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Prophetic Pugilism & The Freedom Principle

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.

To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

If there was ever a time the leadership of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was needed it is now. His roles as commander, judge, peacemaker, husband, father, and humanitarian leave little reason to wonder why Michael H. Hart, a self-described “white separatist”, chose him as the most influential person in human history. Similarly, none should be surprised when hearing of the observation made by his former archenemy Abu Sufyan b. Harb who remarked upon witnessing the resilience of the martyr, Zayd b. al-Dathinnah1, prior to being killed, “I have never observed anyone express love for another the way the companions of Muhammad love Muhammad.”

The Qur’an refers to the Prophet Muhammad as “a mercy to all the worlds.” Muslims celebrate him as the messenger of compassion and his religion the religion of peace. Mercy being his strong suit reflects his attempt to be a manifestation of God’s attribute about who the Prophet Muhammad reported as saying, “Verily, my mercy has conquered my wrath.”2 While mercy overshadows other traits subsumed under the prophetic ethos, he was also a messenger of justice. Muhammad—upon him Allah’s peace and blessing—was also a warrior; a pugilist of most refined self mastery. He forgave his enemies, but he also found it appropriate to punish them at times. Considering these facts, it is important to avoid over-emphasizing his compassion to the extent that his legacy becomes distorted. For if emulation of God was his goal as vicegerent, let us not forget that God manifests himself in both elegant (jamali) and regal (jalali) fashion.

A pugilist is a fighter. And one of the most famous pugilists was Bruce Lee. He can rightfully be credited for popularizing the notion of learning “the art of fighting without fighting.” Much debate over the meaning of this statement has ensued. But many believe the art of fighting without fighting to be the idea of outsmarting one’s enemy so that a fight never ensues. It is equivalent to learning how to fight so that one has no need to. In other words, the genuine pugilist is he who learns to fight with his fists not merely to hurt his enemy. He also learns to master his ego, temper, and will. The pugilist’s strength, forbearance, and equanimity result from regular introspection about the degree of harm he can inflict upon his foe, rather than the fear of what his foe can or may do to him. This is especially true when the pugilist is fully aware of his foe’s weaknesses.

Of course, some will find it strange or even troubling to characterize the Prophet Muhammad as a pugilist, since his message was a call to peace and tolerance, not war and conflict. However, if one surrenders to the suggestion that the refined pugilist’s awareness of his/her own capacities for harm plays a part in the degree of restraint one exercises in the face of a physical challenge, seeing the Prophet Muhammad as pugilist par excellence is not difficult.

Consider, for instance, the fact that God promised the Prophet as a reward for his troops’ piety and steadfastness the support of one thousand (Qur’an 8:9) and, in another verse, five thousand angels (Qur’an 3:125) to supplement the number of human soldiers with him on the battlefield. His prayers rarely went unanswered. For this reason, his companions at times asked him to pray against his enemies, which he graciously declined on a number of occasions, saying in one instance, “I have not been sent as a curser [of people]. I have been sent as nothing more than a caller and mercy.” Then he proceeded to pray, “O God! Guide my people. For, surely, they do not know.”3 After being driven out of the town of Taif pelted with stones by the community’s scoundrels, the angel Gabriel appeared to him to deliver a message from God that the angel of the mountains was authorized lift up the adjacent mountains and pulverize the population into extinction. The Prophet responded, “Rather, my hope is that God will bring forth from their loins some who will worship God alone without associating partners with him.”4

Few men could resist the temptation to exploit their superior position to swiftly subdue their enemies. Muhammad, however, gives the lie to Lord Acton’s, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, by exhibiting exemplary restraint which was later emulated by Saladin during his capture of Jerusalem and ‘Umar Mukhtar who refused to kill Italian POW’s declaring to his men, “They are not our teachers.” The reason this was possible in my view was that the Prophet understood that his power had no limits, since the source of it was the uniquely omnipotent divine source of all power: Allah. It was He who reminded him time and again of his guaranteed succor if Muhammad—upon him Allah’s peace and blessing—chose to call on Him; just as He assured him saying, “God will protect you from the people” (Qur’an 5:67).

This fact was encouraging to the Prophet, a thing that alleviated his initial anxiety and uneasiness to carry out his mission. The Qur’an says, “O Prophet! Verily, We sent you as a witness, a herald of good news, and a warner; one inviting to God by His leave, and a lustrous lamp” (Qur’an 33:45-46). Note how “warner” was merely one of five roles or functions the Prophet was assigned in this verse. This is because Muhammad—upon him Allah’s peace and blessing—was not merely an oracle of doom. His main purpose was to observe, inform of God’s promise, invite to it, and to guide to salvation through his words and deeds. He did this understanding as well that salvation from God’s punishment could only be secured when a person willfully surrendered to God’s commandments, not through compulsion. This “freedom principle” manifests itself in many ways during his lifetime. And to this I will dedicate the remainder of this essay.

Applying the Freedom Principle 

In revolutionary terms, the Prophet taught, “The tough person is not determined by the ability to overpower another. Rather, the tough person is he who controls himself during anger.”5 It was a norm of the Prophet to appeal to his audience through reasoned dialogue. For this reason, there is no evidence that he ever ordered the death of a person simply for leaving Islam. Only those guilty of defection or undermining the security of the Muslim community met such a fate. The aim was to win over believers whose faith was founded upon deep conviction. His desire was for all to have salvation in the afterlife. This can be observed in numerous accounts throughout his mission.6

His servant Anas b. Malik said, “I served God’s messenger for ten years, and he never showed the slightest sign of displeasure toward me.7 He never said to me concerning anything I did: “Why did you do that?” Nor to anything I neglected, “Why did you not do that?”8 Anytime his wives showed displeasure at something he did or did not do, rather than engaging in the kind of argumentation typical of spouses, he simply left the home. He never hit a woman or a child. This was possible, I believe, because the Prophet was constantly aware of his power and status inasmuch that God became angry with anyone who disparaged, offended, or hurt him. In other words, his leaving the home and relinquishment of his rights were acts of mercy meant to protect his wards, dependents, followers, and foes from divine wrath descending upon them due to their disregard for his position as God’s emissary.

When Ma’iz b. Malik confessed his adulterous affair, the Prophet tried to avert his punishment by encouraging him to repent and repulsing him numerous times.9 It was only when the Prophet was convinced that his desire for purification was sincere that he had him stoned.10 And when Ma’iz could no longer handle the pain produced by the pelting, he fled but the people pursued him. The Prophet later said to them, “Why did you not leave him? He might have repented, and Allah would have forgiven him.”11

When the woman from the clan (batn) of Ghamid12 confessed to committing adultery, the Prophet similarly discouraged her from seeking the Qur’anic prescription for purification from the offense, but she retorted, “I think you’re trying to repulse me in the same way you tried with Ma’iz. But, I am pregnant.”13 The Prophet’s response was for her to wait until she had given birth. She returned once again after giving birth to receive her purification, but the Prophet encouraged her to wait until the child was weaned. Once the weaning period was over, she returned once again, but this time with the child in her arms holding a piece of bread as proof that it had been weaned.14 Again, the Prophet was faced with the challenge of punishing a believer for a capital crime. He, however, grieved not, since he was—as in the case of Ma’iz— certain that this woman was completely prepared and sincere about her desire to be purified. The execution was carried out, and the Prophet himself prayed over her. Afterwards, he declared, “Her repentance was so sincere that if it had been divided among seventy people of Medina it would embrace them all.15 And have you witnessed repentance more superior to that of one who gave her soul so graciously to God?”16 He taught his community after extracting their pledge not to practice idolatry, theft, or fornication that, “Any of you who commits one of these things and is punished, it serves as penance.”17

In both of the aforementioned cases, we see the “freedom principle” on full display. Two people claim to desire closeness to God by being purged of their sins in this life. The Prophet is skeptical. So, he delays and sends them away. At any moment, either party could have fled to another land and joined a new tribe in or outside of Arabia who would have welcomed them with little or no concern for their past offenses. The woman of Ghamid would have had no reason to claim that she was without husband in her new home, since Muslims were an extreme minority of peoples who “executed” for adultery. Ma’iz could have fled with complete security from execution, because unlike the woman he could not become pregnant. He could have revealed his offense or concealed it, only suffering a guilty conscience, perhaps. Rather than taking flight, both Ma’iz and the woman of Ghamid “chose” to remain in Medina with the Muslims being subjected to its mores and penalties. That very fact strongly suggests the genuineness of their faith in the message of the Prophet Muhammad. It was not only his charisma that attracted them. It was the very fact that his living example and miraculous mission led them to trust not only his mind, but his heart as well.

The Battle of Hunayn happened after the conquest of Mecca in year 8 AH/630 CE.18Enormous spoils were amassed during this battle, and the Prophet would later give to Safwan b. Umayyah, his former foe who had yet to accept Islam despite participating in the battle and providing weaponry to Muslim soldiers, upward of 300 camels. Safwan later said of him, “I swear to God! He gave me what he gave me when he was the most hated of people to me. And, he continued to give me more until he became the most beloved of people to me.”19

The renowned judge of Granada, Qadi ‘Ayyad al-Yahsubi (544 AH/1149 CE) relates in his well acclaimed, Shifa bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa, the following incident from the Prophet’s life,

It was related that a Bedouin once came requesting something of him (i.e. the Prophet), and he gave it to him. The Prophet asked, “Have I done well to you?” The Bedouin replied, “No! Nor were you courteous.” The Muslims were angered and stood up aggressively, but he gestured toward them to ignore him. The Prophet then stood up, entered his quarters, sent for him, and then gave him more. He said again, “Have I done well to you?” The Bedouin replied, “Yes! God grant you good from family and kinsfolk. The Prophet said to him, “What you said before has left some rancor in the hearts of my companions. If you’d like, say in their presence what you just said so that their hearts are reconciled.” The Bedouin agreed. On the morrow he came, and the Prophet announced, “This Bedouin made his disparaging remark. But, when I gave him more, he claimed to be satisfied. Is this correct?” He said, “Yes! God grant you good from family and kinsfolk.” The Prophet then said, “The similitude of me and this man is the similitude of a man who owns a she-camel that took flight from him. And when the people pursued it, it only increased it in flight. Its owner, then, called out: “Leave me alone with my she-camel! I am gentler with her and know her better than you.” He then set out in her direction taking some foliage from the ground to lure her until she comes, kneels, he takes hold of her saddle, and alights upon her. If I had left the man to you after he said what he said, you would have killed him, and he would have gone to Hell.”20

The Prophet Muhammad came for salvation in the Hereafter, even though he lived, ruled, and judged in the earthly realm when necessary to provide an example to other statesmen on how best to serve their citizens. He feared for the damnation of the human soul even more than he did for their bodily integrity and safety from physical harm. According to Anas b. Malik,

“The people said: “O Messenger of Allah! The prices are exorbitant. So regulate the prices for us.” Allah’s Messenger said in reply, “Verily Allah is the price regulator, The Constrictor (Al-Qabid), The Expander (Al-Basit), and The Provider (Al-Raziq). And I, surely, hope to meet Allah with none of you demanding from me the removal of an injustice (mazlimah) in blood or in wealth.”21

This same principle is also what I believe prevented him from declaring a Muslim version of Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” Lincoln is to be celebrated, of course, for taking a courageous moral stance against American slavery.22 However, when one considers the historical black struggle for inclusion which continues today and the numerous legal road blocks erected against them to surmount, it becomes clear that forced compliance to mores that do not conform to a given person’s conscience and understanding of justice can only broach a temporary peace. Lasting peace can only result from a dialectic wherein the parties involved are given equal opportunity to plead their cases.23


There are many books detailing the special and comprehensive qualities of the Prophet Muhammad (al-khasa’is wa al-shama’il), in addition to works written about his life and time. They include many particular traits like his forbearance, humility, and excellent conduct. I, personally, believe that another special trait which deserves a special chapter in those works is what I call the “freedom principle” or “ethic.” As stated before, the Prophet’s awareness of the arsenal of spiritual forces at his disposal made him both secure and fearful of his potential. Strength is often mistaken as a weapon to be used to subdue one’s enemy and make others into one’s subjects. The Prophet, however, saw the truth of the matter, which was that strength and power are responsibilities given to a person as a test from God to see whether or not he/she will abuse them. As a genuine pugilist who pities his challenger in light of the latter’s unawareness of just how much harm he is exposing himself to, the Prophet Muhammad stayed true to his description as a mercy to all worlds by protecting those who offended him from divine retribution through his refusal to defend himself from personal offense.24 His primary concern was for people to believe in God, and to protect themselves from both eternal and transient punishment. His self mastery and indifference to the tangible and intangible possessions of others—like political offices, social status functions, worldly pleasures, and wealth—endeared him to both his friends and enemies. His legacy has survived through the relatively small number of special people who have exerted gargantuan efforts to adorn themselves with his exemplary character. But, his legacy is not merely one of mercy. It is also one of justice. There is no justice without peace. But there cannot be any lasting peace without justice. Muhammad’s—upon him Allah’s peace and blessing—freedom principle gives us a way to realize both peace and justice in this world. More importantly, it also gives us the key to the attainment of divine satisfaction in the next.

1. Zayd b. al-Dathinnah was an Ansari man from the Khazraj who participated in the first two major battles with the Prophet: Badr and Uhud. In year 3 after the battle of Uhud, a delegation from the tribes of Udal and Qarah visited the Prophet in Medina claiming that people in their tribes had accepted Islam and wanted to have teachers sent to their village. The Prophet responded by sending a delegation of ten men led by ‘Asim b. Thabit. On the way to their destination at a place known as Raji’, they were ambushed by Banu Lihyan, a subgroup of the clan of Banu Hudhayl. Seven of the men fought to their deaths, while the other three, including Zayd, surrendered upon being given an oath that none of them would be harmed. Unfortunately, the oath was broken, and Zayd and Khubayb b. ‘Adi were sold to the families of the men they killed in an earlier battle with the intention of own executions. The third unnamed captive resisted being taken after the treachery was revealed and was consequently killed. During their captivity both of the Zayd and Khubayb showed incredible resolve and no fear of death prior to their executions. See Ibn al-Athir, ‘Ali b. Muhammad, Usd al-Ghabah fi Ma’rifah al-Sahabah. Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, pp. 338, 430.
2. Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma’il, Sahih al-Bukhari. Damascus & Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002, p. 790, Hadith #3194.
3. This is what he said after he was asked to pray against the Meccans when he was injured during the Battle of Uhud. See ‘Ayyad, Al-Qadi Abu al-Fadl, Al-Shifa’ bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa’. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 2000, 1/1/72-3.
4. Al-Nawawi, Yahya b. Sharaf. Sharh Sahih Muslim. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1995, 6/2/122, Hadith # 1795.
5. Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma’il, Sahih al-Bukhari. Damascus & Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002, p. 1529, Hadith #6114.
6. Rukanah b. ‘Abd Yazid was a Meccan idolater renowned for his incredible strength. He was Mecca’s official wrestling champion. On one occasion, the Prophet encountered him on a Meccan path, and urged Rukanah to accept his message to which Rukanah reportedly replied, “If I thought what you are calling to was true, I would follow you.” The Prophet responded by challenging Rukanah to a wrestling match adding, “If I outwrestle you, will you believe what I say to be the truth?” Rukanah, naturally confident that the Prophet had no chance of winning said, “Yes!” Round one went the Prophet. Rukanah was incredulous. It was undoubtedly an amazing stroke of luck. “Again,” Rukanah demanded. Unfortunately for him, he lost again. “Astonishing! Did you outwrestle me?” The conversation continued, but Rukanah was still unconvinced that it proved the truthfulness of Muhammad’s—upon him Allah’s peace and blessing—claim of prophecy. The Prophet wagered with Rukanah a second time. This time it was by ordering a nearby tree to uproot itself and stand before Muhammad—upon him Allah’s peace and blessing. According to Ibn Hisham, the Prophet ordered the tree to return to its place, which it did. Still unconvinced, Rukanah rushed back to his people to report of how magnificent and unparalleled the Prophet’s “sorcery” was. )Ibn Hisham, ‘Abd Al-Malik, Al-Sirah Al-Nabawiyah. Beirut: Dar al-Ma’arif, 2004, p. 197(. In year 8, Rukanah accepted Islam during the conquest of Mecca (See Ibn al-Athir, ‘Ali b. Muhammad, Usd al-Ghabah fi Ma’rifah al-Sahabah. Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, p. 400). The authenticity of this story is disputed. It is, nevertheless, reported in a number of collections such as Bukhari’s Al-Tarikh Al-Kabir, Abu Dawud’s Sunan, Tirmidhi’s Jami’, and Al-Hakim’s Al-Mustadrak.
7. Lit. “He never said “uff” to me”, an expression in Arabic meant to connote the slightest indication of displeasure similar to sucking one’s teeth or rolling one’s eyes.
8. ‘Ayyad, Al-Qadi Abu al-Fadl, Al-Shifa’ bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa’. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 2000, 1/1/82.
9. In some reports, the Prophet even asks Ma’iz, “Are you insane? Have you been married before (muhsan)?” as if to offer him a way to avert the punishment. Some versions of the story present the Prophet as asking the same questions of his companions.
10. Al-Nawawi, Yahya b. Sharaf. Sharh Sahih Muslim. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1995, 6/2/122, Hadith # 1694. According to one version of the hadith, the companion Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported, “We pelted him with bones, clay, and broken pieces of pottery…Then, we pelted him with the stones of Al-Harrah.” This shows that “stoning” (rajm) was not limited to throwing stones.
11. Abadi, Muhammad Sharaf, ‘Awn Al-Ma’bud ‘ala Sunan Abi Dawud. Jordan: Bayt al-Afkar al-Dawliyah, (no date),p. 1921, hadith# 4419.
12. Ghamid was a subgroup of the Juhaynah tribe.
13. Al-Nawawi, Yahya b. Sharaf. Sharh Sahih Muslim. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1995, 6/1/166, Hadith # 1690.
14. In one version of the story, instead of the woman returning with her child after being weaned off her milk holding bread, a man offers to take on the responsibility of weaning the child (rada’uhu), which gives the impression that he will find it a wet nurse. One attempt to reconcile between this apparent contradiction has been to say that his “weaning the child” meant that he would become the child’s caretaker (kafil), since it appears from the other version that the mother already completed its weaning.
15. In another version of the hadith in Sahih Muslim the Prophet said, “Her repentance was so sincere that if the collector of illegitimate taxes (sahib maks) had done likewise, he would be forgiven.”
16. Al-Nawawi, Yahya b. Sharaf. Sharh Sahih Muslim. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1995, 6/1/170, Hadith # 1696.
17. Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma’il, Sahih al-Bukhari. Damascus & Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002, p. 1679, Hadith #6784
18. According to his biographers, Safwan b. Umayyah, accepted Islam a few weeks after the Meccan conquest following the victory over the Hawazin at Hunayn.
19. Al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi. Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1999, p. 170, Hadith #666.
20. ‘Ayyad, Al-Qadi Abu al-Fadl, Al-Shifa’ bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa’. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 2000, 1/1/83.
22. For more on this topic, please see the author’s article, “Islam and Slavery“, published by Lampost Productions.
21. Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, and Ibn Majah reported this hadith with a sound chain (sahih). See Abadi, Muhammad Sharaf, ‘Awn Al-Ma’bud ‘ala Sunan Abi Dawud. Jordan: Bayt al-Afkar al-Dawliyah, (no date),p. 1480, hadith #3451.
23. While I believe a lasting peace can only be created through persuasion, rather than compulsion, I also believe that sometimes some degree of compulsion is necessary in order to make dialogue possible. History has proven that it’s oftentimes when dialogue and negotiations fall apart that wars begin. Sometimes there needs to be a victor before one side is seriously takes the other’s perspective seriously.
24. According to the Prophet’s wife, Aisha, “Allah’s Messenger never took revenge for himself. It was only when God’s sanctity was violated that he would exact vengeance.” ‘Ayyad, Al-Qadi Abu al-Fadl, Al-Shifa’ bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa’. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 2000, 1/1/72.

(Originally posted on almadina.org)