In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan (Amazon, Public Library)


To those who, in his lifetime, wanted miracles and concrete evidence of his prophethood, Revelation ordered him to reply: “I am but a man like yourselves; the inspiration has come to me that your God is One God.” This same Revelation also informs the believers, for all eternity, of the singular status of this Messenger who, while chosen by God, never lost his human qualities: “You have indeed in the Messenger of God an excellent example for he who hopes in God and the Final Day, and who remembers God much.” These two dimensions—the man’s humanity and the Prophet’s exemplarity—serve as the focus of our interest in the present biography.


When Aishah, his wife, was once questioned about the Prophet’s personality, she answered: “His character [the ethics underlying his behavior] was the Quran.” Since the Book addresses the believers consciousness through the ages, it seemed essential to observe how the man who best incarnated it in his behavior could “speak” to us, guide and educate us nowadays.


…to approach Muhammad’s life from the perspective of our own times, considering how it still speaks to us and what its contemporary teachings are.


Our aim is more to get to know the Prophet himself than to learn about his personality or the events in his life. What is sought are immersion, sympathy, and, essentially, love.


Deeply, simply: he who cannot love cannot understand.

Chapter One: Encounter with the Sacred

…the insistent and continuous expression of pure monotheism, of human consciousness’s adherence to the divine project, of the heart’s access to His recognition and to His peace through self-giving.


Thus a Muslim is a human being who, throughout history—and even before the last Revelation—has wished to attain God’s peace through the wholehearted gift of him-or herself to the Being.


When God causes his Messenger to undergo a terrible trial and at the same time associates that trial with signs of His presence and support (the confirming words of his wife or child, a vision, a dream, an inspiration, etc.), He educates Abraham in faith: Abraham doubts himself and his own strength and faith, but at the same time the signs prevent him from doubting God. This teaches Abraham humility and recognition of the Creator.


Indeed trials of faith are never tragic in Islamic tradition…


This tragic solitude of the human being facing the divine underlies the history of Western thought from Greek tragedy (with the central figure of the rebel Prometheus facing the Olympian gods) to existentialist and modern Christian interpretations as exemplified in the works of Søren Kierkegaard. The recurrence of the theme of the tragic trial of solitary faith in Western theology and philosophy has linked this reflection to questions of doubt, rebellion, guilt, and forgiveness and has thus naturally shaped the discourse on faith, trials, and mistakes.


[In contrast,] Quran Revelations tell the stories of the prophets, and in the course of this narration it fashions in the Muslim’s heart a relationship to the Transcendent that continually insists on the permanence of communication through signs, inspirations, and indeed the very intimate presence of the One, so beautifully expressed in this verse of the Quran: “If My servants ask you concerning Me: I am indeed close [to them]. I respond to the prayer of every supplicant when he or she calls on Me.” All the Messengers have, like Abraham and Muhammad, experienced the trial of faith and all have been, in the same manner, protected from themselves and their own doubts by God, His signs, and His word. Their suffering does not mean they made mistakes, nor does it reveal any tragic dimension of existence: it is, more simply, an initiation into humility, understood as a necessary stage in the experience of faith.


Chapter Two: Birth and Education

He was orphaned and poor, and for that reason he is reminded and ordered never to forsake the underprivileged and the needy. Considering the exemplary nature of the prophetic experience, the second spiritual teaching emanating from these verses is valid for each human being: never to forget one’s past, one’s trials, one’s environment and origin, and to turn one’s experience into a positive teaching for oneself and for others.


The Last Prophet was to stand out through the strength of his words, his eloquence, and above all his ability to convey deep and universal teachings through short pithy phrases (jawami al kalim).


The university is pregnant with signs that recall the presence of the Creator, and the desert, more than anything else, opens the human mind to observation, meditation, and initiation into meaning.


Many years later, when the Prophet was in Medina, facing conflicts and war, a Revelation in the heart of the night turned his gaze toward another horizon of meaning: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for all those endowed with insight.” It has been reported that the Prophet wept all night long when this verse was revealed to him. At dawn, when Bilal, the muezzin, coming to call for prayer, asked about the cause of those tears, Muhammad explained to him the meaning of his sadness and added: “Woe to anyone who hears that verse and does not meditate upon it!”


God decided to expose His Prophet, from his earliest childhood, to the natural lessons of creation, conceived as a school where the mind gradually apprehends signs and meaning. Far removed from the formalism of soulless religious rituals, this sort of education, in and through its closeness to nature, fosters a relationship to the divine based on contemplation and depth that will later make it possible, in a second phase of spiritual education, to understand the meaning, form, and objectives of religious ritual. Cut off from nature in our towns and cities, we nowadays seem to have forgotten the meaning of this message to such an extent that we dangerously invert the order of requirements and believe that learning about the techniques and forms of religion (prayers, pilgrimages, etc.) is sufficient to grasp and understand their meanings and objectives. This delusion has serious consequences since it leads to draining religious teaching of its spiritual substance, which actually ought to be its heart.