Muhammad: Life of a Prophet Transcript


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MUHAMMAD: Life of a Prophet

NARRATOR:Fourteen hundred years ago, a humble merchant who could not read or write changed the face of Arabia. His name was Muhammad. Today, his influence has spread to every corner of the world including the United States... This is his story and the story of millions of Americans who revere him as God’s final prophet.

CG: Underwriting Credits NARRATOR:Major Funding of Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet has been provided by the CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING and by THE DAVID AND LUCILE PACKARD FOUNDATION, ARABIAN BULK TRADE, SABADIA FAMILY FOUNDATION, THE EL-HIBRI FOUNDATION, the IRFAN KATHWARI FOUNDATION, and MIR IMRAN. Additional funding has been provided by many other organizations and individuals.

NARRATOR:"He was neither tall and lanky, nor short and heavy set. When he looked at someone he looked them in the eyes. He was the most generous hearted of men, the most truthful of them in speech, the most mild tempered of them and the noblest of them in lineage. Anyone who would describe him would say I never saw before or after him the like of him." Muhammad, described by a contemporary.

KAREN ARMSTRONG:Muhammad was a man who faced an absolutely hopeless situation. There was a whole continent virtually of people killing one another in an endless hopeless vendetta, going down a chute of violence and warfare. Feeling that society was coming to an end and had no hope. He gave them hope single-handedly. In a space of 23 years he brought peace and new hope to Arabia and a new beacon for the


“MUHAMMAD: Life of a Prophet”

NARRATOR:Islam, the religion Muhammad first brought to Arabia, now claims 1.2 billion followers around the world. There are an estimated 7 million Muslims in America,

where it is the country’s fastest growing religion and the most diverse.

MICHAEL WOLFE:Like America itself, the Muslims in this country come from all over the world. They have a common bond, not only in their religious faith and in their mosques, but in this story of Muhammad, they all look to it. This is the source of how to

behave, of how to be a constructive citizen, of how to be a good parent, of how to be a good child, of how to seek knowledge and truth. These are values that are expressed most clearly for Muslims in the story of Muhammad.

JAMEEL JOHNSON:In the Quran Allah says that Muhammad is the best example of behavior for you. And that’s what he is the guide for the way we deal with each other and when we’re in a position of authority how we attempt to implement justice and law.

KEVIN JAMES:Prophet Muhammad, he asked the question to people around him, do you love your creator? Serve your fellow man first. What does that tell you? It tells you, forget about all this intellectual, yeah, I love God and this and that. If you're gonna, you know, forget about talking the talk, walk the walk. You want to serve God, serve people. What more noble way to serve people than to risk your own life to save them.

DAISY KHAN:September 11th has changed the whole world and it has also put the Muslim community in the spotlight. Muslims have a lot of hostility being hurled at them. But this is also a time of transformation. Many people are very eager to understand Islam and want to know who is the Prophet? What is the Quran? Who are the Muslims? How do they live?

NAJAH BAZZY: Through the stories about Prophet Muhammad, we were able to make connections, and all of a sudden you would feel you can relate to things that happened back 1500 years ago, and that the issues weren't old fashioned, they were universal. And that’s what he’s taught me.

NARRATOR: This is the story Muslims have passed down from generation to generation for 1400 years. A story about the merchant, husband, father, statesman and warrior whom they consider the final prophet. The man whose legacy continues to shape their lives today.

JOHN VOLL: The life of MUHAMMAD is even in its details probably better known than any other major religious figure before modern times. His followers made careful efforts to record memories that they had of things that he had said, and things that he had done. Many of these traditions may have been made up later on, but at the core there seems to me to

be little reason to doubt that there is a picture and a portrait of a living man.

Map of Mecca and Saudi Arabia

NARRATOR: According to Muslim sources, Muhammad bin Abdullah—or son of Abdullah—was born in the year 570 in the city of Mecca, in what is today Saudi Arabia.

A poet of the times described Mecca as a place where winter and summer were equally intolerable. The world into which Muhammad arrived was a brutal one, defined by hunger, violence, and tribal warfare.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: You could not exist without your tribe. An individual in this dangerous world had absolutely no chance of survival. And that meant that the tribe had become, perhaps, the most sacred value in Arabia.

HAMZA YUSUF: It's a society that's based on the idea of vigilantism. That, if somebody attacked my clan, then I have a right to go and attack anyone from his clan. They saw justice as taking revenge.

NARRATOR: The Arabs of the sixth century had no written code of law, no common religion, and no central government. In this dangerous world, Muhammad had the good fortune to be born into Mecca’s powerful tribe, the Quraysh. But his father died before he was born, and, his mother died when he was only 6. His uncle Abu Talib was left to raise the young orphan.

M. CHERIF BASSIOUNI: He surely had to have worried about his future, what will he be. And so he he must have been a very introspective child. Muhammad had the habit of going out in the desert and contemplating the stars and thinking about why he was an orphan. And how would life be to him in the future.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Orphans were marginal people and he felt very, very strongly identified with the poor and disadvantaged for the rest of his life.

CG: Trade Route Map

NARRATOR: The Mecca of Muhammad's youth was both a religious and a commercial center, located at the crossroads of two major trading routes. Pilgrims came from all over Arabia to worship the hundreds of idols that surrounded the Ka'aba, an ancient shrine in the heart of the city. The Ka’aba was surrounded by a sacred area where fighting was not allowed. The commerce generated by the pilgrims made it possible for a young man in Muhammad’s circumstances to make a living in the markets of Mecca.

Soon Muhammad began acting as an agent for wealthy merchants, taking their goods on caravans throughout Arabia. These journeys exposed him to a variety of other tribes and communities and a range of new ideas.

M. CHERIF BASSIOUNI: He probably learned the differences that exist between different tribes. People speaking different languages. He encountered Christians and Jews. And learned from them what their faith, what their religion, what their cultures, are.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Muhammad would have become aware that for the Jews and the Christians the holy scripture was very important. Both got scriptures in which God had sent a sacred message to prophets and this was a way in which people could relate to the divine.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: When MUHAMMAD was about 25 years old he had a major change in his life. A wealthy widow, older woman named KHADIJA asked him to take her caravans into Syria for her.

DAISY KHAN: Muhammad took all her goods and went with the caravan to Syria and did an incredible job. And her respect for him turned into admiration for him. And she inquired about him through one of her friends.

NARRATOR: Shortly thereafter Khadija asked Muhammad to marry her. “I like you because of our relationship,” she said, “And your high reputation among your people; Your trustworthiness, good character, and truthfulness.”

HAMZA YUSUF: And this is interesting. She's is a very beautiful woman. But she's, she's 40. She is, she is moving into her maturity. And he's a 25-year-old youth. Um, he's an orphan. And, and he accepts this, uh, proposal and it's arranged through the family. And he does, indeed, marry her.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: And people have often said rather sneeringly that this was just a marriage of convenience on his part. He'd just married the wealthy widow for his own ah gain and profit. But there's no doubt in my mind that he deeply, deeply loved Khadija.

NARRATOR: Over the course of their marriage, Khadija and Muhammad had four daughters, and two sons who died as infants. He was a family man, and a successful and

respected merchant. But as Muhammad approached his own fortieth birthday, he was becoming increasingly restless and troubled by the problems of Meccan society.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Within a few generations, they had gone from this kind of brutal existence in the Arabian Steppes, to becoming financiers, bankers, businessmen, merchants, with a lot of money. And this was great, of course, and people were delighted. But it was a very disturbing time because the market economy demanded, as we know only too well in the West, a strong competitive streak. People no longer felt that they had to take care of the poor and the needy. And the weaker members of Quraysh any longer. They had to make as much money at they possibly could.

BASSIOUNI: They had a marvelous society. They had a trading town, they were booming, they were doing business. They were living like an affluent society. And when you have an affluent society, the tendency is to become hedonistic. To look at, you know, what are the pleasures of life?

NARRATOR: Muhammad would often retreat to the mountains outside Mecca, to meditate. It was on one such retreat in the year 610 that Muhammad had an experience, that would transform history.

NASR: The prophet used to retire from time to time into a hill called Jabal al-Nur, the Mountain of Light. When you climb up that mountain and many people still do it, on top of it is a cave called al-Hira in Arabic Into which the Prophet would often times retire in order to contemplate, and to pray. To be still with God. The coming of the revelation was an immediate act. The descent from heaven came suddenly.

ARMSTRONG: Muhammad was woken from sleep and felt himself absolutely enveloped by a terrifying divine presence. He says it’s an angel that seemed to squeeze him ah in a

devastating embrace and it felt as though all the breath was being squeezed out of his body. And a voice said to him, "recite." And Muhammad said, "no, I am not a reciter." The voice

again said "recite. Recite." And then squeezed, as he said almost beyond his endurance, Muhammad felt the first inspired words of a new scripture in Arabic pouring from his


NASR: (in Arabic) That is recite in the name of thy lord who created.

ARMSTRONG: And Islam had come into being.

NASR: And the prophet of course having received the divine word began to tremble and tremendous fear because there’s no common ground between the human reality and the divine reality, he ran out of the cave. When he ran out of the cave he looked back and the Archangel filled up the whole of the sky.

ARMSTRONG: Everywhere you looked there was Gabriel. Not just a single angelic image but a presence, a being, a power.

ARMSTRONG: This is how the ineffable, incomprehensible, utterly transcendent, indescribable God makes itself known to us.

HAMZA YUSUF: This was something that really shook him to the very core of his being. And he goes down from that mountain and he is shaking. And I think it's, it's shock. Here is somebody who, who's gone looking for this transcendent reality and this transcendent reality is now replying.

NARRATOR: Muhammad was so shaken by this experience, he feared he might be possessed. He ran home directly to Khadija.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: And there he flung himself into her lap and he said cover me, cover me, hold me, until the terror had passed. Khadija was the person who reassured him. He said, "have I become a kahin, a soothsayer?" And she said "No my dear this is not what God does. This revelation comes from God."

NARRATOR: The message Muhammad received on the Mountain of Light was simple: He was to recite the words of the one true God. But Muhammad still had doubts that his experience was genuine.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Khadija ah, thought it would be a good idea to go to consult her cousin Waraqa who was a Christian.

HAMZA YUSUF: She is saying, we need to go to somebody that knows about these things. Because if you're told you're being given a message from God, well, there have been previous messages. So, let's go ask Waraqa. Who knows the scripture. He knows, uh, the Torah and the, the Gospel.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: And as soon as Waraqa heard about this, he immediately said, Muhammad is the prophet ah who will bring the revelation of the one God to the Arabs, and he warned Muhammad uh that he would have a really rough time.

HAMZA YUSUF: He says, your people are going to reject you and they will chase you out of this city. This has never come to any human being, except they were persecuted. Because this is basically undermining the paradigm.

REUVEN FIRESTONE: And after a while Muhammad began to realize that the messages he had been receiving fit a pattern that he knew about from Jewish and Christian tradition as well. And that is that there are such things as prophets. There are people who receive messages from the divine and that he began to realize that indeed he was one of them as well.

MOHAMED ZAKARIYA: When we think of prophecy, we come from a tradition in America where we think of Charlton Heston, you know, the great big beard and the winds always blowing. And he's, wearing raggedy clothes and they're, and they're ranting people. You know, they're ranting and raving. In the Islamic view a prophet isn't this kind of person at all. But it's the person who has been selected very reluctantly from his people. God selected him and they couldn’t get out of the clutches in a sense, they had to do it.

M. CHERIF BASSIOUNI: You have to think in terms of a tribal Bedouin society. What is the worst thing that could happen to somebody? It is not death. It is shame. And so I am sure that in his own mind, the idea of being shamed was probably very important. I mean think of the double loss of face, you know he’s gonna lose face, he’s gonna be shamed in front of his people. He’s gonna be shamed in front of Allah who gave him that message.

KEVIN JAMES: One of the drawing features to me as a non-Muslim who came from just a very diverse background, was his humility. And his humanness.

NARRATOR: Kevin James is a Supervising Fire Marshal in Brooklyn, New York who converted to Islam as a young man.

KEVIN JAMES:I felt a kinship to him also personally. And there's probably about a billion Muslims who would say the same thing, personal, this personal kinship that they feel with him. Ah he grew up an orphan, now I'm not an orphan, I have two parents. But my position in society, I've always felt, separate. America is a racial nation. And either you’re Black, you're White, you're Italian, you're Jewish, you're this and that. So coming from a mixed background, I've felt like, kind of, in limbo. My father is Native American and African-American and my mother is Jewish. They were very a-religious I would say to the point of being atheist or agnostic. I recall as a child we'd get a dreidel on Hanukkah, we had a menorah in the house and we also had a Christmas tree and exchanged presents. So, I just never really identified with any religion, but what was always emphasized was discussion and dialogue and seeking for the truth. So I went through a period of trial and error searching. And I stumbled, I guess, I almost literally stumbled on Islam. What appealed to me was the universality of the message. Any religion that gives a code of righteous ethical conduct and respect and gratitude and obedience to one being, is Islam. So, here's a book, the Holy Quran that validates other religions, the diversity of mankind and it puts the onus of salvation on the believer.

KEVIN JAMES: The Quran teaches you that the saving of one life is as if you've saved all of humanity. And that's one of the reasons why I became a firefighter. What more noble calling than that to save a person's life, to save people, to save their property.

FDNY MARSHAL #1: There was another fire in the back.

K. JAMES: Okay. Yeah. So show me what you have.

KEVIN JAMES: From being a fire fighter, I became a Fire Marshall, that's an arson investigator. That's another form of prevention, of saving lives.

K. JAMES: I guess there’s no doubt what caused this.

KEVIN JAMES: The fire fighter, he'll risk his life to save you whether you're Black, brown, red, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Atheist.

KEVIN JAMES: He's not asking you what your philosophy is or looking at your color. He's looking to get you out of the building.

KEVIN JAMES: That's why many people say that fire fighting is a calling, because of that self-sacrifice. The willingness to just put others before yourself.

KEVIN JAMES: To be a good Muslim, you serve people. And specifically, Prophet Muhammad, he asked the question to people around him: Do you love your creator? Serve your fellow man first.

NARRATOR: The message Muhammad had received from God revealed that his people would be held accountable in the next life for their behavior in this one. Although Muhammad was initially reluctant to tell others about his experience, a new revelation commanded him to make his message public.

HAMZA YUSUF: So he calls all of his family members together and he says, what would you say if I told you that there was this army waiting to attack us on the other side of that hill. They said, we would believe you and he said what would you say if I told you I'm a messenger from God. They think it's absurd. You, you called us together for this? And he says, will no one support me in this. And the only person is a, is a child Ali who is his cousin, uh, gets up and says, I will support you. And they, they think this is hilarious. That this is, this is who is going to follow this prophet is, is a child.

M. CHERIF BASSIOUNI: Think about it, there is a man, a middle-aged man, who doesn't know how to read or write, who has no wealth, who is an orphan, yes he is from a very important tribe, but he works for a woman, and he now says, I'm the Prophet. God has spoken to me. This is not going to fly.

NARRATOR: The divine message that Muhammad brought to his fellow Meccans carried with it a sharp warning for their increasingly materialistic society.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: He was coming to warn the people of Mecca and the surrounding countryside and his own tribe of Quraysh that unless they pulled themselves together and started creating a more just and decent society, restoring the old tribal values of looking after the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, then there was going to be a terrible


HAMZA YUSUF: The Arabs did not believe in after life. They really thought that life ended with death and there was no resurrection, there was no coming back, there was no reincarnation.

M. CHERIF BASSIOUNI: So now Muhammad is saying, you know that one God we spoke of? When you are going to die, you don't just disappear. But you're going to be accountable to that God for the good deeds and the bad deeds.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: He was bringing a moral, ethical, social message to his people.

That we're all in the same boat before God and we must treat each other well with compassion and justice, and equity.

NARRATOR: The revelation that Muhammad received on the Mountain of Light was only the first of many that he would continue to receive for the rest of his life.

HAMZA YUSUF: The revelation does not come in a lump sum. It doesn't just come down from heaven, here is the book. Now go out and teach it to the people. No. It is coming down slowly. It's coming down as events unfold. And it's explaining the events, but it's also coming down in a way that he can absorb it. Because the idea is that this thing is so tremendous. This thing is so immense that it's not something that we can give you all at once. This is going to take time.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: He used to say that I never once experienced a revelation without feeling that my soul had been torn from my body.

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: The prophet could be sitting, he could be on horseback, he could be walking, he could be talking. He was suddenly seized by the divine word.

KAREN ARMSTRONG” He would feel a great weight descend upon him. He would sweat profusely even on a cold day. Sometimes he said it would be like the reverberations of a bell. And that he said is hardest for me, it's not the words that were coming. But he would have to listen very hard for the meaning of what communication, divine communication was coming through.

NARRATOR: After Muhammad received each revelation, he would recite it to the people who were with him, and they would pass it on to the community.

M. CHERIF BASSIOUNI; When the Prophet, who did not know how to read and write, started revealing the words of the Quran, they acquired credibility because of the very nature of the words spoken. People would, would look at it, this is, my goodness, this cannot be the words of a man. He could not have made this up.


KAREN ARMSTRONG: The Quran is the most extraordinary beautiful discourse. It doesn’t come over in translation, but the Arabic is extraordinary. When the first Muslims heard The Quran, many of them were converted to the prophet’s message. Not necessarily because of its content but because of its beauty.

JOHN VOLL: That revelation was presented in a society where there were people who were professional memorizers. They could hear something recited once and they could repeat it. The recitation then by Muhammad was carefully preserved immediately in the minds of memorizers, and in the minds of people who were able to write down notes. What we now call the Quran represented the complete collection of those words that Muhammad recited when he said this is the revelation of God.

ZAKARIYA: All we have of the prophet and all we have of the word of God is actually words. We don't have any pictures. We don't have any statues. All we have left is words. We can take those words and through the art of calligraphy we can make them more vivid, more accessible.

NARRATOR: For Mohamed Zakariya, words are the basis of an art form. To prevent idolatry, Muhammad discouraged the creation of any images of himself or other prophets. Calligraphy eventually became Islam’s highest art form. Among the sacred texts Zakariya writes is the Hilye, a portrait of the Prophet in words.

MOHAMED ZAKARIYA: Transmitted from Ali, who, when asked to describe the prophet, would say: “His face was not narrow, nor was it fully round, but there was a little bit of roundness to it. When he looked at someone, he looked at them with his face turned perfectly towards them. Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him, and whoever associated with him familiarly loved him. Anyone who would describe him would say, ‘I never saw before him or after him the like of him. Peace be upon him.’” That’s the most famous of the Hilyes. It gives you a description of the qualities of a person so that you can almost see them in your, uh, eyes, in your mind’s eye. I like to think it’s like having a little memento of the prophet near you so that you can look at it and think of it now and then. And of course, he’s not with us, but the Hilye brings him, uh, his presence a little closer.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: MUHAMMAD was always very insistent that he was not a divine figure and he always warned his followers not to do with him what the Christians had done to Jesus and put him on a pedestal and say that he was God or divine. He was not, he was an ordinary human being and the Muslims have taken that seriously. But what they do say is that MUHAMMAD is the perfect man. That if you look at MUHAMMAD, you can see how a perfect act of surrender to the divine had been made.

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