ACADEMIC ESSAYS

Prophet Muhammad’s Last Sermon is a how-to in human rights, race and gender relations

And how it promotes a return to “Islamic Multiculturalism”

The worldwide surge in right-wing politics, mass internment of Uighurs in China, violence against the Rohingya, ongoing gender-based violence, workplace inequality and pay disparity: poor race relations, gender inequality and human rights abuses increasingly mar the modern world despite protection and guidelines from the UN Human rights charter, including in Muslim communities.

Yet, on the ninth day of the month of Dhu al-Hijjra in the year 632AD/10AH Prophet Mohammad had delivered similar guidelines to his followers in his Last Sermon — delivered after a lifetime spent tackling racism and slavery, female infanticide and gender inequality.

With Hajj that year coinciding with a Jum’ah (Friday) prayer and Prophet Muhammad knowing he hadn’t much longer to live, he seized this occasion to preach his Last Sermon (Khutbah Hajjat-al-Wada). As there are multiple sources versions of the sermon, what follows is likely woven together from these versions over time, broken down into its take-home messages.

The Last Sermon

“O People, listen well to my words, for I do not know whether, after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you very carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today.

O People, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Treat others justly so that no one would be unjust to you. Remember that you will indeed meet your LORD, and that HE will indeed reckon your deeds.

Here the Muslims are told to regard the life and property of their fellow Muslims with the same sacredness that they regard the sacred month of Dhu al-Hijjra, the day of Arafat and the city of Mecca. People and their property are therefore to be protected.

God has forbidden you to take usury (riba), therefore all riba obligation shall henceforth be waived. Your capital, however, is yours to keep. You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity. God has judged that there shall be no riba and that all the riba due to `Abbas ibn `Abd al Muttalib shall henceforth be waived.

Usury is deemed in Islam to be economic exploitation and therefore prohibited as it increases the wealth of the rich by taking wealth from the poor. The Last Sermon therefore enshrines protection from economic exploitation through usury — even voiding the interest due to Prophet Muhammad’s uncle ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al Muttalib.

Every right arising out of homicide in pre-Islamic days is henceforth waived and the first such right that I waive is that arising from the murder of Rabi`ah ibn al Harith ibn `Abd al Muttalib.

The themes of waiving prior vendetta is mentioned in both the Sahih Muslim and Sunan Abu Dawood recordings of the Last Sermon, and corresponds to Surah 5:32 of the Qur’an, which states that “We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land — it is as if he had slain mankind entirely”.

Prophet Muhammad himself sets precedent by waiving publicly his due right from the murder of his first cousin Rabi’ah ibn al Harith ‘Abd al Muttalib.

O Men, the Unbelievers indulge in tampering with the calendar in order to make permissible that which God forbade, and to forbid that which God has made permissible. With God the months are twelve in number. Four of them are sacred, three of these are successive and one occurs singly between the months of Jumada and Sha`ban. Beware of the devil, for the safety of your religion. He has lost all hope that he will ever be able to lead you astray in big things, so beware of following him in small things.

O People, it is true that you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under God’s trust and with His permission. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers. It is your right and they do not make friends with anyone of whom you do not approve, as well as never to be unchaste…

Here, Prophet Muhammad stresses that Muslim men should be good and kind to their wives, to show kindness, tenderness, and consideration towards women. In her thesis on the Islamic Concepts of Masculinity and Femininity, holds that in the Last Sermon, Siraj proposes that leadership does not entail being dominating, but rather encompasses a sense to ‘benevolent responsibility’ and that Prophet Muhammad’s Last Sermon helps promote masculine leadership as ‘a fusion of power with tenderness, vigour with affection, and strength with sensitivity’.

However, in his analysis of the origins of the compiled sermon, Farooq noted that only Sunan Ibn Majah mentions the reciprocity of rights between men and women, whilst both Sahih Muslim and Sunan Ibn Majah mention the permissibility of chasting women (albeit not harsh nor injurious).

In spite of this, the gender-rights that the Last Sermon cemented were largely liberalising to a society that had buried girls alive and treated women as possessions. It enforced the Qur’anic declaration that women are equal to men in the matters of rights: as men have rights over women, so too do women have rights over men — even though equality does not necessarily mean being treated identically.

Indeed, Prophet Muhammad has said that none but a noble man treats women in an honourable manner, and none but an ignoble treats women disgracefully, and Abu Hurairah reporting that Prophet Muhammad said that “the most perfect man in his faith among the believers is the one whose behaviour is most excellent; and the best of you are those who are the best to their wives”.

O People, listen to me in earnest, worship God (The One Creator of the Universe), perform your five daily prayers (Salah), fast during the month of Ramadan, and give your financial obligation (zakah) of your wealth. Perform Hajj if you can afford to.

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.

Here, Prophet Muhammad reminds us that all humans are created equally, and that being of a particular race or culture does not make one superior. It also reinforces that skin colouring or physical characteristics should not lead to discrimination, which is similar to that stated in the UN charter of human rights.

Laluddin et al also argue that this common ancestry of Adam and Eve is a hallmark of the Islamic social system and that the common parentage of humankind gives no ground for racial discrimination.

We are reminded of Surah 49:13 and 4:125 of the Qur’an, which states that “Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you,” because “who is better in religion than one who submits himself to Allah while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth?”.

Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim that belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

This reinforces Surah 49:10 that “the believers are but brothers, so make settlement between your brothers. And fear Allah that you may receive mercy”; as well as reinforcing the earlier statements on usury, homicide and equality. It indicates that consent must be gained before taking something, and that other’s property must be respected.

Remember, one day you will appear before God (The Creator) and you will answer for your deeds. So beware, do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.

Again, we are reminded of Surah 49:13 and 4:32 of the Qur’an in that the only criterion on which a person is judged is their righteous deeds, regardless of gender, “for men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned.”.

O People, no prophet or messenger will come after me and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand words that I convey to you. I am leaving you with the Book of God and my Sunnah; if you follow them you will never go astray.

All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly. Be my witness O God, that I have conveyed your message to your people.

Here, the crowds of pilgrims at Arafat bore witness to Prophet Muhammad’s faithful delivery of his message — “Allahumma na’m” they said.

The Universality of the Message

Over the course of the Farewell Hajj, Prophet Mohammad had addressed more than 10,000 pilgrims at different times during the Hajj in Mina, Mudzdalifa and Arafat — a broad valley about 13 miles east of Mecca. His repeated injunctions over the course of the hajj cemented the universality of his message and made explicit that this came from God.

This universality is reinforced through the language used. The frequent use of “O people” in the address validates its’ universality — free of time and place constraints and valid not only for those present at the time, but for “the people of every generation of all ages”.

The “declarative mood” of the language used by Prophet Muhammad indicates that very strong and factually based information is being imparted, and imperative clauses are used to express his commands and requests.

The Last Sermon was a culmination of the “perfect example” of the life of Prophet Mohammad, in which he taught his followers to never show an intolerant attitude towards others, regardless of race or religion. Ultimately, he used the Last Sermon to reinforce important points from the Quran: that a person will enter heaven based on their righteous deeds alone, that their sex, race, or wealth do not make them superior, and that the rights of wives are equal to that of their husbands.

Conclusion

Overall, the Last Sermon illustrates how Prophet Mohammad used his Prophethood to lay the foundations of the idea of universal human rights in a region previously dominated by tribalism. Despite these teachings 1400 years ago, these lessons still need to be heeded today, as some members of the Muslim community today still use “abeed” (slave) as a derogatory word for people of African origin, and there remains poor integration between Muslims of different nationalities despite our multicultural societies.

Taking these lessons, we should shelve the “Muslim nationalism” premised on a single Muslim nation that is common amongst Islamic nations today and return towards Prophet Muhammad’s ‘Islamic multiculturalism’ that is open to religious pluralism and the co-existence of Muslim and non-Muslim communities with recognition and fair treatment of ethnic and religious diversity. Perhaps then the violence, inequality and nationalism causing suffering throughout the world in our times may be solved.

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Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.