Theologically speaking, the universality of Prophet Muhammad’s message (peace and blessings be upon him) comes from the concept of Allah who is the God of all, not only the God of Muslims.
Allah describes Himself in the first chapter of the Qur’an -which is recited by all Muslims around the world in their five daily Prayers- as “Rabb al-`Alamin” i.e. the Allah of all creation. Whether humans are aware of this fact or not, Allah is the God of all mankind – Muslims, Christians, atheists, etc. – regardless of their differences. Allah is the Creator of everything, with no exception. The Qur’an declares that a gigantic star and an atom are shoulder to shoulder, worshipping Allah; flies and elephants are brothers and sisters; all of creation is here to help us understand the meaning and the mystery of the universe.
Arabia Before the Noble Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
Before addressing the universality of Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) message, it is essential to focus our attention to the era when Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) message first emerged: fourteen hundred years ago in pre-Islamic Arabia. Although there were some positive characteristics of Arabs before Islam, such as generosity, courage, and dignity, the feudal system of society was so harsh that the marginalized almost did not have any rights. Slaves were persecuted, women were sold like property, and female infants in many cases were buried alive as part of traditional tribal honor. Wars between tribes broke out uncontrollably. People worshipped idols and made their own gods according to their own desires.
In the midst of such chaos, the holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was born in 571 CE. Throughout his adulthood he was not satisfied with the tribal traditions of his society. He (peace and blessings be upon him) would go into seclusion and meditate for a long time, particularly for the whole month of Ramadan. In the year 610 C.E., he (peace and blessings be upon him) experienced the first revelation which changed him and transformed the world forever. The revelation that came to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) over a span of twenty-three years, constituted the Holy Scripture of Islam, the Qur’an, which literally means the recitation. In a very short period of time, despite hostile reaction to his message, the Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) kindness and tenderness made an impact on the hearts of many in the city of Makkah. He (peace and blessings be upon him) did not consider himself a deity or a part of Allah, rather he (peace and blessings be upon him) saw himself as the servant and Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) who was to convey Allah’s message to the world.
The Holy Qur’an speaks of many prophets, like Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus (peace be upon them all). There are chapters in the Noble Qur’an named after some of these prophets. There are also particular verses about the personality of the Prophet of Islam. In one verse, the Qur’an speaks of him as “rahmatan lil al-`Amīn” i.e. “a mercy for realms and worlds”. In order to understand the meaning of being merciful to creation, Islamic scholars ask us to think of the oppression that was occurring in the world into which Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was born and the transformation that Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) message made.
Although Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) message addressed Arabs first, its nearest audience, it was not limited to a particular nation. Many Qur’anic verses transcend locality, region, ethnicity, and nationality by starting with the call, “O Human beings,” or “O People.” The Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) message brings the idea that everything in creation is a living, chanting, obedient worshipper of Allah, regardless of whether they are humans, animals, or other creatures. In the Qur’an said,
(The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; And yet you understand not how they declare His glory) (Al-Israa’ 17:44)
He invites the reader to enter the world in which the Qur’an was revealed and see the darkness that dominated it. In Arabia, before the Prophet, the meaning of creatures was not recognized. The Qur’anic revelation breathed life into the world of nature and taught that the creatures around us were not dead and meaningless matters. Instead, all of them were praising Allah with great joy through their own languages. The same Islamic scholar invites the audience to ride the vehicle of history and travel to the land of Arabia to see the situation there before and after the emergence of Islam. One should keep in mind that to change a little vice, such as a bad habit, is difficult enough, let alone changing the minds and the hearts of an entire society as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did. Even in our modern world, with a comparison made by this Islamic scholar, if one hundred philosophers with all their knowledge were to go to Arabia and work for one hundred years, they would not be able to make the changes that Muhammad made in twenty-three years. He successfully transformed this wild society into a civilized community and shaped leaders for a new civilization.
If one would like to see the power of transformation that Noble Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) made, one needs only to look at `Umar ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), the second caliph: `Umar before Islam and `Umar after Islam. `Umar himself said that he remembered two things from his pre-Islamic life: one, he would cry for, and the other he would laugh at. He cried that he buried his own daughter alive and he was still hearing her voice calling him. He laughed that he made god out of pressed dates which people ate when they were hungry. The new `Umar became a symbol of justice for the whole world. After Islam, during his caliphate, `Umar is known for the following statement: “If a lamb at the shore of the Euphrates was taken by a wolf, (I am afraid that) Allah would ask me about it.” Out of compassion, he would walk among houses at night and see if there was anyone who needed food and he would anonymously feed them. It was the universal message of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that transformed `Umar into such a high persona of humanity.
Mercy and compassion constitute the foundation of the Prophet’s universal message. In Basmalah -the beginning statement that comes before 113 chapters of the Qur’an- Allah is described as having two attributes, the “Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate.” This very statement has become the symbol of Islam. The Qur’anic verse says,
(We sent you not, but as a Mercy for all creatures) (21:107)
Being merciful towards all creation, Muhammad’s personal life has become a reflection of this Qur’anic verse. In his relationships with people, he always smiled and no one ever heard a bad word from his mouth. In his family life, he showed the same mercy to his wives and children. His companion Anas ibn Malik, who faithfully served him for 13 years, witnessed this mercy, saying that he never received any reprimand for his service, despite his mistakes.
All People Are Equal
The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was also very sensitive towards human sufferings. When he (peace and blessings be upon him) heard of a slave being tortured, he (peace and blessings be upon him) commanded one of his Companions to buy that slave’s freedom. His famous hadith about the treatment of slaves is a great example of his universal teachings. He (peace and blessings be upon him) used to say, “Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity (power) and if you do so, then help them.” (Bukhari)
Slaves demonstrated great love toward Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). On one occasion, he (peace and blessings be upon him) asked Zayd ibn Harithah (may Allah be pleased with him), a slave he (peace and blessings be upon him) freed, if he would like to go back with his father who had come to take him, and Zayd refused, preferring to stay with the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
The Messenger’s (peace and blessings be upon him) Farewell Sermon on the plain of `Arafat also has remarkable aspects of the universality of his message. In this sermon, he (peace and blessings be upon him) spoke about women, the relationship between races, and slaves. In fact, because of Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) message, within the span of thirty years after his death it was difficult to find slaves in Arabia. The Qur’anic verse clearly says that,
(O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you)(Al-Hujurat 49:13)
In his Last Sermon, the Noble Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) emphasized this aspect of his message. He said that all humankind is from Adam and Eve: an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab and a non-Arab has no superiority over an Arab. Also, a white person has no superiority over a black one and a black person has no superiority over a white one. Furthermore, of women he stressed that it is true that husbands have certain rights in regard to their women, but their women also have rights over them. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) successfully established a sense of responsibility and conscience in the minds and hearts of his people.
Universal Mercy for Enemies and Animals
The Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) mercy even extended to his enemies—he (peace and blessings be upon him) never sought revenge.
It is reported that in one of the battles some of the Companions went to him, to find a bedouin sitting with him. “Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “This (bedouin) took my sword out of its sheath while I was asleep. When I woke up, the naked sword was in his hand and he said to me, ‘Who can save you from me?’, I replied, ‘Allah.’ … (Now) here he is (sitting).” Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings be upon him) did not punish him (for that)” (Bukhari). In another authentic narration, that Bedouin –called Ghawrath- was forgiven by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and allowed to return to his tribe. The man told his people, “I am now coming from the presence of the best of men.”
The Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) universal message of mercy did not include only human beings, but also animals. `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud (may Allah be pleased with him) said “We were with the Apostle of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) during a journey. He went to ease himself. We saw a bird with her two young ones and we captured her young ones. The bird came and began to spread its wings. The Apostle of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) came and said: “Who grieved this for its young ones? Return its young ones to it.” He (peace and blessings be upon him) also saw an ant village that we had burnt. He (peace and blessings be upon him) asked: “Who has burnt this?” We replied: “We did”. He (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “It is not proper to punish with fire except the Lord of fire.” (Abu Dawud). On another occasion, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) saw a donkey on the road with a brand on its face, and said, “Allah’s curse is on him who branded it.” (Muslim).
Jabir ibn `Abdullah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that a camel came to the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), prostrated itself as a sign of respect, and knelt beside him. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked about its owner, so a group of young people from the Ansar said they are the owners. He (peace and blessings be upon him) asked them what is wrong with it, they said that they used it for twenty years till it became old, so they decided to slaughter it. He (peace and blessings be upon him) asked them to treat it well till it dies. Moreover, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)asked Muslims not to over-burden animals by riding on their backs during their talks.
To conclude, the famous Muslim poet, Rumi, wrote:
The light of Muhammad (pbuh) has become distributed in millions of pieces
And has encompassed the whole world.
The Prophet (pbuh) was like the lightening of that light.
When it strikes, all veils of disbelief are torn and
Thousands of monks are influenced by Muhammad (pbuh)and run toward him.
His Words are all pearls from the ocean of reality
Because his heart was united with the ocean of truth.