In Muhammad's Words
Many recognize the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim faith, but few people know the power of his words.
This article was originally published on Beliefnet August 9, 2001.
A lot of non-Muslims who know something about Islam are nonetheless mostly in the dark when it comes to any real knowledge of Muhammad, despite the fact that Muhammad is the guiding spirit of the religion.
Muslims see Muhammad as a man who became a prophet, yet remained a human being. He had special access to God's words, but he also worked for a living, married, and had children, led his people out of oppression and died with his family at his side. They see him, that is, less the way Christians view Jesus and more in the tradition of Old Testament figures like Abraham and Moses.
Muhammad never claimed to be divine, and he never attributed supernatural powers to himself. From the age of 40 until his death, his mission was simply to convey a message, the message contained in the Qur'an, and to illustrate its spirit in his daily life. Muhammad received the Qur'an a few verses at a time, intermittently, over this long, eventful period, and he rendered it into language people could understand. That, he said, was his only miracle. He did not defy gravity or return the dead to life. He rebuked anyone who suggested otherwise.
Muslims have no pictures to suggest what he may have looked like. Their focus is on his message, not his face. If you spend any time at all with Muslims, you soon begin to see that they know Muhammad's words and actions and quote them frequently.
This quotable aspect of the tradition is seemingly inexhaustible, running to thousands of pages. Together with the Qur'an, they form a canon on which Islamic Law is based. In a less formal way, they are also put to use daily as a yardstick against which people measure their actions and intentions.
Just as the words of Jesus are woven into the fabric of Christian culture, so that, believer or not, most everyone knows who to credit with phrases like, "Turn the other cheek," "the meek shall inherit the earth," and "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," so too in Muslim culture the words of Muhammad are on the tips of people's tongues and easily recognized.
In the best known collections they are often grouped by category, in sections with titles like "The Book Of Knowledge," or "The Book of Prayer."