Sall-Allahu Alayhi Wa Sallam
They were circumambulating the Ka'ba, when Ka'ab bin Ujrah asked Abdul Rahman ibn Abi Lailah: "Shall I not give you a precious gift?" A gift in the middle of that act of intense devotion? Abdul Rahman was a prominent tabayi, i.e. from the generation that came after the generation of the companions. Ka'ab, may Allah be pleased with him, was one of the 1400 Companions who were part of the Covenant of al Ridwan, a covenant to live or fall together to avenge the blood of Uthman bin Affan, Radi-Allahu anhu, who had been feared to have been murdered by the Quraish. To know this background is to get a clue to the special gift.
While Muslims were stationed at Hudaybiyah, where the covenant took place, many delegations of Quraish had visited them. Among them was Urwah ibn Mas'ud al Thaqafi. It was he who reported the extra-ordinary relationship of the companions with the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam : "I have seen Caesar and Chosroes in their pomp, but never have I seen a man honored as Muhammad is honored by his comrades."
The gift that Ka'ab gave to ibn Abi Lailah was the hadith that gives us the salawat (benediction) that we use in regular prayers. The companions asked the proper way of sending the blessings, when the verse requiring them to do so was revealed.
"Lo Allah and His angels shower blessings on the Prophet. O ye who believe! Ask blessings on him and salute him with a worthy salutation." [Al-Ahzab, 33:56].
Then the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam , taught them the exact words, as they themselves were revealed to him by Allah.
A prophet of God is a unique person. He acts as the link between the people and their Creator. He is a human being, yet he speaks for God. The most difficult task for followers of a prophet has always been that of dealing with the prophet as a prophet. It is so easy to go to extremes. Make him divine, God-incarnate, Son of God. Or make him just another man, attributing all human weaknesses and sins to him. Religious literature of major religions in the world is testimony to these tendencies. It is a story of abject human failure in this matter.
One must contrast that with the beautiful and delicate balance presented by Islam. Here the Prophet is the perfect human being, but he is not Divine. He speaks for God but he is not God. He is the object of our gratitude, ardent love and devotion, unswerving allegiance, and deference. But he is not the object of our worship. We ask Allah to send His blessings on him which at once makes two very important statements. First, he needs Allah's blessings. Second, we cannot bless him, only Allah can. It is not possible for those who always invoke Allah's blessings for the Prophet, to degrade him to the level of other human beings, or to elevate him to the level of divinity. The benediction, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam , is a magic formula that fights both tendencies equally effectively. It also strikes at the roots of shirk, the tendency to associate partners with Allah. For we have met the perfect human being, the example to follow. And we found him to be a servant of Allah. Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam .
For centuries Muslims lovingly added the benediction, whenever they mentioned the name of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam . The hadith literature is a good example of this labor of love. For here the name of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam , is mentioned repeatedly. Yet the muhadithun never tired of writing the benediction. That was at a time when every book was written by hand, and all its copies were also made by hand. It was never considered a burden or an unnecessary interruption. A brief recent statement from a professor of hadith at one Islamic religious school captures the spirit. "The merits of studying hadith are innumerable and those interested can read Ibn Abdul Bar's book on the subject," he said. "But it is sufficient to note that through this study we get plenty of opportunities for saying the benediction, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam ."
And so for centuries this practice has continued unabated throughout the Muslim world. Also, realizing the importance of a "worthy benediction" Muslims always used the Arabic expression in other languages, be they Urdu, Farsi, Bangla, or others. For the first time in history, we find a break from this practice, and this spirit, when reviewing the Islamic literature in English.
Initially some one substituted "peace be upon him" for "Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam ." But it is not even a proper translation. Then some one thought of abbreviating it to pbuh. It, of course, did not improve the translation or the readability. Others came up with innovations of their own. One Islamic text book in English notes in the beginning: "After using the name of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims should write or say the honorific phrase, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam ...Due to limited space this honorific phrase has been omitted.. but should be inserted when reading the book." Another book goes a little further by acknowledging the "long established and cherished tradition", but then announces bluntly: "To avoid interrupting the flow of ideas, especially for non-Muslim readers, I have not followed the customary practice." A majority of recent Islamic books published in the U.S. and U.K. by reputable Muslim organizations, though, do not feel the need for any excuse or explanation, whatsoever. They simply mention the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam , as they would any ordinary person.
It is time we moved beyond our hesitations, confusions, or inferiority complexes. This is the Ummah of the Last Prophet. In every language of the world, our Prophet is Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam .