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We rise by lifting others

In the week in which the Tokyo Olympics has dominated headlines and everyone is sharing information about the Muslims who have been represented there. We have seen the Muslim teams from around the world who have celebrated Eid in Tokyo praying on the stone floor and sharing sweets afterwards. We also saw the first Muslim to carry the British flag at an Olympic opening ceremony – gold medal-winning rower, 6ft 8inches, Mohamed Sbihi from Moroccon descent. Algeria’s Fethi Nourine and Mohamed Abdel Rasoul from Sudan both withdrew, to stand against the normalisation of atrocities committed by Israel in the Games, from the Judo competition saying “We worked hard to reach the Olympic games, but the Palestinian cause is bigger than all of this.”

These circumstances bring about an important lesson for each of us – our responsibility and opportunity to present Islam through our actions and be the best in everything we do as Islam encourages us to excellence in every field of endeavour.

When Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) received revelation and began to call his family and people to Islam, most of those who accepted were the poor and socially outcast. But it was these same people that went on to become the leaders of this nation carrying this message to the rest of the known world. How did this happen in a period of just 23 years?

Lifting those from different ethnicity

From amongst those considered this underclass was Bilal (RA). Bilal was born in Mecca, Western Arabia. His mother was abducted as a child and sold as a slave. Bilal was known for his hard work and loyalty to his master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, a leader in Mecca and one of the archenemies of Islam. Bilal’s presence in the household of Umayyah gave him the opportunity to hear the comments made by the leaders of Quraish (tribe in Mecca) about Prophet Muhammad. These comments were a mixture of envy and hatred as well as a confession of Muhammad’s integrity and honesty.

When Bilal heard the pure teachings of God, he declared to join the faith of Islam – the first slave convert in Islamic history. This step itself was not an easy one, Muslims were subjected to ridicule and harassment and at times even persecution as soon as their conversion to Islam was identified Similarly, Bilal suffered terribly due to his acceptance. He was beaten mercilessly, dragged around the hills of Mecca and subjected to long periods without food or water. His owner, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, used all sorts of torture on Bilal to make him change his mind. He would bring him out at the hottest part of the day and throw him on his back in the open valley and have a great rock put on his chest; then he would say to him, ‘You will stay here till you die or deny Muhammad and worship al-Lat and al-’Uzza” (gods worshipped by the people of Mecca). Our great hero’s response amidst his suffering was only one word – “Ahad (He is One, He is One)” which means, ‘God is One.’ He said nothing else, but to him this was sufficient to give him all the spiritual support needed to bear the effects of the torture he was exposed to. 

A man the society had made captive, who was forced to live, serve and die as a slave, who had no family, wealth, lineage or supporters. As soon as he heard about the message of Islam, it gave him hope, strength, and purpose. It became a revolutionizing message for him and his life forward.

Abu Bakr(RA), the first adult male to accept Islam, heard of this torture and said to Umaya, “Have you no fear of God that you treat this poor man like this?”  He replied saying: “You are the one who corrupted him, so you save him from his plight!” Abu Bakr replied: “Then sell him to me, name your price.” Umaya, was a businessman and could not give up making a profit, so he sold Bilal for a good price. To humiliate Bilal, he added: “I would have sold him to you even if you had offered me only an ounce of gold.”  Abu Bakr answered: “I would have bought him even if you had asked for one hundred ounces.”

Emancipated, Bilal instantly became one of the closest and most trusted and distinguished companions of Prophet Muhammad. After the migration to Madinah, and when the institution of Adhan (call to prayer) was founded, it was Bilal who was given the honor to be the first mu’adhin (caller to prayer) in Islam – he was the voice of the Muslim community.

When the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) returned to Makkah as a conqueror, 8 years after being expelled, with 10,000 marching companions behind him. When Bilāl entered the holy city, he separated from the crowd and began to climb the Ka’bah. Once he had reached the top, he stood with the Ka’bah at his feet and loudly called out the adhān.

This event in itself marked an incredible transformation for Bilāl (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu), while the inhabitants of Makkah who were in their homes watched. “Their” Ka’bah; a political and status symbol for the Arabs, now had a freed black slave standing at its summit. When the Quraish saw this, they said “Alḥamdulillāh, our fathers have passed away before they saw a black person on top of the Ka’bah.” 

These were the attitudes towards a man who did not have a tribe, was not of an accepted skin tone and who spoke in a different accent. But the Prophet(SAW) saw the potential and value of each person, not by the skin colour but by their connection with God.

And it didnt stop there, rather he remained ardent in calling others to Islam until he passed away in Syria over the age of 60, according to Imam al-Suyuti in ‘Tarikh al-Khulafa’.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) made it harām for anyone to be belittled. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) took these people and built them up so they became role models for the later generations of his Ummah. He (SAW) did not start off with the “dream team”, rather he transformed his people into incredible role models for the rest of time. So how can we apply this principle into our day and age?

Unfortunately, we are an ummah that is insecure; an ummah that lacks confidence; and an ummah that questions our place within society. Racism and discrimination are rampant amongst the Muslim community let alone the wider demographic. Ethnicity, colour, language and physical or mental disability are just some reasons a person is belittled in the modern world. Yet, for each one of these examples, a story can be plucked from the time of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and his speech and actions can be used to refute those who fixate on these issues and build grudges between people today.

Lifting those from different backgrounds

One of the Prophet’s wives, Safiyyah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhā) was of Jewish origin and when tensions would arise amongst the wives, they would call out to her by the term ‘O Jewess’, which obviously put her in a position of discomfort. When she told the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) that his wives were calling her by this title, he equipped her with logic by saying to her: “You are certainly the daughter of a Prophet Harūn, and certainly your uncle was Prophet Mūsā, and your husband is Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam).”

Honour after honour; the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) issued people with fortitude and kept them in high spirits. Many of us dont know that Rasoolullah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “There are three who will be given their reward twice including a man from among the People of the Book who believed in his Prophet, then when he comes to know of the Prophet [Muhammad] (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), then he believes in him and follows him; he will have two rewards” (The hadeeth was narrated by Muslim, 219).

Lifting those with disability

Another area is disabilities – be it physical or mental; the limited functions that a person has or even the way they look is often a cause for denigration. There was a woman at the time of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) who suffered from epilepsy and she asked the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) to make du’ā that her seizures stopped. He replied “If you wish, be patient and you will have Paradise; and if you wish, I will invoke Allāh to cure you.”

As expected, she chose to be patient, but as she could not control herself and in turn her clothes when she would have these seizures, some of her body would become uncovered; so she asked that Allāh did not allow her body to become uncovered, which the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) supplicated for instead.[Bukhari]

Lifting those with different physique

Abdullāh b. Masʿūd (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) was a shepherd by trade, and someone who followed the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) not just figuratively, but literally too. He was known to be very short and very skinny, such that it was said that when he was standing up, he was the same height as ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) sitting down. When some of the sahābah saw his legs, they laughed at how skinny they were. If we apply this to our times, we laugh at and mock people for a variety of reasons – including height, weight, shape, etc. The problem with this is we do not know where people’s insecurities lie and in our mocking we could be incurring significant harm. To support ʿAbdullāh, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) replied,

“What are you laughing at? By the One in Whose Hand is my soul! His legs will be heavier on the Day of Judgement than Mount Uḥud!”[Ahmad, Al-Musnad]

Mount Uhud is more than 1000m high, taller than the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and 7.5km wide, thats further than Luton to Harpenden.

And who was Abdullah b. Mas’ud? Most of our fiqh practises – how to pray, fast and live comes from him(RA). He is one of the greatest scholars of the Qur’ān. This was part of the Prophet’s genius in that he would take the exact cause of the insecurity itself and he would transform it into being a source of confidence – a key quality needed for leadership.

Lifting those from different status

Finally, people are belittled for their social and economic status. Many times we look down on people without an education or who have jobs that we consider “low”. Let us consider Zāhir b. Aslam; a Bedouin and an uncivilised desert roamer. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said about him, “Zāhir is our man of the desert, and we are his people of the city.”

Zāhir would come into Madīnah and would buy and sell products. One day the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) came to him while he was selling his merchandise, and caught him from behind while Zāhir could not see him and the Prophet shouted in a joking manner “Who would like to buy this slave from me?” Zāhir tried to wriggle free until he realised it was the Prophet, and then he leaned back into the Prophet’s chest and he said to him “By Allāh you will find me to be a poor sell.” The modern day equivalent to ‘I’m not worth it’. How many people have said a statement like this? This is something all too common nowadays. Belittlement of others is so common that people have started to adopt the mentality of belittling themselves. However in response to Zāhir, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said “But to Allāh, you are very valuable.” He comforted a man who felt worthless. He raised his self-confidence and his self-worth; this was the constant prophetic habit.

Lifting those who are younger

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) often gave teenage companions significant responsibility, firstly by developing strong confidence. Usāma b. Zayd led an army against the Roman Byzantines at the age of 17

A 19-year-old, Rabī b. ʿĀmir was sent as an ambassador of the Muslims to the empires of Persia, the superpower of the world, and it was there he made a mission statement that would be remembered for centuries after: “We are a people whom Allāh has sent to remove mankind from the worship of creation to the worship of the Lord of the creation, and from the oppression of religions to the justice of Islām, and from the constriction of this world to the expansiveness of the next.”

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) raised people to possess incredible confidence. And the sahābah learnt this from the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), so when the next generation came, they applied the same teachings. ʿAbdullāh b. ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhumā) would attend the gatherings of the great sahābah, and would be too scared to talk. He would say to ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) at the end of the meeting “I had an idea that was completely different to everybody else’s but I was too shy to speak in front of everybody”. ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) said “Speak, don’t belittle yourself.”

Clearly, this quality is important to embody but how is it related to leadership? A good leader has to have the ability to empower others because they understand that a person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected. True leaders do not create followers, they create more leaders. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) only made others better as a result of his presence, but his uniqueness meant that he made sure that his impact lasted even in his absence.

The lesson for us all is to be sensitive to those around us and recognise their true potential and ours. Like those who Muslims who have positions of leadership:

  • Seek mastery in your field of interest 
  • Be positive, not a hater
  • Look for the good things in life – be optimistic
  • Don’t insult people, and if it’s part of your everyday language then change it. The sahābah changed so much of their culture and behaviour. 
  • Aim to become someone that, by merely being present, people would cease to insult and belittle others, and if you really want to become like the prophets, replace those insults with positive traits you praise people for. Allāh said “O people, do not mock people from another group as they may be better than you, and do not insult each other with nicknames.”[49:11
  • Don’t be envious. Let us seek to remove this disease from our hearts; recognise that rizq is something decided and decreed long before we entered into this earthly abode. When the heart whispers, encouraging envy; say no. Do not wish for others to have less but rather ask Allāh to increase their share.

At the end of the day, it’s not about what you have or even what you’ve accomplished… It’s about who you’ve lifted up, who you’ve made better. It’s about what you’ve given back.

O believers! Do not let some ˹men˺ ridicule others, they may be better than them, nor let ˹some˺ women ridicule other women, they may be better than them. Do not defame one another, nor call each other by offensive nicknames. How evil it is to act rebelliously after having faith! And whoever does not repent, it is they who are the ˹true˺ wrongdoers. [Hujurat 49:11]

Note: Adapted from Islam21c article – raising the weak

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