Excessive Praise of the Prophet? Understanding the Meaning of Praise
Many people today confuse what is meant by praising Allah Most High, and praising his Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and the meaning of worship.
The upshot is that there is no contradiction between those two types of praises as long as what is said and believed of each is respectively true and accurate, just as the two parts of the Testimony of Faith do not need “reconciling”; it is clearly divided between the Creator first, and then His Best Creation (peace be upon him).
Praise is a general category, and consists of praises from Allah to Himself, or upon His prophets or the righteous – that is eternal speech -, and praises from the creation to Allah Most High in worship, and praises between people, or for some other created object. Though we are not concerned with this here, created praises also encompass false or wrong praises, such as lies or praises for an idol.
It is obvious how Allah deserves all of the good praises directed to Him as the Lord. But for everything in creation that is truly praiseworthy that we praise, the praise still returns to Allah Most High, who created those things with those praiseworthy qualities in the first place. That is why He, and no one else, is rightfully deserving of all true praises, whether they were intended directly to Him or not.
A Deeper Look at the Meanings of “Praise”
It’s always best to define terms and to look at them in their original language before getting further into a discussion. The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary tells us that “praise” in English can mean either to express favorable judgment of something (synonymous with commending or complimenting), or when more specifically used for God or righteous persons, to glorify, especially with the attributes of perfection (synonymous with extolling or magnifying). Thus, not all praise means worship.
Praise can be a vague term in translation, usually chosen to denote three Arabic words, namely: al-hamd, al-madh, and al-thanaa’. Of these, al-thanaa’ is the most general and applicable, meaning “an act which gives a sense of praising or recalling the good points of the object of praise.” [al-Jurjani, al-Ta`rifat]
Al-Hamd, purely linguistically, means “the verbal praising of someone for beautiful traits/acts that they choose to exercise, as a way of lauding them, whether or not they did some favor upon the one praising them.” Al-Hamd can be from Allah Most High upon Himself or His prophets for example, in which case it is eternal speech, or it can be created speech, such as our praise for Allah, or for our fellow human beings.
Al-Hamd, however, does take on a unique meaning and usage when done to Allah, in that it is “any act grounded in magnifying the Giver of Bounties for the fact that He is the Giver of Bounties, whether for His having blessed the one who is praising Him, or on other than the one doing the praising, whether this act is a verbal expression, a believing thought in one’s heart, or an action of one’s limbs.” In this specific usage, it matches the definition of giving thanks and gratitude to Allah (al-shukr). [al-Bayjuri, Sharh Jawhara al-Tawhid]
Al-Madh is also a word for praise, sometimes used interchangeably with al-hamd or more general than it. However, it can be differentiated in that al-madh is used for praising endowed qualities that a person cannot choose to take on through their own choice (such as having beautiful physical features), while al-hamd is for intended praiseworthy actions or then the praiseworthy quality traits from those acts spring from (such as the act of giving charity, and further than that, having a generous heart).
Al-Razi in his Tafsir al-Kabir mentions other differences, namely that al-hamd is more specific than al-madh, and used specifically for living beings that do some act of excellence by deliberate choice, while al-madh also encompasses those not alive, as well as inanimate things, or when praising a person outside of the time frame of their doing an act of excellence.
Praising Allah Most High and His Prophet (peace be upon him)
The way and meaning of our praise for Allah Most High is distinct from our praise of the Prophet (peace be upon him), when we praise each with praises befitting and appropriate to their respective categories and stations. Even saying “Allah is generous” has a totally different reality and meaning than when we say “the Prophet (peace be upon him) is generous”.
Based on the above definitions, for Allah Most High, we use al-hamd, because Allah Ta’ala is present and alive and always completing His favor upon us, and acting by choice, and thus it is more suitable than using al-madh, because no one endowed Allah Ta’ala with any qualities. [al-Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir]
When we say “Al-Hamdu li-Llah”, what do we mean? It is Allah who opened His Qur’an with this pre-eternal phrase of praise for Himself. Usually, it is translated as “all praises are for Allah”, but there’s more to it than that.
The “al-” prefix makes the word “hamd” definite and not general (i.e. not “a praise” but “the praise”), and can either indicate: (a) the essence of the broader category of all praises that exist (al-jinsiyya), or (b) that every single true and deserving praise that any being has and will ever be given is actually to the credit and praise of the One is responsible for creating or holding those praiseworthy acts or qualities Himself (al-istighraqiyya), or (c) that the definitive particle is used to summarily recall “those praises” which Allah Most High praised Himself with in pre-eternity, as a mercy to mankind, because mankind is incapable of encompassing and mentioning Allah’s true praises due to our finite and imperfect natures, so Allah taught us a term that would suffice us.
The “li-” possessive prefix before Allah’s name can indicate either: (a) sole deservingness of those praises (al-istihqaq), or (b) to clarify who is being intended apart from any other being (al-ikhtisas), or (c) to indicate total ownership of the praises (al-milk). Thus, technical exceptions aside, “Alhumdulillah” can mean all of: “The/ All/ Pre-eternally-mentioned praises are directed to, suitably meant for and ultimately belonging solely to Allah.” [al-Bayjuri, Jawhara al-Tawhid]
Perhaps “al-madh” is used primarily to praise the Prophet (peace be upon him) rather than “al-hamd” since he is not with us and acting in the temporal world in the normative sense now, and perhaps because we are looking back after his lifetime has occurred (peace and blessings be upon him), and every good quality and act in his human perfection was divinely bestowed and an endowed part of his blessed nature.
Praise and Its Relationship to Worship
Worship (al-ibadah) is defined by Sayyid al-Jurjani as “the actions of a morally responsible person, going against their lower whims and caprice, out of glorification for their Lord.” Praising the blessings of Allah is also a way of glorifying Him.
Praise only becomes a commendable act of worship, or on the other hand something condemned, when its integrals contain something to indicate that. So to judge any praise, one must look at the status and veracity of five things: (a) who is doing the praising (al-hamid), and (b) who is the one being praised (al-mahmud), (c) upon what quality (al-mahmud bihi), (d) for what reason or favor or motivating factor is this praise being given (al-mahmud `alayhi) , and (e) what is its form and wording (Seeghah al-Hamd)? Intention is of course a paramount determinant in this, as in all acts.
Thus, praising the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) with praises he deserves, no matter how often, is not worship to him at all, rather it is recommended.
What the Muslims have always done is “madh” of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) for his divinely endowed qualities, out of love for him and obedience to the Creator. Doing so is a form of worship to the One who chose to create and send him to us, and so, by praising the Prophet (peace be upon him) through “madh”, we are really praising Allah through “hamd” and more specifically, we are being thankful (shukr).
Is There Excessive Praise?
As for those who claim that the Prophet (peace be upon him) forbade excessively praising him, they cite the narration in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Do not exaggerate in magnifying me like the Christians exaggerated in magnifying the son of Maryam [`Isa, or Jesus, peace be upon him], for I am only His slave, so say: ‘the slave of Allah and His messenger’.” [al-Bukhari, Sahih]
The word used for the type of bad praise here is not any of the three previous terms, rather specified as “al-itraa”, which Ibn Hajar, in his commentary of this narration, defines as “praise using falsehoods and untruths” and “exaggeration” in extolling. This was because the people who claimed to follow `Isa (peace be upon him) exalted him to the level of divinity (either as “the son” or as God himself), which the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not want any of his community to fall into.
This is what the prohibition was restricted to (and by corollary, all false and polytheistic claims). Yet, for what is true and wholesome, since there was no mention of it or limit set as to the quantity or quality of praise for the Prophet (peace be upon him), it is an implicit permission to praise without restriction.
Some still seem to have a problem with this however, as if to insinuate that repeatedly praising the Prophet (peace be upon him) would somehow slowly lead to polytheism (shirk), diverting attention from the worship of Allah Most High. This is faulty reasoning, to say the least.
How can there be such a thing as praising “too much” or “too often”, when the Lord of the Worlds decided pre-eternally, out of all the names in His infinite knowledge, to name His beloved “Muhammad” (from Ha-m-d), which is not just “the one praised” (mahmud), but intensified as “the one who is praised over and over again without cease”? [al-Zurqani, Sharh al-Muwatta]
We ask Allah Ta’ala to shower His peace and blessings on His Beloved Messenger, his family and Companions, wa al-HamduliLlahi Rabbi l-’alameen.
By: Shaykh Faraz Rabbani