The term ‘role model’ is often utilised 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.’
Sports 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 stigmatised or even marginalised.
Countless examples abound, particularly for women. Often these tend to highlight women who have risen in the professions, such as holding senior positions in the banking sector or even bizarrely, 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, educationally 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 behaviour 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 [33: 32]. They had the title designation as ‘mothers of the believers,’ [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’ [33: 21]. That is none other than the mercy sent unto creation [21: 107], the final Prophet and Messenger, Muḥammad ibn Abdullah peace and blessings be upon him.
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 [33: 35]. It is clearly set out:
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. [16: 97]
Unconditional obedience is due only to Allah and his Messenger (peace be upon him), 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 (peace be upon him) 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 (peace be upon him) 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 (peace be upon him) 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 [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 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 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, Muḥammad ibn Abdullah (peace and blessings be upon him), 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.