In the Footsteps of Muhammad

Many seem to invoke the name of the Prophet without ever trying to understand the values which Muhammad lived by.

The birth of the Prophet Muhammad is celebrated every year by Muslims around the world though there was no particular instruction by the Prophet to do so. During the festive celebration, the story of his life is retold and verses praising him are sung everywhere. A question arises: to what extent is the ummah, or the followers of Islam worldwide, embodying the example of the Prophet?

It is disappointing to see much of the ummah trapped in formal or outward religious appreciation at the expense of appreciation of substance. Many seem to invoke the name of the Prophet without ever trying to understand the values which Muhammad lived by, feeling moreover righteous in their application of Islam in a diverse society even as the means employed contradict Islamic values and principles. The celebration of the birth of the Prophet must, in this light, be viewed as a challenge by Muslims to recognize and absorb the ethics that the Prophet lived by and, more importantly, to internalize and actualize them.

The Prophet Muhammad was a living example of the capacity to spread peace in every social interaction, to live in harmonious coexistence with members of similar or different ethnic or religious groups, and with subjects of other nations. These values should encourage the ummah to act as ambassadors of peace and supporters of law and justice, and to actively eradicate social pathologies. Such ethics, legitimized and raised high by the precedent of historical awareness and activism in Islam, would enable the ummah to better integrate with the rest of society and endow it with a tolerant ideological identity that would, in addition, safeguard the reputation of the ummah from the stigma of being widely supportive of extremism and terrorism.

Historical awareness and activism in the life of the ummah is also stressed by one of the most respected Indonesian Islamic scholars, Prof. Dr. Kuntowijoyo, in his books The Islam Paradigm: An Interpretation for Action (1991) and Muslim Political Identity (1997), particularly when discussing the subject of the Prophet's ethics and the question of the extent to which a believer can reach his or her capacity in the way of Muhammad. So what is the Prophet's example and how can it be applied by the ummah?

Kuntowijoyo bases his formulation on a verse in the Qur'an (Chapter: House of Imran, verse 110) where Prophetic or Mohammedan ethics mean "to prescribe what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God". The three elements of the Prophet's ethics presented in this verse have a meaningful social significance. What is right in our daily life can be interpreted as anything from a very private action, for example saying a prayer or praising, remembering or invoking God; to a semi-social action, such as respecting one's elders, behaving in a brotherly fashion toward others, assisting orphans; and finally to collective action, such as working to bring about an incorrupt government or building a social security system.

Kuntowijoyo generalizes this aspect with humanization and emancipation: in a more current context, righteousness can also be understood as humane behavior in a cultural or social context, as economic development, and as political maturity. In daily realities, forbidding what is wrong in an Islamic context can be realized through, for instance, preventing drug abuse, discouraging revenge, eradicating gambling, abolishing usury, defending disadvantaged laborers or fighting invaders. Kuntowijoyo likens this principle with liberation, which can impact political life in addition to social and economic affairs. Faith in and love of God, meanwhile, is an aspect with a vertical dimension which Kuntowijoyo links to transcendence: in a world sailing fast towards materialism and secularism, the position of transcendence has become increasingly important. In other words, the Prophet's ethics seek to infuse daily, even political, life with spiritual awareness.

The implementation of the three aspects of Muhammadan ethics in societal life would bring about a liberated ummah infused with the spirit of humanity based on the principle of transcendence. If Muslims are successful in internalizing and actualizing these ethics, our lives as a nation, society and state — whether political, economic, societal or cultural — would be freed from diseases such as crime and corruption that put a community's health in jeopardy. Evoking memories of the Prophet on the anniversary of his birth is an incomplete exercise unless it is accompanied by an attempt to learn form Muhammad's struggle to create a just and peaceful society. To do this, the ummah will need to engage in public issues with sympathy, not with cynicism, apathy or false righteousness — not by using force, anarchy or terrorism.

Amien Wangsitalaja is the pen-name of Aminudin Rifai. He is a graduate student at the Universitas Negeri Jakarta (UNJ), Jakarta, Indonesia. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service.