In Islam, Muhammad, while a remarkable man, is understood to be only a man. In this respect, Islam is like Buddhism, where the tradition emphasizes the fact that the Buddha was a human. In what way...

In Islam, Muhammad, while a remarkable man, is understood to be only a man. In this respect, Islam is like Buddhism, where the tradition emphasizes the fact that the Buddha was a human. In what way does the emphasis on the humanness of the founder of each of these traditions reflect their understanding of human nature? What is it to be a human in Islam, and how does that relate to Muhammad? What are the differences in the roles that Muhammad and the Buddha play in their respective traditions?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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If we concede that both religions view their respective figures as "men," they do so to convey each experience's understanding in what it means in being human.  This becomes elemental in each religion.  In Islam, Muhammad's life is known as the Sunnah, which literally translates to "trodden path."  This emphasizes his humanness to a point where the nomenclature of the religion suggests that he has walked the path for others to follow.  The Hadith that forms the basis of the religion is a transcription of how Muhammad lives his life. Muhammad's narrative is reflective of how individuals can relate to him. He was an orphan, experienced loss and displacement, and struggled before accepting his condition as a prophet:

Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created!
Created man from a clot of blood.
Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous, 
Who teaches by the pen; 
Teaches man what he knew not. (Qur'an 96:1-3)

In these examples, it becomes clear that to be a human in Islam requires modeling oneself after the Prophet. Thought and actions must be aligned with the example of the Prophet.   Muhammad's life becomes the template for how human beings can live their own lives.  It is in this way where the human condition of Muhammad is able to transmit to the life of the modern individual who struggles to find their own path.

In Buddhism, the humanness of Gautama provides a frame of reference for individuals to understand their own condition of being in the world.  The human narrative of Gautama shows an individual surrounded by external attachments, struggling to find meaning in a world that was devoid of it, and then setting out to establish for his own self the contours of the truth. Gautama's insistence on Enlightenment that arises from a place of detachment becomes a model for all human beings.  From this, he becomes the Lord Buddha.  The emphasis on Gautama's humanness stresses how modern individuals can find their own understanding as he did.  The same struggles that Gautama experienced as a human are resolved through his emergence as a Buddha.  Buddhists believe such a trajectory speaks to the exact conditions of what it means to be a human being.

Naturally, there are some differences in the role that each figure plays in their religion.  Islam is very direct in how one must model their own life after Muhammad.  There is little deviation from the tenets of the Hadith, seen in Sharia as well as the strict codification that demands adherence to Muhammad's example.  Muhammad's example is the standard which all others follow and by which judgment is rendered. This strict adherence is not as evident in Buddhism.  There are standards of conduct in Buddhism, but there is little in way of the strict codification seen in Islam.  Gautama is an example of something larger, and the religion does not necessarily view him in the traditionalist sense that Islam views Muhammad:  "[I]n the Buddhist texts there is no word that can be traced with unquestionable authority to Gautama Śākyamuni as a historical personage, although there must be some sayings or phrases derived from him."  In true Buddhist understanding, the Lord Buddha was the embodiment of questioning and seeking truth on an individual level.  It stands to reason that to enshrine him as a figure of unquestioning authority goes against his very spirit.  The desire for the individual to find their own path is an embodiment that is not necessarily shared in Islam with its view of Muhammad.

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