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Fighting Extremism With Knowledge: Learning The Lessons Of Muhammad

Mar 10, 2016
Originally published on March 10, 2016 6:51 pm

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 Significance

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.

The Significance

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 Significance

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."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Muhammad was the seventh century prophet who founded Islam and who Muslims call the messenger of God. With terrorist groups like ISIS now invoking his name, he is attracting more attention in the U.S. Many Muslim leaders in this country say those who cite the prophet to justify violence misrepresent his teachings. And they say one way to combat extremism is to teach young Muslims more about who Muhammad really was. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: We know a lot about the Prophet Muhammad as a man because personal recollections of him, first passed on orally, were put down in writing about two centuries after his death. These narrations are part of what's called the Hadith, and they're important Islamic texts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GJELTEN: Sheikh Hassan Lachheb, a young Moroccan-born Islamic scholar now living in Tennessee lectures in a weekend course called Portrait of a Prophet. He reads some of these original writings about Muhammad aloud and then translates them. Each reference to the prophet is followed by the words, in Arabic, peace be upon him. No detail is too small to note.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This girl said that my uncle sent me with some fuzzy, small cucumbers. They had a garden, had some cucumbers, they send it with me to the prophet (foreign language) knowing that he likes, you know, those fuzzy cucumbers, right?

GJELTEN: Besides fuzzy cucumbers, Muhammad liked melons and he drank date juice mixed with milk and honey. The stories are from a collection of Hadith about Muhammad that were put into book form about a thousand years ago. That book is the text for this weekend course held at a mosque in suburban Maryland. The young Muslims who signed up for the lectures learn how tall he was, what kind of sandals he wore, even whether the prophet snored or not. Though the stories may seem trivial, they serve a purpose by humanizing Muhammad and thereby making it easier for Muslims to emulate him. Dalia Mogahed is one of the guest speakers featured in the course.

DALIA MOGAHED: Well, one of the things that we're taught is that we should love the prophet, not just intellectually but experientially. We should really experience an affection for this person. How do we do that without detailed information? The way he walked, the way he stood, the way his hair looked - it's about imagining who he was.

GJELTEN: The goal here, Sheikh Hassan says, is to interest Muslim American youth in their own religious tradition.

HASSAN LACHHEB: The life of the prophet, peace be upon him, provides this venue because it's very detailed. And you can connect event from the tradition of the prophet to the lives of people. And at the same time, it's not too remote from them because it also addresses their issues, emotional and intellectual, and just practical.

GJELTEN: Here's another tidbit from the lecture. The prophet had gray hair, though he sometimes died it to cover up the gray.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dyeing was part of the culture. They would dye it with reddish things or put henna on it, right? But he had hair, I mean, it was - when he doesn't put oil on, it is visible. It's invisible.

GJELTEN: But that does not mean good Muslims should think they have to dye their hair just because the prophet did.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So the father of (unintelligible) has completely gray hair. And the prophet told him, why don't you change it to something reddish? It looks good. But he didn't oblige them to do it. It was a cultural thing more than anything else.

GJELTEN: A cultural thing. The Sheikh emphasizes this point over and over again in his lecture that some of what Prophet Muhammad said or did or advised others to do should be seen in its historical context and had little or nothing to do with Islam. It's a lesson the young Muslims attending this course appreciate and can apply in their own lives. Ferhan Guloglu, born in Turkey, is now a graduate student in Washington, D.C., and dresses like one.

FERHAN GULOGLU: I'm wearing jeans to be more comfortable. And it's not what my mom used to wear, but here he is teaching me it doesn't make me less Muslim.

GJELTEN: The Sheikh, during his lecture, sits cross-legged on a stage in front of his students alternately reading from the text and offering commentary. He came to this country from his native Morocco 15 years ago at the age of 27. Those lectures are in a mosque, they're not in the main prayer room and they are less formal than the sermons given at Friday services. The men and women are both up front, women mostly sitting on one side, the men on the other. But it's not rigid. Some women sit with their husbands, some husbands with their wives. Moaz Hayat, a college freshman from Louisiana, says the discussion is very different from what he hears when he goes to his mosque with his parents.

MOAZ HAYAT: Most of times, they're just trying to tell you just specific things you should follow, specific morals, maybe - almost a specific rule, like, many cases. But this is just - they're just telling you, you know, how the prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, you know, just acted.

GJELTEN: What he was like as a person.

HAYAT: Yeah, as a person.

GJELTEN: It's more biography than theology. Moaz says one lesson he's taken from these lectures is that he should exercise more because the prophet was well-built and very healthy. Other students say they've gotten guidance on how they should treat their wives or husbands or parents or children. But there are also more serious lessons. The Sheikh related how the prophet adopted new customs when he moved from Mecca to Medina, a more diverse settlement with a large and thriving Jewish community.

LACHHEB: He adopted a lot of ways of the Jewish people that are not legal, that are not ordinances, right?

GJELTEN: The Jews, for example, wore their hair in a distinctive style. Muhammad changed his own hairstyle to match theirs. He wanted to show respect for the Jews, the Sheikh explained, because he saw them as a cultured people with a tradition.

LACHHEB: He wanted them to feel that they are close.

MOGAHED: He wanted to lessen the barrier between them, he wanted to connect with them, he felt that there was a commonality.

GJELTEN: Dalia Mogahed, the guest speaker and herself a scholar of Muslim-American communities, says that story of Muhammad reaching out to the Jews of Medina has important lessons for how Muslims in America should relate to a diverse society.

MOGAHED: This means is that we have to understand the culture in the context that we live in. We can't set ourselves apart unnecessarily. While we should not compromise our principles, we should do all that we can to connect to people and respect their culture.

GJELTEN: Hardly an original thought, but what's important for Muslims here is that it's what the Prophet Muhammad himself taught and practiced. And it leads to the most important takeaway from this course, one that goes well beyond the anecdotes. Young Muslims who look for more purpose and meaning in their religious life can find it in the teachings of their prophet and should not be misled by extremists who don't honor his message of compassion. It's a point Sheikh Hassan says counterterrorism officials, with their emphasis on surveillance, sting operations and community policing, have so far failed to grasp.

LACHHEB: Most of it doesn't work, to be honest with you. Most of it is well-intended but not well-informed. And I don't think it's going to have any impact.

GJELTEN: Better strategy for countering violent extremism, he says, would be to support those in the Muslim community who work daily to give their youth a deeper religious grounding.

LACHHEB: If you have a religious radicalization and you're completely bypassing the tradition that's actually never been radicalized - never been - and always produced beauty, always produced involvement in the communities, always produced tolerance - and you're bypassing all of that to come with a political solution. I don't think it's going to work.

GJELTEN: Sheikh Hassan Lachheb of Knoxville, Tenn. The organization is CelebrateMercy. The course he teaches in cities around the country is called Portrait of a Prophet. One course will be held next month in Arizona. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.