When I published the article – An Unlikely Connection Between Prophet Muhammad and George Washington – I had little idea of the impact it would have on Muslims and non-Muslims. The responses to my article varied from people being elated about the comparison to others feeling outraged. While some were pleased to see the similarities between Muhammad and Washington, others were angered that I compared their hero to his “moral opposite.” Despite all of this, I am keen to revisit the lives of the Prophet of Islam and the United States’ first president to further strengthen the bond between Muslims and non-Muslims. In this piece I focus on three other character traits and virtues shared by Muhammad and Washington: their interest in knowledge, their ability to avoid anger, and their demonstration of forgiveness.
First, I turn to Muhammad and Washington’s appreciation for knowledge, which is remarkable considering that neither of these men had a “formal” education at any point in their lives. In the case of Muhammad, his thirst for ilm, or knowledge, was amazing in light of the fact that he was unable to read or write. Yet, these inabilities did not hinder him from broadening his intellectual horizon. The Holy Prophet believed that seeking knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female, because “[i]gnorance is the worst kind of poverty.” In order to acquire knowledge, Muhammad encouraged his fellow Muslims to journey to other lands, even as far as China, and to seek knowledge “from the cradle to the grave.” In Muhammad’s eyes, at the core of being Muslim was a desire to be a life-long devotee of learning and wisdom.
Washington was more specific than Prophet Muhammad in encouraging his peers to seek knowledge. The first American president wanted his fellow citizens to be trained in what he called “the science of government,” in particular, the fields of republicanism and liberty. Doing so, he believed, would make them “future guardians” of American freedom. Washington, moreover, stated that, “There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”
Prophet Muhammad and George Washington understood that to be a true admirer of knowledge, an individual had to cleanse oneself of all traces of anger. Muhammad has several hadiths explaining his position on anger, from which I will draw a few. In a hadith related by Al-Bukhari, a man once said to the Prophet, “Give me advice,” to which the Prophet responded, “Do not get angry.” When the man kept asking him for advice, Muhammad reiterated, “Do not get angry.” Prophet Muhammad encouraged the man to look at anger as a great vice and one of the surest ways to harm oneself or others. In another hadith, the Prophet reiterated his point on avoiding anger. He stated, “The powerful man is not the one who can wrestle, but the powerful man is the one who can control himself at the time of anger.” This passage is significant because it shows how Muhammad believed in “mind over matter,” and that an individual should always use one’s intellect over force and violence.
Prophet Muhammad and George Washington were both military commanders who led their troops to victory in battle. As commanders of their armed forces, Muhammad and Washington certainly had their moments of rage. Yet, in his book Rules of Civility, Washington encouraged people to transcend the urge to take anger out on others. He stated, “Be not angry… whatever happens and if you have reason to be so, show it not; put on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers…” Although he was speaking in light of proper behavior and conduct at a dinner table, we can still surmise that Washington believed that anger was a wasted emotion and that individuals should remain poised no matter the gravity of the offense. Similarly, Muhammad stated, “Forgive him who wrongs you, re-unite with him who cuts you off, do good to him who does you harm and speak the truth although it may be to your disadvantage.” In essence, these two great men echoed another great historical figure, Jesus Christ, who encouraged people to “turn the other cheek” to their enemies.
Muhammad’s ultimate lesson in forgiveness came at the moment when a Bedouin urinated in his mosque, at which point several Muslims rushed over to beat the man. The Prophet, upon seeing this, ordered the Muslims to leave the Bedouin alone. Muhammad explained to the man calmly, “This is a place of worship, in it is the worship of God and the reading of Qur’an.” After the Bedouin had left, the Prophet said to his companions, “You have been sent to make things easy (for the people) and you have not been sent to make things difficult for them.” In effect, Muhammad encouraged his fellow Muslims to transcend anger and violence no matter how severe the situation or crime.
George Washington’s forgiveness is displayed in the story of Michael Widman, a convicted traitor of the American Revolutionary War. Widman, who had once been a vocal patriot, surrendered to British General William Howe and provided him with considerable intelligence about Washington’s Continental Army. Despite his betrayal, Washington forgave Widman of his traitorous ways, and allegedly granted Widman pardon with tears in his eyes in front of his men in an ultimate example of charity. Washington also forgave numerous other traitors of the American Revolution after hearing of the desperate pleas of their families.
In addition to the three virtues – seeking knowledge, avoiding anger, and demonstrating forgiveness – Prophet Muhammad and George Washington share countless other values, including gratitude, courtesy, honesty, and reliability. Muhammad’s hadiths and Washington’s Rules of Civility are simply two starting points for those who are interested in further developing the comparison between these two exceptional men. The and Washington’s letters, correspondence, and biographies are also Qur’an excellent sources to gain knowledge on these extraordinary leaders.
Perhaps the most important point of this comparison between Muhammad and Washington is the hope it offers Muslims worldwide and non-Muslim Americans, who increasingly view each other in antagonistic ways. In Muhammad and Washington, we have two men of different faiths, traditions, and times, yet they continue to extol similar messages and moral values. This is a powerful message. All of us – regardless of our backgrounds – should follow in their footsteps in order to make this world a better place for us all.