One of the companions of Prophet Muhammad said, “I haven’t seen anyone smile more often than the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him.” With that, one would assume he was particularly cheerful, since smiling usually is an expression of happiness, pleasure, joy or amusement. We take that for granted. But, knowing about Prophet Muhammad’s life, I find his smile a bit mysterious.
Muhammad never knew his father, since he died before he was born. His mother died when he was six – old enough to remember his loss for the rest of his life. Handed over to his paternal grandfather, he grieved his passing just two years later. He then settled with a poor uncle, working as a shepherd to earn his keep. Later, he built a family with Khadija and had six children. The two boys died as toddlers. His wife of 25 years died and then, one by one, three of his daughters died, leaving him with only the youngest, Fatima. How, after so much loss, can one continue to smile? And not just to smile, but to smile more than anyone else?
Muhammad, peace be upon him, was known as the Messenger of God. His duty was to convey the divine revelation to his people in Mecca and, by extension, to all mankind. He was also charged with explaining and practically demonstrating the teachings of the Quran to his followers, which might not be overly difficult in ordinary circumstances. However, doing that in the midst of ridicule, slander, assault and attempts on his life added weight to his burden. Eventually, he fled his hometown a refugee, finding asylum in Medina. The experience would make even the most resilient of people downcast and bitter. And yet he smiled more than any of his people.
After finding refuge in Medina, Muhammad, peace be upon him, was able to build a community on the teachings of the Quran. It is here where he should have finally enjoyed the fruits of his labor in a society of peaceful followers. But he experienced betrayal and intrigue from the hypocrites in Medina and outright attack from the bullies of Mecca. In one conflict after another, he defended his people from brutality, robbery and annihilation, joining the heat of battle without exception. He was always on guard, always negotiating peace, always working for stability so that he could fulfill his mission. Most men would have been plagued with worry, anxiety and fear. Yet he smiled.
His ability to hold his head high despite growing up as a poor orphan, to be happy even though he lost nearly his entire family, to carry on despite fierce opposition and brutal confrontation, and to smile throughout – to the extent that his followers said he smiled more than anybody else – confounds me. Where did he get his strength?
It must have been from prayer.
In spite of his heavy responsibilities, Muhammad, peace be upon him, always found time to pray. He welcomed, even waited for, the five times a day he would gather his people and lead them in prayer. He told the muezzin, “O Bilal, call for prayer – give us comfort by it.” When the people went home to sleep, he went home to pray, sometimes standing the whole night in devotion and supplication. He often cried in his prayers to the extent that he would wet his beard and even the mat he prostrated on.
His heart must have been broken with loneliness, trampled with brutality, stretched to bursting with fear. With that swollen, aching heart, he stood for prayer in front of his Lord, where he found a soothing presence. In that embrace, he unloaded the weight of the world from his back and cleared the sadness of tragedy from his heart until he met calm emptiness, stillness, quiet exhaustion. Then, from the Grace of God, the vacuum filled with Light! His heart swelled anew with courage and strength, peace and optimism – even joy. He overflowed with divine Love, which made him to his companions “more beautiful than the full moon.” With the effects of prayer obvious in his countenance, he was able to meet everyone with an encouraging word, a charitable gesture and a warm, genuine smile.
I can see him in my mind’s eye — radiant, beautiful, smiling. May the peace and blessings of God be upon him.