I remember wondering, as early as the age of six or seven, who these people were. It was in school, learning Islamic studies, and our very first lesson was about the grandfather of Prophet Muhammad. I could not process it back then. Who was this person and why was I learning about him? We only came to Prophet Muhammad himself a few lessons later (after his father and his mother). By then I was very perplexed. It was only later I was able to piece things together and construct a picture of my own.
In Traditional Islam, the central focus is, of course, Prophet Muhammad. Even liberal and progressive Traditional Muslims would rely upon his history (which even has a special word, ‘seerah’) in order to understand the Quran through his lens. For conservative Traditional Muslims, it goes way beyond that – his every move is seen as sacred and meticulously set up by God himself. They are obligatory to copy although the extent of a literal copying is in dispute (most still feel it’s ok to use modern modes of transport, for example!). For most Traditional Muslims, it is also normal to believe in a plethora of miracles performed by the Prophet. From the splitting of the moon to one akin to Jesus, feeding hundreds of people even when food was scarce. No ever questions the validity of these stories let alone their purpose. The pic below is a snapshot of conservative Traditionalists venerating the ‘footprint of the Prophet’. You may watch the full video here.
As I grew up, my understanding of Traditional Islam became more and more shaped by my growing set of readings about the role of the Prophet. I came across more rationalist versions within the tradition as well as more mystical approaches. It was not easy coming to an understanding of who Prophet Muhammad was but he was still central to everything.At the age of twenty, I departed my homeland for my tertiary education. As fate would have it, I was never to reside there again. One of the first things which happened to me almost as soon as I arrived in the UK was my first encounter with Quranism. Quranism is the ‘third branch’ in Islam and is defined as the method of formulating Islam from the Quran itself, eschewing other sources of authority, namely Hadith (sayings, deeds and abstinences attributed to the Prophet) and opinions of Traditional scholars (including that famous term, ‘fatwa’!). Quranists have a staggering level of diversity in their thinking but one thing they have in common is their suspicion of any kind of veneration of the Prophet. Indeed, this was a key element in helping me to embrace this path. I wondered why Prophet Muhammad was the central focus in Islam if the Quran was meant to represent God’s thoughts.
In Quranist Islam, the Prophet is seen as an ordinary person and not the ‘chosen one’. We do not believe in any of his alleged miracles and utterly reject the Traditional assertion that he is ‘chief of the messengers’ (sayyid al-mursaleen). Rather, he is a person who received the Quran and established channels for its promulgation. He must have had his interpretation but they are not canonised because they were simply not meant to be. Rather each individual is to read the Quran for himself and come to his own conclusions. Diversity is not something to be feared but rather embraced.
Twenty years has passed since this new phase in my life. I have not changed my understanding since then and, contrary to what Traditionalists have warned me of, my faith has not diminished. What has changed is that I am no longer focused on a particular time and place (read: 7th century Arabia). Instead, I am focused on the present. My own life experience. How does the Quran see my existence? I do not focus on a chosen personality who has long since passed. Rather I seek to be chosen myself, as everyone has the potential to be. Chosen to be close to God through my deeds.