Unmasking the Prophet of Islam

by Helmy Sa'at

لَّقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِى رَسُولِ ٱللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَٱلْيَوْمَ ٱلْـَٔاخِرَ وَذَكَرَ ٱللَّهَ كَثِيرًا

“Verily in the messenger of Allah ye have a good example for him who looketh unto Allah and the Last Day, and remembereth Allah much.”

[Surah Al-Ahzab, 33:21]

As human beings, we cannot help but wonder, and may at times seek to find, visual depictions of the last messenger of Allah, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. After all, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, also known as Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim, continued to play a pivotal role in the spread of Islam and was a historical figure who lived till 632 CE. 

The Quran does not explicitly spell out the banning of such depictions; however, there are serious considerations to be taken into account such as the prevention of potential idolatry based on the long line of prophets who are infallible human beings, not perfect beings themselves.

Although we can find depictions of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, for instance dating back to the 1300s, these images need to be contextualised to avoid any misunderstandings from arising. It encapsulates visual representations, not literal depictions, restricted to elites of that particular time period in private and exclusive settings — images in connection to specific Islamic occurrences, such as Isra and Mi’raj (the Night Journey and ascension to Heaven).

Bright Like The Moon: His Reflection In Us

What was Prophet Muhammad ﷺ really like?

Certain physical descriptions could be gleaned, such as his skin tone and physical beauty. As narrated by Anas bin Malik:

بَيْنَمَا نَحْنُ جُلُوسٌ مَعَ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي الْمَسْجِدِ، دَخَلَ رَجُلٌ عَلَى جَمَلٍ فَأَنَاخَهُ فِي الْمَسْجِدِ، ثُمَّ عَقَلَهُ، ثُمَّ قَالَ لَهُمْ أَيُّكُمْ مُحَمَّدٌ وَالنَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم مُتَّكِئٌ بَيْنَ ظَهْرَانَيْهِمْ‏.‏ فَقُلْنَا هَذَا الرَّجُلُ الأَبْيَضُ الْمُتَّكِئُ‏.‏

While we were sitting with the Prophet ﷺ in the mosque, a man came riding on a camel. He made his camel kneel down in the mosque, tied its foreleg and then said: “Who amongst you is Muhammad?” At that time the Prophet ﷺ was sitting amongst us (his companions) leaning on his arm. We replied, “This white man reclining on his arm.”

[Sahih al-Bukhari 63]

According to Isma`il bin Abi Khalid:

حَدَّثَنِي عَمْرُو بْنُ عَلِيٍّ، حَدَّثَنَا ابْنُ فُضَيْلٍ، حَدَّثَنَا إِسْمَاعِيلُ بْنُ أَبِي خَالِدٍ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ أَبَا جُحَيْفَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ قَالَ رَأَيْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَكَانَ الْحَسَنُ بْنُ عَلِيٍّ ـ عَلَيْهِمَا السَّلاَمُ ـ يُشْبِهُهُ قُلْتُ لأَبِي جُحَيْفَةَ صِفْهُ لِي‏.‏ قَالَ كَانَ أَبْيَضَ قَدْ شَمِطَ‏.‏ وَأَمَرَ لَنَا النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِثَلاَثَ عَشْرَةَ قَلُوصًا قَالَ فَقُبِضَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَبْلَ أَنْ نَقْبِضَهَا‏.‏

I heard Abii Juhaifa saying, “I saw the Prophet, and Al-Hasan bin `Ali resembled him.” I said to Abu- Juhaifa, “Describe him for me.” He said, “He was white and his beard was black with some white hair. He promised to give us 13 young she-camels, but he expired before we could get them.”

[Sahih al-Bukhari 3544]

Narrated Anas:

حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ يُوسُفَ، أَخْبَرَنَا مَالِكُ بْنُ أَنَسٍ، عَنْ رَبِيعَةَ بْنِ أَبِي عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ، عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ أَنَّهُ سَمِعَهُ يَقُولُ كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم لَيْسَ بِالطَّوِيلِ الْبَائِنِ وَلاَ بِالْقَصِيرِ، وَلاَ بِالأَبْيَضِ الأَمْهَقِ، وَلَيْسَ بِالآدَمِ وَلَيْسَ بِالْجَعْدِ الْقَطَطِ وَلاَ بِالسَّبْطِ، بَعَثَهُ اللَّهُ عَلَى رَأْسِ أَرْبَعِينَ سَنَةً، فَأَقَامَ بِمَكَّةَ عَشْرَ سِنِينَ، وَبِالْمَدِينَةِ عَشْرَ سِنِينَ، فَتَوَفَّاهُ اللَّهُ، وَلَيْسَ فِي رَأْسِهِ وَلِحْيَتِهِ عِشْرُونَ شَعْرَةً بَيْضَاءَ‏.‏

Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) was neither very tall nor short, neither absolutely white nor deep brown. His hair was neither curly nor lank. Allah sent him (as an Apostle) when he was forty years old. Afterwards he resided in Mecca for ten years and in Medina for ten more years. When Allah took him unto Him, there was scarcely twenty white hairs in his head and beard.

[Sahih al-Bukhari 3548]

Jabir ibn Samura said:

حَدَّثَنَا هَنَّادُ بْنُ السَّرِيِّ، قَالَ‏:‏ حَدَّثَنَا عَبْثَرُ بْنُ الْقَاسِمِ، عَنْ أَشْعَثَ يَعْنِي ابْنَ سَوَّارٍ، عَنْ أَبِي إِسْحَاقَ، عَنْ جَابِرِ بْنِ سَمُرَةَ، قَالَ‏:‏ رَأَيْتُ رَسُولَ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم، فِي لَيْلَةٍ إِضْحِيَانٍ، وَعَلَيْهِ حُلَّةٌ حَمْرَاءُ، فَجَعَلْتُ أَنْظُرُ إِلَيْهِ وَإِلَى الْقَمَرِ، فَلَهُوَ عِنْدِي أَحْسَنُ مِنَ الْقَمَرِ‏.‏

“I saw Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) on a cloudless night, and he was wearing a red suit of clothes, so I started looking at him as well as at the moon, for he is indeed more beautiful, in my opinion, than the moon!”

[Ash-Shama’il Al-Muhammadiyah 10]

Inner Beauty in Praise of Allah

Though we can find some descriptions scattered all over hadiths, what has truly compelled millions of Muslims to emulate him and non-Muslims alike, including his foes during the struggle for the spread of Islam to respect him at the very least, for generations? It has always been his grace and excellence of character. Superficiality is not what is at the core of Islam.

وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ

And lo! thou art of a tremendous nature.

[Surah Al-Qalam 68:4]

As evident from the above-mentioned verse from the Quran, the Prophet had a beautiful soul that was complimented. In addition to that, it was tied to actions, for example choice of clothing, as a display of our gratitude towards Allah. As narrated by Qays ibn Bishr at-Taghlibi:

فَقَالَ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ‏: إِنَّكُمْ قَادِمُونَ عَلَى إِخْوَانِكُمْ فَأَصْلِحُوا رِحَالَكُمْ وَأَصْلِحُوا لِبَاسَكُمْ حَتَّى تَكُونُوا كَأَنَّكُمْ شَامَةٌ فِي النَّاسِ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لاَ يُحِبُّ الْفُحْشَ وَلاَ التَّفَحُّشَ ‏

He said: I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say: You are coming to your brethren; so tidy your mounts and tidy your dress, until you are like a mole among the people. Allah does not like obscene words or deeds, or do intentional committing of obscenity.

[Sunan Abi Dawud 4089]

Narrated `Abdullah bin `Amr:

حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدَانُ، عَنْ أَبِي حَمْزَةَ، عَنِ الأَعْمَشِ، عَنْ أَبِي وَائِلٍ، عَنْ مَسْرُوقٍ، عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَمْرٍو ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ قَالَ لَمْ يَكُنِ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَاحِشًا وَلاَ مُتَفَحِّشًا وَكَانَ يَقُولُ ‏ “‏ إِنَّ مِنْ خِيَارِكُمْ أَحْسَنَكُمْ أَخْلاَقًا ‏”‏‏.‏

The Prophet (ﷺ) never used bad language neither a “Fahish nor a Mutafahish. He used to say “The best amongst you are those who have the best manners and character.” (See Hadith No. 56 (B) Vol. 8)

[Sahih al-Bukhari 3559]

The message is clear. Physical beauty though admirable and pleasing to the eyes is not prioritised over spiritual piety and excellence of character that buttress one’s faith and devotion which belong to the one and only Allah.