Picture this: seated around a single man is a crowd full of eager eyes. Some of the men appear to be from the elite society, highly educated and of polished manners; they sit shoulder to shoulder with desert-rough Bedouins, whose swords speak more eloquently than their tongues. The gathering also includes shepherds, scribes, farmers, merchants and even street urchins. Children freely hover among them – they are never shooed out of the way. Such was the informal classroom of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (sa).
Our Prophet (sa) had much to teach and his knowledge, which determined the destiny of people, was not to be taken lightly. His students varied in age, background, gender and disposition. How would he address such a diverse gathering?
To begin with, the Prophet (sa) did not limit his ‘classes’ to sermons after Jumuah or a gathering under a tree – he would teach his companions whenever a suitable moment arose, whether they sat together for a meal or rode together through the desert. Accordingly, his manner of teaching varied, too. Let us look at some of the Prophet’s (sa) methods of instruction, as observed from his Sunnah.
Many important lessons have been etched in our minds through the true stories related by our Prophet (sa). Stories of strife borne by pious people of the past encourage patience. Reflecting on the good deeds of others invites us to similar actions, whereas stories about oppressors and their retribution by Allah (swt) discourage people from following their steps. Today, parents, teachers and all forms of information media can attest to the effectiveness of this method of instruction.
Once, the Prophet (sa) drew a square and then drew a line in the middle of it, letting this line extend outside the square, and then drew several small lines attached to that central line. Upon finishing this, he said: “This is the human being, and this (the square) is his lease of life, encircles him from all sides (or has encircled him), and this (line), which is outside (the square), is his hope, and these small lines are the calamities and troubles (which may befall him), and if one misses him, another will snap (i.e., overtake) him, and if the other misses him, a third will snap (i.e., overtake) him.” (Bukhari) This method of drawing in the sand was used by the Prophet (sa) for explaining abstract concepts.
Parables obviously simplify concepts and were extensively used by the Prophet (sa). For example, to encourage keeping good company, he said: “The example of a good companion (who sits with you) in comparison with a bad one is like that of the musk seller and the blacksmith’s bellows (or furnace); from the first you would either buy musk or enjoy its good smell, while the bellows would either burn your clothes or your house, or you would get a bad and nasty smell thereof.” (Bukhari)
At times, the Prophet (sa) would quiz his companions. This was used not only to test their knowledge and understanding of the Deen but also as a method to make them start thinking about a certain topic. Sometimes, he would begin talking about a topic by asking a question first, in order to call their attention towards it or allow them to view their understanding of a topic, before he clarified a misconception. He would even have them ponder over a riddle, from which they could benefit. Once, he said: “Amongst the trees, there is a tree, the leaves of which do not fall and is like a Muslim. Tell me the name of that tree?” Everybody started thinking about the trees of the desert areas. Ibn Umer (rta) thought of the date-palm tree but hesitated to give a reply, because he did not wish to appear more knowledgeable than his father Umer (rta) and Abu Bakr (rta), who sat with him. The others then asked: “Please, inform us what is that tree, O Allah’s Messenger?” He replied: “It is the date-palm tree.” (Bukhari)
The impact of the visuals cannot be denied. The Prophet (sa) would often indicate an object, which could easily be viewed by the people for comparing it with something, or speak of something in terms of an object, which people could easily visualize by themselves. He often compared the punishments in Hell with the Mountain of Uhud, in order to help people visualize the immensity and seriousness of the punishment. He would even use his hands to help people visualize the meaning of his words. It is narrated that “the Prophet (sa) said: ‘He, who brought up two girls properly till they grew up, he and I would come (together) (very closely) on the Day of Resurrection,’ and he interlaced his fingers (for explaining the point of nearness between him and that person).” (Muslim)
“May his nose be rubbed in dust, may his nose be rubbed in dust, may his nose be rubbed in dust,” repeated the Prophet (sa), catching the attention of the companions around him. They wondered what type of a person should be so humiliated. Burning with curiosity, they focused on the Prophet’s (sa) next words: “Who found his parents one or both approaching old age and did not enter Paradise through serving them.” (Muslim)
Repeating a phrase in this manner not only called people to attend but also stressed the importance of the discussed issue.
There are some noteworthy characteristics about the speeches delivered by the Prophet (sa). They were never long and winding but to the point, using simple language that could be easily understood by the masses. He would speak with sincerity and would pause at places, giving time for the impact of his words to sink in, and at times he would repeat a statement several times for emphasis. Rather than vent his anger at people, he often became silent, which was enough to make those around him realize his disapproval, just as his quiet smile would indicate his approval of a matter and even his pleasure.
Being a Role Model
Most importantly, the Prophet (sa) provided a role model to be followed and a physical example of everything he taught – in short, he practiced what he preached, and his actions spoke volumes.
The above techniques used by the Prophet (sa) should be kept in mind by those whose responsibility it is to teach and impart knowledge, regardless of what the subject matter may be. Just as hundreds of years ago the Prophet’s (sa) techniques proved to be effective for people of diverse backgrounds and ages, we also will be able to make a difference around us if we will adopt these methods and work with the intention to please Allah (swt), Insha’Allah!