By Dr `Ali Al-Salabi
Being of noble lineage does not guarantee financial stability, a fact that Abu Talib knew all too well. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) was still young, Abu Talib was going through a financial crisis; he had many mouths to feed, and business wasn’t going so well. To help his uncle get through those hard times, the Prophet (peace be upon him) worked as a shepherd. In an authentic Hadith, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “Every Prophet that Allah sent herded sheep (at one time or another during his life).” The companions said, “And even you?” He (peace be upon him) said, “Yes, I herded them upon Qararit.” (Ibn Hajar said that scholars mention two possible meanings of Qararit: it is either a place in Makkah, or it is a portion of a dinar or dirham, in which case the Prophet (peace be upon him) was mentioning his wages. (Al-Bukhari)
Working as a shepherd allowed the Prophet (peace be upon him) to work in peace and quiet, to enjoy the beauty of the desert, and to contemplate the wonders and beauty of Allah’s creation. Through his work, a shepherd picks up and develops many wonderful qualities, qualities that the Prophet needed to lead his nation. Here are some of those qualities:
A shepherd is busy taking care of his flock from the rising of the sun until nightfall. Since sheep take so long to graze, a shepherd needs to be very patient in dealing with his flock. Likewise, a leader also has to be patient with his people, albeit for different reasons.
Castle life, comfort, and luxury – a shepherd knows none of these things. All day long, he is outside in very hot weather and extremely hot weather if he is working in the Arabian Peninsula. He therefore needs plentiful water to quench his constant thirst, and all that he is able to find is coarse food. In short, the shepherd’s life is a hard life, and so he must be very patient in coping with his daily hardships.
The very nature of a shepherd’s work requires him to be humble. Serving sheep, supervising the delivery of a baby sheep, guarding sheep from predators, and sleeping in close proximity to the flock – these are the day-to-day duties of a shepherd. Being in close contact with his flock throughout the day, a shepherd might sometimes be sprayed with urine or come into contact with dung. But none of this perturbs the shepherd, and so as each day of labor passes, pride and arrogance are driven further away from his heart, and humbleness becomes more and more his defining characteristic. It is related in Sahih Muslim that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “He who has an atom’s weight (or the weight of a small ant) of pride in his heart does not enter Paradise.” A man said, “Verily, a man loves for his clothing to be nice, and for his shoes to be nice (so is that pride?).” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Verily, Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Pride is denying (and turning away from) the truth, and looking down upon people (deeming oneself to be superior to them).” (Muslim)
Because of a shepherd’s job description, his natural enemies are all predatory animals. To stave off the attacks of wild animals upon his flock, a shepherd certainly has to be very brave.
Mercy and compassion
Like human beings, sheep are prone to sickness, disease, and accidents. And it is their shepherd who must act as their caretaker and doctor while they are convalescing. If one is merciful to animals – as is a shepherd – then it is more than likely that he will be even more merciful towards other human beings, particularly so if he is a Messenger sent by Allah, the Almighty, to teach mankind, guide them, and save them from the Hellfire.
Earning one’s living through lawful work
Indeed, Allah most certainly could have provided the Prophet (peace be upon him) with wealth and comfort, so that he would not have had to work as a shepherd. But instead, he was being trained, and his nation was being taught a lesson: The most honorable way to live is to eat from what one earns through lawful work. One who invites others to Islam must especially avoid taking from what is in the hands of others; he must be independent of all human beings. A self-sufficient man is dignified in the eyes of others; whatever good he does, he does for Allah. That every Prophet worked – as is mentioned in the above-mentioned Hadith – is one of many proofs that refute the accusation that polytheists leveled against Prophets. Allah says,
They said : “Have you come to us to turn us away from that (faith) we found our fathers following, – and that you two may have greatness in the land? We are not going to believe you two! (Yunus 10:78)
Fir`awn (Pharaoh) thought the same about Musa (Moses, peace be upon him). Because love of the world and its pleasures fully dominates their thoughts, motives, and actions, disbelievers think that others are the same, that the purpose behind any movement is the achievement of some worldly end, which is why the Prophets P clarified to their
peoples that they wanted no worldly treasures from them:
And O my people! I ask of you no wealth for it, my reward is from none but Allah. lam not going to drive away those who have believed. Surely, they are going to meet their Lord, but I see that you are a people that are ignorant. (Hud 11: 29)
Al-Bukhari related from Al-Miqdam that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “No one has ever eaten better food than that which he eats from what he works at with his hand. And verily, the Prophet of Allah, Dawud, would eat from the work of his hand.” (Al-Bukhari)
All of the above-mentioned characteristics were being developed in the Prophet (peace be upon him) regardless of whether he realized that it was the case at the time – it is possible he did not realize the significance of what was happening to him, since he did not know that he (peace be upon him) was soon to be charged with the duties of Prophethood.
The Prophet was faithful, caring, and sensitive to the needs of others. His uncle took care of him with all of his energy and soul, showing him the love and compassion of a father. How did the Prophet respond to that love? No sooner did he feel in himself the ability to earn money than he went out to work and toil, so that he could contribute to pay for his uncle’s household expenses.
We also gain from the Prophet’s early employment an idea of the life that Allah wants his obedient slaves to lead in this world. It was certainly easy upon Allah to provide a comfortable and easy existence for the Prophet so that he would have no pressing reason to work all day in the heat of the desert, serving his flock. But Allah’s Wisdom dictated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) -and all Muslims- instead learn an important lesson: the best wealth a person gains is the wealth he earns through hard work, through providing valuable services to society and mankind. And the worst wealth a man receives is the wealth he is given while he is lying down on his back, the wealth he does not work to gain, the wealth that is given to him not as payment for valuable services provided to society and mankind.
Source: Taken with modifications from the author’s “The Noble Life of the Prophet Muhammad”.