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An Outline of the Life of Muhammad


1. Mecca at the time of Muhammad.

In the sixth century after Christ, Mecca (pronounced Makkah in Arabic) was hardly known to the outside world but it was the commercial and religious centre of Arabia. Although the Arabs were a divided people, broken up into various tribes who were constantly at war with each other, the fairs at the city served to attract many of them and whatever unity existed among them was generated and expressed through these annual get-togethers. The focal point of attention was the Ka'aba (Arabic for "cube"), a shrine in the centre of the city containing over three hundred idols, chief of whom was the god Hubal (a probable derivation from the ancient high-god Ba'al, so often spoken of as the chief object of worship of the pagan nations around Israel in the Bible). The various tribes came to Mecca to worship their gods and take part in the various poetical contests that were arranged at the fairs. The composition of poetry was a favourite literary pastime of the Arabs and many shu'ara (poets, singular: sha'ir) competed at these contests.

When Muhammad began to proclaim the Qur'an, a book with a very rhythmic style, the Meccans derided him as one of these poets or, worse still, as a kahin (soothsayer). Muhammad expressly repudiated the suggestion that he was either of these. Indeed the rhyme of the Qur'an is rarely symmetrical and parts of it are purely narratory. The Qur'an says of its own message which he brings:

There was no central government of any kind in those days in Arabia. Each tribe looked to its own interests and inter-tribal intercourse was governed by certain unwritten laws - for example, four months in the year were set apart for religious pilgrimages to Mecca and other cities containing the shrines of major idols (such as that of the goddess al-Lat at at-Ta'if near Mecca) during which warfare was forbidden. Another such law was the right of retaliation by a tribe if one of its members was injured or killed by a member of another tribe. The offended tribe could accept a ransom or exercise an eye-for-eye retaliation against any member of the other tribe.

Commercial trade with the local nomadic tribes and Syrian and other merchants beyond the Arabian peninsula was the lifeblood of the people of Mecca. The Ouraysh tribe controlled the city and, from the Banu Hashim, a sub-tribe Muhammad was born. Hashim was his great-grandfather and for the first two years after his birth, Muhammad was cared for by his grandfather Abdul Muttalib as his father, Abdallah, died before he was born. A strange tale is recorded of a vow made by Abdul Muttalib which, had it been performed, would have given the Arabs a different course through history. He allegedly discovered the well of Zam-Zam next to the Ka'aba which the Muslims to this day believe is the one Hagar (Hajira) found while looking for water for her son Ishmael (Ismail). A dispute arose between Abdul Muttalib and the Quraysh over two golden gazelles and other treasures which he discovered and, supported by an only son, he vowed to Hubal that, if he was given ten sons, he would sacrifice one of them. One by one the ten sons were duly born to him and by the divination of arrows, Abdallah became the unfortunate victim. Nevertheless, as his father was about to perform his vow, he was persuaded to substitute a number of camels instead as an expiatory sacrifice on behalf of his son by his distraught tribesmen. (There is some doubt as to the truth of this story. In his Sirat Rasulullah, p. 66, Ibn Ishaq begins his narrative by saying God only knows the truth of it, his customary way of expressing his reservations about anything he recorded).

2. Muhammad's First Forty Years.

Into this environment Muhammad was born in 570 AD of his mother Amina and for a few years was entrusted to the care of Halima, a woman from the Banu Sa'd, a sub-tribe of the nomadic Hawazin tribe, of whom we will hear more later. After the death of his grandfather, he was protected by his uncle Abu Talib who had an orphan on his hands when Amina died six years after Muhammad's birth.

Little is known of his youth but Islamic history records that he journeyed with Abu Talib to Syria at the age of only twelve years and at this time he must have gained his first impressions of Judaism and Christianity, the monotheistic religions with their respective scriptures so different to the pagan idolatry of his own people. (The Qur'an constantly distinguishes Jews and Christians as Ah! at-Kitab - people of the scripture - from the pagan Arabs who are usually described as at-Mushrikin - the polytheists).

At the age of twenty-five he was commissioned to attend to the mercantile affairs of a wealthy widow in Mecca named Khadija who was fifteen years older than him. Once again Muhammad set out for Syria to trade, this time with Khadija's goods. It appears that he had a very good reputation in Mecca and was especially selected by this dignified woman in consequence. Muhammad duly justified her confidence in him and returned after successfully fulfilling his task of selling her goods and purchasing new items. Although she was a woman of noble birth and considerable charm, she resisted her suitors but was irresistibly attracted to Muhammad and sent a messenger to him with a proposal of marriage, expressing her impression of him in these words:

Muhammad duly accepted her proposal and they were soon married. Despite the years between them, the marriage was evidently a happy one. She bore him two sons (who died in infancy) and four daughters: Zaynab, Ruqaiyah, Fatima and Umm Kulthum. Although he took many wives after her death, he stayed married to her alone for the remaining twenty-five years of her life. He is alleged to have said that, in her lifetime, she was the best among women and in later years Ayishah, his youngest and favourite wife, used to say:

One last incident in his life before his claim to prophethood should be mentioned. At the age of thirty-five a violent storm shattered the Ka'aba and the Quraysh decided to rebuild it. Apart from its idols, its most important feature was a black stone, probably a meteorite, built into its east corner. The stone is there to this day and is known as al-hajaru'l-aswad (literally, "the black stone"). It was held in high esteem by the pagan Arabs and, when the time came for its reinstatement in the restored shrine, the various branches of the Quraysh tribe so vied for the right to put it back into its proper place that bloodshed threatened. In the end they agreed that the next person to enter one of the gates would have the privilege of restoring it.

One cannot help wondering to what extent this incident moulded the later conviction of Muhammad that he was chosen as a prophet of Allah. Nonetheless, in both this incident and the attitude of Khadija we can see that he was widely accepted as a thoroughly trustworthy person. Explaining the acceptance of Muhammad by all the Quraysh without dissent, one of his biographers tells us:

The award of this name al-Amin to Muhammad in these early days testifies strongly to the subjective sincerity of his prophetic conviction in later years. For the next five years, however, we hear nothing more of him.

3. "Iqra" - The Call to Prophethood.

Life only begins at forty, so they say, and of no man was this truer than Muhammad. At about this age he began retiring to a cave on Mount Hira just outside Mecca where he spent many days in quiet contemplation and meditation. On one of these days he returned hastily to Mecca to inform his wife Khadija that he had had a strange vision of an angelic being, with one foot on the other, calling out to him from the horizon. No matter which way he turned, there was the angel. He was much disturbed by the vision and expressed the fear that he might become a soothsayer like those that he despised. It seems clear that his first reaction was that he had been visited by an evil spirit, a Jinn (from which comes the word genie introduced into the English language chiefly through the story of Aladdin's lamp). The Quran recognises the existence of such beings of whom we will hear more later. The following hadith (literally "a saying", generally meaning a tradition from one of the companions of Muhammad about an incident in his life) tells us what happened on the mountain as he experienced this phenomenon he reported:

The last two sentences today form the first four verses of the 96th Surah of the Qur'an. It is generally agreed by all the early biographers that this passage was the first revealed, though Bukhari states that Surah 74, verses 1 to 3, was the initial revelation:

The other biographers generally recognise this passage as one of the very earliest but the evidence favours the other as the first revealed. The first word used by the angel was Iq'ra! - Recite! From the same root letters the word Qur'an is derived, meaning the "Recitation". After Muhammad had reacted that he was unable to read, the angel then recited the whole verse: Iq'ra bismi rabbikallathii khalaq - "Recite, in the name of thy Lord who created". Muhammad was then led to understand that he was to repeat the words after the angel had first recited them.

Khadija immediately comforted him, stating that Allah would never have allowed anything but a true revelation to come to him. When a cousin named Waraqah, who had renounced the idol-worship of his tribesmen, supported her, alleging that the al-Namus al-Akbar, the great angel, had obviously visited him, Muhammad was duly persuaded that he had been commissioned by Allah as a prophet. For some time, however, he remained in doubt:

The last sentence now forms Surah 93.1-3 in the Qur'an. (The angel Gabriel, called Jibri in the Qur'an, Surah 2.98, was believed by Muhammad to be the angel who appeared to him and who over the years revealed the whole Qur'an to him). After this the revelations came frequently. (A critical analysis of Muhammad's prophetic experience follows in this book. For the moment it seems appropriate to outline the developing drama just as it is recorded in the traditions). He was told to call the people of Mecca to the worship of the one God Allah, to forsake idol worship, to prepare for the Day of Reckoning, to choose between heaven and hell, and to acknowledge him as a prophet.

After his wife his cousin Ali, son of his protector Abu Talib, who was in his care, and his adopted son Zaid ibn Haritha became his first followers. The first noteworthy person to do so from the Quraysh was Abu Bakr, of whom we will hear more. (He was Muhammad's successor, the first of the caliphs, after Muhammad's death).

Muhammad duly began proclaiming his message to the Meccans and the first companion to follow in doing so was one Abdullah ibn Masud. Ibn Ishaq tells us that, whe1 the Quraysh heard him, they struck him in the face, but this only increased his resolve (Sirat Rasulullah, p. 142). This incident deserves mention in the light of what we will discover in another chapter about Ibn Masud's part in the collection of the Qur'an.

4. Persecution and Progress in Mecca.

During the next ten years Muhammad's movement slowly took root in Mecca but much opposition followed. The Quraysh took exception to Muhammad's preaching. Was he to be their leader? Were their gods and goddesses to be dishonoured by him without a defiant response? Was Mecca to cease to be the centre of the pagan worship of Arabia? What would the effect be on their thriving commercial trade with the deputations who came to worship at the Ka'aba? The implications urged the Quraysh into a swift denunciation of Muhammad's preaching and the Meccans soon began persecuting those followers of Muhammad who were unprotected, one of whom was Bilal, an Abyssinian slave purchased and set free by Abu Bakr, who later became the regular muazzinof the early Muslims, the one who summons them to prayer.

The Meccans did not object to the proclamation that Allah was the Supreme Being but rather to the denunciation of their idols. The Qur'an does not charge the Meccans with not believing in Allah at all but rather of associating partners with him or of giving him sons and daughters. This is very strongly denounced in the Qur'an as shirk - "associating" - an unforgivable sin, from the same root letters as Mushrikin (see p.13). Three goddesses, regarded as intercessors by the Quraysh, are repudiated by name in the Qur'an:

As the birth of a female was regarded as a dishonour by the Arabs, the Qur'an asks how the Quraysh could have sons and Allah only daughters! (The charge of attributing a son to Allah in the Qur'an is generally levelled against the Christians, though in Surah 9.30 the Jews are accused of making Uzazr, i.e. Ezra, a "son of Allah" - a strange charge not warranted by the records of Jewish history).

The great God Allah was already regarded as Lord of the Ka'aba by the Meccans and the shrine was known as al-baitullah - the house of Allah. Apart from the repudiation of idols it appears that the Quraysh had yet other reasons for opposing Muhammad's preaching:

The Quraysh apparently distinguished between Allah and ar-Rahman of the Jews but the Qur'an identifies the two as the same Lord of all:

In some of the earliest Surahs we find the name ar-Rahman being used more often for God instead of the more common name Allah (e.g. Surah 43 where "ar-Rahman" appears seven times and "Allah" on only three occasions).

Chief among the persecutors were Abu Lahab, an uncle of Muhammad (one of Abdul Muttalib's ten sons) and Abu Jahl "that evil man" (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p. 145) who was later killed at Badr.

Most of the direct opposition to Muhammad himself, protected from physical harm by Abu Talib, took the form of ridicule. Ibn Masud tells of an incident near the Ka'aba on one of those early days when Muhammad was praying with Abu Jahl and a number of his friends standing behind him:

After his daughter Fatima had removed the foetus, Muhammad promptly invoked imprecations on them in the name of Allah and, at the battle of Badr to follow, his warriors duly despatched Abu Jahl and six of his associates.

The Qur'an itself denounces Muhammad's other great enemy, Abu Lahab, by name in Surah 111 and consigns him and his wife (who used to place thorns in Muhammad's path) to the fires of hell. "Love your enemies" was neither believed nor practiced by Muhammad, the Arab claimant to prophethood.

Persecution became so severe that Muhammad allowed a number of his followers to flee to Abyssinia. Shortly after this, however, another of his uncles, Hamza (who was only two years older than him) became one of his followers. A courageous man, he later became known as "the Lion of God". Not long after his conversion Muhammad gained a most important addition to his small band of followers in the person of Umar ibn al-Khattab who later became the second caliph. Umar had been a staunch opponent of Muhammad's preaching and physically assaulted his own sister Fatima when he found she too had been converted. Remorse overtook him when he saw her face bleeding and he asked to hear a recitation of the Qur'n. Overwhelmed, he immediately sought out Muhammad to swear his allegiance to him.

The conversion of such men as Umar and Hamza strengthened the cause of Muhammad's companions and for a while public worship became possible. Persecution later revived, however, and a second migration to Abyssinia followed. This only increased the fury of the Quraysh and a ban was proclaimed against Abu Talib and the Banu Hashim until they should remove their protection of Muhammad and leave the rest of the Quraysh free to deal with him. The sub-tribe was shut up and besieged in Abu Talib'a quarter for three years (with the exception, naturally, of Abu Lahab) and during this period suffered greatly till the cries of the children could be heard.

Many now began to feel that the boycott of their trite men had gone far enough and when it was discovered that ants had eaten the banning order placed in the Ka'aba with the exception of the words "In thy name, O Allah", the Quraysh agreed that the ban should be lifted.

5. Muhammad's Visit to at-Ta'if.

Not long after this Khadija and Abu Talib died. The loss of both his wife and protector was a severe blow and Muhammad had to reassess his position in Mecca. Despairing of any further success in the city, he left it for the first time to preach his message elsewhere and proceeded to at-Ta'if, a city in a fertile valley to the south-east of Mecca, and home of the worship of the Arab goddess al-Lat. Accompanied only by his adopted son Zaid, he was soon rejected by the inhabitants of the city and, as they were leaving, both were stoned and partially injured by the unrepentant idolaters. Taking refuge in an orchard, he was solaced and reassured himself of God's favour on his mission. From one point of view, this moment was probably the lowest point of his ministry and the future must have appeared bleak. At the same time we must be objective and sympathise deeply with his unrelenting determination to oppose the paganism of his day in the name of the one true God. From a Christian point of view he perhaps here more than at any other time, comes out with credit.

6. The Treaties of Aqabah and the Hijrah.

Not long after his visit to at-Ta'if, all began to change for the hitherto unsuccessful claimant to prophethood. At the next annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad met six men from Yathrib, a city just over two hundred miles north of Mecca, who commended his message and said they would return home and proclaim it. The following year they returned after some measure of success and twelve men of Yathrib met him at al-Aqaba near Mecca and took an oath which became known as the first pledge of Aqaba and as the "Pledge of the Women" because they undertook to observe the ordinances laid down in the Qur'an on believing women who sought to take the oath of fealty (Surah 60.12). One of the twelve puts the oath in his own words:

Muhammad sent one of his companions, Musab, to teach them the Qur' an and the spread of the new faith was so swift in the city that seventy men accompanied Musab the following year to Mecca and took the second pledge of Aqaba after their leader, one al-Bare, had made this declaration to Muhammad:

They undertook to protect him with their own lives and accept him as leader in Yathrib. What brought about this sudden change in fortunes? There were basically two factors which weighed in favour of success here which had not been present at Mecca or at-Ta'if. Firstly, the city was inhabited by two tribes, the Aus and Khazraj, who had been at war with each other and who now sought an independent leader to govern them. Secondly, there were many Jews in the city and their monotheistic influence had had a purifying effect on these Arabs and prepared them for such an indigenous monotheistic religion as the Arab prophet of Mecca set before them. The seventy came from both tribes and confirmed that Yathrib was willing to accept him as leader and preparations were made for Muhammad and his followers to emigrate to the city. Soon many of them quietly left Mecca though the Quraysh had already become aware that something was afoot.

As soon as the Quraysh realised fully what was happen) they became alarmed. A defiant prophet in their midst was one thing - an immortal enemy governing a hostile city elsewhere was another. Plans were soon afoot to kill Muhammad and one night, with only Muhammad himself, Abu Bakr and Ali left in the city, the Quraysh sought to execute their design against him. But, leaving Ali in his bed, he escaped with Abu Bakr to a cave on Mount Thaur south of Mecca and remained there two days. A legend, widely reported, explains how Allah sent a spider to protect them while the Quraysh sought them:

This incident is universally believed to be true by Muslims throughout the world to this day, but it is probable that this story is adapted from a Jewish fable like many others that are found in the Qur'an, as we shall see.

Another incident related of this sojourn in the cave and one of certain historical accuracy, again commends Muhammad and is one of those moments in his hard life at Mecca for which we are bound to give him credit. The Qur'an itself mentions it in these words:

Abu Bakr had become quite fearful when they realised the Quraysh were near and asked what the two of them could do against so many, but Muhammad comforted him by saying "We are not two but three - Allah is with us". Abu Bakr corded the poignant moment in these words:

The two finally escaped safely and Ali soon followed. Thus ended Muhammad's years in Mecca and this migration, known as the Hijrah, became the turning point in his mission. At Yathrib, renamed al-Madina by Muhammad (literally "the city"), Islam was established as a religion and from the date of the Hijrah, 20th June 622 AD, the Muslim calendar significantly begins.

Less than a hundred Meccan believers came to Medina and were given the honorary title Muhajirun, Emigrants, a word derived from the same root letters as hijrah (emigration). The Medinan converts who stood by him at al-Aqaba were likewise entitled Ansar, Helpers. From now on the Muslim ummah (community) was a unit in itself. Tribal loyalties passed away and a new universal loyalty to Allah, his apostle and the believers (mu'minin) took over. Henceforth the followers of Muhammad were proud to be called Muslims (al-Muslimin - "the Muslims") and adherents of al-Islam. Both words come from the same root letters - Islam means "submission" and a Muslim is one who submits himself to the way of Allah.

Muhammad and the Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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