What does "You have a good example in the Prophet" mean?
Where is the example of the Prophet? Over the centuries, every aspect of Prophet Muhammad has been turned into an ideal model for every person to follow. But are these aspects, taught as perfect model, really meant to be followed?
Prophet Muhammad was a man as well as a prophet. As a human being he has personal preferences in style, food or leisure activities. He may like to eat fish, his favourite colour may be green, or blue, or red. All these elements are his humanly choices and personal preferences. But what has been done after his dismissal is encapsulation of every element of the human personality of the prophet into a divine model recommended for all human beings to follow.
For example, they teach that when eating food, you should sit on your knees, or with one knee up, because the prophet had sat in that manner. Or when eating you must eat with your right hand because the prophet used his right hand. Even left-handed Muslim children who struggle to eat or perform tasks with right hand are discouraged from accepting how Allah created them (using left hand). There is no understanding in such people that the prophet did so because he simply felt comfortable to eat in that position or may be because he was right-handed and he would use his left hand if he was left-handed.
Just because the prophet's favourite colour was green, does not mean we must all have our favourite colour green. Just because the prophet liked to eat dates, does not mean anyone who does not like eating dates is less of a Muslim - merely because of his personal food preferences. Just because the prophet wore an Arab dress (as he was born into an Arab family) does not make the Arab dress recommended for all people. Rather Allah celebrates our variations in culture and tradition:
"Among His signs are the creations of the heavens and the Earth, and the differences in your languages and colours. In that are signs for all people". (Qur'an 30:22)
It is a form of idolising an individual and this happens when love for that being exceeds the love of Allah. In some books, Muslims are even taught to take the prophet's posture while walking - said to be slightly leant forward manner, and even an order in which to clip finger-nails and toe nails! Did the prophet ever intend on him being followed in this manner?
If circumstantial and personal attributes of the prophet becomes virtuous to be followed, then it would mean all people should stop driving cars, and replace them with camels!
Now, is the message of the prophet in these personal habits and preferences of his, or something greater?
"It is not fitting for any person to whom Allah gives the Book, the wisdom and prophethood, that he should say to people: 'Be servants to me rather than Allah!', rather he would say: 'Be devotees (of Allah) for what you have learnt and studied from the Book'." (Qur'an 3:79)
Notice how in the verse, the understanding of true faith is shown to come from the Book of Allah, and the prophet would say, 'be devoted to Allah because of what you studied in His Book (Qur'an)'. So, we must comprehend what faith really means from the Qur'an.
The Verse "You have a good example in the Prophet"
The following verse is used by traditional followers who commit such idolising of the prophet, in justifying what they do:
"Indeed, in the messenger of Allah a 'good example (uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة)' has been set for the one who seeks Allah and the Last Day and thinks constantly about Allah." (Qur'an 33:21)
The Arabic (uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة) is important to bear in mind. Instead of his 'good example' being in his choice of favourite colour, favourite food, the way he felt like sitting - the prophetic 'good example' was in his faith. Prophet Muhammad relied on Allah at all times, and passed all the trials and tribulations he faced without ever loosing faith in Allah. His patience in overcoming difficult times and encouraging others to do the same, fearing Allah as well as upholding the Qur'an at all times. Basically, everything which makes a great believer to Allah is what made the prophet a 'good example', (uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة). Personal traits are what everyone will have and they vary with worldly variables - everyone is entitled to have their own likes and habits, and they should be appreciated as what makes each of us unique.
The above mentioned qualities are what we 'strive' to earn and which makes us special to Allah - and which are what made the prophet special.
Now we refer the Arabic phrase (uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة), meaning 'good example' to another place in the Qur'an. We discover that the understanding we stated above is the correct one. The identical phrase has been used in the following verse to describe Prophet Ibrahim:
"There has been a good example (uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة) set for you by Ibrahim and those with him..." (Qur'an 60:4)
Since Prophet Ibrahim was the same "uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة", and it does not mean his habits and personal attributes - rather his faith, we thus see that indeed we have the correct understanding of "uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة" as applicable to Prophet Muhammad, since the same words are used to describe both of them.
The common definitions and ideas of how to be a good Muslim really trivialises the true religion. It drifts people away from the the real prophetic and Quranic message of what it means to be a true believer - that is to submit to Allah and understand His true greatness while comprehending the Qur'an. Engrossed in worrying about changing personal habits and lifestyles, individuals loose the vision and wisdom needed to read and understand the Qur'an and becoming submitted servants to Allah. Religion becomes a way of nostalgic living rather than based on awe of Allah or the Qur'an.
To conclude, the prophet's good example was in his unwavering faith in Allah, his adherence to the righteous path shown by the Qur'an - "I only follow what is revealed to me" (6:50), his wisdom in preaching the message of Allah, forgiveness, mercy and all attributes of a true believer as taught by the Qur'an - it is not in his humanly preferences and habits, rather in his believer attributes.
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