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Notes from the Symposium “The Path of the Prophet”

by Prof. Dr. Suat Yildirim, Today's Zaman on . Posted in Columns

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A productive and fruitful meeting was held in İstanbul on Oct. 9-10. This international academic meeting was titled “The Path of the Prophet” and held with the following purpose:

To make sense of the divine message conveyed by our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, within the context of the Quran and the sunnah (everything the Prophet did, said or approved of); to describe his open and all-encompassing path for humankind; to recall and understand the Prophet’s lofty position as a prophet; and to eliminate certain efforts, supported also by certain media organizations, to change the essence of the religion under the guise of the search for a pure Islam by jettisoning the burdens of traditional Islamic practices.

I would like to congratulate Ergün Çapan and Nevzat Savaş, respectively, from the Yeni Ümit and Hira magazines, for their hard work in organizing this meeting. The 1,400th anniversary of the revelation of the Quran is apparently being marked with abundant activities. This was the second symposium organized by Yeni Ümit this year, the other being “The Quran and Scientific Facts,” held on June 26-27.

The Foundation for Research in Islamic Sciences (İSAV) will hold an international academic meeting titled “Prophet Muhammad in the 1400th Anniversary of Divine Revelation” on Oct. 15-17. It is also preparing another symposium, titled “Interpretation of the Quran and the society,” on Dec. 3-4. Moreover, other institutions, including the faculties of theology of İstanbul University and Marmara University, the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) and the Center for Islamic Research (İSAM), have organized or planned programs as well. I hope the year will be full of busy agenda of various foundations and associations.

Some of the symposiums are specialized and focus discussion among experts of a specific field, and may give greater space to the articulation of diverse opinions. Some of them, on the other hand, aim to discuss, provide basis for and disseminate the results of certain academic studies on some widely accepted religious or academic facts. Thus, such unchanging facts are updated and how they should be understood and implemented is discussed. The meeting discussed in this article belongs to the second group. I must also note that after the reading of the papers, both participants and the audience were allowed to ask questions and these questions were answered.

The subject matter of persuasive and well-prepared papers presented by lecturers from various faculties of theology throughout the country and experts from the Religious Affairs Directorate included the indivisible integrity of the Quran and the Sunnah; the recognition of the hadith as the second primary source of Islam; the universality of and rational basis for prophethood; the oneness of God (tawhid); belief in the Path of the Prophet and the attributes of God; the Sunni form of the belief in divine destiny and delicate matters relating to it; the moral bases of the Path of the Prophet; the place of the Companions of the Prophet in Islam; the principal qualities of prophets, particularly including their being free of sin; the positions of the Prophet’s family (Ahl al-Bayt) in terms of their services to Islam and the global Muslim community’s (ummah) love of them; family law, particularly including matters concerning marriage; the criteria for assessing the behavior of Muslims; being meticulous in declaring someone an unbeliever (takfir); spiritual life as preached by the Path of the Prophet as well as spiritual attainments in following this path.

While the papers were presented in the form of summaries, they will be published unabridged in book form, thereby providing for a permanent and detailed resource of information. Religious Affairs Directorate President Professor Ali Bardakoğlu, Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, Moroccan Academy of Scholars General Director Professor Ahmed Abbadi, and distinguished Syrian scholars Professor Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti and Professor Wahba Zuhayli attended the meeting, adding to its importance and weight.

The meeting was also attended by scholars and audiences from Nigeria, Kenya, the Netherlands, Germany and other countries. Delivering the opening speech of the meeting, Mr. Bardakoğlu stressed the importance of the Prophet’s sunnah in individual and social life. In the first of two opening papers, Gomaa explained the “rules and principles of the Path of the Prophet concerning coexistence and living together with the other.” The second paper, presented by Hayrettin Karaman, discussed the attitude of the majority of the Muslim world as represented by Sunni Muslims (Ahl al-Sunnah) toward dialogue and argued that they are fit and ready for dialogue with other Muslim groups and non-Muslims. He also noted that families should collectively read the books describing the life of the Prophet (seerah) even if for only a few minutes.

The audience included former Education Minister Associate Professor Hüseyin Çelik, who represented the government; Religious Affairs Directorate Higher Board of Religious Affairs Chairman Professor Hamza Aktan; Professor Raşit Küçük; Professor Şerafettin Gölcük; Professor İsmail Lütfi Çakan; Professor Hamdi Döndüren; Professor Faruk Beşer; and many other distinguished deans of faculties of theology, lecturers, muftis, preachers, imams, religious instructors, students of theology and other recognized people. Interest by such an audience, closely connected to the subject matter of the meeting, was noted and welcomed. Thus, the participants of the meetings found an opportunity to assess themselves and review their methods in disseminating the message of Islam, by asking themselves the following questions: How are our explanations perceived? What are our omissions and defects? Should we change our styles or wording?

Simultaneous interpretation in Turkish and Arabic was provided in the meeting. The 1,000-seat hall was filled to capacity and an additional 1,000 people watched the speeches on screens set up in areas adjacent to the main hall. The majority of the audience was able to follow the speeches carefully, which was clear from the reaction they gave even before the translation was completed.

Bardakoğlu, Karaman and the guest speakers drew attention to the proper timing of the meeting with respect to raising the awareness of the society. Turkish scholar of Islam Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi sent a message to the meeting in which he said: “Scholars and intellectuals who dedicate their lives to upholding religious values should disseminate the eternal and essential beauty of Islam, its promises for the day and for the future, and the spiritual development within the context of religious life to their surrounding and do this with a spirit of mobilization. Indeed, a believer can survive and be saved from blundering so long as he advocates a quest for living and making others live. … Thus a Muslim should never neglect his own values and seek approval of his basic disciplines for resorting to foreign resources and filter everything he acquires from outside.” He thereby emphasized the primary purpose of the meeting.

Important messages from participants

It is almost impossible to summarize the topics discussed in such an extensive academic meeting. I think I can use al-Buti’s speech to give a general idea of the meeting. In sum, he said: “Muslims agree that the Quran is the Word of God. They also agree that the meanings intended in the Quran apply and are valid. If so, where do disputes and disagreements come from? They are the outcome of the permissible differences in reasoning or ruling [ijtihad] about religious provisions.

“But we must also be aware that disagreement is largely the result of the flawed or deficient rulings which cannot be properly defined as so. For instance, someone may claim that Islam prohibit the sanctification of individuals, even including the Prophet, and mention certain verses as evidence. He may even give the incident about how spoils of war should be distributed in the aftermath of the Battle of Hunayn.

“They say some people from the Helpers [Ansar] criticized the Prophet, saying, ‘The distribution is not fair.’ This is true, but there is also another side to the story. In the second half of this story, the Prophet heard about the criticisms and summoned the Helpers and explained his intention in doing so and explained to them that new Muslims should be supported.

“He further told them that he would not stay in Mecca, but return to Medina with them. ‘Won’t you want to return along with God’s Messenger while others are returning with flocks of sheep or camel?’ he had asked. And so he persuaded them. They then regretfully said, “We believe and surrender to God and His Messenger.’ If the story is not told in its entirety, then some false scholars pop up to derive misguided conclusions or rules from it.

“We must resort to sincere scholars in order to make sense of the Quran’s intentions. Sometimes we observe a war of slogans. We must avoid this. For instance, I advise that we should refrain from using such phrases as ‘Islamic thought’ or ‘Islamic intellectuals,’ as they may overshadow the divine revelation aspect of Islam. Such an approach paves the way for understanding the Quran according to one’s whims and desires and without objectivity.

“We must also refrain from individual or communal self-conceit. Instead, we must remember God at all times and try to make progress in the love and knowledge of God. By striving against the evil whims and wishes of our carnal self and by purify it, we must unite as a single body against the enemies of the religion. We must acknowledge God as the true benefactor of all bounties and blessings. It is impossible not to fall in love with God if we consider His blessings and favors to us. Come and let us promise to stay united and refraining from hatred and disagreement. Let us ask only for divine guidance for those who go astray from the path of salvation.”

This constructive style adopted by al-Buti -- which can be summarized as the need for relying on academic proof, walking in the vast avenue of the Quran, embracing all Muslims and showing how something can be done with a mild manner instead of harshly criticizing our Muslim brothers and sisters for their errors -- was actually observable in all speakers.

Zuhayli stressed the following: “The Prophet’s sunnah cannot be divorced from the Quran. Indeed, hundreds of verses show that the sunnah is a source of proof [hujja] on which Islamic jurists can rely in making their judgments about the practice of the religion. The sunnah gives us a number of guidelines as to such concepts as pre-emption [shuf’a] or returnable merchandise, which are not clearly or explicitly referred to in the Quran. Therefore, without the sunnah, the provisions of the Quran cannot be properly implemented. Like the Quran, the sunnah is under divine protection. This is the very reason why all attempts to deny or reject the sunnah have failed. Also, the sunnah plays a great role in building the identity of the Muslim ummah. The sunnah is one of the main ingredients of Muslim civilization. Thus, those who intend to strip Islam of this identity seek ways to get rid of the sunnah under various pretexts.” Along the same lines, Abadi said: “The sunnah is a firm stronghold. Anyone who attacks this unyielding castle will break only his/her horns, without causing any other damage.”

Columnist and author Ali Bulaç indicated that the Prophet cannot be treated as a mere postman for divine revelation as he internalized the revelation both physically and spiritually and implemented it to the bone. Moreover, he was tasked with conveying the divine message (tabligh), ensuring the spiritual purification of believers (tazkiya) and witnessing the outcome. Thus, he educated and disciplined the first community, which the Quran refers to as a model community. The Quran refers to wisdom [hikmah] in conjunction with the Book [i.e., itself], and as Iman Shafi’i said, this wisdom is the sunnah. Can man attain truth using his reason and lead a life with which God would be content? Enlightenment philosophy answers “yes” to this question. However, this modern reasoning is problematic. Indeed, man cannot know about the breath of the divine spirit blown into man and he cannot accept it. On the other hand, reason may mislead us. For this reason, modern man is in conflict with himself, his environment and his Lord. He needs a savior. This savior is the revelation-imbued light and training of the Path of the Prophet. Clearly defining the spiritual and inner dimensions of the prophetic training, Professor Abdülhakim Yüce pointed out that the Prophet had set “God’s contentment” as the highest goal for his Companions. This training sees man within the integrity of body and soul, satisfying the needs of both sides in a balanced manner, and it is the profession of the Companions, which is a wide and safe avenue. The characteristics of this avenue are (i) the search for the God’s contentment, (ii) a profound life of worshiping, and (ii) good morals.

I would like to conclude my article by quoting the points emphasized by Aktan: “Our generous Lord has not left us alone with ourselves after creating us. He graciously sent the Prophet to lead us to the Straight Path. The True Path is solely His Path. The Companions trained and disciplined by the Prophet set good examples for us. They conveyed and disseminated the Path of the Prophet to many parts of the world. Thankfully, there are still people who are mobilized on this path. Like the Companions, many people died and were buried in foreign lands. Their enthusiasm is not exhausted, and the praises they hear do not slacken them. This generation is a great bliss from our Lord. We as the Religious Affairs Directorate are preparing to organize courses at mosques, and teach the Quranic interpretation [tafsir], hadith [sayings of the Prophet] and the life of the Prophet [seerah].”

The Path of the Prophet is well known by people of all ages. But every generation should look at it from its own time and place and think about how to update it in its life. Every day we encounter many problems. In such cases, we must ask ourselves, “What would the Prophet do?” In order to answers this question correctly, we must know him and internalize his path and implement his sunnah, thereby becoming closer to him. We must learn his sacred biography (seerah) by heart so that we can distinguish him from a distance even if he is among hundreds of people. We should also internalize and implement his teachings so that he would be able to distinguish us as one of the members of his ummah even if we were among hundreds of people.

Professor Suat Yildirim is a retired lecturer at the Faculty of Theology, Marmara University.