Is Humility the Essence of Greatness?
A Muslim Reflects on the Prophet's Conduct
The Prophet Muhammad’s humility and modesty are rare traits in any leader. My experience in human resources has led me to study various aspects of the human personality, including the theoretical frameworks that define the characteristics of effective leaders. Research has established that the most effective of leaders are those who consider themselves to be catalysts and servants to their followers, and whose leadership styles are to support and to advocate.
These leaders believe in their people and communicate that belief to them; they are visible and accessible; they empower, increase participation, support, and share their knowledge (Bolman and Deal 1991).
Who Is the Perfect Leader?
As I read this description, I realized that effective leaders are those who work for their people, those who are humble, and those who neither flaunt their status nor exploit their power. It is hard to come by such individuals in real life, and you rarely come across the perfect combination of humility, knowledge, and charisma that is required of the perfect leaders.
I sat back looking out into the garden and tried to identify an individual who fitted this role. I thought for a while and then slowly smiled to myself; I had found the perfect leader!
I thought of a man who rose to be the initiator of a new way of life that today has about 1.8 billion adherents spread across the world, a man who at the height of his success maintained the humility displayed in his youth.
His wisdom, he asserted, was never his own but rather was divine revelation; at the height of his success, he proclaimed, “I am but an ordinary man.” Let me introduce you to Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the prophet of Islam.
Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu a French political philosopher and social critic, said, “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” This reminded me of the building of the first mosque in Madinah: The Prophet had recently completed a tiring and stressful journey, but when he saw his people enthusiastically laying bricks for the mosque, he insisted he would join them; thus laying the foundations of a society in which nobody’s status was too high and no work was too menial.
Through his actions that day, he taught his people enduring lessons on equality, companionship, and respect: [Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous of you] (Al-Hujurat 49:13).
Sharing Chores and Errands
The Prophet ate with his people — he shared the same bread and drank from the same flask — and when his people went hungry, he starved too.
He lived with his Companions as one of them and their problems were his own: He laughed with them when they were happy, and he cried with them when they were sad. On the battlefield, he was always with his soldiers, and at home he helped his wives with their chores.
The Prophet was once travelling with a group of people and it was time to rest and cook food. As work was divided and everybody was assigned a task, the Prophet insisted he would contribute too and began to collect firewood.
His Companions argued that there was no need for the Prophet to work; after all, he was the Prophet of God, how could they let him collect firewood! But he remained adamant saying that since he was part of the travelling party, he too would participate in the work to be done, for he hated to be privileged (Al-Mubarakpuri, 1979).
For most of his followers, the high status of the Prophet is unquestionable. While he lived, he was considered even by his detractors to be a man of truth and honesty. The genuineness of the message he bought was authenticated by the millions who accepted the new faith he preached with such great passion, willing to sacrifice all they had for their religion and for the man who led them to it.
He was their leader not just in all spheres of life in this world but in the life of the hereafter too — a man of religion, a general, a father, an elder brother, a husband, a friend, and also a Prophet of God.
He could have used this passion that his followers had for him in whatever manner he pleased. He could have had luxury and deserved it too. Yet he slept on a crude straw mat that left his back marked, he prayed on the bare earth which left his forehead stained, and he wore clothes that had torn many times over and that he himself had mended (Al-Bukhari).
Making Compromises Is a Tough Call
Another wonderful example of the Prophet’s humility occurred at the signing of the treaty of Hudaibiyah between the Muslims and the leaders of Makkah at the time. The Muslims, led by the Prophet, had journeyed toward Makkah in order to perform the pilgrimage at the Ka`bah, but the leaders of Makkah did not want this to happen.
To prevent the impending conflict, the Prophet agreed to a treaty with the leaders of Makkah that stipulated the Muslims to go back that year without entering Makkah; however, they would be given the right to enter Makkah for three days every year for the next 10 years.
This treaty, especially some of its other clauses, were seen as a step backward by many Muslims who felt that there was no need for them to compromise when they had both political strength and military prowess, but the Prophet wanted to avoid unnecessary violence and agreed to the treaty.
One incident that highlights the Prophet’s modesty occurred at the actual signing of this treaty: He was mentioned in the document as “Muhammad, the Messenger of God”, a fact that the leaders of Makkah took offence to, saying that if they had recognized the Prophet as the Messenger of God, there would have been no need for the treaty at all. Tempers flared in the Muslim camp, this was too much of an insult.
The Prophet, however, reacted calmly and wisely, he could neither read nor write and so asked a Companion to show him where his name was written and asked for the part “Messenger of God” to be removed and had his father’s name written instead (a common way of referring to people at the time). He was simply “Muhammad son of Abdullah” (Al-Mubarakfuri 1979).
Gentleness Sets the True Leader Apart
On another occasion, a man new to the Muslim gathering came to visit the Prophet. The man was filled with awe that made him nervous and anxious; this was natural for the man as his belief told him he was visiting the Prophet of God and the leader of the powerful Muslim nation.
When the Prophet realized the man’s uneasiness, he comforted him saying, “Brother, don’t be afraid; relax and be at ease. I am not a great monarch or king. I am only a son of a lady who ate cured meat.” (Ibn Majah).
So to me, this man epitomizes within himself unimaginable humility, yet he is one of the greatest leaders in history. He preached the word of God and continued to conquer the hearts and souls of millions. But even today he is remembered, by the same title he insisted be used when he was alive, simply as `Abd Allah (Arabic for the Slave of God).
To end, it is apt to quote Mahatma Gandhi, another simple man and the father of the Indian nation. What he said captures the essence of the Prophet’s character and his dedication to both his ideals and his people. It captures the love of not just the 1.8 billion Muslims but also the respect that countless academics, philosophers, and thinkers have for the man called Muhammad. Gandhi had this to say:
I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind…. I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle. When I closed the second volume (of the Prophet’s biography), I was sorry there was not more for me to read of that great life.
*By Sariya Islam
Bolman, Lee G. and Terrence E. Deal. Reframing Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.
“A Journalist’s Guide to Islam .” Council of American-Islamic Relations CANADA. 2003. Accessed 24 July 2007.
Al-Mubarakpuri, Saifur Rahman. Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar): Memoirs of the Noble Prophet. Trans. Issam Diab. India: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 1979.
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