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Saeeda  Begum - Finding the Prophet in his People
By Dr. Ingrid Mattson

Ingrid Mattson


I spent a lot of time looking at art the year before I became a Muslim. Completing a degree in Philosophy and Fine Arts, I sat for hours in darkened classrooms where my professors projected pictures of great works of Western art on the wall. I worked in the archives for the Fine Arts department, preparing and cataloging slides. I gathered stacks of thick art history books every time I studied in the university library. I went to art museums in Toronto, Montreal and Chicago. That summer in Paris, "the summer I met Muslims" as I always think of it, I spent a whole day (the free day) each week in the Louvre.

What was I seeking in such an intense engagement with visual art? Perhaps some of the transcendence I felt as a child in the cool darkness of the Catholic church I loved. In high school, I had lost my natural faith in God, and rarely thought about religion after that. In college, philosophy had brought me from Plato, through Descartes only to end at Existentialism-a barren outcome. At least art was productive-there was a tangible result at the end of the process. But in the end, I found even the strongest reaction to a work of art isolating. Of course I felt some connection to the artist, appreciation for another human perspective. But each time the aesthetic response flared up, then died down, it left no basis for action.

Then I met people who did not construct statues or sensual paintings of gods, great men and beautiful women. Yet they knew about God, they honored their leaders and they praised the productive work of women. They did not try to depict the causes; they traced the effects.

Soon after I met my husband, he told me about a woman he greatly admired. He spoke of her intelligence, her eloquence and her generosity. This woman, he told me, tutored her many children in traditional and modern learning. With warm approval, my husband spoke of her frequent arduous trips to refugee camps and orphanages to help relief efforts. With profound respect, my husband told me of her religious knowledge, which she imparted to other women in regular lectures. With deep affection, my husband told me of the meals she had sent to him, when she knew he was too engaged in his work with the refugees to see to his own needs. When I finally met this women I saw that she was covered, head to toe, in traditional Islamic dress. I realized with amazement that my husband had never seen her. He had never seen her face. Yet he knew her. He knew her by her actions, by the effects she left on other people.

Western civilization has a long tradition of visual representation. No longer needing it to do more than allow me a moment of shared vision with an artist alive or dead, I can appreciate it once more. But popular culture has made representation simultaneously omnipresent and anonymous. We seem to make the mistake of thinking that seeing means knowing, and that the more exposed a person is, the more important they are.

Islamic civilization chose not to embrace visual representation as a significant means of remembering and honoring God and people. Allah is The Hidden, veiled in glorious light from the eyes of any living person. But people of true vision can know God by comptemplating the effects of his creative power,

Do they not look to the birds above them
Spreading their wings and folding them back?
None can uphold them except for The Merciful
Truly He is over all things watchful
(Qur'an, 67:19)

If God transcends his creation, it is far beyond the capacity of any human to depict him. Indeed, in Islamic tradition, any attempt to depict God with pictures is profound blasphemy. Rather, a Muslim depicts God only with words that God has used to describe himself in his revelation. Among these descriptions are the so-called "99 Names of God," attributes that are recited melodiously throughout the Muslim world: The Merciful, the Compassionate, the Forbearing, the Forgiving, the Living, the Holy, the Near, the Tender, the Wise. . . . Written in beautiful script on lamps, walls, and pendants, the linguistic sign provokes a profoundly personal intellectual and spiritual response with each reading.

Deeply wary of idolotry, Muslims, with few exceptions, declined to glorify not only God, but even humans through visual representation. Historians, accustomed to illustrating accounts of great leaders with their images captured in painting, sculpture and coin have no reliable visual representations of the Prophet Muhammad. What is seen rather, is the Prophet's name, Muhammad, written in curving Arabic letters on those spaces where sacrality is invoked. Along with the names of God and verses of the Qur'an, the name Muhammad, read audibly or silently, leads the believer into a reflective state about the divine message and the legacy of this extraordinary, but still human messenger of God.

Words, written and oral, are the most important medium by which the life of the Prophet and his example have been transmitted across the generations. His biography, the seerah, has been told in verse and prose in many languages. Even more important than this chronological account of the life of the Prophet are the thousands of individual reports of the Prophet's utterances and actions collected in the hadith literature. These reports were transmitted by early followers of the Prophet who heeded God's words, "Indeed in the Messenger of God you have a good example to follow for one who desires God and the Last Day (Qur'an, 33:21)". Eager to follow the divinely inspired actions of the Prophet, his Companions paid close attention not only to his style of worship, but to all aspects of his comportment-everything from his personal hygeine to his interaction with children and neighbors. The Prophet's way of doing things, his sunnah, formed the basis for Muslim piety in all societies where Islam spread. The result was that as Muslims young and old, male and female, rich and poor, adopted the Prophet's sunnah as a model for their lives, they became the best visual representations of the Prophet's character and life. The Muslim who implements the sunnah is an actor who internalizes and, without artifice, reenacts the behaviour of the Prophet. The performance of the sunnah by living Muslims is the archive of the Prophet's life and a truly sacred art of Muslim culture.

I first realized the profound physical impact of the Prophet's sunnah on generations of Muslims as I sat in the mosque one day, watching my nine year old son pray beside his Qur'an teacher. Ubayda sat straight, still and erect beside the young man from Saudi Arabia who, with his gentle manners and beautiful recitation, had earned my son's deep respect and affection. Like his teacher, Ubayda was wearing a loose-fitting white robe that modestly covered his body. Before coming to the mosque, he had taken a shower and rubbed fragrant musk across his head and chin. With each movement of prayer, he glanced over at his teacher, to ensure that his hands and feet were positioned in precisely the same manner. Reflecting on this transformation of my son who had abandoned as his norm grubbiness and impulsivity for cleanliness and composure, I thought to myself, "thank God he found a good role model to imitate." My son's role model could have been an actor, a rap singer or an athlete. We say that children are "impressionable," meaning that it is easy for strong personalities to influence the formation of their identity. We all look for good influences on our children.

In my son's imitation of his teacher, however, it occurred to me that there was a greater significance, for his teacher was also imitating another. Indeed, this young man was very keen in all aspects of his life to follow the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. His modest dress was in imitation of the Prophet's physical modesty. His scrupulous cleanliness and love of fragrant oils was modeled after the Prophet's example. At each stage of the ritual prayer he adopted the positions he was convinced originated with the Prophet. He could trace the way he recited the Qur'an back through generations of teachers to the Prophet himself. My son, by imitating his teacher, had now become part of the living legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.

Among Muslims throughout the world, there are many sincere pious men and women; there are also sinners, criminals and hypocrites. Some people are deeply affected by religious norms, others are influenced more by culture-whether traditional or popular culture. Some aspects of the Prophet's behaviour: his slowness to anger, his abhorence of oath taking, his gentleness with women, sadly seem to have little affected the dominant culture in some Muslim societies. Other aspects of his behaviour: his generosity, his hospitality, his physical modesty, seem to have taken firm root in most Muslim lands. But everywhere Muslims can be found, more often than not, they will trace the best aspects of their culture to the example of the Prophet Muhammad, for he was, in the words of one of his Companions, "the best of all people in behaviour."

It was their excellent behaviour that attracted me to the first Muslims I met, poor West African students living on the margins of Paris. They embodied many aspects of the Prophet's sunnah, although I did not realize it at the time. What I recognized was that, among their other wonderful qualities, they were the most naturally generous people I had ever known. There was always room for one more person around the platter of rice and beans they shared each day. Over the years, in my travels across the Muslim world, I would witness the same eagerness to share, the same deep belief that it is not self-denial, but a blessing to give away a little more to others. The Prophet Muhammad said, "The food of two is enough for three, and the food of three is enough for four." During the attack on Kosovo, there were reports of Albanian Muslims filling their houses with refugees; one man cooked daily for twenty people he allowed in his modest home.

The Prophet Muhammad said, "When you see one who has more, look to one who has less." When I was married in Pakistan, my husband and I, as refugee workers, did not have much money. Returning to the refugee camp a few days after my wedding, the Afghan women eagerly asked to see the dresses and gold bracelets, rings and necklaces my husband must have presented to me, as is customary throughout the Muslim world. I showed them my simple gold ring and told them we had borrowed a dress for the wedding. The women's faces fell and they looked at me with profound sadness and sympathy. The next week, sitting in a tent in that dusty hot camp, the same women-women who had been driven out of their homes and lands, women who had lost their husbands and children, women who had sold their own personal belongings to buy food for their families-presented me with a wedding outfit. Bright blue satin pants stitched with gold embroidery, a red velveteen dress decorated with colorful pom-poms and a matching blue scarf trimmed with what I could only think of as a lampshade fringe. It was the most extraordinary gift I have ever received-not just the outfit, but the lesson in pure empathy that is one of the sweetest fruits of true faith.

An accurate representation of the Prophet is to be found, first and foremost, on the faces and bodies of his sincere followers: in the smile that he called "an act of charity," in the slim build of one who fasts regularly, in the solitary prostrations of the one who prays when all others are asleep. The Prophet's most profound legacy is found in the best behaviour of his followers. Look to his righteous people, and you will find the Prophet.


Dr. Ingrid Mattson, is a professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary. In 1995, she was an adviser to the Afghan delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The first woman to be elected President of the Islamic Society of North America. Raised a Roman Catholic in Canada and reverted to Islam, she is now a highly regarded academic specializing in Islamic society and law.

"Whosoever chooses to follow guidance, follows it for his own good; whosoever goes astray, goes astray for his own loss"(al-Isra' 17:15)


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