During the tenth year of Hijrah (emigration from Makkah), young Ibrahim, who was then about a year and a half old, fell seriously ill. At the very time when the religion of the One was being established all over the Peninsula, with adversity constantly diminishing and the number of conversions continuing to grow, the Prophet saw his only son about to leave life and to leave him. He visited him every day and spent hours by his side.
When the child eventually breathed his last, the Prophet took him in his arms and held him against his breast, tears streaming down his face, so deep was his sorrow.
`Abdur-Rahman ibn `Awf, his faithful Companion, was surprised by those sobs, because he thought that the Prophet had previously forbidden such expressions of grief. At first, Muhammad could not speak; then he explained to him that he had forbidden excessive manifestations of distress, through wailing or hysterical behavior, but not the natural expression of sorrow and suffering.
Then he gave verbal expression to his grief that, in effect , became a spiritual teaching, as he declared that his tears were “signs of tenderness and mercy.” He added a comment springing from his own experience, but which was also true in every Muslim’s daily life: “He who is not merciful will not be shown mercy.” (AL-Bukhari and Muslim)
In the difficult moments of life, kindness, clemency, mercy, and the expressions of empathy that human beings offer one another bring them closer to the One, Ar-Rahman (the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful). Through them, God reaches closer to the believer’s heart, offering the believer what the believer him- or herself has offered to a brother or sister in humanity.
The Prophet was intimately affected, and he did not hesitate to show and express his grief. He added: “The eye sheds tears, 0 Ibrahim, the heart is infinitely sad, and one must only utter what satisfies God.” (AL-Bukhari and Muslim)
God had once more tested him through his humanity and his mission. He had lost so many loved ones-Companions, his wife Khadijah, three of his daughters, and his three sons.”
His life had been crossed with tears, but he remained both gentle with his heart and firm in his mission. It was this chemistry of gentleness and firmness that satisfied the Most Near.
At the time when, in this tenth year of Hijrah, the world seemed to open up to the Prophet’s mission, Muhammad’s human fate seemed reduced to that tiny grave where Ibrahim’s body was laid, and over which he then led the funeral prayer. The Prophet was one of the eject; the Prophet remained a human being.
Lessons for Life
A few hours after his return from the graveyard, an eclipse of the sun occurred. The Muslims were quick to associate the eclipse with the death of the Prophet’s child and see it as a miracle, a kind of message from God to His Prophet. But Muhammad put an end to all such interpretations, saying forcefully:
“The sun and the moon are two of God’s signs. Their light does not darken for anyone’s death.” (AL-Bukhari and Muslim)
Muhammad was thus reminding his Companions of the order of things and of the necessity to make no mistake in interpreting signs, in order to avoid lapsing into superstition.
This was, for them as well as for himself, a spiritual teaching in restraint and humility: human beings, the Prophet among them, had to learn how to depart, and see their loved ones depart, in silence, with discretion, and amid the indifference of the order of things.
The trial of faith and of humanity, which made the Prophet shed tears, consisted precisely in learning how to find, at the heart of the eternity of creation and of never-ending cycles, the strength to face the finitude of the human, sudden departures, and death.
The sign of the One’s presence at the time of a person’s death lies not in the occurrence of any miracle but rather in the permanence of the natural order, in the eternity of His creation, crossed here and there by the passage of created beings, who come and depart.
The article is an excerpt from Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s book “In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press (2007).