O people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians)! Do not exceed the limits in your religion, nor say of Allah aught but the truth. The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word, ("Be!" - and he was) which He bestowed on Mary and a spirit created by Him; so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not: "Three!" Cease! (it is) better for you. For Allah is One God, Glory be to Him (Far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is All-Sufficient as a Disposer of affairs. (4:171)
By telling the reader (me, in that case) that it's better to just not say three, I understood that the very concept of the Trinity in Christianity was distorting my perception of God. Consequently, just throwing it out simplified things immensely. I felt like I couldn't call myself a Christian after reading this ayah, and it was one of my first big steps in coming to Islam.
But with my background in a religion that has gone to an extreme in elevating its Messenger, I have had a cautious view of the role of the Messenger I learned about in the Qur'an--the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), peace be upon him. I mean that I have struggled in learning to love Muhammad (pbuh) the way so many other Muslims seem to do so naturally.
I didn't swap one Messenger for the next, and shift my love accordingly. Instead, I came to understand the proper role of Jesus as a Messenger of God, and additionally, to accept Muhammad (pbuh) as a Messenger of God as well. And I became very fearful of the excessive and profuse love which I believed, when directed towards Jesus, led to the misunderstanding of his role and unjust elevation of his status by Christians.
When I started to learn about Islam, and even when I decided to convert, it was with very little knowledge about Muhammad (pbuh). For me, the power of the Qur'an was the means in which I found guidance, and by accepting it as the truth, I accepted Muhammad (pbuh) as a Messenger even though I knew almost nothing about him.
Since then, I've had to learn to find balance between the following. First, an ayah declaring Muhammad (pbuh) is only a Messenger, and second, a hadith which demands also a love of the Messenger.
Muhammad (SAW) is no more than a Messenger, and indeed (many) Messengers have passed away before him. If he dies or is killed, will you then turn back on your heels (as disbelievers)? And he who turns back on his heels, not the least harm will he do to Allah, and Allah will give reward to those who are grateful. 3:144
Anas radi Allahu ‘anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Prophet ﷺ said, “None of you will have faith till he loves me more than his father, his children and all mankind.” (Bukhari)
Of course, there is no conflict between these two. And it is easy to grasp the need to obey the Messenger, given the specific exhortations to do so in the Qur'an. Loving the Messenger, however--acquiring that love--that's what was new for me.
When I would hear Muslims talk about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), what struck me was that they did so with more respect, more reverence, and more love than even Christians had when talking about Jesus. Perhaps that's why I was so cautious--because from my perspective, it seemed that Muslims loved Muhammad (pbuh) even more than Christians loved Jesus, and Christians thought Jesus was divine!
And over time, I learned more about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through interacting with Muslims, taking classes on the Seerah and learning more about his life. But I continued to feel my love for him inadequate, compared to that of other Muslims. You could say I just didn't get it.
But last weekend I had an interesting realization, due in part to another class I took about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh.) It was an AlMaghrib class that came to Seattle called The Prophet's Smile. And while the subject was primarily the characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), I was able to reflect on how his life has affected me personally.
Though I have heard many times, occasionally in gruesome detail, about the struggles he went through in his life, and what he suffered, I was never able to personally relate to it. I understood it in a purely abstract sense, and without having grown up loving this man, it wasn't immediate or natural for me to sympathize.
But then it occurred to me that if not for his persistence in delivering the message, and his prayers for his ummah, I might not be a Muslim today. And because I really believe that being guided to Islam is a very special gift from God, it strikes me now the critical importance of the Messenger to establishing Islam as a way of life on Earth, as extensively as is currently is.
When I hear about how he was stoned in at-Ta'if, for example, instead of just feeling bad about what he went through, I think--he endured that so I could find Islam, so many centuries later. That he suffered abuse from his own family members so I could be a Muslim. And that he worshiped and prayed at night for the Muslims until his legs were swollen so that guidance would reach even me.
And that thought brings a flood of tears to my eyes and an overwhelming emotion. Realizing that no other human being has had such a tremendous impact on my ability to receive God's message of guidance as he, I finally start to truly love him.
May Allah's peace and blessings and mercy be upon him and his family and his companions.