Internalizing the Covenants: The Virtues of Chivalry in the Character of the Prophet Muhammad
by Charles Upton
We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in their souls, until it is clear to them that it is the Truth. Is it not enough for you that your Lord is Witness over all things? (Q. 41:53)
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, are among Allah’s signs on the horizons, the outer world, but they also have their reflections in the inner world, the world of the soul. The Covenants are outward signs of the virtues of the Prophet, just as he was the perfect visible and human expression of the virtues and powers of the Qur’an. If we want to act honorably according to the Covenants in our relationship with the Peoples of the Book, we will need to practice the virtues they embody, until they take firm root in our hearts.
The virtues of the Prophet in relation to the Peoples of the Book comprise the essence of futuwwah, chivalry. Below are descriptions of nine of the most important virtues of the man of chivalry, the fata’—in Persian, the javanmard—in English, the knight; all three words mean “young man” with the connotation of “young hero”; futuwwah itself has been defined as the way of “heroic generosity.” But don’t let the masculine gender of these words fool you: women, too, are called to the life of chivalry, especially in these times.
All Muslims are commanded by our Prophet in his Covenants to defend any Peoples of the Book who are not in active opposition to Islam or aiding Islam’s enemies. It is the position of the Covenants Initiative that this defense should be offered as a free gift with no strings attached—in the spirit of chivalry, not the spirit of quid pro quo. It must be left entirely up to the those to whom the offer is made to either accept it or reject it, to respond to it or else withhold any response, just as the spirit and their own view of the situation moves them. But though this offer should never be seen as laying an obligation on those to whom it is made, it does represent a clear challenge to them to seek God’s will in relation to this possibly unexpected offer of help from the Muslims, and then to act on what they’ve learned.
by Charles Upton
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was sent as a mercy to all the worlds (Q. 21:107)—to worlds that only exist in the first place because of al-Rahman, the Mercy of Allah; the Covenants of the Prophet are a clear, direct and radiant expression of this Mercy. One of the greatest examples of Mercy in all human history was the Prophet’s decision not to exact reprisals against the Quraysh after the Muslims conquered Mecca. Those who recognize, as Muhammad did, that they themselves are the results and products of Allah’s Mercy will naturally be merciful, and will have a clear understanding of the principle that to extend Mercy is to receive it.
When Allah completed the creation, He wrote the following, which is with Him above His Throne: “My Mercy takes precedence over My wrath.” — Prophetic Hadith
My Mercy embraces all things. (Q. 7:156)
Indeed, those who believe and do good, the Merciful will endow them with loving kindness. (Q. 19:96)
Who else but those who have lost their way could despair of the Mercy of their Lord? (Q. 15:56)
‘A’isha asked Muhammad: “Does one come to Paradise only by the mercy of Allah?” He repeated three times over: “No one comes to Paradise except by the mercy of Allah!” “Not even you, Messenger of Allah?” she asked. “Not even I, unless Allah enfolds me in His mercy.” — Prophetic Hadith
Forgiveness is the crown of noble qualities, [while] of all the acts of a powerful man, vengeance is the most odious. — Hadhrat ‘Ali
If we are going to receive Mercy and extend it, we must realize that we are absolutely in need of it, that our true essence, both apart from Allah (which is impossible) and in relation to Him (which is inevitable) is need. The virtue by which we recognize our inherent neediness is the virtue of humility. In terms of the Prophetic Covenants, humility includes the realization that we are as much in need of being defended as those we have pledged to defend, and that Allah alone is our true Protector and Sustainer, and equally the Protector and Sustainer of all who recognize Him, submit to Him, and love Him. And it is also part of humility not to immediately turn every righteous act into a public relations coup, an advertisement for your religion, your movement or yourself—unless, of course, your duty requires it. As ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib advises: “Hide the good you do, and make known the good done to you.”
O men, you are the ones who have need of God. (Q. 35:15)
God was in no need of them. And God is All-sufficient. (Q. 64:6)
And the servants of the Beneficent are they who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace. (Q. 25:63)
O men! Ye are the poor in relation to God, and God is the Rich, to whom all praises are due. (Q. 35:15)
Courtesy is the knowledge of boundaries and occasions. To come too close to someone else when the occasion forbids it, or to fail to approach that person when the occasion demands it, are both discourteous. Courtesy was so central a virtue to the character of Muhammad that he showed it not only in his relations with others but in his relationship to Allah. When that which shroudeth did enshroud the lote tree on the Prophet’s miraj, his eye turned not aside, nor yet was overbold (Q. 53:16-18). In other words, he was overcome neither by distraction nor by curiosity, and so demonstrated perfect courtesy in the Presence of his Creator—and when are we ever not in that Presence? To offer protection to members of a different religion according to the command of the Prophet in his Covenants requires courtesy and sensitivity of feeling, because whatever we do is being done in God’s Presence; we must always maintain a respectful attitude, avoiding both excessive aloofness and excessive familiarity. If we are arrogant and insensitive in our offers of help, if we look down upon those we are pledged to defend as weak or cowardly, and see ourselves as virtuous and dominant, then what we may think of as help is really just another form of oppression. Aid that is offered with arrogance will be rejected, as it should be; no offer that requires another to sacrifice his or her self-respect has any part in the virtues of chivalry.
Do not enter houses other than your own houses until you have asked permission and saluted their inhabitants. (Q. 24:27)
Everything must be in accord with reason, and reason itself must be courteous. The sweetness of life lies in dispensing with formalities. — Hadhrat ‘Ali
The most concrete manifestation of generosity in Islam is the zakat, the tithe to support the poor—and true generosity requires that we give with no strings attached. If we operate on the basis of quid pro quo, if we make a show of generosity when really all we are doing is bargaining for advantage, then we are hypocrites. And the most genuine form of generosity is one in which the idea that “I am being generous” completely disappears. If we understand that all bounty comes from Allah, and that we ourselves are the recipients of this bounty, even though there is no way we can possibly deserve it—because how can someone who doesn’t even exist yet “deserve” to be created?—then we will understand that what appears to be our generosity is really an irresistible overflow of His generosity. If we are overwhelmed with gratitude for Allah’s gifts to us, we will not fall into the sin of expecting gratitude from those we help—especially the if we recognize that one of greatest of the gifts of Allah, completely undeserved, is the opportunity to serve.
These two belong to generosity: to give of one’s possessions, and to protect one’s honor. — Hadhrat ‘Ali
One of Muhammad’s names is al-Amin, the Trustworthy. The Covenants are a pledge of trust, both between Islam and the Peoples of the Book as witnessed by God, and between God and humanity as a whole. Trust in God is the certainty that He will keep faith, that He will fulfill His pledge, whether or not this is apparent to us in a given situation. And if we trust Allah to keep His promises, then we will find it easy to keep ours. A pledge of help that is not fulfilled, or that is only partially fulfilled, or that is based on an unrealistic and inflated assessment of our own abilities, is worse than nothing. The only thing more destructive than a cold indifference is a violated trust.
If one of you trusts another, then he who is trustworthy should deliver his trust. (Q. 2:283)
Lo! We offered the Trust unto the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it. (Q. 33:72)
VI: Fear of God
The Prophet Muhammad learned the Fear of God to perfection when the Angel Jibra’il appeared to him, only two bows-lengths away or even nearer, standing as tall as the distance between heaven and earth. May the Prophetic Covenants, which make it as clear as lightning that anyone who violates them has fallen under the curse of Allah and His Prophet, strike us with the same holy Fear. If we keep that Fear and the Mercy it guards always before our eyes, then the temptation to deal faithlessly with the Covenants of the Prophet, or to violate any of the other principles of chivalry in our dealings with the Peoples of the Book and our brother and sister Muslims, will be easy to resist.
And for him who fears to stand before his Lord are two Gardens. (Q. 55:46)
And for him who fears to stand in the presence of his Lord and forbids the soul from low desires, then surely the Garden—that is the abode. (Q. 79:40-41)
They fear their Lord above them and do what they are commanded. (Q. 16:50)
But do not fear them (the people of the dunya) …. fear Me, if you are believers. (Q. 3:175)
If you are able, increase your fear of Allah while at the same time having a good opinion of Him; the best of actions is to achieve a balance between fear and hope. — Hadhrat ‘Ali
Then whoever fears My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve. (Q. 2:38)
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, showed the perfection of Courage in three different circumstances: when suffering persecution, when engaged in combat, and when the surahs of the Qur’an were long delayed. To pledge to defend the Peoples of the Book against the enemies of true religion obviously takes courage, because these enemies are implacable; in view of this we must realize that in following the dictates of the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad we may be placing ourselves in physical danger. But there are other forms of cowardice than the reluctance to face hardship and death. One of these is the fear of moving outside our circle of comfort, of interacting with people who are not like us, people who have different beliefs and different motives and different worldviews and different assumptions. Another is the fear of the uncertainly that is inseparable from any action in the world. We can never be sure of the ultimate results of the work we do or the decisions we make. What we can be sure of—though only if we have carried on the Greater Jihad to the point where we have reached yaqin or Certainty—is the quality of our own intent, where what began as our own will to submit to Allah is unveiled as Allah’s Will within us. If we know our intent, know that it is in line with the commands of Allah, and know that we are capable of remaining faithful to that intent, then we will have nothing to fear.
Courage and truth are always found together—like falsehood and cowardice. — Hadhrat ‘Ali
The Covenants of the Prophet are justice incarnate. In order to do justice in the world you must first do justice to your family, to your brothers and sisters, to your employers and employees, to those who are closest to you—and in order to do justice to those closest to you, you must first learn how to do justice to yourself. The passions and demands of the ego-commanding-to-evil, the nafs al-ammara bi’l su, constitute a great injustice; to do justice in relation to your own soul is to defend the oppressed and humble the oppressor, both of which are the same nafs. If you can pacify this nafs by resisting what it demands, while at the same time giving it what it needs—the deepening of the Presence of God in the spiritual Heart—then you will be just to your friends and your family, and if you can be just to your friends and family then you are ready to demand and enact justice in the greater world. But be careful never to fall into the arrogance of the activist who believes that his struggle for justice in the world gives him the right to be unjust to the people closest to him, and ultimately to himself! Justice, like charity, begins at home.
To do justice is to establish balance and harmony by giving each thing, person and situation what is right for it, no more, no less and no other. When demanding justice we must be careful, however, never to expect it; if we consider justice as our due, then we will feel aggrieved and resentful if justice—or our own idea of justice—does not immediately appear. The highest form of justice, among the virtues of chivalry, is to do justice without demanding it; to do justice without demanding it is to make existence itself your debtor, and the debts of existence are always paid, in either this world or the next. On the other hand (as the Sufis might ask), if a person has reached the station of fana,’ annihilation in God, to whom could this debt be paid? Ultimately it is Allah alone who is Al-Warith, the Inheritor.
And if two parties of believers fall to fighting, then make peace between them. And if one party of them doeth wrong to the other, fight ye that which doeth wrong till it return unto the ordinance of Allah; then, if it return, make peace between them justly, and act equitably. Lo! Allah loveth the equitable. (Q. 69:9)
Lo! Allah enjoineth justice and kindness. (Q. 16:90)
Maintaining His creation in justice, there is no God save Him [Allah], the Almighty, the Wise. (Q. 3:18)
O ye who believe! Be ye staunch in justice, witnessing for Allah, even though it be against yourselves. (Q. 4:135)
[when] the earth shineth with the light of her Lord, and the Book is set up, and the Prophets and witnesses are brought, and it is judged between them with truth, and they are not wronged. (Q. 39:69)
Beware of oppressing someone with no defense against you except God. — Hadhrat ‘Ali
Chivalry is dignity in action; dignity is the fitrah, our primordial human nature, according to which Allah appointed humanity as His khalifa on earth—and history’s greatest exemplar of human dignity was the Prophet Muhammad. There is no way we can take credit for this fitrah, this dignity, since it is ultimately nothing less than the presence of Allah in the spiritual Heart. If we are foolish enough to try and take credit for our own dignity we will transform it into mere pomposity, and the Heart will be veiled. Likewise if we mercilessly oppress others, if we act with arrogance, if we violate courtesy, if we are stingy and niggardly, if we break our promises, if we act like cowards, if we are unjust to others and to ourselves, if we foolishly presume that God is on our side instead of striving to be on His, then we will lose all our dignity and be reduced to the level of a cockroach: nothing is uglier in a human being than a lack of dignity. Therefore it can be said that the ultimate spiritual effect of acting according to the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, if we follow them with intelligence and sincerity, will be to find, restore and enhance our fundamental human dignity, that of our brothers and sisters in Islam, and that of the Peoples of the Book that Allah has granted us the privilege of defending. Let us make the sincerest du’as to Allah that we succeed in this work.
Whoever feels his dignity decreasing will see his enemy’s strength growing. — Hadhrat ‘Ali
They have forgotten God, and so God has caused them to forget themselves. (Q. 59:19)
Shall I show you one who makes desire his god? (Q. 25:43).
God is Beautiful and loves Beauty. — Prophetic Hadith
Remember Me and I will remember you. (Q. 2:152)
Six Questions for Students
by Charles Upton
To better help you understand and develop the Nine Virtues of Chivalry in your work with the Covenants of the Prophet, here are six questions that you might want to ask yourself. You should record your answers in a journal. It also might be a good idea to meet periodically with your Covenants of the Prophet Study Group or other people you trust so you can gauge the moral progress, or the lack of it, that your engagement with the Covenants has produced. These six questions can also be submitted to the group for answers, comments, and discussion of their meaning and application. No-one, however, should be required to answer these sometimes rather personal questions in a group context; Allah, not your human group, is the ultimate Witness and Judge; only in His Presence will the asking and answering of these questions have real meaning and produce a real spiritual effect.
1} Do you understand what this virtue is, what it means? If not, what questions would you like to ask to get a clearer picture of it?
2} How well do you think you practice this virtue? Perfectly? Reasonably well? On and off? Not at all?
3} Can you remember a specific occasion when you put this virtue into practice? A time when you failed to practice it when you had the chance?
4} Can you think of anyone—a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker, a teacher, a family member, a well-known contemporary figure, a famous person out of history, or a stranger you encountered only once and never met again—who expressed or expresses this virtue? Someone who might embody or symbolize this virtue for you?
5} What could you do or change in your own life in order to better practice this virtue?
6} Imagine an actual occasion on which you might have an opportunity to express this virtue in the near future, and/or an actual person in relation to whom you could practice it now. Go ahead and do your best to practices this virtue in that situation. What happened? Did anything change? Did the results seem positive? Negative? Puzzling? Non-existent?
Once when the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, was returning from battle, he told his companions: “Now we are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” “And what is the greater jihad?” they asked. The Prophet answered: “The struggle against the self.” — Prophetic Hadith
The Essence of Courtesy in the Adab of the Prophet; its Application to the Art of Interfaith Diplomacy
by Charles Upton
The Sura al-Najm 14-17—which we have already quoted above, and which is usually taken to refer to the Prophet’s miraj—reveals his adab while he was in the Presence of Allah as the source of all courtesy:
….the lote−tree of the utmost boundary, Nigh unto which is the Garden of Abode. When that which shroudeth did enshroud the lote−tree, The eye turned not aside nor yet was overbold.
The Lote-Tree represents the limit of what can be known about Allah. When the Lote-Tree appeared without a veil, there was no Muhammad ibn Abdullah present as a separate entity; Muhammad was the Lote-Tree. Then, when the veil descended again, Muhammad returned to individual human existence; he returned in a state of perfect courtesy; instead of hiding from God or trying to penetrate the mystery of God, he knew that he was seen by God. When we are taken beyond ourselves by an unveiling of the Divine, and then return to ourselves, two opposite reactions are common. Either we say: “Please don’t go! Come back! Come back!”, or else: “Wow! That really blew me away; that was more than could deal with. I’m going to have to go away somewhere and think about that.” In the first reaction the eye of the Heart is overbold, in the second it turn(s) aside. Both are discourteous. When you are in the presence of the King it is impolite to stare, and equally impolite to become distracted and let your mind wander. True adab is to stay at the exact point between the two, the point of “even if you don’t see Him, He sees you.”
The same is true of any encounter with an adversary or a potential friend—always remembering that any adversary is a potential friend. When the eye turn(s) aside you are being defensive; when it is overbold you are being aggressive. Aggression and defensiveness are both discourteous. If you want to disarm enemies and make friends, without running either after anybody or away from anybody, then learn the adab of the Prophet. The Prophet’s adab when in the Presence of God is appropriate for all situations, because no situation exists in which God is not present. All your interactions with other people are happening directly in His sight; to remember this simple fact (which is easier said than done) is the root of all courtesy.
Muhammad’s intrinsic courtesy when in the Court of Allah was the basis of the courtesy he demonstrated as a rasul and a diplomat. He offered Islam but he never imposed it. Likewise he offered the protection of Islam to non-Muslims but never required that they accept it. In situations such as armed conflict between Islam and the Byzantine Empire, for example, Christian communities were inevitably required by conditions to choose sides—but until things had reached that point the attitude of the Prophet toward Christianity was essentially in line with Q. 5:82: And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. Therefore the attitude of Muslims when approaching non-Muslims in an interfaith context should be characterized neither by subtle aggression nor by suspicion and defensiveness, but rather by courtesy and respect. Suspicion is narrow-eyed because it is unwilling to see beyond its own fears—but respect is based on a willingness to see things as they are.
The art of diplomacy includes the ability to live with contradictions, in both ideas and circumstances, without either hiding them behind a false sense of unity or letting them descend into conflict. Therefore the Muslim diplomat will not demand unity in situations where unity seems desirable, but will simply propose it. As every Muslim knows, or should know, only Allah is Al-Ahad, the One—which is why demanding unity from what is other than Allah can actually be a form of idolatry. This is not a world of unity, but of one of necessary divisions. In the words of the Qur’an, The Creator of the heavens and the earth, He hath made for you pairs of yourselves, and of the cattle also pairs, whereby He multiplieth you. Naught is as His likeness; and He is the Hearer, the Seer (42:11); Glory be to Him Who created all the sexual pairs, of that which the earth groweth, and of themselves, and of that which they know not! (36:36). Nothing is ever finally resolved in this world; it is resolved only in the akhira, only in Allah. Situations where Unity manifests and conflicts are resolved are like breakthroughs of Eternity into time. Eternity is always there, but time’s door to Eternity is always opening and closing. This world of time is a world of tests, not a world of final outcomes. If a Muslim can live in full submission to the truth that Everything is perishing except His Face (28:88), then he or she will be able to carry on the art of diplomacy in line with the will of Allah instead of opposed to it, free of the idolatry of false expectations. There is nothing more discourteous than blindly enforcing your expectations on a reluctant person, group or situation, instead of seeing things as they are and working in line with them. Allah speaks not only through our own purified intentions but also through outer situations and their changes. We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves, till it is clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not enough for you that your Lord is Witness over all things? (41:53) The essence of diplomacy is courtesy, and the Source of courtesy lies at a point beyond the polarity of self and other.
The Model of Muslim Chivalry in the Virtues of the Prophet Muhammad
As you may now have completed the course, you may proceed as follows:
STEP ONE: Email us at Charles.Upton@covenantsoftheprophet.org, providing your name and contact information and requesting a Course Test. This request should be accompanied by a donation in any amount, no matter how small, to The Covenants of the Prophet Foundation:
STEP TWO: Take the Test and email it back to us with your answers clearly indicated.
STEP THREE: We will grade the Test and let you know whether or not you have passed. The names of all who have passed the Test will be listed on the Covenants of the Prophet Foundation website under a Virtual Certificate of Completion. Those who have not passed are encouraged to review the course, take the test again, and submit it to us once more for grading; feel free to do this as many times as you wish.
We have designed this Training Course as something that you can freely use for your own purposes without ongoing direction from the Covenants of the Prophet Foundation. Nonetheless, if you have any questions, or if you have stories to share on how the Course was received and put to use, especially those you feel will be helpful to other study groups, feel free to contact us.
The Course is yours; use it well.