Transformational Teaching: Prophet Muhammad as a Teacher and Murabbī (Part 2)

Transformational Teaching: Prophet Muhammad as a Teacher and Murabbī (Part 2) on

Zainab Alwani

The first part of this article can be read here. 

The Qur’anic Strategy against Rumors: An Analytical Reading of Sūrat al- Nūr

How does the Qur’an describe and analyze this experience? What are the main issues that it emphasizes? How does it examine the people’s attitude toward this slander? Does it provide guidance and strategies for dealing with similar problems? According to the Qur’an, what is the problem? Why is it important to analyze people’s stands on such issues? How do we define the relationship between the Qur’an and Sunna in light of this sūrah?

Clear rules can be formulated from this sūra. First, as God says, assess the people who instigate and circulate a story without confirmation and then hold them accountable: “Indeed, those who came with a falsehood among you are a group among you. Do not regard it as a misfortune, for it is good for you. Every one of them shall be held to account for the sin he has committed, and he who took the greater part in it shall have a terrible punishment” (24:11).

Second, establish strong relationships among the community based on trust and compassion: “Why, when you heard it for the first time, did not the believing men and the believing women think good of one another and say, ‘This is an obvious falsehood’?” (24:12)

Third, verify the story before making any comments or statements. Those who spread lies must face the consequences: “Why did they not bring four witnesses? And when they do not produce the witnesses, then it is they in the sight of God who are the liars. Had it not been for the favor of God upon you, and His mercy in this world and the hereafter, you would have been touched for that lie in which you were involved by a great punishment” (24:13-14).

Fourth, be mindful of what you say because your words could cause irreparable damage by creating problems that lead to internal conflict: “When you received it with your tongue and said with your mouths that which you had no knowledge of, you thought that it was an insignificant thing, while in the sight of God it was something very great” (24:15-16).

Fifth, create mechanisms to help prevent rumors from spreading: “Why, when you heard it, did you not say: ‘It is not for us to talk about this. Glory be to You, this is a great lie. God warns you against doing this forever, if you are true believers. God explains the commandments clearly to you, and He is the All- Knowing, the All-Wise’” (24:17-18).

Sixth, set firm rules of accountability for those who spread gossip and slander: “Those who love (to see) scandal broadcast among the believers will have a grievous penalty in this life and in the hereafter. God knows, and you  know not” (24:19).

Seventh, and lastly, strengthen your relationship with God and seek His guidance: “But for the grace of God and His mercy upon you, and were not God compassionate and merciful, [you would have come to grief]” (24:20).

Some of the mechanisms to help prevent rumors from arising and spreading are mentioned in Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt, which was revealed in Madina in 9 AH. This mechanism is designed to regulate and balance human relationships by identifying the predictable consequences. For example, spying, mockery, and backbiting are destructive in nature, whereas being honest, trustworthy, truthful, just, and forgiving strengthen relationships. Each family member has rights and responsibilities that further regulate healthy relationships. Human beings are encouraged to learn how to work together in order to accomplish their goals.

The Prophetic Pedagogy: Tilāwa, Broadcasting Knowledge, and Attaining Tazkiya

God commanded His Prophet (pbuh) to recite and convey the Qur’anic message. Thus, we are told: “Indeed, God bestowed a favor upon the believers when He raised up in their midst a messenger from among themselves to convey His messages unto them (yatlū ‘alayhim āyātihi), to cause them to grow in purity, and to impart unto them the Book as well as wisdom (3:164).

Yatlū is often rendered as “recite” or “rehearse”; however, it has another meaning as well: to follow or imitate. God Almighty says: “Consider the sun and its radiant brightness, and the moon as it reflects the sun” (91:1-2). A more literal translation of ““reflects the sun” (wa al-qamar idhā talāhā) would be “as if [the moon] follows it [the sun].” The moon derives its light from the sun, and in this sense is the sun’s “follower” or “successor,” similar to how we should derive light from the Qur’an and reflect it in our lives.16 In 11:17, yatlū might also be understood as conveying the message by reciting the divine text’s verses. Hence, the recitation (tilāwa) of God's Book may mean not only to recite and convey the āyāt, but also to follow them and translate their meaning into reality.

[It is] they who read/[truly] follow the Book of Allah are constant in prayer and spend on others, secretly and openly, out of what We provide for them as sustenance. It is they who may look forward to a bargain that can never fail, for He will grant them their just rewards and give them yet more out of His bounty, for verily He is much-forgiving, ever-responsive to gratitude. (35:29-30)

All people without exception are urged to read, contemplate, and gain knowledge through this Divine revelation. “Read,” as proclaimed in 96:1, is both a command and a comprehensive guide to teach us how to read the Book of God and to engage with His creation combining the two readings in a way that helps us attain purification (tazkiya) and reflect it in every aspect of our life.

How did the Prophet (pbuh) practice this tilāwa, which is considered the cornerstone of his mission? Since the Qur’an is the final revelation from the Creator to humanity, it was revealed to bring all people out of the depths of darkness and into the light. Therefore, it is a source of belief, thought, worldview, and conceptualization. This creative source of holistic knowledge and guidance gives the necessary order to establish human concepts; clarify the relationships between the Creator, humanity, and the universe; and then regulates them in such a way that they will bring about an integrated tawḥīdī-based society.

As a result, reading, reciting, and conveying its āyāt and message is significant in attaining tazkiya, which transcends personal spirituality and leads to interpersonal growth. Tazkiya is a continuous process of purification that maintains one’s spiritual health, removes what is harmful for its growth, and moves it toward the height of purification. The foremost quality of mind and character that flows from this commitment is a state of constant vigilance or an awareness of the presence of God, the All-Knowing taqwā. The root-letters w-q-y mean “to protect,” “to save from destruction,” and “to preserve.” Tazkiya is the important process of building this quality of God-consciousness. Taqwā is at the heart of those traits cultivated by tilāwa and the constant remembrance of God. Its most important and basic function is to allow people to correctly examine themselves and to distinguish right from wrong.

To the extent that, as described by Fazlur Rahman, “one is able to perform this moral self-X-raying”; this muḥāsaba, one has “protected” oneself from error and its self-destructive consequences.17 Therefore, accountability becomes both a moral as well as a social obligation. The Qur’an describes taqwā as the best “garment” one can wear (7:26) and the “best provision” one can take for the future (2:197). In other words, it is the best guarantee for building a good character. Although taqwā must be rooted in our inner faith, it has to be reflected in our actions (4:135 and 5:8), as stated in “Cooperate with each other on the basis of righteousness and taqwā, not on the basis of sin and transgression” (5:2).

Therefore, the Prophetic mission serves the critical role of embodying the Qur’anic message and values and applying them to guide one through this worldly reality. In order for humanity to continue receiving this revealed knowledge from its source, the Qur’an presents a practical plan for tilāwa until the Day of Judgment. Since the first Prophetic mission is to read and recite the Qur’an and rehearse its āyāt so his umma can continue the mission, the Qur’an presents a practical plan for how to recite, understand, and allow the āyāt to enter their readers’ hearts and change their lives. This recitation is the best way to strengthen one’s faith, steadfastness, and mindfulness of God – all of which will lead to spiritual growth and tazkiya.

1. Gradual learning: The Qur’an explains why it was revealed in the form of responses to the Qurayshi pagans: “The disbelievers also ask, ‘Why was the Qur’an not sent down to him all at once?’ We sent it in this way to strengthen your heart [O Prophet]. We gave it to you in  gradual revelation” (25:32) and “It is a recitation that We have revealed in parts so that you can recite it to humanity in stages. We have sent it down little by little” (17:106).

Tartīl denotes “regularity, articulation, and being well-ordered.” Sūrat al- Muzammil explains this process: “and [during that time] recite the Qur’an calmly and distinctly, with your mind attuned to its meaning (73:4). Here it implies articulate, eloquent, and contemplating the recitation of the Qur’an’s verses and reflecting upon their meanings and impacts upon one’s life. This practical step illustrates gradual change. Flexible pacing is key in this regard, for it lets people feel that they are not being rushed to learn new concepts or being held back if they learn them too quickly. This was exemplified by the Companions, both men and women, who were in the habit of learning and practicing the verses at the same time.

For example, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Aslami reported: “The Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) would learn ten verses from the Messenger of God and would not take another ten verses until they had learned their meaning and ruling. They said, ‘We would learn knowledge and action together.’”18 They also taught what they had learned by helping others memorize the Qur’an and, most importantly, through their practical example, which reflected directly what they had learned from it.19 Transformational teaching changes people’s lives so that they can, in turn, inspire positive changes in those who follow them. Change requires the murabbī to have patience and ḥikma (wisdom), for successful and lasting change can only be attained via these two qualities.

2. Gradual teaching: A second important reason was to allow its teachings to slowly enter the hearts and lives of its first recipients. The Qur’an uses “sent down,” in its various forms, well over 200 times. The second grammatical verb form – nazzalnā – which reflects this gradual descent, is used in many verses, among them 2:23 and 97; 3:3; 4:47; 15:9; 16:89; 17:106; and 76:23. The use of this verb form is significant because it captures the historical reality of the Qur’an’s twenty-three-year descent into the earthly realm. Therefore, its content is intertwined with the realities of those early communities who witnessed its revelation. In other words, it spoke to historical and personal events within those communities that believed in it as well as those that rejected it.

One distinctive feature of the Qur’an is its direct response to what was going on among these people. For example, Sūrat al-Nūr is without question one of those sūras that captured and responded directly to events on the ground. In relation to this fact, one must understand the munāsabāt al-nuzūl (the occasions of the revelation)20 in light of al-waḥda al- binā’iyya li-l-Qur’ān as a methodology. But how should we understand this genre of literature, which describes the events or questions that elicit the revelation of certain verses? What methods should we use to acquire a correct understanding of their meanings? What do the questions asked by the first generation of Muslims, both men and women, show us, in our current context, about the questions we should be asking of the Qur’an?

3. Listening to the Qur’an: Another powerful and emphasized method in the context of tilāwa is: “When the Qur’an is read, listen to it with attention and remain silent so that you may receive mercy” (7:204) and “Remember your Lord deep in your very soul, in all humility and awe, without raising your voice, morning and evening. Do not be one of the heedless” (7:205). The Quraysh realized the power of listening to the Qur’an, and history records instances among their elite members who would sneak away to listen to the Prophet or the Companions recite it at night. In other words, they highly discouraged people from listening to its verses out of fear that it may soften their hearts and make them vulnerable to receiving the message.

The Qur’an describes this reaction in detail: “Those who reject faith say: ‘Listen not to this Qur’an, but talk at random while it is being recited, [so] that you may gain the upper hand” (41:26). In another situation, the Qur’an illustrates their reaction visually: “And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, you recognize the disgust on the faces of those who deny the truth. It is almost as if they are going to attack those who recite to them Our verses. Say, “Then shall I tell you of [what is] worse than that? It is the Fire that God has promised to those who are bent on denying the truth. What an evil destination” (22:72).

The Qur’an takes us to yet another scene to tell us how the Prophet (pbuh) reacted to their actions: “We know that you, [O Prophet], are saddened by what they say. And indeed, they do not call you untruthful, but it is God’s messages that the wrongdoers deny” (6:33). God proceeds to tell His Prophet (pbuh) about what the Qurayshi leaders discussed when they secretly listened to him reciting it: “We are fully aware of what they wish to hear when they listen to you, what they say when they converse in private, and when the wrongdoers say, “You are only following a man who is bewitched” (17:47).

In Madina, the Prophet (pbuh) taught the Companions how listen to the recitation on different occasions, sometimes during such large and well- attended gatherings as the Friday congregational prayers. Imam Ahmad recorded that Umm Hisham bint Haritha said, “For around two years, or a year and a part of another year, our oven and the oven of the Prophet was one and the same. I memorized Sūra (Qāf. By the Glorious Qur’an.) from the tongue of the Messenger of Allah, who used to recite it every Friday while standing on the minbar delivering the Friday sermon to the people.’”21

This practice apparently continued after the Prophet (pbuh) died, for Rabi‘a narrated: Umar ibn al-Khattab recited Sūrat an-Naḥl on a Friday on the pulpit. When he reached the verse of sujūd al-tilāwa (prostration of the recitation), he left the pulpit and prostrated. The people also prostrated. The next Friday, he recited the same sūra and, upon reaching the same verse, said, “O people, when we recite the verses of (prostration of the recitation) during the sermon, whoever prostrates does the right thing. However, it is no sin for the one who does not prostrate.” And he did not prostrate (that day).22 This indicates that the people were continuously engaged with the Qur’an.

4. Contemplating the Qur’an on a personal level: The Qur’an encourages its readers to contemplate and engage in a dialogue with its āyāt, for “(This is) a Book that We have sent down unto you [O Muhammad], full of blessings, for people to ponder over its messages, and so that those with understanding may receive admonition” (38:29). The readers are encouraged to reflect, ask questions, seek clarity, and draw inspiration from it in ways that complicate, nuance, and ultimately enrich their views and refine their practices: “Do they not ponder on the Qur’an? If it had been from anyone other than God, they would have found much inconsistency in it” (4:82). The Qur’an continually encourages people to contemplate in order to broaden their horizons: “Have they not pondered over the word of God? Has something come to them that did not come to their forefathers?” (23:68). And, finally, it warns people that if they do not contemplate the Qur’an, their hearts will become locked and hardened. In that case, they reach the stage of hājir (abandonment): “The Messengers will say, ‘O my Sustainer! Truly, my people had abandoned this Qur’an’” (25:30).

Approaching the Qur’an during the time of its revelation was based on dialogue, an on-ongoing interaction between the people and the revelation. People raised their questions and issues, and then the revelation answered them. The Qur’an states at least fifteen times: “They ask you about….” Most of the questions mentioned in the divine text are related to social, economic, and legal issues. The impact of a holistic tilāwa of the Qur’an transformed ordinary men and women into social justice activists and social scientists, as happened to Khawla bint Tha‘laba, whom it taught to identify wrong customs and work hard to change them. The Qur’an represents her as a role model for humanity (59:1-4), indicating thereby that it invites its readers to ask questions and seek its guidance in order to inaugurate a positive change in their situation.

5. English-speakers rely heavily on translations to interpret the Qur’an’s original message. Given that translations vary in form, content, and quality and depend upon human interpreters, it is critical to understand which translations to use in which instances. Sometimes only a combination of multiple translations can provide a clear picture of the true meaning and intent behind what is being said in Arabic. This exercise requires a reading buddy with whom one can discuss the meaning and understand the Qur’anic message. Therefore, reading different translations is important, and the more accurate the translated versions read, the closer they come to the original text. This method also trains readers to double- and triple- check a translation that does not coincide with the chapter’s overall theme and harmony.

The Prophetic mission of tilāwa reveals a comprehensive model for eradicating illiteracy organically. Tilāwa, the Qur’anic-Prophetic holistic approach, presents education as the art of cultivating the intellectual, moral, emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of human development. Illiteracy is a harmful phenomenon that not only affects the individuals themselves in their  daily lives and their future, but also has a significant impact upon their society. Unfortunately, illiteracy among Muslims today is still high and remains a dangerous challenge in most Muslim nations. Due to many complex factors related to the political, cultural, economic, social, and demographic conditions, this negative reality threatens the stability of both people as well as socio-political institutions. How should a murabbī implement tilāwa to promote literacy and broadcast knowledge as the Prophet (pbuh) did?

This holistic approach helps train people to learn about themselves, their relationships, their responsibilities, and reverence for all of life. The role of the murabbī in observing the development of students or followers is very critical. Here, we can observe the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (pbuh) teaching strategies: listening to each person and helping them express their feelings in order to help them grow in purity (tazkiya). The Qur’an also provides methods to assess tilāwa’s impact upon people. This process helps develop one’s self-awareness skills, which are key to helping people understand their place in this world. Not only is self-awareness the state of consciously being present in terms of one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but it also allows people to bring clarity to their internal state so they can better manage their external environment. Based on the first community’s experience, the constant reading of the Qur’an while contemplating its verses was a collective movement that included all believers. This effective method gradually brought about their intimate relationship with the Qur’an, which then led to a holistic transformation in their lives.

True believers are those whose hearts tremble with awe at the mention of God, and whose faith grows stronger as they listen to His revelations, and who place their trust in their Sustainer – those who are constant in prayer and spend on others out of what We provide for them as sustenance. Such are the true believers. They have a high standing in their Sustainer's sight, and forgiveness of sins and a most excellent sustenance. (8:2-4)

This Qur’anic-Prophetic model of engaging with the Qur’an encourages people to see the beauty of what is around them and learn to hold life in awe. This is not limited to the first generation, but is for all generations until the Day of Judgment: “Those whom We have given this Book read/recite/follow it as it ought to be read/recited/followed. It is they who [truly] believe in it, whereas all who choose to deny its truth – it is they, they who are the losers” (2:121).


The Qur'an promotes cooperation and a complementary relationship among people to fulfill their mission on Earth. By applying the term murabbī in all its derivative forms in the Qur’an, this article presents this Qur’anic-Prophetic model as one that encompasses teaching, mentoring, advising, and guiding. This article concludes that a close analysis of the Prophet’s (pbuh) role as a murabbī holds practical applications for evolving Muslim communities today by providing a transformative model of leadership through the holistic guidance of the Qur’an, the ultimate source of tarbiyya.

More specifically, we should leverage the method of al-waḥda al- binā’iyya li-l-Qur’ān to actualize and present the term murabbī by using the Prophet’s (pbuh) mission as a roadmap for spawning a social revolution driven by accountability, mercy, and compassion. The Prophet (pbuh) embodied and cultivated compassion and mercy through his words and his actions (21:107). The Sunna represents the ethics, morals, and behaviors outlined in the Shariʿa. The Qur’anic notion of murabbī reflects a holistic relationship among the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the hadith (the prophetic tradition). As murabbīs, the onus is on us to transform and purify ourselves, which will, in turn, transform our society. As the Qur’an states; “God will not change what is in a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11).


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16. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, Reviving the Balance: The Authority of the Qur’an and the Status of the Sunnah, trans. Nancy Roberts (London and Washington: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2017).
17. Fazlur Rahman, “Some Key Ethical Concepts of the Qur’ān,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 11, no. 2 (Fall, 1983):170-85.
18. Source: Musnad Aḥmad, 22971.
19. Abu Abdullah al-Qurtubi, Jā mi‘ li-Aḥkām al-Qur’ān: Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī (Dar al-Fikr, n.d), 1:52. Many authentic narrations urge Muslims to learn the Qur’an. The Prophet said: “The best of you is he who learns the Qur’an and teaches it to others.” Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 5027, Book 66, Hadith 49. USC-MSA web (English).
20. Al-Suyuti n.d., 28. For further readings about the coherence of the Qur’an, see Mir 1986, 29-30 and 61-62.
21. Ibn Kathir, Tafsīr Sūrah Qāf; Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, Part 26 of 30: Al-Ahqāf 001. Muslim collected this hadith. Abu Dawud also recorded that al-Harith bin al-Nu‘man’s daughter said, “I only memorized Sūrah Qāf from the mouth of the Messenger of Allah, who used to recite it in every Friday khuṭbah. Our oven and the oven of the Messenger was one and the same.”' Muslim and al- Nasa’i collected this hadith. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 872.
22. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Vol. 2, Book 19 (Prostration during recitation of the Qur’an), 183.



By Zainab Alwani , 26 Nov 2019

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