Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, died unexpectedly and rather suddenly in 632 A.D., after only a brief illness.
When the news reached ‘Umar that Muhammad was gone, ‘Umar, who was a very strong man who would later rule over the entire Islamic empire as the second successor, or caliph, to the Prophet, seems to have become virtually hysterical. (Muhammad’s death must have been utterly devastating to the earliest Muslims; think of the impact of the death of Joseph Smith on the early Latter-day Saints or, even, of the death of Jesus and the effect it must have had, before the Resurrection, on the first Christian disciples.) So he stood among the people and cried out that Muhammad was not dead, that he had merely gone to the Lord for a brief time (presumably in an ascension to heaven like the celebrated mi‘raj from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). After forty days, ‘Umar declared, the Prophet would return, and he would punish those who had falsely proclaimed his death.
However, Abu Bakr, an older man who would soon emerge as Muhammad’s first successor, heard the commotion and, determined to ascertain the truth, went into the house where the body of the Prophet lay. Abu Bakr uncovered Muhammad’s face and kissed it, saying, “You are dearer [to me] than my father and mother. You have tasted the death that God had decreed; a second death will never overtake you.” Then he covered the Prophet’s face again and went out.
When he had emerged, Abu Bakr saw that ‘Umar was still manically denying Muhammad’s death outside of the mosque.
“Gently, ‘Umar,” Abu Bakr whispered to his younger associate. “Be quiet.”
But ‘Umar continued to cry out.
Finally, standing up and addressing the bystanders, Abu Bakr said, “O men, if anyone worships Muhammad, Muhammad is dead. If anyone worships God, God is alive and cannot die.”
Then he recited a passage from the Qur’an (38:31):
“Muhammad is nothing but a messenger; messengers have passed away before him. Why, if he should die or be killed, will you turn about on your heels? If any man should turn about on his heels, he will not harm God in any way, and God will reward the grateful.”
Those are wise words, it seems to me. Our faith rests ultimately not in mortal humans nor even in human institutions, however good they may be. It rests in God.
Easy to forget, but essential to remember.