Muhammad as ‘a beautiful example’

Surah 33 (Al-Ahzab/The Parties): 21

In truth, in (the sacred person of) Allah’s Messenger (blesings and peace be upon him) there is for you a most perfect and beautiful model (of life) for every such person that expects and aspires to (meeting) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah abundantly.

[‘The Glorious Qur’an’ Tahrir Ul-Qadri, 2012 (former Pakistani politician)]


In the above verse, God extols the person delivering His words as a ‘beautiful example’ for believers to emulate. In {68.4} the messenger is described as being ‘of exalted character’. This supposedly involuntary self-aggrandisement reaches its zenith in Surah 33. Not only is the interlocutor compelled to declare himself to be a perfect model of conduct, {33.21}, but God describes him in the same language that He had previously used to describe Himself. Whereas in {50.16} God had declared that He is closer to those who believe in Him than their own jugular veins 〈97.〉, in {33.6} the Qur’an declares that the Prophet is ‘closer to the believers than they are to themselves’. In {33.46} God tells his prophet that he is a ‘luminous lamp’, the same metaphor that He, in Surah 24, had used to describe Himself. The messenger’s exceptionality is evident in verses in which God sends down verses specifically addressing his domestic affairs, including his exemption from marriage rules prescribed for ‘the rest of the believers’ and special rules for his wives and visitors to his home 〈79.〉 {24.63} instructs the early believers: ‘Do not deem the Messenger’s calling among you to be like your calling to one another …’

So exalted is he, that we are told:

{33.56} Truly God and His angels invoke blessings upon the Prophet.

O you who believe, invoke blessings upon him and greetings of peace.

This rather convoluted idea, that God instructs believers to ask Him to grant His blessing upon Muhammad, and the even stranger idea of God Himself invoking blessings upon the Prophet (from whom?) do not have straightforward explanations. However, this has not prevented this verse inspiring the pious ritual of amongst believers of following any mention of the prophet Muhammad, with a reverential phrase such as ‘ṣallā llāhu ʿalayhī wa-sallama’ (‘may Allah grant peace and blessings upon him’) or more simply in English: ‘peace be upon him’.


Determining the facts of the life of Muhammad for the purpose of using him as a moral exemplar is problematic. Some of these difficulties arise from the fact that, as already seen 〈5.〉, the earliest extant biography of Muhammad dates from over two hundred years after his death. This contains several clearly hagiographic fictions, some designed to project onto him elements of Bible stories, others to endow him with the idealized cunning of a fabulous warrior. The hadith accounts are equally if not more unreliable than the biographies and are universally acknowledged, even amongst the most devout Muslims, to contain manifestly false stories. Even where an account of an act or saying of Muhammad is judged from its chain of transmission to be reliable, the hadith hardly ever presents it with the detail or in the context necessary to fully reconstruct the reasons for the speech or action they describe.


But there is a far more problematic consequence of treating Muhammad as a ‘beautiful example’ to emulate than weak sources of information. Both the biographies of Muhammad and the collections of hadith describe Muhammad instructing his followers to commit acts that are utterly reprehensible by modern ethical standards. These include robbery, see 〈39.〉 and 〈40.〉, unprovoked attacks upon settlements that had done him no harm and posed him no threat 〈46.〉, and the mass execution, enslavement and rape of captives 〈44.〉 and 〈48.〉; see also 〈65.〉 and 〈71.〉 Muhammad is recorded as having personally kept slaves 〈64.〉 including concubines 〈65.〉, to have married three widows of men whom he had recently had killed, 〈D.〉 The Wives of Muhammad, and possibly most notoriously of all to have married the daughter of his friend, when she was a young child 〈57.〉 It is nowadays commonplace for Muslims faced with such unpalatable accounts to dispute their historical accuracy, and virtually all secular scholars would agree that the existing sources for Muhammad’s life should be treated as being of dubious reliability at best. However, there is no reason, based upon objective criteria, to reject as historically inaccurate only those stories of Muhammad that describe actions that contravene contemporary moral standards, whilst admitting only those that show kindness, which are much fewer in number and generally appear much later in the historical record. Although the reliability of Muhammad’s recorded life may certainly be challenged, so doing leaves the Qur’an reader with two problems. Without any reliable biography of Muhammad, there is no narrative context in which many verses of the Qur’an can be understood, and the Qur’an’s instruction to treat Muhammad as a guiding light becomes one that is impossible to realise.