Mainstream, orthodox Islam (Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama‘ah) has long prided itself on preserving and transmitting the descriptions and distinctions of the blessed Prophet, peace be upon him. Tirmidhi’s much celebrated Shama’il, that depicts the beautiful attributes – physical and moral – of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is one such work in this heritage. Imam al-Bayhaqi’s Dala’il al-Nubuwwah, a seven volume anthology detailing the remarkable and extraordinary prophetic distinctions, is another gem. Also among the notable works in the genre is Qadi ‘Iyad’s unparalleded al-Shifa’, and also al-Suyuti’s al-Khasa’is. And the short, but sweet monograph of al-‘Izz b. ‘Abd al-Salam, Bidayat al-Sul counts as a veritable treasure-trove in this respect.
These anthologies and compendiums are filled with verses of the Qur’an and hadiths extoling and praising the Prophet, and proclaiming to the world his lofty status, rank and merit. The following paragraphs attempt to distill something of these virtues and distinctions, so that souls can know him and that hearts can be filled with love of him. Summarising such distinctions, however, is far from easy.
For what can be adequately said about the rank and station of someone by whom God Himself swears an oath: By your life, they wandered blindly in their drunkenness. [15:72]
Or what can be said of the one about whom God says: The Prophet has a greater claim over the believers than their ownselves. [33:6]
What can be said about one whose name, Muhammad actually means: “oft-praised” and whose name Ahmad means “most deserving of praise”1 and who, on the Day of Judgement, will possess the “Banner of Praise” around which all the other prophets shall rally. [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3615]
What can be said about the one whom the Qur’an announces is an excellent example [33:21] or whose is indeed a tremendous character [68:4], or who was depicted in these terms: man rahu badihatan habahu wa man khalatahu ma‘rifatan ahabbahu – ‘Whoever saw him unexpectedly was awestricken by him, but whoever came to know him, loved him.’2
What can be said about one who informed us: ‘My eyes sleep but my heart does not,’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3569] or who said: ‘Truly I am not like you, for my Lord sustains me with food and drink.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.1965; Muslim, no.1103]
What can be said of one who, on the Night of the Ascension (laylat al-isra’), the night of his crowning glory, actually passed the Lote Tree of the Furthest Boundary, [53:14] and then approached and came closer, till he was at two bows’ length or even nearer. [53:8-9]3
What can be said about the one to whom God said: ‘O Muhammad! Over what did the Highest Assembly of Angels dispute? I said: I do not know, O Lord. Then He put His hand between my shoulders and I felt its coolness in my chest, and knowledge of all things came to me and I then knew it.” [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3235] In another report, it says: ‘… and knowledge of whatever is between the heavens and earth came to me.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3233] In another: ‘ … knowledge of all things between East and West came to me.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3234]
Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali states as part of his commentary to the first hadith: ‘It shows the Prophet’s rank and preeminence, peace be upon him, by him being given knowledge of what is in the heavens and on earth, and manifesting to him what the Angels in the heavens were vieing over – along with other things – just as Abraham was shown the kingdom (malakut) of the heavens and the earth.4 There occurs in a reports traceable to the Prophet, and another to a Companion, that he, peace be upon him, was given knowledge of all things, save the Key to the Five Unseen Matters – knowledge which God has kept to Himself – as in His words [31:34]: With God is knowledge of the Hour. He sends down rain and knows what is in the wombs. No soul knows what it will earn tomorrow and no soul knows in what land it will die. God is All-Knowing, Aware.’5
It goes without saying that these hadiths are taken to mean that God alone possesses knowledge of the unseen in the absolute sense (al-ghayb al-mutlaq). Yet He disclosed to our Prophet an unfathomable share of unseen knowledge in the relative sense (al-ghayb al-nisbi), as per the Quranic words: He [God] knows the unseen and does not reveal it to anyone, save to every messenger whom He has chosen. [72:26-7]
Again, what can be said about the one who shall be our saviour on Judgement Day. For on that day of great panic and fear, when mankind rushes to the prophets for them to intercede for judgement to commence, they will all be unsettled by their own ‘slips’ and shall say: nafsi, nafsi, nafsi – ‘Myself, myself, myself!’ Then they will come to the Prophet Jesus who shall say: ‘Go to Muhammad, whose past and future sins have been forgiven.’ Thus, when humanity presents itself to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, so as to intercede with God, he will say: ana laha, ana laha – ‘It is for me [to do], it is for me.’ [Al-Bukhari, no,.7510; Muslim, no.326] Such is his station; his maqam!
What can be said about the one whose care and concern for his ummah’s well-being continues, even after his death. One hadith states: ‘My life is a great good for you, you will relate about me and it will be related to you. My death is a great good for you. For your actions shall be presented to me; if I see good, I shall praise God and if I see bad, I will seek forgiveness of Him for you.’6 Ibn Rajab said: ‘The actions of the ummah are presented to the Prophet in the Intermediate Realm (barzakh). So one should feel shy of presenting to His Prophet those deeds he has actually forbidden.’7
What can be said about one who is habibu’Llah – ‘God’s [most] beloved’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3620] and khalilu’Llah – ‘God’s intimate friend’. [Muslim, no.532]
What can be said of he who was commanded by His Lord to tell us: ana sayyidu waladi adam wa la fakhr – ‘I am the master of humanity, and that is no boast.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3148]
In fact, what can be said about the one who is not just humanity’s master, or the best of creation, but, as Ibn Rajab so eloquently put it: ‘he is the ultimate purpose behind the creation of the human race: its essence (‘aynuhu), its quintessence (khulasatuhu) and its very core (wasita ‘aqdihi).’8
1. Cf. Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:87, 90.
2. These are the words of ‘Ali – as per al-Tirmidhi, no.3638, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan gharib.‘
3. According to the Quranic commentators, this refers to the Prophet seeing (i) God, or (ii) the Angel Gabriel in his true form. See: Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 1361-62.
4. Cf. Qur’an 6:75.
5. ‘Ikhtiyarat al-Ula fi Sharh Hadith Ikhtsam al-Mala’ al-A‘la’, in al-Jami‘ al-Muntakhab min Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab (Riyadh: Dar al-Maw‘id, 1998), 26-7.
6. Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.845. Its chain was graded sahih by al-‘Iraqi, Tarh al-Tathreeb (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya’ al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 3:97.
7. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 99.
8. Ibid., 89.