its relevance. Human ingenuity must be informed by religious sensibility under God’s judicious eyes.”
  • Quran: teaches us how to manage this human condition
  • Shirk: attributing supernatural power to something other than God. Al Shahada begins with a negation: liberate yourself from other Illahs.

On Identity

Prophet was Muslim and Quriyash, so why can’t we be Muslim and American? He was Quriyashi even as they conspired to kill him. Prophet was anti-tribalism even as it was the one thing that protected him for long periods of time. Asabiyah protected Mohammad even as he broke it apart. Abu Talib was his shield.

The pride in Mohammad being Arabs because the Arabs “produced” the Prophet is close to Kufar, b/c the Arabs due to no factor of their own, were the recipients of the message, not the other way around. Islam did not “come” from the Arabs. The Prophet’s critique of society came from Allah through the wahi.

The Muslims lived in Christian Abyssinia for almost a decade. The prophet did not crush the companions personalities; we try to create the “model Muslim” personality but the prophet never did that; he valued the differences.

On Culture

Hilf al Fadl is an example that Islam did not come to eradicate existing society, but to transform it. After prophethood, the Prophet said if the Quraysh came forth with a request to join such an alliance, he would not hesitate to join.

The Prophet never attacked the Quraiysh’s sense of self. Outside their shirk. We can apply this today. We need to allow converts to claim ownership over their deen. You cannot guide a people you don’t fundamentally care about or love. You can dominate them or subjugate them but you can’t lead them.

Prophet never rejected his identity as a Hasamiu/Qurayshi. The Quran was hardest on the Arabs. However, we need to be aware of the danger of giving ownership of our Deen to others. Paul went to the pagans and Christianity was transformed. We need to be aware of the liberal and secular tendencies to change faith.

The legitimizing factor of Islam in Arabia was the hajj — it went from being an alien identity to becoming a fabric of Arabian culture. How can we legitimatize Islam in America in terms of culture and identity? The oppressed minority is often looking for ways to define themselves outside of the lens that the majority views them in. For example, many black peoplein America adopted Islam as a defense mechanism against white supremacy.

Often times, we (Arab / Desi) have a reflex of creating a self-imposed culture attached to Islam that is virtually unable to exist or be sucked into the dominant culture in America.” he challenge is how do we make a unifying “American-Muslim-Culture” outside traditional Arab/Desi sensibilities. Cultures allow us to function without thinking. There are thousands of ways to do this; Islam in America must settle on a package to present so it’s not schizophrenic.

We have principles of Islam and cultures that inform Islam in America. People want our Deen without our culture, but you can’t live without culture. It’s too abstract. Islam can’t survive in the narrow halls of theology. The Nation of Islam presented a culture. There isn’t just one culture. For example: how you get married; how you set up a mosque.

Campaign of the enlightenment has been to isolate religion so that it is a narrow ideological individual belief. They want to present this “pure” religion that is not tainted by culture. This is not possible.

On Race

Before Islam, Arabs were considered Black, because the world was divided between Black/Red/White. Racial dimensions of American Society Push the two largest Muslim American groups in opposite directions. Immigrants towards whiteness. Black Americans in other direction . White is considered normal and invisible. The more you hear “white,” the more it loses its hegemony. Every group that entered America pushed towards becoming white 3. Italians used to be charged for sex with “white” woman. Arabs are legally white, but since 9/11, no longer socially white.

On Strategy

The Prophet tried his best to avoid fighting b/c he understood that when people feel attacked, their defense mechanism goes up, and they would not listen. The truth of the message is only one factor among many of why people reject or accept Islam in Mecca and the world today.

Optics matters: The Muslims selected Jafar to speak to Al-Najashi because he was a good speaker and related to Abdul-Mutalib, the former ambassador to the region. Prophet asks his uncle Abbas, who was not Muslim at the time, to accompany him to the second pledge of Al-Aqabah. This was the Prophet flexing. He also relied on people based on their merits.

Abd Allah B. Arqat, was the Prophet’s polytheist guide during Hijrah vi. The way we talk to the 1% alienates the masses — most of society does not identify with the trendsetters. Don’t criticize a policy unless you can imagine a viable alternative.

“Building” Islam

Medina is where Islam first established a religious cultural identity. Muslims lack this identity today. Athan established socio-political identity. Abdullah Ibn Zayd had a dream in which he heard the athan. He tells the prophet who tells him to teach it to Bilal.

So an established element of Islam came as a wahi to a companion [we must look at the entire package].

What is bid’a, and what isn’t? We need to built up our adab and Islamic literacy to have conversations on the marriage of human ingenuity and Islamic institutions.

As long as a good custom is consistent with the Quran, we can adopt it. The Prophet never attacked the Qurayish’s sense of self outside their shirk.

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Osama Alkhawaja

Lawyer writing on politics, history, and anything that interests me in at the moment