Wherever you grow up imprints on you in open and hidden ways.
I grew up in London. Under grey sky and drizzle, I found it really hard to relate to ahadith describing the relief of finding shade. That is, until I stood in blistering heat, sweltering in a continent far from home where temperatures were zooming to 50 degrees and panicked people fled to any spot of shade available. Then, it made sense.
Growing up in London also meant that mixing with people of all and every background and belief was a routine part of life. Your school friends believe this and your colleagues celebrate that. Nothing to report. So when I came across a tiny paragraph in a very old Seerah book describing a series of letters sent to empires unknown, it took me a moment or ten to really process it. Today, we all have a handle on the world map, have the basics of geography down and have come to know people from countless countries in the world. But imagine life wasn't like that. Imagine nation states didn't exist. Imagine a complete global map wasn't really accessible. Imagine you didn't know the basics of what people believed in different countries.
The thought was disorientating. The first feeling, as with most things unfamiliar, was discomfort. If you didn't know how other people lived their life, it could be anything. I mean, anything at all. If you had to meet them, what would your common ground even look like? It wasn't so long ago that the hyper connectivity of today, the "global village" and easy international travelling meant that whatever outside of your immediate vicinity may as well have been another world.
So then imagine, if you were responsible for transmitting a universal call that must spread across land, sea, culture, custom and belief? Where would you even begin? How would you do it? What would you say, and how would you say it?
When the Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) decided to send a series of letters to the leaders of the world’s empires, the people chosen to deliver the letters had to have all the right skills. Strong, clear communicators able to think on their feet and face almost certain hostility. People with empathy who could understand the perspective of those they are addressing. Those who were brave enough to enter mighty palaces and not feel intimidated, anxious, or tongue-tied. You'd need ‘public speaking’ skills, sharp articulation and a dash of charisma wouldn't go amiss.
As Muslims in the age of modernity, we are familiar with narratives that present us as Other, exotic or all out alien, but imagine presenting yourself and your Islam to those who have never heard of Muslims and wished to remain that way.
They say history doesn't repeat, it rhymes. There are endless points of "rhyming" when we see what unfolded in not only the message of the letters, but in what happened in each of the meetings where they were presented. The same story still plays out today. The same challenges still test humans today. The same visceral reactions can be seen in the words and actions of many people today receiving the message of Islam. This book is not a tale of the past as it is for the present and all time.
How the stories unfold I shall leave for the book to tell. To prepare the mind of the reader however, take a moment to truly situate yourself within the reality of the world as it was then, the message that needed to be delivered and what the task at hand called for. Only then will the gravity of these events settle in the way they deserve. Today communication looks very different, but core principles remain the same. That is why today, and for all time, we can continue extracting relevant timely and profound lessons from these Letters from a Prophet.
Letters from a Prophet - Zimarina Sarwar
Illustrations by Giorgio Bacchin
9780860378181 - 7 -11 years