On this joyful day celebrating the birth of our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) I would like to talk about the kindness and mercy of the Prophet, not only in the context of manners (akhlaq), which is the topic of the second talk at this gathering, but in the wider context of the Qur’anic perspective through which God continually asserts the pre-eminence and precedence of the Divine Mercy over the Divine Wrath. Nothing could be more important at this challenging time for the Muslim ummah than our remembrance of this.
I don’t want my talk to be like a sermon or a lecture on this day of celebration, so I have decided to relate to you a personal experience which taught me a personal lesson and opened up for me the greatness of the Prophet’s character, and most especially the greatness of his heart.
In 1998 my wife and I embraced Islam together in Istanbul and on our return to England we tried our best to learn the essential practices of the Faith. It was not so easy because there were no other Muslims in the rural area in which we were living and we had to learn everything from written instructions rather than from participation with others. This was especially difficult when it came to the Arabic language and the learning by heart of prayers, supplications and surahs from the Qur’an for the performance of salat. Actually it wasn’t quite so difficult for me because I had a Ph.D. in Linguistics and I could understand the phonetics of Arabic from a textbook, but it was much more difficult for my wife.
For those who are brought up with Islam from birth the performance of salat becomes second nature very quickly but for us it was initially a struggle to master even the rudiments in the face of what often appeared to us to be contradictory instructions from different traditions!
One evening my wife and I were performing the maghrib prayer when I heard some rustling of papers behind me and I realised that it was my wife who was handling the notes she had made to help her. It was a week or two since we had returned to England, and I had learned by heart all the essential elements of salat, including a number of surahs from the Qur’an. To my shame, I confess I felt some irritation at that moment that my wife did not yet know the material by heart.
That night, my wife was blessed with a dream of the Prophet. She dreamt that the Prophet was in our small kitchen at our house. She was trying to make a cake but had only water and yeast which she had mixed. It was obviously a very thin and runny mixture, lacking in the substance needed to make a cake. The Prophet gave her flour and dates and she thanked him, added them to her mixture, mixed them all together and placed the cake in the oven to bake. When it was baked, she removed it and the Prophet said to her with utmost kindness: “Look, you have baked a cake.” My wife replied: “But I could not have baked it without the ingredients which you so generously provided.”
This dream is full of the most profound symbolism which offers a lesson on many levels to all of us. It repays prolonged reflection and contemplation, and each will be able to take something from it to help him or her on the way. My wife said that what had touched her most deeply in the dream was the kindness of the Prophet. His attitude throughout was as of a loving father to a child, gentle, supportive, encouraging, affirming of her efforts and intention, with no hint of criticism or judgement. Even though he had himself provided the substantial ingredients, the source of sustenance and nutrition, he still generously affirmed to her: “You have made a cake”. His kindness was a reflection of the kindness of God, of which the Prophet said: “God’s kindness towards his creature is more than a mother’s towards her babe.”
When I heard the dream, I felt moved to tears and felt such joy that my wife had been blessed with this special dream. And then I felt a deep sense of shame that I had been inwardly impatient and judgmental during the Maghrib prayer the previous evening when my wife had rustled the papers. I felt the smallness of my heart in relation to the big heart of the Prophet. And I realised that the dream was also for me, that it had been given to both of us, to teach each of us according to our needs.
For me it offered the shining example of the merciful character of the Prophet as a means to reflect on my own impatient and judgemental tendencies. As the Prophet himself said, “Happy is the person who finds fault with himself instead of finding fault with others.” And this, of course, is part of the greater jihad which the Prophet has enjoined on us, this struggle with our lower selves.
I have reflected on this dream now for five years and it is an inexhaustible source of guidance and inspiration. It has taught me that the substance of what we need to “bake a cake” (which on one level is a symbol for the transformation of our hearts) is always provided – it is part of the bounty of God, for which the Qur’an tells us always to be grateful, and it is made available to us through the pure and noble Heart of the Prophet, as messenger and as a model of perfect character. It is only the Heart of the faithful servant, in the words of the hadith qudsi, which can encompass God. And the Prophet emphasized his servanthood above all else: “Do not exceed bounds in praising me” he said; “I am only the Lord’s servant; then call me the servant of God and His messenger.”
Our sincere intention is sufficient to attract divine grace and guidance, and, in the words of another hadith, “If you put you whole trust in God, as you ought, He most certainly will give you sustenance, as he does the birds; they come out hungry in the morning, but return full to their nests.” To offer our runny mixture of water and yeast with all our being is enough to attract to us the fortifying substance without which we can make nothing, but which God in His infinite mercy longs to give us freely out of his boundless generosity. “If a man draws near to Me a span, I draw near to him a yard; and if he draw to Me a yard, I draw near to Him a fathom; and if he comes to Me walking, I come to him running…”, for “whoever loves to meet God, God loves to meet him” and whatever we can offer is returned to us many times over.
We all have something to offer, some ingredients to add to the cake. Every one of us is a unique individual, with a special gift, and every one of us has the potential to embody and express some proportion of the divine attributes in the conduct of our own lives. The Prophet tells us: “Imbue yourselves with divine qualities”. Each of us can play a role in helping others to realise within themselves the special qualities which they have been given, to help them to activate and develop their full potential as human beings, endowed, as the Prophet tells us, with fitra, our “essential nature”. We perform this service to others, to our children, our spouses, our friends, our pupils (if we are teachers), and to all mankind, when we find a way to bring to light the essential beauty and godliness in each individual, to recognise it, affirm it and nurture it with loving kindness. That for me is the way of our beloved Prophet.