The word “education” is derived from the Latin word “ēducātiō,” which means “a breeding, a bringing up, a rearing.”1 An education is an active engagement between teacher and student whereby the teacher is an intellectual (and/or spiritual) guide nurturing and maturing the student’s mind and spirit. However, an education is not complete without an experiential process by which the student grows and develops the most. It is through experience and the application of knowledge by which one hones their intellect and spirit and acquires wisdom—without which, knowledge is naught.2
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ grew up not having a mother and a father, the two primary educators in a child’s life. The task of educating and rearing the Prophet ﷺ was taken up by an entity infinitely more capable and intimate than a mother and father could ever be: God. Needless to say there was no formal classroom experience which shaped the mind and character of the Prophet ﷺ. Any reading of the sīrah ([Prophet’s] life) will show that, pre and post prophecy, the Prophet ﷺ was mostly shaped and influenced by experience.
God reminds the Prophet ﷺ that He was the primary educator in his life: “Your Lord has not forsaken you, nor has He become displeased” (Qur’an, 93:3). Significantly, the Arabic word used for “Lord” in this verse is “rabb,” which is derived from the same root as the word “murabbī,” meaning “the one who rears, fosters, raises, etc.”3 Thus God is referring to Himself as both the Prophet’s ﷺ Lord and educational/spiritual/intellectual overseer. The chapter continues in rhetorical interrogation to emphasize the divine concern in the Prophet’s ﷺ upbringing: “Did He not find you an orphan and give [you] refuge? And He found you lost and guided [you], and He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient” (93:6-8). The significance of this questioning is seen immediately in the following verses: “So as for the orphan, do not oppress [him]. And as for him who asks, do not repel [him]” (93:9-10).
Normally, individuals are only capable of sharing a sympathetic sentiment with others unless they have undergone a similar experience whereby which they can relate at an empathetic level. Thus, the Prophet’s ﷺ first-hand experiences directly influenced his intellectual and spiritual disposition as a human being. By means of these experiences he was not taught via instruction of right versus wrong to behave and treat others in a certain way; in other words, the Prophet (ﷺ) had a prior ethical disposition. He directly experienced events that accorded him the capacity to communicate with others at an empathetic level.
There was practically no human suffering that the Prophet ﷺ did not experience—whether it was the loss of a loved one, poverty, or abandonment. He appealed to people at a highly personal and intimate level. He felt for the poor man’s hunger for food, the mother’s loss of her child, the orphan’s social vulnerability, and the seeker’s spiritual craving. That is one of the reasons why reading the sīrah is a form of increasing one’s love for the Prophet ﷺ.
Experiencing the Prophet’s ﷺ biography is subjective and varies from one person to the next. Every individual relates to the Prophet’s ﷺ life in varying ways. As one experiences new things and revisits the sīrah at different stages of one’s life the sīrah is understood in a new light each time. There is a beauty in being able to reread the sīrah and experience it differently each time. Most importantly, it is the multi-layered feature of the sīrah which makes it so accessible. In other words, whether one is attracted to stories of war, romance, or history there is something to be found in the Prophet’s ﷺ life. Reading the sīrah automatically entails reading into the sīrah; it is not simply a list of historical events, it is a personal and emotional experience.