The Person and Character of Muhammad
General view of Muhammad’s character
Most of the illustrations in this article are taken from Wackidi on the ‘appearance and habits of the Prophet.’
His form though little above ordinary height, was stately and commanding. The depth of feeling in his dark black eye, and winning expression of a face otherwise attractive, gained the confidence of strangers. His features often un-bended into a smile of grace and condescension. An admiring follower said: ‘He was the handsomest and bravest, the brightest-faced and most generous of men. It was as though the sun-light beamed in his countenance.’ Yet when anger kindled in his piercing glance, the object of his displeasure might well quake before it: his stern frown was the augury of death to many a trembling captive.
In the later years of his life, the erect figure of Muhammad began to stoop. But his step was still firm and quick. When he made haste, it was with difficulty that his followers kept pace with him. He never turned round even if his mantle was caught in a thorny bush, so that his attendants might talk and laugh freely behind him secure of being observed.
Simplicity of Life
His custom was to do everything for himself. If he gave alms he would place it with his own hand in that of the petitioner. He aided his wives in their household duties; he mended his clothes; he tied up the goats; he even cobbled his sandals. His ordinary clothes were of plain white cotton stuff, made like his neighbours; but on festive occasions he wore garments of fine linen, striped or dyed in red. He never reclined at meals; He ate with his fingers; and when he finished, he would lick them before he wiped his hands. The indulgences to which he was most addicted were ’Women, scents and food.’ In the first of these, Ayesha tells us, he had his hearts desire. Muhammad, lived with his wives, in a row of low homely cottages built of unbaked bricks; the apartments were separated by walls of palm-branches daubed with mud; curtains of leather, or of black-haircloth, supplied the place of doors and windows. The Prophet had to be addressed in subdued accents and in a reverential style. His word was absolute; his bidding law.
Kindness of disposition
Modesty and kindness, patience, self-denial, and generosity, pervaded his conduct, and riveted the affections of all around him. He disliked to saying ‘No’; if unable to answer a petitioner in the affirmative, he preferred silence. ‘He was more bashful’, says Ayesha, ’than a veiled virgin; and if anything displeased him, it was rather from his face, than by his words, that we discovered it; he never smote any one but in the service of the Lord, not even a woman or a servant.’ He possessed the rare faculty of making each individual in a group think that he was a favoured guest. Gentle towards little children, he would greet them with the salutation of peace. He shared his food, even in times of scarcity with others.
Muhammad was also a faithful friend. He loved Abu Bakr with the romantic affection of a brother; Ali, with the fond partiality of a father. Zeid, the Christian slave of Khadijah, was so strongly attached to the kindness of Muhammad who adopted him, that he preferred to remain at Mecca rather than return to his home with his own father: ‘I will not leave thee,’ he said, clinging to his patron, ‘for thou hast been a father and a mother to me.’ Othman and Omar were also the objects of a special attachment; and the enthusiasm with which, at Hodeibia, the Prophet entered into ’the Pledge of the Tree’ and swore that he would defend his beleaguered son-in-law with his last breath, was a signal proof of faithful friendship. And his affections were in no instance misplaced; they were ever reciprocated by a warm and self-sacrificing love.
Moderation and magnanimity
While Muhammad exercised dictatorial power at home, he was also just and temperate. Nor was he wanting in moderation towards his enemies, when once they had cheerfully submitted to his claims. The long and obstinate struggle against unbelievers might have induced a haughty tyrant to mark his indignation in indelible traces of fire and blood. Muhammad however, excepting a few criminals, granted a universal pardon.
Cruelty towards enemies
But the darker shades, as well as the brighter, must be depicted by the faithful historian. He exulted, with satisfaction, over the bodies of the Qurraish that fell at Bedr; several prisoners – accused of no crime but that of scepticism or political opposition – were deliberately executed at his command. The Prince of Kheibar, after being subject to inhuman torture for the purpose of discovering the treasures of his tribe, was with his cousin, put to death on the pretext of having treacherously concealed them, and his wife led away captive to the conqueror’s tent. A sentence of exile was enforced by Muhammad with rigorous severity on two whole Jewish tribes residing at Medina; and of a third, likewise his neighbours, the women and children were sold into captivity, while the men, amounting to six or eight hundred, were butchered in cold blood before his eyes.
Craftiness and deception
In his youth Muhammad earned amongst his fellows the honourable title of ‘the Faithful.’ But in later years, however much sincerity and good faith may have guided his conduct in respect of his friends, craft and deception were certainly not wanting towards his foes. The perfidious attack at Nakhla, where the first blood in the inter-tribal war with the Qurraish was shed (although at the outset disavowed by Muhammad for its scandalous breach of the sacred usages of Arabia), was eventually justified by a revelation from heaven. The surprise which secured the easy conquest of Mecca was designed with craftiness if not with duplicity. The pretext on which the Bani Nadhir were besieged and expatriated (namely, that Gabriel had revealed their design against the prophet’s life) was feeble and unworthy of an honest cause. When Medina was beleaguered be the confederate army, Muhammad sought the services of Nueim, a traitor, and employed him to sow distrust amongst the enemy by false and treacherous reports; ’ for,’ he said, ’ what else is war but a game of deception?’
In his prophetical career, political and personal ends were frequently compassed by the flagrant pretence of divine revelations, which a candid examination would have shown him to be nothing more than the reflection of his own wishes. The Jewish and Christian systems, at first adopted honestly as the basis of his own religion, had no sooner served the purpose of establishing a firm authority, then they were ignored and virtually disowned. And what is perhaps worst of all, the dastardly assassination of political and religious opponents, countenanced and frequently directed in their cruel and perfidious details by Muhammad himself, leaves a dark and indelible stain upon his character.
Domestic life polygamy
In domestic life the conduct of Muhammad, with one grave exception, was exemplary. As a husband his fondness and devotion were entire, bordering at times upon jealousy. As a father he was loving and tender. In his youth he is said to have lived a virtuous life. At the age of twenty-five he married a widow forty years old, and during her lifetime for twenty-five years he was a faithful husband to her alone. Yet it is remarkable that during this period were composed most of those passages of the Quran in which the black-eyed Houries reserved for believers in Paradise, are depicted in such glowing colours. Shortly after the death of Khadija, the Prophet married again; but it was not till the mature age of fifty-four that he made the dangerous trial of polygamy, by taking Ayesha, yet a child, as the rival of Sauda. Once the natural limits of restraint were over-passed, Muhammad fell a prey to his strong passion for the female sex.
In his fifty-sixth year he married Haphsa; and the following year, in two succeeding months, Zeinab bint Khozeima and Omm Salma. But his desires were not satisfied by the range of a harem already in advance of Arab custom, and more numerous than was permitted to any of his followers. A few months after his nuptials with Zeinab and Omm Salma, the charms of a second Zeinab were by accident discovered too fully before the Prophet’s admiring gaze. She was the wife of Zeid, his adopted son and bosom friend; but he was unable to smother the flame she had kindled in his breast; and, by the divine command, she was taken to his bed.
In the same year he married a seventh wife, and also took a concubine. And at last, when he was sixty years of age, no fewer than three new wives, besides Mary the Coptic slave, were within the space of seven months added to his already well-filled harem. The bare recital of these facts may justify the saying of Ibn Abbas: ’Verily the chiefest among Moslems (meaning Muhammad) was the foremost of them in his passion for women;’ – a fatal example imitated too readily by his followers, who adopt the Prince of Medina, rather than the Prophet of Mecca, for their pattern.