Tuesday is the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. It’s the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal, the day most Muslims believe he came into the world some 1,400 years ago.
I first met Muhammad in August 1998. I was fresh out of high school in Somers, Conn., and my brother and I made the road trip from Jidda, where he was working for the summer, to Medina to pay our respects at Muhammad’s tomb.
I must have looked ridiculous. I was drowning in elephantine JNCO jeans and carried a backpack with a Pearl Jam patch ironed on. I was probably wearing the boisterous baseball cap of some snowboard manufacturer; I hope I left the wallet chains at home.
I was on my way out of Islam when I made my way with the rush of tens of thousands of pilgrims shuffling from the prayer hall southward toward his tomb. I was headed to atheism. Or Catholicism. I was 18 years old and hadn’t decided which way of life would give me the warmth I felt my faith lacked, and the freedom I believed it denied me.
But I showed up in Medina that summer because I thought I’d give Islam one more chance. I hadn’t expected the moment to mean much to me, because Islam didn’t mean much to me. But there I was, facing the resting place of the prophet, overcome with emotion.
I’d memorized Muhammad’s life story in Sunday school, cramming facts, dates, lineages into my head as if I was preparing for an A.P. exam, a good Muslim like my parents wanted me to be. But it had thus far been so much data — cold, abstract and inhuman.
In Medina I realized I actually believed all the stories about him. That he buried the least loved of his fellow Arabs with his own hands. That he put two of his fingers together and promised that he and the orphan would be that close in the life to come. That he so loved the vulnerable that God loved him in turn.
Sitting facing his tomb, pilgrims pressing against me on every side, I honest to God missed him. I still feel that way today, as absurd as it might sound. He is a living presence in my life.
My connection to him was — and is — peculiarly American. It was initiated by my parents’ piety, inflected by my numerous ailments, was thrown into relief by extremism and today inspires me to help build a United States to which all of us belong.
It began with the troubled circumstances of my birth: I had a malformed intestinal tract. Had I been born a few decades earlier, I would have died very early on. As a sick child, I spent much of my time indoors, with books my parents encouraged, many of which were about Muhammad.
He was an outsider like me. Being an orphan from age 6 in a very patrilineal, very patriarchal and very tribal society must have been a social death sentence. Muhammad could have reacted by seething with resentment and lashing out at the world. He could have turned on himself. Instead he became a paragon of compassion.
When he first proclaimed prophecy, even his own uncle laughed at him, but he never laughed back. His followers were reviled, beaten and killed. He didn’t strike back. Rather he ran from one town to another, like Hagar at Paran, desperate to find his people refuge. Twelve years into his religious mission, in the year 622, he was forced to flee his native Mecca and arrived a refugee in Medina — but the people who chased him there didn’t leave him be. Not long after finding safe harbor, he was forced to take up arms, time and again, to defend his faith, his community, and himself.
But even as he did, he remained dedicated to building a society that would provide the inclusion he (and his followers) had been deprived of. The old Muslims from Mecca had just met the new Muslims from Medina, and Muhammad paired them off, each responsible for the other as they worked to make Medina flourish. This was hard work, and represents the most misunderstood part of Muhammad’s life: Taking Jesus as their template, many critics wonder how a leader who pursues politics can still be a religious model.
When terrorists struck New York and Washington in 2001 I was horrified, scared and bewildered. The Muhammad I revered bore no resemblance to the Muhammad they claimed. In their view, Muhammad was a conqueror first, a politician and a general second, and a man of faith last, and least.
This is a gross misunderstanding of his life, and an inversion of the message he actually preached. When he had nowhere else to turn, when he couldn’t find anyone to protect his community, then — and only then — did he take up arms to defend his faith.
But the politics he attempted are instructive. In one of his first pronouncements in Medina, he pledged that the Muslim community would defend the native Jewish community from any of its enemies, and declared Medina to be one nation of two faiths, a profound and unusual gesture of pluralism and tolerance.
This vision that Muhammad offered for Medina is the one that drives my life’s work, especially in the years since Sep. 11. I’ve dedicated my time, my energy and often my reputation to building bridges between Jewish and Muslim communities. We don’t have to agree about everything to respect each other. And we don’t have to see eye-to-eye to look out for each other. I believe such work to be a sacred calling, good for Jews and for Muslims, but good for America, too.
On the occasion of his birthday, we Americans would do well to study Muhammad’s life: He preached and attempted a politics of tolerance, which is not what people of faith are associated with today. Muslims could stand for re-examining his life, too. Muhammad is called a “rahmah,” a mercy. He is often addressed as “habib Allah,” the beloved of God. If these are not words our communities are associated with, we should take a long look in the mirror and wonder why.
Muhammad was rahmah for me more than two decades ago in Medina. We could all use a little mercy these days.
Haroon Moghul is a fellow in Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the author of How to Be a Muslim: An American Story.