In or about A.D. 571 a child was born to the Quraysh, a high-ranking tribe which was custodian of the shrine called Kaaba, a pantheon of multitudinous deities and a center of pilgrimage at Mecca, and was given by his mother a name which may remain forever uncertain. His tribe called him al-Amin (the faithful), apparently an honorific title. The form which his name takes in the Koran is Muhammad, and once Ahmad. The name, which means “highly praised,” is borne by more male children than any other in the world. The baby’s father died before his birth; the mother when he was about six years old.
Though the only one of the world prophets to be boom within the full light of history, Muhammad is but little known to us in his early life: of his struggle for a livelihood, his efforts toward self-fulfillment and his gradual and painful realization of the great task awaiting him we have but few reliable reports. But with his marriage at the age of twenty-five to the wealthy and high-minded widow Khadijah, fifteen years his senior, Muhammad steps upon the threshold of clear history. Khadijah was a Qurayshite and, as a well-to-do merchant’s widow, was conducting business independently and had taken young Muhammad into her employ. As long as this lady with her strong personality and noble character lived, Muhammad would have none other for a wife.
Muhammad now had leisure and was able to pursue his own inclinations. He was then often noticed secluding himself and engaging in meditation in a little cave on a hill outside of Mecca. It was in the course of one of these periods of distraction caused by doubts and yearning after the truth that Muhammad heard a voice commanding: “Recite thou in the name of thy Lord who created” (Koran 96: 1). Evidently what was primarily weighing on Muhammad’s heart was the observation that the Jews had a book, a revelation, and the Christians had a book and were all progressive and prosperous, whereas the Arabians had no book and were comparatively backward. This was his first revelation. The Prophet had received his call. When after a brief interval following his call to the prophetic office, the second vision came, Muhammad, under the stress of great emotion, rushed home in alarm and asked his wife to put some covers on him, whereupon these words “descended”: “O thou, enwrapped in they mantle! Arise and warn” (Koran 74:1). The voices varied and sometimes came like the “reverberating of bells” but later became one voice, identified as that of Gabriel.
The message of the Arabian Muhammad was a parallel of the message of the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament. God is one. He is all-powerful. He is the creator of the universe. There is a judgment day. Splendid rewards in Paradise await those who carry out God’s commands, and terrible punishment in hell for those who disregard them. Such was the gist of his early message.
Consecrated and fired by the new task which he felt called upon to perform as the messenger of Allah, Muhammad now went among his own people teaching, preaching, delivering the new message. They laughed him to scorn. He turned warner, prophet of doom, seeking to effect his purpose by vivid and thrilling descriptions of the joys of Paradise and the terrors of hell, even threatening his hearers with imminent doom. But short, crisp and impressive as were his early revelations, Muhammad was gaining few converts. His wife, his cousin Ali, and his kinsman abu-Bakr acknowledged him, but the aristocratic and influential branch of Quraysh stood adamant. Slowly, however, new recruits, mainly from among the slave and lower classes, began to swell the ranks of the believers. The ridicule and sarcasm which had hitherto been used unsparingly on the part of the Quraysh were no longer deemed effective as weapons; it became necessary to resort to active persecution. These new measures forced the migration to Abyssinia of eleven Meccan families, converts to the new faith, followed in 615 by some eighty-three others. The emigres found asylum in the domain of the Christian Negus, who was unbending in his refusal to deliver them into the hands of their oppressors. Undaunted through these dark days of persecution by the temporary loss of so many followers, Muhammad fearlessly continued to preach and by persuasion convert men from the worship of the many and false gods to that of the one and true God, Allah. Revelations continued to “descend.” He who had marveled at the Jews and Christians having a “scripture” was determined that his people, too, should have one.
Soon Umar ibn-al-Khattab, destined to play a leading role in the establishment of the Islamic state, was enrolled in the service of Allah. Within this period there also falls the dramatic nocturnal journey in which the Prophet is said to have been instantly transported from the Kaaba to Jerusalem preliminary to his ascent to the seventh heaven. Since it thus served as the terrestrial station on this memorable journey, Jerusalem, already sacred to the Jews and Christians, became and has remained the third holiest city after Mecca and Medina in the Moslem world. Embellished by later accretions, the story of this miraculous trip still is a favorite in mystic circles in Persia and Turkey. A Spanish scholar considers it the original source of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That the memory of the journey is still a living, moving force in Islam is illustrated by the serious disturbance in Palestine in August 1929. The trouble centered on the Wailing Wall of the Jews in Jerusalem, which the Moslems consider the halting place of the winged horse with a woman’s face and peacock’s tail on which Muhammad journeyed heavenward.
Two years after the miraculous journey a deputation of about seventy-five men invited Muhammad to make Medina his home. In that city the Jews, who were looking forward to a Messiah, had evidently prepared their heathen compatriots for such a claimant. Muhammad allowed two hundred followers to elude the vigilance of the Quraysh and slip quietly into Medina, his mother’s native city; he himself followed and arrived there on September 24, 622. Such was the famous hegira-not entirely a “flight,” but a scheme of migration carefully considered for some two years. Seventeen years later the Caliph Umar designated that lunar year (beginning July 16) in which the hegira took place as the official starting point of the Moslem era.
The hegira, with which the Meccan period ended and the Medinese period began, proved a turning point in the life of Muhammad. Leaving the city of his birth as a despised prophet, he entered the city of his adoption as an honored chief. The seer in him now recedes into the background and the practical man of politics comes to the fore. The prophet is overshadowed by the statesman.
Taking advantage of the periods of “holy truce” and anxious to offer sustenance to the Emigrants, the Medinese Moslems (called Supporters) under the leadership of the new chief intercepted a summer caravan on its return from Syria to Mecca, thus striking at the most vital point in the life of that commercial metropolis. The caravan leader had learned of the scheme and sent to Mecca for aid. The encounter between the reinforced Meccan caravan and the Moslems, thanks to the inspiring leadership of the Prophet, resulted in the complete victory of three hundred Moslems over a thousand Meccans. However unimportant in itself as a military engagement, this skirmish laid the foundation of Muhammad’s temporal power. Islam had won its first and decisive military victory: the victory itself was interpreted as a divine ‘Sanction of the new faith.
The spirit of discipline and the contempt of death manifested at this first armed encounter of Islam proved characteristic of it in its later and greater conquests. True, in the following year the Meccans avenged their defeat and even wounded the Prophet, but their triumph was not to endure. Islam recovered and passed on gradually from the defensive to the offensive, its propagation now assured. Hitherto it had been a religion within a state; in Medina it passed into something more than a state religion-it became the state. Then and there Islam came to be what the world has ever since recognized it to be-a militant polity.
Muhammad then conducted a campaign against the Jews for “siding with the confederates,” which resulted in the killing of six hundred able-bodied men of their leading tribe and the expulsion of the rest. The Emigrants were established on the date plantations thus made ownerless. This tribe was the first but not the last body of Islam’s foes to be offered the alternative of apostasy or death.
In this Medinese period the Arabiazation, the nationalization, of Islam was effected. The new prophet broke with both Judaism and Christianity; Friday was substituted for Sabbath; the call from the minaret was decreed in place of trumpets and bells; Ramadan was fixed as a month of fasting, the direction to be observed during the ritual prayer was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca. the pilgrimage to the Kaaba was authorized and the kissing of the Black Stone-a pre-Islamic fetish-sanctioned.
In 628 Muhammad led a body of 1,400 believers to the city of his birth and exacted the pact in which Meccans and Moslems were treated on equal terms. This treaty practically ended the conflict between Muhammad and his people, the Quraysh. Among other members of this tribe, Kalid ibn-al-Walid and Amr ibn-al-As, destined to become the two mighty swords of militant Islam, were about this time received as recruits to the great cause. Two years later, toward the end of January 630 (Anno Hegirae 8), !he conquest of Mecca was complete. Entering its great sanctuary, Muhammad smashed the many idols, said to have numbered three hundred and sixty, exclaiming: “Truth hath come, and falsehood hath vanished!” The people themselves, however, were treated with special magnanimity. Hardly a triumphal entry in ancient annals is comparable to this.
It was probably about this time that the territory around the Kaaba was declared by Muhammad forbidden and sacred, and the passage of the Koran was revealed which was later interpreted as prohibiting all non-Moslems from approaching it. This verse was evidently intended to forbid only the polytheists from drawing near to the Kaaba at the time of the annual pilgrimage, but the injunction as interpreted is still effective. No more than fifteen Christian-born Europeans have thus far succeeded in seeing the two Holy Cities and escaping with their lives. The first to leave a record was Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna in 1503, and one of the latest was the Englishman, Eldon Rutter. The most interesting was undoubtedly Sir Richard Burton.
In the year A.H. 9 Muhammad concluded treaties of peace with the Christian chief of al- Aqabah and the Jewish tribes in the oases of Maqna, Adhruh and Jarba to the south. The native Jews and Christians were taken under the protection of the newly arising Islamic community in consideration of a payment later called jizyah, which included land and head tax. This act set a precedent far-reaching in its future consequences.
This year 9 (630-631) is called the “year of delegations.” During it deputations flocked from near and far to offer allegiance to the prince-prophet. Tribes joined out of convenience if not conviction, and Islam contented itself with exacting a verbal confession of faith and a payment of a tax. Groups came from distant Oman, Hadramawt and Yaman. The leading tribes sent deputies. Arabia, which had hitherto never bowed to the will of one man, seemed now inclined to be dominated by Muhammad and to be incorporated into his new scheme. Its heathenism was yielding to a nobler faith and a higher morality.
In the tenth Moslem year Muhammad headed triumphantly the annual pilgrimage into his new religious capital, Mecca. This proved his last visit and was styled “the farewell pilgrimage.” Three months after his return to Medina he unexpectedly took ill and died, complaining of severe headache, on June 8, 632.
To the Medinese period in the life of the Prophet belong the lengthy and more verbose chapters of the Koran which contain, in addition to the religious laws governing fasting and almsgiving and prayer, social and political ordinances dealing with marriage and divorce, and the treatment of slaves, prisoners of war and enemies. The legislation of him who was himself once a poor orphan is especially benevolent on behalf of the slave, the orphan, the weak and the oppressed.
Even at the height of his glory Muhammad led, as in his days of obscurity, an unpretentious life in one of those clay houses consisting, as do all old-fashioned houses of present-day Arabia and Syria, of a few rooms opening into a courtyard and accessible only from it. He was often seen mending his own clothes and was at all times within the reach of his people. “Serious or trivial,” says Hogarth, “his daily behaviour has instituted a canon which millions observe at this day with conscious mimicry. No one regarded by any section of the human race as Perfect Man has been imitated so minutely.”
The little wealth he left he regarded as state property. He took about a dozen wives, some for love, others for political reasons, among all of whom his favorite was Aishah, the young daughter of abu-Bakr. By Khadijah he had a number of children, none of whom survived him except Fatimah, later to be the famous spouse of Ali. Muhammad mourned bitterly the loss of his infant son Ibrahim, bom to him by Mary, a Christian Copt.
Out of the religious community of Medina the later and larger state of Islam arose. This new community of Emigrants and Supporters was established on the basis of religion as the Ummah, or congregation of Allah. This was the first attempt in the history of Arabia at a social organization with religion, rather than blood, as its basis. Allah was the personification of state supremacy. His Prophet, as long as he lived, was His legitimate vice-regent and supreme ruler on earth. As such, Muhammad exercised, in addition to his spiritual function, the same temporal authority that any chief of a state might exercise. All persons within this community, regardless of tribal affiliation and older loyalties, were now brethren at least in principle. These are the words of the Prophet in his noble sermon at the “farewell pilgrimage”:
“O ye men! harken unto my words and take ye them to heart! Know ye that every Moslem is a brother to every other Moslem, and that ye are now one brotherhood. It is not legitimate for any one of you, therefore, to appropriate onto himself anything that belongs to his brother unless it is willingly given him by that brother.”
Thus by one stroke the most vital bond of Arab relationship, that of tribal kinship, was replaced by a new bond, that of faith. Herein lies one of the chief claims of Muhammad to originality. A sort of Pax Islamica was instituted for Arabia. The new community was to have no priesthood, no hierarchy, no central see. Its mosque was its public forum and military drill ground as well as its place of common worship. The leader in prayer, the imam, was also to be commander in chief of the army of the faithful, who were enjoined to protect one another against the entire world. All Arabians who remained heathen were outside the pale, almost outlaws. Islam canceled the past. Wine and gambling-next to women the two indulgences dearest to the Arabian heart-were abolished in one verse. Singing, almost equally attractive, was frowned upon.
From Medina the Islamic theocracy spread all over Arabia and later encompassed the larger part of Western Asia and North Africa. The community of Medina was in miniature the subsequent community of Islam. Within a brief span of mortal life Muhammad called forth out of unpromising material a nation never united before, in a country that was hitherto but a geographical expression; established a religion which in vast areas superseded Christianity and Judaism and still claims the adherence of a goodly portion of the human race; and laid the basis of an empire that was soon to embrace within its far-flung boundaries the fairest provinces of the then civilized world. Himself an unschooled man, Muhammad was nevertheless responsible for a book still considered by one-seventh of mankind as the embodiment of all science, wisdom and theology.
From the book “The Arabs: A Short History”, by Philip K. Hitti © 1996 by Regnery Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by special permission of Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, D.C. – The drawings in this article are the work of Michael Ross and are representative of classical Arabian life. Drawings © Michael Ross – Web Production and Design, OneWorld Magazine.