The Renascence Foundation is an independent not-for-profit organization. Their online presence has an essential and significant mission to, “help revive, reinvigorate, and stimulate contemporary Islamic thought by presenting in English key works and principles that have for too long laid dormant and neglected.” In a time when meaning and interpretations are constantly argued over, The Renascence Foundation is providing clarifications along with ease of understanding complex and fundamental topics in the English language. There seems to be no topic that they are afraid to cover, while supporting their work with references and rulings.
Their undertaking is an imperative one, which helps to equip readers with a thorough grounding in Islamic principles and critical thinking in addition to present English excerpts from key works that have not been translated previously. I initially came across them on Twitter as we had common followers. I was impressed with their website, their professionalism, and dedication to the cause that they represent so praiseworthy. Having reached out to them to discuss academic Islamic discursive pieces for MissMuslim, we managed to settle on the theme of, “Role Models in Islam” as an initial article. We hope to continue our collaborations with The Renascence Foundation, bringing our readers insights into Islamic concepts with academic grounding.
“There may be role models but there is a model of excellence.”
The term “role model” is often utilized as a means by which others, perhaps of a similar background, gender, ethnicity or the like, can be presented with, to help inspire, influence, or to even emulate. Invariably, it is accompanied by an aura or narrative of what is presented as being a model of ‘success’ or ‘achievement.’ Sport personalities, musicians, entrepreneurs, and many others tend to be held up as being ‘role models’ to others, particularly young people. For Muslims who live as minorities within Europe and North America, there is often the view, which is largely unchallenged, that role models are needed to help these communities achieve certain goals, given that they are quite often stigmatized or even marginalized. Countless examples abound, particularly for women. Often these tend to highlight women who have risen in their professions, such as holding senior positions in the banking sector or even those who have become politicians in mainstream political parties. Yet, there is a problem with the idea itself. Is success only to be measured in terms of a tangible material gain? Is the actual success or achievement clearly attributable to the individual’s adherence to Islam?
One may question both counts, not least because of the hedonistic lifestyles that, at times, seem to lurk behind many of those held to be role models. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or un-Islamic in wanting to further oneself: professionally, academically, or the like. Perhaps one of the ways to foster that is to outline that there is more to life than an immediate material gain; that the cult of personality and its associated hedonism ultimately leads nowhere. That, however, doesn’t tend to fit the narrative being pushed by a political agenda that all too often wants to frame Muslim perceptions of what they should be or how they should be living. For those of an ‘Islamic persuasion,’ there is often an emphasis placed upon highlighting the wives of the Prophet as being models of behavior to follow and emulate. Some would even argue that because of the roles that the wives of the Prophet undertook, this precludes a Muslim woman from playing a more active role in society. The argument being, that the wives of the Prophet were secluded, told to reside within their houses and observe complete ‘ḥijāb.’
Yet, the textual evidences do not substantiate this position at all. The wives of the Prophet are not like other women (Quran 33:32). They had the title designation as “mothers of the believers,” (Quran 33:6), an accolade that isn’t conferred on Muslim women in general. Neither can the rules that were specific only to them be made of general applicability. However, from a moral, ethical, and especially from a legal perspective, there is only one excellent exemplar, the uswatun ḥasanah (Quran 33:21). That is none other than the mercy sent onto creation (Quran 21:107), the final Prophet and Messenger, Muḥammad ibn Abdullah (PBUH). No distinction is made here between men or women in this regard. The uswatun ḥasanah is expressed in unqualified terms. Islam places a premium upon the nature of conduct, disregarding all references to colour, gender, or even nationality (Quran 33:35). It is stated, “Whoever does good: whether male or female and is a believer, We will most certainly make them live a happy life, and We will most certainly give them their reward for the best of what they did” (Quran 16: 97).
Unconditional obedience is due only to Allah (SWT) and his Messenger (PBUH), the textual evidences establishing that are to the level of certitude. There is, though, slightly more to being the excellent exemplar or uswatun ḥasanah than just following, obedience, and emulation. It carries with it some important fundamental principles. Excluding that which pertains to him specifically as a Prophet, what he has undertaken, following the commencement of revelation, cannot be considered prohibited for his nation. It is impossible for the Prophet (PBUH) to undertake anything that has been prohibited for his nation or to leave that which has been made obligatory. It is inconceivable that the Prophet (PBUH) could have performed an undesirable act, unless there is material evidence to show that he performed it only to prove that no one who does it would be committing something unlawful outright. And it is inconceivable that the Prophet (PBUH) would cease to perform a desirable deed, unless there is material evidence to demonstrate that it was done to show that it isn’t an obligation, or that he didn’t wish his nation to be overburdened in considering it to be so. The lives of the earliest generation of Muslims provides captivating reading and a rich source of inspiration. Explicit praise is given to the first generation of Islam, the emigrants and the helpers, the vanguard of Islam (Quran 9:100). Their devotion and sacrifice is beyond compare.
Whether one looks at the endurance in adversity of Bilāl; the patience and steadfastness of Khadijah, the heroism of Nusayba, or the commitment and resilience of Ali. Yet, it is only the book of Allah (SWT) and the Prophetic Sunnah that sets forth the manual for how one should be living and the uswatun ḥasanah embodies that completely. As Al-Ghazāli lucidly explains, “…the essence of knowledge is to know what obedience and worship are. Know that obedience and worship are conformity to the Lawgiver as regards commands and prohibitions, in both word and deed. That is, all that you say and do, or do not do, should be following the paradigm of the Law…” Every individual, man or woman, will stand before Allah (SWT) on the day of reckoning and account for their deeds. Society may place a premium upon success or achievement being framed in material terms but there are higher goals to aspire to. It is only in the Messenger of Allah (SWT), Muḥammad ibn Abdullah (PBUH), do we have the uswatun ḥasanah, the best all-round model of conduct, that which can be relied upon with certitude.
Many, indeed, work and achieve renowned accolades. There is nothing to preclude commending them in that, or seeking to even surpass them. But there are causes which are greater than individuals, even greater than nations. To turn aside or to ignore that is but to exchange gemstones for gravel. As Ibn Ḥazm writes in al-Akhlāq wal’Siyar, “Do not use your energy except for a cause more noble than yourself. Such a cause cannot be found except in almighty God himself: to preach the truth, to defend womanhood, to repel humiliation which your Creator has not imposed upon you, to help the oppressed. Anyone who uses his energy for the sake of the vanities of the world is like someone who exchanges gemstones for gravel.”
London, August 2017