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In the mainstream theology of Sunni Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is known as al-Insān al-Kāmil (the perfect human) and uswa hasana (an excellent model of conduct). This is taken to mean that his conduct in all things, from how he prayed, how he conducted himself in business and in war, his sexual relations with his wives, slaves and concubines, and even how he cleaned himself after defecation and urination is an exemplar and model for all humans to follow at all times, regardless of historical circumstance and independent of culture.
Historical Moral Relativism vs Uswa Hasana
Modern historians tend to approach the study of particular historical periods, governments and personages from a perspective of historical and cultural relativism. So when in the course of study it comes to light that for instance Julius Caesar sold the women and children of the Gaules he defeated into slavery and paraded his enemy, the Gualish king/warlord Vercingetorix, like an animal through Rome before executing him (likely by strangulation), although not necessarily endorsing these actions historians will tend to offer context such as explaining that such actions were not at all unusual for other people at the time. On the other hand, when a leader such as Adolf Hitler ordered his soldiers and security forces entering the Soviet Union to specifically ignore international treaties on the treatment of prisoners of war in order to brutalize and murder as many "sub-humans" as possible or to set up industrial killing camps with the objective of physically annihilating entire ethnic groups, an idea new to the entire history of mankind, historians tend to pass judgement on these actions as being worse for breaking the contemporary norms of the times these leaders lived in, exceeding even their contemporaries' expectations of human cruelty and viciousness.
When historians turn to the historical narratives of Muhammad offered in the sira, tafsir and hadith traditions, many actions such as Muhammad massacring and enslaving the Banu Qurayza, taking Safia as a slave-wife after executing her husband, or ordering the execution of Meccan poets who had written verses against him once he conquered Mecca are contextualized by noting that these actions were in keeping with the mores and expectations of warfare and statecraft in the Late Antique/early medieval Middle East. This is more often than not perfectly true--contemporary Arabs potentates, the Romans in Byzantium and the Sassanid Persians had no concept of "human rights", "freedom of speech", or "freedom of religion" inter alia and routinely committed what would today be called crimes against humanity against minority religious groups such as the Manicheans, flaying the flesh from their bones and crucifying them, killing prisoners of war when ransom was not received, and both empires were heavily dependent on slave labor, including the practice of creating eunuchs through forced castration.
It must, however, be noted that the the Islamic concept of "Uswa Hasana" stands in direct contradiction to this modern historical methodology. When Muhammad married Aisha at 6 and consumated the marriage when she was 9, this was not simply the action of a man living in a pre-modern culture where woman married and bore children very young to assist in their survival, this was the perfect conduct of the perfect man which is an example for all men of all time to follow. When Muhammad ordered the ancient pagan statues of Mecca smashed and all pagans across the Arabian peninsula given the choice of Islam or the sword, this was the proper and right conduct to be followed by all Muslims and their governments in regard to pagan "mushrikuun" of all times and all of their idols, including the ancient Buddha statues of Afghanistan which were dynamited by the Taliban, and as certain Salafi groups in Egypt argue today even including the ultra-ancient pyramids and temples of the ancient Egyptian pagans.
Muhammad repeatedly told his followers to follow his Sunnah (example) and in the Qur'an we see that Allah even asserts his morality as being “sublime” (Quran 68:4), therefore according to the doctrine of Uswa Hasana Muhammad cannot be seen as simply a product of his time. To orthodox Muslim eyes, admitting to a cultural relativism vis-a-vis the prophet appears as blasphemy. Amongst other effects it would essentially invalidate the majority of Islamic fiqh which very often takes as its starting point the actions and attitudes of the prophet regarding a given question. From an orthodox Islamic perspective, this is simply unthinkable. The Qur'an itself though delivered by the prophet was created by god and is beyond the constraints of time, just as likewise the actions of the prophet were in every way divinely ordained and sanctioned. It is not simply 'inspired' but the very words of Allah, uttered through the lips of his final messenger who pleased his lord in every way. Hence, Muhammad's actions are (and always will be) morally acceptable to orthodox Muslims who hold this doctrine.
Text from the Qur'an
Original: لَّقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًTranslation: (It) had been for you in God's messenger a good example/model to who was hoping/expecting God, and the Day the Last/Resurrection Day, and remembered/mentioned God much.
Original: قَدْ كَانَتْ لَكُمْ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ فِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَالَّذِينَ مَعَهُ إِذْ قَالُوا لِقَوْمِهِمْ إِنَّا بُرَآءُ مِنكُمْ وَمِمَّا تَعْبُدُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ كَفَرْنَا بِكُمْ وَبَدَا بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمُ الْعَدَاوَةُ وَالْبَغْضَاءُ أَبَدًا حَتَّىٰ تُؤْمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَحْدَهُ إِلَّا قَوْلَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ لِأَبِيهِ لَأَسْتَغْفِرَنَّ لَكَ وَمَا أَمْلِكُ لَكَ مِنَ اللَّهِ مِن شَيْءٍ رَّبَّنَا لَكَ وَمَا أَمْلِكُ لَكَ مِنَ اللَّهِ مِن شَيْءٍ رَّبَّنَاTranslation: A good example/model (to follow) had been for you in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their nation: "We are innocent/separating from you, and from what you worship from other than God, we disbelieved with you, and the animosity and the intense hatred appeared between us and between you (for) ever (E), until you believe with (in) God alone." Except Abraham's word/statement to his father: "I will ask for forgiveness for you, and I do not own/possess for you from God from a thing, our Lord, on You we relied depended (on) , and to You we returned/repented , and to You (is) the end/destination."
Original: لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِيهِمْ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآخِرَ وَمَن يَتَوَلَّ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْغَنِيُّ الْحَمِيدTranslation: A good example/model (to follow) had been for you in them, to who was hoping/expecting God, and the Day the Last/Resurrection Day; and who turns away, so then God, He is the rich, the praiseworthy/commendable.
See related: Islamic Theology/Hadith and Sunnah
Alif-Siin-Waw: to imitate any one. uswah - model, imitation, relief, consolation, pattern, example worthy of imitation.uswah n.f. Quran 33:21, Quran 60:4, Quran 60:6
The Implications of Uswa Hasana for Muslims in the Modern World
Orthodox Muslims today are encouraged by the ulemaa' to emulate Muhammad and his 7th century actions (as remembered by scholars writing in the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, when Islamic doctrine and supremacy was unquestioned and unchallenged in its own lands) as closely as they can, as a form of devotion to Allah. Due to this, the actions and ideas endorsed by orthodox Islamic scholars often stand in stark contrast to modern ideas of human rights, women's rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion inter alia. Some examples include:
Muhammad and child marriage:
Many Muslim clerics thus argue today that the age of marriage for girls should be as low as 6, and some Muslim countries such as Pakistan follow this in their laws.
Muhammad and the murdered hundreds of prisoners of war:
Then he (Muhammad) sent for them and struck off their heads in trenches as they were brought to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyyay bin Akhtab and Ka'b bin Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.
ابن إسحاق; ابن هشام, سيرة ابن هشام ت السقا, vol. 2, al-Maktabah al-Shamilah, p. 240-241, https://app.turath.io/book/23833
Islamic Extremist groups have used such actions of the prophet as a pretext for murdering captured enemy soldiers, civilians, and minorities, even creating a genre of prisoner execution videos.
Muhammad and slavery:
When ISIS captured the "pagan" Yazidis of Sinjar, this conduct was used as a pretext for taking young male Yazidis and females Yazidis as slaves, including sex slaves.
Muhammad and homosexuality:
To this day, homosexuality remains illegal in most Muslim countries, homosexual marriage equality is not even a discussed issue the popular discourse of most Muslim countries, and some Muslim governments and extremist groups make a point of executing people (mostly men) who engage in homosexual relationships.
Muhammad and domestic violence against women:
To this day, Islamic religious scholars by and large continue to endorse the beating of disobedient wives by their husbands, and this is not seen as a crime in the laws of most Muslim countries.
In contemporary discourse modern Muslims who wish to live and practice their faith in accordance with modern norms of behavior often condemn such actions as barbaric, and often seek to invoke Muhammad's culture context to explain them. The doctrine of Uswa Hasana, however, makes this argument exceedingly difficult, especially when the argument is between Muslims who wish to follow modern mores and traditionalist Muslims who wish to hew to the classical understanding of the canonical Islamic sources. To take one example, Muhammad himself is claimed to have said: “A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.”
Challenges to Uswa Hasana from Within the Islamic Tradition
An often mentioned counterpoint to Uswa Hasana is that the prophet himself appears to be rebuked in surah 80 and told to repent, thus proving the Muhammad was not perfect. Muhammad is rebuked in the Qur'an for turning away from a blind man, but this has not traditionally been taken as proof against the doctrine of Uswa Hasana. In Islam, prophets are ma'asoom معصوم (infallible/sinless/innocent). They may err (Zallat زلات "slips"), but this is not the same as committing a sin. Sin in Islam has traditionally been seen as doing something against Allah's prescribed teachings. Muhammad did not sin because the incident involving the blind man occurred prior to Allah admonishing him. An act thus only becomes a sin only after Allah ordains it as such. For example, Muhammad and the early Muslims drank alcohol, but this allowance was abrogated by a later Qur'anic revelation, and the scholars have not traditionally held that Muhammad committed a sin here.
- Muhammad's character, Islamic law and theology - Encyclopædia Britannica Online
- Some Selected Verses From The Holy Qur'an On OUR BELOVED PROPHET MUHAMMAD
- The Last Prophet - Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets
- Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Zad al-Ma'ad, Part 1, pp. 114-116
- Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab - Sunan Abu Dawud 11:2142