Telling the Story of the Prophet in a New Way: Meraj Mohiuddin

Telling the Story of the Prophet in a New Way: Meraj Mohiuddin on

ImanWire

From the heaven's blue 
to the parched sand dunes, 
Revelation descends
Down through Muhammad 
and through his story
...the way back up again.

- Majid Mohiuddin

For 13 years, Meraj Mohiuddin has meticulously recreated the life of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in an innovative format that speaks to a new generation. The fruit of this work, "Revelation: The Story of Muhammad ﷺ", is a fresh take on the Seerah that has garnered enthusiastic reviews since its publication last month. Revelation will be the reference book used in Al-Madina Institute's upcoming video series on the life of the Prophet ﷺ , "In the Footsteps of the Messenger". The author shared his thoughts on the book in an interview with Al-Madina.

Al-Madina: Tell us a little about yourself. What got you interested in studying the Seerah?

Meraj Mohiuddin: I’m a second generation Indian-American who grew up in New Jersey. Older brother, younger sister – both physicians. We all went to public school, played varsity sports, and studied hard for the SATs.  My parents were big on Islam, education, athletics, and extracurricular activities. That being said, we didn’t really have Sunday schools growing up. After college and medical school I started feeling uneasy with how far behind my Islamic education lagged compared to my understanding of microbiology, pharmacology, and all the other “-ologies” med school throws at you.  I was grateful for the strong foundation my parents gave me, and the amazing experiences I had with my college MSA, but I never felt like I really owned subjects related to my faith.  This uneasiness inspired me to start studying the Seerah for my personal growth.

As a physician, why do you feel qualified to write about the Prophet?

I’m glad you asked me that–and I think it’s an important question. The truth is, my expertise lies in condensing huge volumes of information into succinct study notes, and then using those notes to master original sources.  It’s what I’ve done for years in medical school, and so I applied the same approach to mastering a number of reputable sources on the Prophet’s life ﷺ.

If you read this book, you’ll see that I never inject my perspective into it. I’m simply presenting the facts (based on the earliest sources) and explaining it through the words of modern scholars. I leave it up to the reader to tease through the material, and reach their own conclusions.

Walk us through the 13 year journey that brought this book to where it is today.

So like I said, this book began as a personal study guide I started writing to help prepare myself for an Umrah trip I was taking with my mom in 2003.  Before I landed in the holy cities, I wanted to have a better sense of the history of the place, and the history behind my faith.  I was reading Martin Lings and listening to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s Life of the Prophet CD set. In one of the early CDs he says:

“This book…a lot of people find it difficult because of the names…it is a problem…and you know what would be really nice?  If somebody actually went through the book, wrote down all the names, and then had a glossary of names.  You could kind of keep that with you as you read the book.  That would be really useful…” (5:1@1:30)

I was inspired by Shaykh Hamza’s challenge, and started writing down all the names I encountered. We’re talking about people, tribes, clans, battles, treaties, etc. As I worked my way through various biographies, the list of names grew unmanageable. I found it impossible to keep track of 17 different people named ‘Abd Allah. I needed to come up with a better system to learn the Seerah.  So I employed techniques I used in medical school to consolidate, distill, digest, and remember information. Basically, what started as a list of names in 2003, slowly evolved into an extensive study guide to the Prophet’s life. That’s the book.

What makes your approach unique? What makes this book different from all the other books on the Prophet?

I’ve always felt that Seerah is the most enjoyable field of study in Islam. Part of what makes it fascinating is all the amazing details that have been preserved through the ages. Unfortunately, it’s that same amount of detail that makes the Seerah so hard to learn and master. There are some amazing books out there that tell the Prophet’s story, but I’ve found that none of them actually help you learn and engage with the material every step of the way. 

Imagine if you had a bookshelf on the most widely-read biographies on the Prophet ﷺ. We’re talking about scholars like Safiur Rehman Al-Mubarkpuri, W. Montgomery Watt, Tariq Ramadan, Martin Lings, Karen Armstrong, Adil Salahi, and Hamza Yusuf.  Now imagine if you could compress all that material­–with their unique pearls of wisdom–into a single, efficient study guide that not only presents multiple respected viewpoints, but also helps you learn the material along the way. That’s what you see when you open up this book.

Can you give specific examples of how this book is different from others?

This book was specifically designed to help readers learn complex material in a format that is similar to other textbooks they may have studied in college. Aside from showcasing the work of 8 different scholars, this book includes over 90 original figures that help you understand family trees, travel routes, complex tribal alliances, and more. It comes with an interactive glossary of over 370 names, and includes excerpts from nearly 80 different surahs in the approximate order of revelation. The entire project has drawn on a very special team of professionals, who have turned this into a uniquely modern textbook on the Seerah.

Mohiuddin (left), teaching the unique Seerah timeline, which enables students to easily remember the chronology of the Prophet's life.
 

My favorite part of the book is the unique timeline I developed that helps readers memorize all the major events in the Seerah in less than 10 minutes.  The book is organized according to this timeline so that you never get lost in the details as you make your way through the Seerah.

Finally, we’ve laid out the book as if it is a book within a book.  What that means is that there are wide margins on each side that contain special “elaborations” that highlight and clarify material in the text.

For example, let’s say you’re deep into the Early Meccan Period. A lot is going on, and you come across the story of how the Quraysh sent a man named ‘Amr ibn al-‘As to retrieve the Muslims who had fled to Abyssinia.   For most people reading the text, the name ‘Amr wouldn’t ring any bells and they’d keep on moving. But what’s interesting is that 15 years later, ‘Amr will flee to Abyssinia to seek asylum because of the Prophet’s growing influence in Medina!

Years ago, I never made that connection, because ‘Amr’s first trip to Abyssinia happened 200 pages ago, and there was no way to remember who he was. Passively reading the Seerah this way leaves the Companions as nothing more than faceless entities that become placeholders in the Prophet’s life.  And in the end, this gives way to one of the biggest tragedies in our modern understanding of the Seerah.

In my book, what I do is bring the glossary of names to life.  I know that people aren’t going to flip back to the glossary every time they don’t recognize a name. So what I did is place the glossary entries in the margins of the book every time a person is mentioned.  So in year five when ‘Amr’s name first appears, I place an elaboration in the margin that reminds readers who ‘Amr is–who he’s related to, and where he’s from. Then I also clue readers into the irony, that in year 20, ‘Amr will flee to Abyssinia in search of asylum from the Muslims. But I don’t stop there. When you see ‘Amr’s name again in year 20, you’ll find another elaboration waiting for you to remind you that this was the same person who we were talking about back in year 5. Not only that, but I’ll give you a heads-up that in the near future ‘Amr will embrace Islam and the Prophet will entrust him to lead an army of 500 men to the Syrian border. 

I do this for every name, every time it comes up. But each time the entries change such that I’m keeping up with your reading of the story and reminding you what that individual did in the past, and also when to look out for him in the future.  The elaboration boxes are not just limited to people. I use them to introduce Surahs and also to point out interesting connections in the Seerah that most readers would have never realized.  These types of connections almost always get lost in the details. Which is why I try to bring them out in the margins and show readers they might have missed.  Honestly, putting together the elaborations was one of the most challenging tasks in writing this book, but I think they are powerful tools to mastering the material.

In the end, all this stuff–diagrams, maps, timelines, captions, elaborations, surah excerpts, commentary, appendices, glossary, and more–it’s all there to open the door for readers who want to study the Seerah in a comprehensive and efficient manner.

You mentioned that one of the biggest tragedies is not knowing who the Prophet’s companions were. Can you explain?

I address this problem in my Preface. I’ve come to believe that the Seerah is as much about the story of the Companions as it is about the life of the Prophet.  The Companions represent the fruits of his labor, and without getting to know them in an intimate way–where they started and how they transformed themselves–it’s nearly impossible to really grasp the true genius and wonder of the Prophet’s work ﷺ. In the example above, if you don’t make the connection that the same person who chased after the Muslim emigrants could still become a respected military leader under the Prophet’s command, you’ll never find inspiration in their stories. We have to take the stories from the Companions and make them our own.

Have you had any scholars review your book?

That’s a very important question. I’ve sent numerous preview copies to respected scholars throughout the country and have been blessed with very strong endorsements. I won’t name them all here, but for starters I’ve had this book reviewed by Dr. Sherman Jackson at USC, who’s also graciously provided a stirring Foreword to the book. In addition, I’ve had very strong endorsements from Dr. Muzzammil Siddiqi, who represents the Fiqh Council of North America, and Zaytuna College, our first fully accredited Islamic seminary.

Why did you dedicate this book to your readers?

It’s important to me that every part of this book speaks to the Prophet’s legacy ﷺ. As you make your way through the material, I’d like to think it will become obvious why I dedicate it to the reader.

What were some challenges you faced during the writing process?

One of the main reasons this book took 13 years to write is that I’ve written it over and over again–four times to be exact.  Among other challenges, I’ve had to change translations, redo figures, revise quotes, and retype unsaved files.

Each time I rewrote the manuscript, it was to add new elements that were not present in the earlier drafts. For example, there were no elaborations in the first and second drafts.  I didn’t include nearly as many Qur’anic verses until the third draft, and I only included descriptions of the surahs in the final manuscript. 

The picture I’m painting is that it has been a fairly non-linear, organic process to get the book into its final form. In retrospect all of these steps–both forward and backward– were absolutely necessary to get this project to where it was meant to go.  At first, some of the setbacks I experienced were crushing, but over time I’ve learned to accept that this book has a life of its own, and I’m only responsible for what I put into it, not where it goes.

What was one of the most challenging subjects in the Seerah for you? How did you resolve it?

The usual stuff: the Prophet’s marriage to ‘A’ishah, the execution of the tribe of Qurayzah, the assassination of Ka’b, etc. These will always be hot-button issues in our generation.  It’s only natural, because it goes against certain sensibilities that we’ve grown up with.  Whenever I felt uncomfortable, I stopped until I fully explored the issue. Not just through books on the Seerah, but also books on sociology and psychology. It took time to let things soak in. Sometimes when I was quick to defend the Prophet’s actions, I later wonder if I was defending attacks from others, or defending attacks from within.  In retrospect, I can see that I had to go through the exercise of being an apologist and a polemic, before I could get to the next stage of personal development. I’d like to think that I’ve come to a place of deeper understanding and appreciation of the Prophet’s life ﷺ that feels very comfortable and confident. And getting here was worth feeling uncomfortable along the way.

What is your goal in writing this book?

I wanted to write a book for people from all backgrounds that presents the Prophet ﷺ in a way that is accessible and authentic. From there I’d like to help people to rekindle a relationship with the Prophet ﷺ in a way that makes an actual difference in their day to day lives.  The Prophet ﷺ started a grassroots effort–one individual at a time–in order to bring beauty and balance back into his community. I hope this book can be an extension of his legacy, one reader at a time.

There has been a lot of buzz and excitement about the book, with rave reviews from both scholars and laypersons alike. What have you learned, and what has been most rewarding in seeing the reaction of the public to Revelation?

In the past few weeks I've had extraordinary conversations with people from around the world. With every smile, every kleenex, and every embrace, it has become quite apparent that the disproportionate outflow of love and support has a lot less to do with what I put into this book, and a lot more to do with what readers are bringing to it. 

When I was at RIS, a young Canadian came up to me with tears in his eyes, as he talked about his relationship with the Prophet ﷺ. We hadn't met before, and we barely exchanged words. It was as if, after so many years of searching, we both finally found our way home again. It was a very powerful moment that I'll never forget. In all outward aspects, he was the most unassuming person in the entire convention, and yet in that moment, his heart was bigger than the convention itself. 

I only share this story because, in the course of the last several weeks, I'm learning that I'm not the only one who is starving for a truly authentic dialogue with other people and an honest, intimate relationship with the Prophet ﷺ.  People I've talked to want to be heard, not judged. In the end I'd like to think we all just want to fall in love. 

Do you have any words of wisdom to share with our readers?

Well, I’ve always been a goal-oriented person.  Part of achieving big goals is visualizing oneself at the finish line. While I find that approach to be a helpful tool in reaching my goals, it can also be disheartening when things don’t go my way.  As I stated earlier, the more I got into this project, the more I learned to let go of the final result.  I’ve realized through this journey, that achieving goals isn’t a cause and effect scenario.  It’s easy to get trapped into that mentality, but the truth is that there is no real chain of causation in our work.  It’s simply God’s will, period. I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes it takes years of life-experiences to actually let that sink down deep.  So to answer your question, the task of writing this book has taught me to focus on my intentions and effort, and not worry about the end result. As I was putting final touches on the book, Dr. Jackson reminded me in his all-too special way, “Now relax and let Allah do His thing.”

To order a copy of Revelation and learn more about the project, please visit www.revelationthebook.com.


Revelation will be the reference book used in Al-Madina's upcoming video series, "In the Footsteps of the Messenger", with Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui, Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Hassan Laccheb, Yasir Fahmy, and Moutasem Atiya, coming later in 2016. 


By ImanWire , 11 Jan 2016

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