Imitatio Muhammadi: Moral Modeling in Islam

The Imitatio Christi, composed by the German monk Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471), is a classic of Christian spirituality, widely read and translated from Latin into a variety of languages. It is not of course an instructional manual for the imitation of Christ—How does one imitate the Son of God?—nor is it, more plausibly, about the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, the man born of woman who, upon his resurrection, was revealed to be the Son of God.[1] Kempis’ famous work has in fact little to do with the Jesus of the Gospels and more to do with Aristotle and the theology faculty at the University of Paris (he disapproved) and the Fathers of the Desert in early Christian Egypt (he approved, with reservations; they were a bit excessive in their asceticism).

The Imitation of Christ was not after all addressed to Christians but only to those who had chosen the more perfect way of the monastic life. It promotes the standard virtues of that life: humility, repentance, self-denial, silence and solitude, none save the first particularly associated with Jesus. Christians generally, even those who had entered the religious life, did not take Jesus as a role model—Francis of Assisi may have tried the hardest—but preferred rather mild-mannered saints with generous hearts or, for the more hardy, those same strong-of-will-and-limb paladins of the desert that Kempis admired.[2]

If Jesus does not serve very well as its behavioral roll model, Christianity is nonetheless all about Christ. That was apparent from the beginning when the name “Christers” (Christianoi) was applied early on to Jesus followers, first probably by Roman officials in Antioch in the 30s or early 40s, and the name stuck.[3] Justly so. Christian faith was firmly grounded in the resurrection—without it our faith is inane, Paul said (1 Cor. 15:14)—an event that cast new light on the career of Jesus, and particularly on his sacrificial death, and forward onto the promise of eternal life.

The Muslims named themselves, or rather, the Qur’an did. They are called there “Believers” (mu’minun) or “Submitters” (muslimun), but the first outsiders to be exposed to Islam encountered members of the new faith before they experienced the Qur’an. They were uncertain what to call them,[4] or indeed what Islam was, but they rather quickly settled on Muhammad as the central figure of the faith and began to refer to his followers by one form or another of “Mohammedan.” They were encouraged doubtless by the easy analogy to Christians. Sic Christus; ita Muhammad. That name remained in vogue for a very long time, but by now most of those who do not share their faith call them what they call themselves: Muslims.

Again, the perception is correct: Islam is about the Qur’an and not about Muhammad, who is a mere mortal who neither redeemed nor saves Muslims and who will not reappear as the End Time Messiah, a role that many Muslims believe will be filled by Jesus. Muhammad was rather a divinely appointed warner and the bearer of a message, one of the type called prophet. The message is the Qur’an, all of it God’s exact words that constitute the foundation of Islam. The Jewish and Christian Scriptures may report God’s words; the Qur’an reproduces them.

Clear enough and true enough, this privileging the message over the messenger, but the paradox soon emerges. As it turns out, Islam is about Muhammad, not in any formal sense but operationally and effectively. The anniversary of the Prophet’s birthday (Milad or Mawlid al-Nabi) in First Rabi‘, the third month of the Muslims’ calendar,[5] is a world-wide Muslim celebration. Gifts are exchanged, food is distributed to the poor, and in sermon, poetry and song, the events surrounding the Prophet’s birth are rehearsed in detail as fanciful as that in the apocryphal Infancy Gospels of Christianity. Muhammad’s virtues are lavishly extolled throughout.[6]

The outburst of popular sentiment on the Milad al-Nabi is genuine and deeply felt, and it rests upon solid historical and theological foundations. The role of the prophet, any prophet, is an exalted one, as the Qur’an makes clear (Qur’an 4:69), and Muhammad is particularly esteemed in the elite company of Abraham, Moses and Jesus (42:13). He was chosen as “a mercy to the worlds” (21:107) and as “the seal of prophethood” (33:40), the last of a line initiated by God Himself. But, equally importantly, the Qur’an underlines the superlative qualities of Muhammad as a moral paradigm: he is “the beautiful model” for Muslim, and indeed, human behavior (33:21).

The encomia of Milad al-Nabi are simply a very public manifestation  of a broad swathe of veneration and adulation of Muhammad that runs throughout Muslim society worldwide, from its mystical life, through its theologians, canon lawyers and artists down to the popular beliefs and practices of village life.[7] As Christian missionaries learned early on and as more insouciant moderns have come to realize, the quickest and most effective way of provoking Muslim wrath is not by denying the Qur’an or vilifying Islam but by traducing the Prophet Muhammad.

There is, however, a deeper current of Muhammad’s influence in Islam that casts at least a faint shadow of doubt over the opening truism that Islam in not about Muhammad but about the Qur’an. The Qur’an is an opaque document, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Its language is an obsolete Kunstsprache, the craft idiom of 6th and 7th century Bedouin bards. Its diction is poetic, a rhymed prose; its style allusive, its figures obscure, its syntax problematic. The punctuation of the Qur’an is as difficult as its uncertainly vowelled pronunciation, and we cannot parse it or unpack it with reference to something else because there is nothing else: the Qur’an is the first and solitary example of Arabic literature for over a century.

Though textual criticism is off limits, unlocking the Qur’an’s linguistic and syntactical mysteries has been the arduous task of Islam’s accomplished grammarians and philologists, whose chief heuristic tool has been the preserved body of Bedouin poetry. Far more pressing, however, is an understanding of what God is so urgently prescribing and proscribing for His creation through the Qur’an. What is God saying, yes. But more importantly, What does it mean for us? For me?  And for that, there was only one sure guide, Muhammad.

Judaism has its own philologists, but for the traditional Jew, the Torah is read solely through the filter of the Mishnah and its Talmuds, a set of explanatory commentaries that represent the legal thinking of rabbinic experts from roughly 70 to 600 A.D. But not really. According to a widely accepted traditional theory, the content of the Mishnah and Talmud, although voiced by rabbis, actually represents the matter of an oral Torah given to Moses on Sinai along with the written version enshrined in the Bible and as valid and authoritative as that latter. Islam has its own Mishnah and Talmud to explain and expand the Qur’an. They are the hadith, the reports of Muhammad’s extra-Qur’anic words and deeds that make up what Islam’s lawyers call “The Customary Behavior (Sunna) of the Prophet.” The hadith are Muslim society’s chief instrument for understanding both the Qur’an and Muhammad.

Scripture is all about interpretation, and the institutional religions that have grown up around a revealed Scripture have made strenuous efforts to control the understanding of its contents. Christianity has expressed its more or less successful control through its declared magisterium, the ongoing authoritative teaching power vested in the Church and exercised through its bishops. For Jews and Muslims, that same teaching power is found primarily not in the living voices of its learned elites, the rabbis and the ulama, but rather in a body of reports, once oral but now committed to writing. In the case of the Jews, it is the Mishnah and the Talmud;[8] In Islam, they are the hadith, the enormous body of “Prophetic reports.”

The hadith are the individual memories—they come in the form of discrete anecdotes–of eye- and ear-witnesses to the sayings and actions of Muhammad during his lifetime, each authenticated by a (usually) detailed chain of transmitters from the original witness, one of Muhammad’s contemporaries,[9] down to some point in the early Middle Ages. There were a great many of these anecdotes in circulation by the early ninth century—there were even professional collectors, as pious as they were obsessive—and their proliferation had begun so to debase their value in legal arguments that a critical scrutiny was undertaken, not in the name of historical truth but in that of legal validation. The result was that out of hundreds of thousands of reports there emerged, by scholarly consensus, a canonical body of some 4000-odd “sound” hadith. [10] The canonical collections have not, however, driven their less “sound” siblings out of circulation, nor is everyone, whether a learned mufti or Abu Fulan, fastidious when trolling in the enormous pool of circulating hadith where there is, quite literally, something for everyone.

The authority of the hadith is at base the authority of Muhammad who in this body of reports is made to profess, in word and deed, his views not only on matters touched upon in the Qur’an, but on the many choices, moral, political, social and even aesthetic, that are unmentioned in the Book but that a Muslim faces in the course of a lifetime. The Qur’an is not a Muslim Leviticus; legal matter constitutes less than 10% of the whole of a not very extensive Arabic text, and much of that is directed at problems that arose in a confined oasis settlement among a population of freebooting raiders and date farmers. The Qur’an’s principles may be timeless and universal; its behavioral prescriptions are sparse, local and limited.

The hadith opened up the Qur’an. They became, now in an officially validated fashion, what they had likely been, somewhat tentatively and uncertainly, from the beginning, the critical key to understanding the opacities of the Muslim Scripture. They provide now the setting or “occasion” of a Qur’anic pronouncement, now its enlargement, and even at times, in open contradiction of the Scripture, its abridgement or “abrogation.”[11] They represent a take not only on the Qur’an, but on life itself from the lips of God’s chosen messenger and the best human personification of Islam.

In addition to recording the Prophet’s views on legal matters, the hadith are filled with information about the Prophet’s habits and customs, likes and dislikes, his preferences in everything from wives and food to haircuts. These more personal reports on Muhammad, the “haggadic” rather than the “halakhic” matter in the hadith, were first broken out of the great mass of traditions by a Persian hadith collector named al-Tirmidhi (d. 892 A.D.),[12] who arranged them topically in his Beauteous Virtues of Muhammad. The work makes no pretense to biography—other authors arranged these and similar hadith along a time line to create a Life of the Envoy of God[13]but, as the title suggests, it is a hagiographic anthology.

We are at a far remove from Thomas à Kempis. Tirmidhi has reproduced 397 hadith divided into 55 chapters, beginning with the Prophet’s general physical appearance and the physical “seal of prophethood,” which was, according to one account, a red tumor the size of a pigeon’s egg between his shoulders. Next comes the Prophet’s hair, its quality, texture and style, his use of dyes and of kohl eye-liner. Muhammad’s clothes, shoes and armor are described by witnesses. We are told how he walked, how he sat, reclined, took his meals—he licked his fingers three times after eating. A great deal of attention is devoted to Muhammad’s diet and mealtime etiquette. He neither highly praised what he ate nor did he criticize it. But he had his preferences. He was especially fond of tharid, bread in a meat broth, and he liked his drinks, whether water or milk, sweet and cold. The Prophet spoke moderately and clearly and he smiled and joked a lot. He also wept. Finally, Muhammad possessed, like many another saint, Christian, Jewish and other, the unmistakable “odor of sanctity”: the Prophet smelled good.

Kempis was chiefly interested in exhorting his audience to a higher level of spiritual practice by a rather didactic rehearsal of the virtues of religion; Tirmidhi’s ostensible objective was to exalt his subject, the Envoy of God, and his anecdotal presentation—the hadith is essentially an anecdotal literary form—is more lively than the German monk’s rather dry tone. But the legal perspectives of the jurisprudent eventually reassert themselves in Tirmidhi’s work. In addition to these more homely vignettes, he also shows us, always through the medium of hadith, the Prophet at prayer, and these hadith carry the commentators deep into legal discussions of the canonically proper prayer etiquette. The same is true of fasting. The cited examples of the Prophet, sometimes conflicting, sometimes self-contradictory, are the prime matter of Shari’a or Canon Law, and the jurisprudents had to deal with them as best they could.

Like their Christian counterparts, pious Muslims often resorted to an emulation of the more attainable virtues of Sufi saints whose lives also provided generous biographical matter for the hagiographer, including Tirmidhi himself.[14] But they never turned away from the “beautiful model” that was Muhammad. On one level, the adoption of certain easily assimilable manners or practices that approximated or reflected the Prophet’s own was an easy and attractive option for some. But the Imitatio Muhammadi or, more properly, Ittiba‘ al-sunnah, “imitation of the customary behavior [of the Prophet],” is a morally more urgent matter since it appears to be at least implicitly enjoined by the Qur’anic verse 33:21, which reads in its entirety: “In truth you have in the Envoy of God a beautiful model for someone who looks to God and the Last Day and is much mindful of God.”

The hagiographical exuberance of Tirmidhi’s Beauteous Virtues and its many literary descendants was modulated only by its necessary ties to actual hadith, whether “sound,” “weak” or somewhere in between. The poets and encomiasts of the annual Milad al-Nabi celebrations knew no such limitations on their extravagance, and while the latters’ praise of the Prophet was doubtless both heartfelt and uplifting, it was the more sober-sided hadith collections, which more genuinely represented the “sunnah of the Prophet,” that provided practical matter for imitation of Muhammad. And if the Shama’il seems a far cry from the Imitatio Christi, that latter work is far more distant from Jesus of Nazareth than the Beauteous Virtues from the historical Muhammad.




[1] Most Christians maintain that he was the same, Jesus and Christ, throughout, but the historian prefers to keep a safe distance from the Council of Chalcedon, where in 451 A.D. the extraordinary explanation of how that could be so was hammered out.

[2] The moral structure behind the Christian life is far more complex than this exemplarism of course. It is built on Gospel principles, with Paul’s reflections spread across and enlarged by a Stoic ethical system that stressed, as Paul sometimes did not, moderation and reserve.

[3] If the perception had been different, that the new cult was centered on the itinerant, wonder-working preacher-warner of the Gospels, his followers would presumably have been called “Jesuits.”

[4] The pre-Islamic Arabs were often called “Ishmaelites” not merely because they were identified as the “great nation” that the Bible predicted would descend from Ishmael (Gen. 17:20), but also by reason of some not entirely fanciful resemblance of their practices to those of the Jews.

[5] That calendar is both lunar (354-355 days) and with intercalation (Qur’an 9:36-37), and so the Milad celebration falls on a different Gregorian date each year. A further complication is the fact that the Sunnis mark it on the 12th of I Rabi‘ and the Shi‘ites on the 17th. As with the date of Jesus’ birth, there is no firm evidence of what day of what month of what year—570 A.D, is the traditional date—Muhammad was born.

[6] See in Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975, pp. 144-158.

[7] Veneration of the Prophet from learned to popular is described in detail in Annemarie Schimmel’s book cited in Note 6 above.

[8] Though with outliers of somewhat diminished canonicity in the Tosefta or Supplement to the Mishna; see H. L. Strack and G. Stembach, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, pp. 167-181 and Jacob Neusner, Rabbinic Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1994, pp. 129-152.

[9] And in an overwhelming number of cases that eyewitness is Aisha, the Prophet’s favorite wife, aged 9 to 19 during the witnessing period (622-632 A.D.).

[10] On this complex matter, see Muhammad Siddiqi, Hadith Literature. Cambridge: Islamic Text Society, 1993, pp. 28-75; John Burton, Introduction to the Hadith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994, pp. 106-147; and Wael Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 158-168.

[11] The Qur’an in fact warns of its own abrogation (2:106). Though this is generally taken to mean that a later verse may abrogate an earlier verse of Scripture, it is also generally held that a hadith report may also abrogate a verse of the Qur’an. The issue here is of course the abrogation of legal matter, the cancelation of a Qur’anic command or prohibition by a hadith; see Burton, Introduction to the Hadith, pp. 81-91; Hallaq, History, pp. 72-74.

[12] In the Arabic literary tradition, to describe anything or anyone as “first” is fraught since there is a lacuna of a century between the Qur’an and the earliest preserved works in Arabic. We have little idea what we might be missing.

[13] The title of the earliest extant example of the species by Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) preserved in the edition of Ibn Hisham (d. 833).

[14] See the useful survey by Caesar Farah, “The Prose Literature of Sufism” in M. J. Young et al. (eds.), Religion, Learning and Science in the Abbasid Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 60-64.

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