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Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation

Companion to the Qur'an, W. Montgomery Watt, p 38, 244

Muhammad at Mecca, W. Montgomery Watt, 1953, p 23-29

Muhammad's Mecca, W. Montgomery Watt, Chapter 3: Religion In Pre-Islamic Arabia, p26-53

Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, W. Montgomery Watt, 1961, p229-235

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Islam: Truth or Myth? start page



Companion to the Qur'an, W. Montgomery Watt, p 38, 244

196/2 The Pilgrimage: Ar. hajj; a pre-Islamic Arabian custom taken over by Islam with some modifications; the present verse is doubtless about the same time as the change of qibla, when the actual performance of the pilgrimage would be difficult at least for Muslims who had emigrated from Mecca. (Companion to the Qur'an, W. Montgomery Watt, p 38)

19 - 30/1 The pagan goddesses: 19,2o El-Lat ... El-'Uzza ... Manat: these goddesses were specially connected with three shrines in the neighbourhood of Mecca, namely at at-Ta'if, Nakhla (on the road to at-Ta'if, and at a place on the road to Medina. The story is that when these verses were first recited, Muhammad was anxious to win over the pagan Meccans, and failed to notice when Satan introduced two (or three) further verses permitting intercession at these shrines. This story could hardly have been invented, and gains support from sura 22, v. 52/1 (see comment). At length Muhammad realized the substitution, and received the continuing revelation as it now is in the Qur'an. (Companion to the Qur'an, W. Montgomery Watt, p 244)


Muhammad at Mecca, W. Montgomery Watt, 1953, p 23-29

(Muhammad at Mecca, W. Montgomery Watt, 1953, p 23-29)


(a) The decadence of the archaic religion

The best account of the old religion of Arabia in English is in the article by Noldeke entitled 'Arabs (Ancient)' in the Englo-paedia of Religion and Ethics. The standard account is J. Well-hausen's Reste Arabischen Heidentums, which is based mainly on Kitab al-Asnam of Ibn al-Kalbi. H. Lammens brings some additions and emendations in Le Culte des Bityles et les processions religieuses cliez les Arabes Preislamites. The divergent theories of Dietlef Nielsen are not generally accepted. These recount what is known about a large number of gods and goddesses and about the ceremonies connected with their worship. As our knowledge is fragmentary and, apart from inscriptions, comes from Islamic sources, there is ample scope for conjecture. These matters are not dealt with here in any detail as it is generally agreed that the archaic pagan religion was comparatively uninfluential in Muhammad's time.

This religion was the result of a long development. Prominent among the objects worshipped originally were stones and trees. These were sometimes regarded not as the divinities but as their house or dwelling. Latterly abstract characteristics were also associated with them, possibly under foreign influence, and they were thought of as having some connection with heavenly bodies. The nomads appear to have had little serious belief in them, perhaps because they were originally the gods of agricultural communities.4 In view of the opposition to Muhammad at Mecca it is conceivable that some small groups there-perhaps those specially concerned with certain religious ceremonies-had a slightly higher degree of belief. On the other hand, certain practices continued, such as pilgrimages to sacred spots in and around Mecca; the haram or sacred area of Mecca was respected, but the violations during the war of the Fijir are probably signs of declining belief. In the crisis of the Meccan state Abfa- Sufyin took the goddesses al-Lit and Al-'Uzzi into battle against the Muslims at Uhud; this recalls how the Israelites took the ark into battle with them, and suggests that the remnants of pagan belief in Arabia were now at the level of magic. In this sense many old ceremonies seem to have remained, but they are to be reckoned as superstition rather than religion.

  (b) 'Tribal humanism'

In contrast to the archaic religion stands what may be called 'tribal humanism. This was the effective religion of the Arabs of Muhammad's day, though it, too, was declining. This is the religion we And in the poets of the jihiliyah. For the poets what gives life a meaning is to belong to a tribe which can boast notable deeds of bravery and generosity, and to have some share in these oneself. From this standpoint the realization of human excellence in action is an end in itself, and at the same time usually contributes to the survival of the tribe, which is the other great end of life. This is humanism in the sense that it is primarily in human values, in virtuous or manly conduct, that it finds significance. But it differs from most modem humanism in that it thinks of the tribe rather than the individual as the locus of these values. We shall see (in ch. III) that while in its earliest passages the Qur'an does not attack the old paganism, it does counter this humanism in its religious aspect; from this, however, is to be distinguished the ethical aspect of humanism, the moral ideal, which in general the Qur'an respects.

While belief in the honour and excellence of the tribe was the mainspring of nomadic life, there was an intellectual background to this belief that is worth noticing. The fatalism of the Arabs is notorious, but it appears that it was a limited fatalism. They do not seem to have held that all a man's acts were predetermined by fate, but only that certain aspects of his life were thus fixed. I have suggested elsewhere' that in some of the canonical Traditions of Islam we have pre-Islamic ideas in an Islamic dress, and in particular that what was previously attributed to Time or Fate came to be ascribed directly or indirectly to God. If this is so, then the four main points in which human life was constricted within narrow limits by Fate were rizq or man's sustenance, ajal or the term of his life, the sex of the child, and happiness or misery. This was not a religion, for Fate was not worshipped. It was rather a form of science ' for it was essentially the recognition of facts. In desert conditions the matters named are beyond the control of human wit and wisdom. Sustenance is very precarious; one tribe may have copious rainfall and abundant pasture, and the neighboring tribe may have neither. Expectation of life is low, and death often comes suddenly and unexpectedly as the result of a chance encounter. Even now, with all our science we cannot foretell, far less deter-mine the sex of a baby. In the desert great vicissitudes of fortune are common, so that for the nomad the experience of Job would contain nothing improbable.

Thus the realization of the ideal of murawah took place, as it were, within a fixed frame. To have noble blood in one's veins was probably regarded as making it easier to perform noble actions, though a man's moral qualities never depended on noble ancestry alone. Because of the tribal solidarity of the Arabs the question of individual freedom could hardly occur to them. The growth of individualism probably led, about the time of Muhammad's youth, to a decline in this tribal humanism as a vital religious force. Hitherto men had not been greatly concerned with the fate of the individual so long as the tribe endured, but now they were beginning to wonder about the ultimate destiny of the individual. There was no way of passing from tribal humanism to individual human-ism, since in the absence of a belief in personal immortality there was in the case of the individual nothing enduring; in the case of tribal humanism men could see that the tribe endured, and above all the blood, which they probably regarded as the source of the noble qualities of the tribe. In the sphere of religion the main problem of Muhammad's time seems to have been this break-down of tribal humanism in face of the more individualistic organization of society.

(c) The appearance of monotheistic tendencies

The relation of Islamic teachings to Judaeo-Christian 'sources' has been discussed ad nauseam, and it is not proposed to deal with the question here at any length. It is desirable, however, to say something about the angle from which it ought to be approached, since the attitude of Western scholars has often been unfortunate in that it implied or seemed to imply a denial of Muslim theological doctrines. Even from the standpoint of the best Western scholarship the Western studies in the Qur'an have often been unfortunate. They have made a fetish of literary dependence, and have forgotten that literary dependence is never more than one side of the picture; there is also the creative work of the poet, or dramatist, or novelist; and the fact of literary dependence never proves the absence of creative originality. The religious sphere is similar, though there are also differences. You may show that Amos or Ezekiel took over many conceptions from their predecessors; but, if you study only this dependence, you miss their originality and the uniqueness of the Divine revelation made through them.

In the eyes of orthodox Muslims the Qur'an is a Divine revelation, the speech of God. The Qur'an, however, makes explicit statements about the beliefs of the pagan Arabs and about certain ideas which have been passing through the mind of Muhammad and the Muslims; there are also other passages from which inferences about the outlook of Muhammad and his contemporaries can be drawn with a high degree of certainty. These facts suggest a method of dealing with the question of Judaeo-Christian influences which would be satisfactory to Western scholarship and to which orthodox Muslims could hardly take exception. The first stage would be to ask what the Qur'an stated or implied about the beliefs of the Arabs of Muhammad's time, both the enlightened progressives and the conservatives. Then it would be possible to ask to what extent judaeo-Christian influences could be traced there.

The impression given by the earliest passages of the Qur'an is that these were addressed to people who already believed in God, although perhaps with much vagueness and confusion. The Qur'an explains certain strange words which were apparently not properly understood by those who heard them: Saqar (74), al-Qari'ab (101), al-Hutamah (104), &c. But it does not require to explain the mean-ing of 'thy Lord' or 'God'. The phrase 'Lord of this House (sc. the Ka'bah)' in Srjrat Qtiraysh (io6) suggests that the more enlightened Meccans regarded themselves as worshipping God there. The Arabic word for 'God', Allah, is a contraction of al-ilah, which like the Greek ho theos simply means 'the god' but was commonly understood as 'the supreme god' or 'God'. It is possible that before the time of Muhammad the Meccan pagans used to indicate the principal deity of the Ka'bah, in the same way in which the deity worshipped at at-Ta'if was known simply as al-Lat, the goddess. If the word Allah was also used for God as acknowledged by Jews and Christians, the opportunities for confusion would be great. The probability therefore is that while some Meccans acknowledged God, they did not see that their old polytheistic beliefs were incompatible with belief in God and reject them.

These premonitions of monotheism among the Arabs must have been due mainly to Christian and Jewish influences. The Arabs had many opportunities of contact with Christians and Jews. The Byzantine empire, whose power and higher civilization they greatly admired, was Christian, and so was Abyssinia. Even in the Persian empire Christianity was strong, and al-Hirah, the Persian vassal-state with which the Arabs were much in contact, was an outpost of the East Syrian or Nestorian Church. This combination of monotheism with military and political strength and a higher level of material civilization must have impressed the Arabs greatly. The nomadic tribes and settled communities in closest contact with these states were indeed being gradually Christianized; and even some of the Meccan merchants were not uninfluenced by what they saw when they traveled to the border market-towns on business. There were also Christians in Mecca, traders and slaves,2 but the influence of isolated individuals was probably not so important.

The opportunities for contact with Jews were not so extensive as those with Christians, but some were probably more intimate. This was especially so in Medina where Jews and pagan Arabs were settled side by side. There were also quite a number of Jewish tribes settled at oases in Arabia and in the fertile parts of southern Arabia, either refugees of Hebrew race or Arab tribes which had adopted Judaism. There were apparently practically no Jews in Mecca.3

When one turns to questions of detail, one finds that the particular Jewish and Christian groups which influenced the Arabs must have had many strange ideas. By this is not meant the technical heterodoxy of the East Syrians (Nestorians) and the Syrian and Abyssinian Monophysites; the expressions of the leading doctors of these churches were sober compared with many of the extra-ordinary ideas, derived from apocryphal gospels and the like, that seem to have been floating about Arabia. The passage of the Qur'an which suggests that the Trinity consists of Father, Son, and Virgin Mary is doubtless a criticism of some nominally Christian Arabs who held this view. On the Jewish side, too, much of the detail came not from the sacred Scriptures but from secondary sources of various types.

The possibility of influence from monotheistic groups other than Jews and Christians cannot be entirely excluded, but at most it must have been slight. There may possibly have been small communities professing a monotheism based mainly on Greek philosophy, like the Sabians. Such is a possible interpretation of some uses of the word hanif. Here I shall simply say that there is no good evidence of any concerted movement towards monotheism. If there had been such a movement, it would almost certainly have had political implications, just as the Christianity of 'Uthman b. al-Huwayrith is to be connected with his aspiration to become sole ruler of Mecca with Byzantine help. There is, however, a measure of truth in the traditional account of the hanifs as seekers for a new faith. In the religious situation of Arabia, and particularly of Mecca, as it was at the end of the sixth century, there must have been many serious-minded men who were aware of a vacuum and eager to find something to satisfy their deepest needs.

Finally, it should be noticed that there was some modification of Judaeo-Christian ideas to assimilate them to the Arab outlook. We have already noticed how old ideas connected with Fate or dahr came to be attached to God. The idea of God had permeated Arab thought to such an extent that pagans maintained that their superstitious rites were the command of Allah: 'When they commit an indecency they say, We found our fathers doing this and God (or the god) hath so commanded us' (7. 27). The theistic interpretation of the retreat of Abraham from Mecca may be prior to the Qur'an and (even if the Qur'an developed the material) the idea that Hud and Salih were prophets to 'Ad and Thamrid was probably a pre-Qur'anic instance of the application of the judaeo-Christian conception of prophethood. If per improbable it were the case, as has been suggested,' that Musaylimah of B. Harii-fah set up as a prophet before Muhammad, that would illustrate how the conception of prophet had taken root. Assimilation to the Arab outlook is also reflected in the selection or rejection of Judaeo-Christian ideas, though it is usually difficult to show that Arabs must have been aware of an idea which is not mentioned, and therefore must have rejected it.

For the study of the life of Muhammad it is hardly necessary to decide the relative importance of Jewish and Christian influences, especially since many details are disputed. The main necessity is to realize that such things were 'in the air' before the Qur'an came to Muhammad and were part of the preparation of himself and of his environment for his mission.



Muhammad's Mecca, W. Montgomery Watt, Chapter 3: Religion In Pre-Islamic Arabia, p26-53

Muhammad's Mecca, W. Montgomery Watt, Chapter 3: Religion In Pre-Islamic Arabia, p26-53


Religion In Pre-Islamic Arabia

Much is now known about religion in pre-Islamic Arabia from a combination of archaeological and literary sources. The aim here is the limited one of presenting such information as is found in the Qur'an. This is more than might be expected, because sometimes the words of Muhammad's opponents are quoted before the reply is put into his mouth, and sometimes their views may be implied from the words addressed to them.

 A. fatalism

A distinctive belief of the nomadic Arab was that the main events of his life were due to the inevitable working of time. This is plainly expressed in 45.24:

(The pagans) say, 'There is only our present life; we die and we live; and only Time destroys us."

By this they probably meant that sometimes a person dies and sometimes he lives, and the difference is due to Time. The word for 'Time' is dahr, and in the present context the translation 'fate' would not be impossible. In pre-Islamic poetry, however, misfortune, and less often good fortune, is said to be brought not only by dahr, but also by az-zaman (another word for 'time') and by 'the days' and even 'the nights'. Thus it is really the flow of temporal happenings or the course of events which the Arabs regarded as determining their lives. For them this was an impersonal force, and they do not seem to have personified Time. Neither is there any evidence of their having worshipped the Time/Fate which brought death and misfortune.

Connected with the belief that Time determines the events of human life is the belief that these events are predetermined. This predetermination was accepted as a brute fact and left without explanation, while Time was seen as the efficient cause which brought the events into existence at the appropriate date. Two matters in particular were thought of as being fixed beforehand: one was the 'term' or ajal of a man's life, that is, the date of his death; and the other was his Yizq or 'provision', that is, his food or sustenance. These were matters which in desert conditions it was impossible to foresee or control. Death could come from a chance encounter; and the rainfall which made the difference between abundance and starvation was completely erratic.

The Qur'an has little to say specifically about the pagans in respect of ajal and zizq, but the two concepts are accepted into Islam and given a religious setting; and from what is then said we may form some idea of pagan views. In a sense what happened was that dahr was replaced by God-a point which some Muslim scholars realized and discussed.17 The Qur'an itself virtually asserts this, for in a verse following that in which the pagans speak of dahr destroying them, Muhammad is told to reply to them:

"It is God who makes you live, then makes you die, then gathers you for the day of resurrection, about which is no doubt ..." (45:26)

Predetermined misfortune is also from God.

No misfortune has happened in respect either of the land or of yourselves, but it was in a book before we (God) brought it about. (57.22)

The linking of predestination with a book is hardly mentioned in pre-Islamic poetry, but must have had a firm place in the thinking of the Meccans, since it appears several times in the Qur'an. To men unwilling to take part in a campaign Muhammad is told to say, 'Nothing will befall us except what God has written for us; he is our mawla' (9:51). The ajal in particular is written in a book: 'no man becomes long-lived nor has any of his life cut short but it is in a book' (35:11); 'no person dies but by God's permission according to a dated book' (kitib mu'aiial) (3.145). It is worth noting that the idea is also found in the Old Testament: 'all (my actions) were recorded in your book, my days listed and determined, even before the first of them occurred'."' in the Qur'an God also becomes responsible for people's rizq:

God it is who created you, then gave you provision, then causes you to die, then causes you to live ... (30.40)

He is called the Provider par excellence, ar-Razaq, and 'the best of Providers' (khayr ar-raziqin),20 and is usually spoken of as providing adequately. Sometimes, however, he may reduce the rizq either to test people or as a punishment.

Have they not seen that for whom he wills God enlarges the provision or restricts it? (30-37)

The alternation of plenty and scarcity owing to the erratic character of the rainfall in the desert areas is given a theological meaning. The point was made in 7.94-f. (quoted above on P.22). Dearth is sent to humble people and make them more receptive to the prophetic message, but subsequent affluence is a further test, which the pagans here fail, since they argue that dearth and wealth have always alternated through natural causes and are not determined by God as the prophet has claimed.

In an even more conspicuous fashion the pre-Islamic conception of the ajal or 'term' is taken over into Islam. The word has many secular usages: it can apply to a date fixed in a business contract, as for the repayment of a loan (2.282); Moses' service for his wife has an ajal (28.28f.), and likewise the embryo in the womb (22.5). Religiously the focus of interest is the ajal of each human life. This is decreed or fixed by God after each individual's creation (6.2). God also fixed an ajal for the heavens and the earth at their creation (3o.8; 46-3), and for the sun

and moon (13.2; 31.29; 35-13; 39-57). Communities as wen as individuals have an ajal (7-34; 10-49; 15.5; 23-43); but it is implied that the 'term' of a community is the date of its punishment for unbelief. It follows from this conception that, ff unbelievers are not yet punished, it is because their ajal has not yet been reached (cf. 16.6 1; etc.).

The ajal is always thought of as determined by God, but it has a relative fixity in that, once he has determined it, there is never any question of his altering it.

(Noah said) Serve God and fear him, and obey me; he will forgive your sins, and delay you to an appointed term; when God's term comes it is not delayed. (71.3f.; etc.)

The fixity of the ajal is reinforced by the assertion sometimes made (as in 5 7.22 quoted above) that it is in a book. This fixity of the date of death may also be expressed without the word ajal To m,-n who thought that Muhammad's faulty plans before the battle of Uhud led to the loss of life there he was told to say:

If you had been in your houses, those for whom being killed was written would have gone out to their corpse-beds. (3.154)

Another verse was probably directed to the same or similar people:

Wherever you may be, death will seize you, even ff you are in strong forts. (4-78)

In desert life there is much justification for a fatalistic attitude, in that it teaches one to accept with equanimity whatever happens to one. There are so many potentially destructive factors in the life of the nomad that, ff he seriously tried to guard against them all, he would be so weighed down with anxiety that he would be unable to live at all in the desert. People who say, 'If our friends had stayed at home and not gone on an expedition, they would not have been killed', are described as being filled with anguish (3.156). On the other hand, fatalism may become an excuse for laziness and inactivity:

When it is said to them,

'Spend of God's provision to you (to feed others)', the unbelievers say to the believers, 'Are we to feed him whom, if God willed, he would feed?' (36.47)

 As was noted above (P.2 I), pagans sometimes claimed that they were not responsible, since they could do no other than follow the fathers'.

Associated with fatalism in the outlook of the desert Arabs was what was called 'tribal humanism, in Muhammad at Mecca. 21 This may be described as a belief in human excellence or manliness (muruwwa) as the highest value, combined with the view that the potentiality for such excellence is preserved in the tribal stock. If a man is brave and generous, it is because he is from a tribe noted for its courage and generosity. A dominant motive in most nomads was the desire to maintain the honour of the tribe. This whole outlook is abundantly illustrated in early Arabic poetry, but there is little about it in the Qur'an except in so far as it is linked with the idea of following 'the fathers'.

B. paganism

The Qur'an mentions only a few of the deities known to have been worshipped in Arabia.22 Three female deities are named in 53.19f., al-Lat (or Allat), al-'Uzza and Manat, and these had shrines in the neighbourhood of Mecca, at at-Ta'if, Nakhla and Qudayd respectively. Five other gods are mentioned in an account of Noah (71.23): Wadd, Suwd', Yaghuth, Ya'uq Nasr; around 600 AD they were worshipped in Arabia, predominantly by South Arabian tribes, and seem to have been masculine. The traditional material about all these deities suggests that they had originally been agricultural or fertility powers, such as are found in the Ba'al religion of pre-Israelite Canaan. Al-Ut is probably no more than 'the divine one' or 'the goddess' and was also known as 'the lady'(rabba) of at-Ti'if; al-'Uzz.A is'the strong one'. ManAt, despite the resemblance of her name to mandyd ('fates'), was probably not 'a real goddess of destiny;23 at the centre of her shrine was a rock, and this suggests an agricultural deity. The occurrence of the theophoric clan-names, Aws-MariAt and Zayd-ManAt (gift of ManAt, increase of Marat), might even mean that to some extent she was a beneficent mother-goddess.

There is much that remains mysterious here, and the Qur'an does not give much indication of what these deities meant to their worshippers. In so far as they were originally fertility deities, they would cease to have much meaning for those Arabs who abandoned agriculture for the life of the desert, since little of the regularity of nature was experienced there. On the other hand, many religious rites and practices were observed, especially pilgrimage. Sacred times and places also seem to have been respected for the most part. The Qur'an has many references to Pagans Praying to their 'Partner-gods' (shuraka') -a matter to be discussed later-and there is a report of Abu Sufyan Praying to the god Hubal at Uhud.24 Abfl Sufyin is also said to have taken images of al-Lit and al-'Uz2:d with him on the expedition to Uhud.25 This might be what underlies the assertion in 4.76 that the unbelievers 'fight in the way of the idols' (taghut).

There are a number of references in the Qur'an to the 'daughters of God' (banat Allah). All make the point that it would be ridiculous that God should have only daughters, whereas the pagans have sons.26 What is obscure here is why the emphasis should have been on daughters when many of the idols seem to have been regarded as male. Al-Lat and the other two female deities were certainly prominent in the mind of the Meccans as having shrines not far away; but it may also be that the Muslims felt they had a strong argumentum ad hominem here, since some at least of the Arabs did not like having daughters instead of sons.

"When announcement is made to one of them of a female, he has gloomy dark looks and is furious; he hides from his clan because the announcement is bad, (wondering) shall he keep it despite the shame or bury it in the dust." (16-58f.)

It is difficult to know whether there is some connection with the phrase bandt ad-dahr ('daughters of Time') which is found a number of times in pre-Islamic poetry.27 The commentators on the poetry take it to mean no more than the vicissitudes of Time and the misfortunes it brings; but there are indications of a possible Iranian origin, and there it might have had an element of personification. Whether there was Iranian influence or not, the bandt Allah and other deities of the Arabs were not clearly individualized or personalized, and bore no resemblance to the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon. Since the Arabs used words expressing kinship to denote abstract relationships, the banat Allah may be no more than 'divine beings' or 'beings with some divine qualities.

This vagueness in the term makes it not surprising to find a number of Qur'anic verses which suggest that the beings to whom the pagans addressed prayers were sometimes regarded as angels.28

Has your Lord then distinguished you (Arabs) with sons and taken for himself from the angels females? (17-40)
So ask them (Muhammad), whether your Lord has daughters while they have sons; or did we create the angels females while they were present? (37-149f.)

In 34.40f - the angel-deities repudiate their worshippers.

One day he will assemble them all, then say to the angels, Were these worshipping you?' They say, 'Glory to you! you are our protector against them; they are worshipping the jinn; most of them believe in them'. (34-40f.)

This apparent assimilation of deities with angels is contrary to the common view of students of Semitic religion that the worship of spirits was contrary to that of fertility powers. It may be that the assimilation was no more than a temporary expedient when the Muslims were tying to find some way of winning over their pagan opponents, especially as the deities had become somewhat detached from fertility. There is much in the Qur'an about both angels and jinn, but apart from this identification with the goddesses they belong not to the divine world but to the created world, in which they constitute orders distinct from that of human beings. Some of the jinn even became Muslims (72-1-19).

Other points in pre-Islamic religion mentioned in the Qur'an may be dealt with briefly. Offerings of grain and cattle (those of an agricultural people) are mentioned in 6. 13 6 and implied in 16.5 6; while other verses assert that God does not require offerings of this kind constituting /provision' (zizq) (20.132; 51.57). The prayer of the unbelieving Meccans at the Ka'ba is described in 8.35 as mere whistling and clapping of hands. In one verse the worship of pagan deities seems to require the sacrifice of children (6. 137), but other verses speak of the killing of children for fear of want, and Muslims are forbidden to do so (17.3 1). Various taboos connected with 'cattle' (presumably camels) are mentioned (5,103; 6.I38f.). There are also references to magic practices, notably a mysterious process of 'blowing on knots'( 113.4). A defense against magic was to 'take refuge with (adha) some superior power. The last two suras of the Qur'an are formulas of 'taking refuge' against certain specified evils, and are known as the Mu'awwidbatayn. In these two suras and elsewhere Muslims are encouraged to 'take refuge with God' both from Satan (7-200; 16.98; 41.36) and from men (40-56; etc.); pagans are criticized for 'taking refuge' with jinn (72.6). All this shows something of the variety of religious practice in the Arabia of 600 AD.

c belief in AllAh as a 'high god'

In recent years I have become increasingly convinced that for an adequate understanding of the career of Muhammad and the origins of Islam great importance must be attached to the existence in Mecca of belief in Allah as a 'high god'.29 In a sense this is a form of paganism, but it is so different from paganism as commonly understood that it deserves separate treatment. Moreover there is much about it in the Qur'an.

The first point to note is that the pagans are prepared to admit that Allah is the creator of the heavens and the earth.

If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth, and made the sun and moon subservient, they will certainly say, Allah ... And if you ask them who sent down water from heaven and thereby revived the earth after its death, they will certainly say, Allah ... And when they sail on the ship they pray to Allah as sole object of devotion, but when he has brought them safe to land they 'associate' (yushrikun-sc. others with him). (29.61-5)
If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth, they will certainly say, Allah. Say: Do you then consider that what you call on apart from Allah, those (female beings) are able, If Allah wills evil to me, to remove this evil, or, if he wills mercy for me, to hold back this mercy? (39-38)

In a number of other verses similar questions are asked and a similar answer given by persons who believe in other deities (31.25; 43.9-15; 87). One passage has a series of questions.

Say: Whose is the earth and those in it ...? They will say, Allah's. Say, Will you not be admonished? Say, Who is Lord of the seven heavens and Lord of the mighty throne? They will say, Allah. Say, Will you not fear him? Say, In whose hand is the dominion of all things, (so that) he gives protection but no protection is given against him? They will say, Allah. Say, How are you bewitched!(23.84-9)

In the immediately preceding verses it is people who disbelieve in the message with whom Muhammad has been speaking; and the phrase 'no protection is given against him' is almost certainly to be understood of pagan deities, since in several verses (such as 39-38 above) it is stated that these deities are unable to avert God's punishment from their worshippers.

Those pagans who acknowledged Allah as creator also held that the deities could intercede with Allah on their behalf. This is probably the meaning of the statement that 'those who take awliya' apart from Allah (say), We worship them only that they may bring us near to Allah in intimacy' (39.3). More explicit is 10.18:

They worship apart from Allah what neither harms nor benefits them and they say, These are our intercessors with God.

In the parable of the unbelieving town (36.13-29) the man who exhorted his fellow-citizens to follow the messengers said,

Shall I take apart from him gods whose intercession, if the Merciful wills evil to me, will not avail me aught and will not deliver me. (36-23)

Somewhat similar is 43.86. Intercession is especially of importance on the Day of judgement when it is said of sinners that 'among their partner-gods they have no intercessors, and they believe no more in their partner-gods' (30.12). The word rendered 'partner-gods' is shuraka' which means simply 'partners, but in this verse and several others it is clear from the context that they were not partners of the worshippers, but were alleged by these to be partners of Allah. In one or two other verses, however (6.22,94; io.28f.,34f.) they are spoken of as partners of the worshippers. In any case it is unlikely that the pagans themselves used the word shuraka'; it appears to be rather a Qur'anic description of their attitude from the point of view of Islam.

It seems certain, however, that at least some of the Meccans regarded the deities as angels. The Qur'an allows that angels may be intercessors.

How many an angel is in heaven whose intercession is of no avail, save after Alldh gives perrnision to whoever he wills and approves. (53.26)

If asking for intercession is tantamount to worship, which implies divinity, then these angels are regarded as deities; but if this proposition is not accepted, there are two verses which speak clearly of angels being worshipped. One is 34-40f. which has already been quoted. The other is:

The angels, who are servants of the Merciful, they make females ... They said, Had the Merciful willed, we would not have worshipped them. They have no knowledge of that; they only guess. (43.I9f.)

One verse, strangely enough, seems to involve offerings from people engaged in agriculture.

To Allah they have assigned a portion from the grain and the cattle he has produced, and have said, This is for Allah -as they allege-and this for our partner-gods; but what is for their partner-gods does not reach Allah, whereas what is for Allah does reach their partner-gods. (6.136)

The interpretation of this verse is doubtful. The commentary of the jalilayn suggests that the portion for Allah went to the guests and the needy, while that for the pagan deities went to the sadana, the persons in charge of the shrine; but this cannot be taken as certain.

While pagans thus looked on their deities as intercessors for them with Allah, it also appears that when they were in great danger they prayed to him directly. One example of this (:zg.65) has already been quoted. Another is 10..22:

He it is who makes you travel by land and sea; and when you are on the ships, and the ships run before a favouring wind with the voyagers, and these rejoice at it, a squally wind strikes the ships and waves come over at the people from every quarter and they think it is all over with them; then they call on Allah as sole object of devotion, 'If you save us from this, we shall indeed be grateful'; but when he has saved them, see, they act unscrupulously and unjustly in the land.

Similar but less graphic is 31-32. The phrase rendered'as sole object of devotion' is mukhlisfn la-hu d-dfn, of which 'making the religion for him alone'would be a more literal translation. In these verses it seems to mean abandoning the pagan deities, at least for the time being. it would appear, then, that this phrase, which with variants occurs eleven times in the Qur'an, is contrasting monotheism not with undifferentiated polytheism but with this belief in A,11.ih as a high god. The same is possibly true of the phrase 'ibidi-nd 1-mukhla$fn, which occurs nine times; al-Bayaw! (on 12.24) says that mukhlasfn means that God made them obey him alone, but notes that some scholars read the active mukhlisfn throughout the Qur'an; with either reading these 'servants' are pure monotheists. Whether Allah was specially invoked in storms because he was in control of the sea is uncertain, but there is no doubt that in times of danger prayer was made to Allah by believers in the pagan deities.

Some other verses may be quoted in which pagans speak of Allah.

The swore by Allah most solemnly, 'Allah will not raise up him who dies'. (16-38)
They swore by Allah most solemnly, that if a warner came to them they would follow the guidance more than any other people; but when a warner came to them they only rejected the more. (35-42)

In verses already quoted pagans claim that Allah commanded acts which the Qur'an regards as indecent (7.28), and blame Allah for the fact that they are pagans (16.35).

All this material goes to show that among the pagans in Mecca and presumably also in the region round there was widespread recognition of Allah as high god. Such people may even have been more numerous than those who gave no special place to Allah, and they may have differed among themselves about the powers of a high god. This conclusion has been reached from a study of the Qur'an, and refers to a relatively small region during a restricted period. The study of inscriptions, however, has shown that belief in a high or supreme god was common throughout the Semitic Near East in the Greco-Roman period. It is worth quoting the conclusions of one who has made a thorough study of the inscriptions.

The epigraphical material reveals that the worship of a supreme god coexisted with that of other minor gods. The belief that one god is able to control all the other gods, or is supreme in that he has created and looks after the world, does not constitute monotheism. But the increasing emphasis on such beliefs is evidence of a trend towards monotheism, namely towards the exclusion of other gods' existence.[Javier Teixidor, The Pagan God: Popular Religion in the Greco-Roman Near East, Princeton 1977, 17.]
The authors of the inscriptions worshipped a supreme god who was alone in possessing a power that excelled any other divine power. He was believed to be a Weather god; heaven belonged to him. Lesser gods were his messengers and ministers. As stated in the first chapter, the cult of the angels became a significant feature of the religious life of the Near East during the Persian and Hellenistic times. It gave the angels their role of messengers, but also stressed the fact that the Lord of Heaven ranked at the top of a hierarchy of divine beings. On the other hand, the religious life of the various groups whose inscriptions have been studied in the preceding pages was rooted in the traditions of the ancestors. [Javier Teixidor, The Pagan God: Popular Religion in the Greco-Roman Near East, Princeton 1977, 161f.]

In the light of this further evidence it becomes highly probable that when Muhammad began preaching the dominant view among thinking people in Mecca was the belief in Allah as high god. Pure paganism was in decline. The deities had ceased to be the natural forces familiar to an agricultural people, and seem to have had little power left except that of interceding with Allah. The fact that in times of danger people turned from them to Allah is a sign of their powerlessness.

D. the monotheisms

Judaism. There are many references to the Jews in the Qur'an, but these belong to the period after the Hijra and are mostly about the arguments they used against the Muslims and the tricks they played on them, and thus tell us virtually nothing about the Jewish communities. The material is of great importance for a study of Muhammad's relations with the Jews, but such a study does not fall within the Meccan period. There is no record of him having any contact with Jews until he went to Medina. The verse (5 .5 1) which tells Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as awliyd' since 'they are awliyd' one to another' prob-ably does not mean that there is mutual support between Jews and Christians, but only that Jews support Jews and Christians support Christians.

Christianity. 32 There were one or two Byzantine Christians in Mecca, some perhaps working there temporarily as craftsmen, and Muhammad had presumably had some contacts with Christians on his trading journeys to Syria. There was also trade between Mecca and the Christian empire of Abyssinia. This probably explains why at first the Qur'an expressed friendship for Christians.

You will indeed find the nearest (of the people) in love to the believers are those who say, We are Christians. That is because among them are priests and monks, and they are not proud. (5.82)

Another verse combines appreciation of qualities of character with a critique of monasticism.

We gave Jesus the Gospel and in the hearts of his followers set kindness and mercy, and the monastic state; but that they invented-we did not prescribe it for them- (it was) only out of a desire to please God, but they did not observe it aright. (57-27)

Awareness of the divisions among Christians seems to be shown in 5.14:

With those who say, We are Christians, we made a covenant; but they forgot a part of the admonition. So we stirred up enmity and hatred among them until the day of resurrection.

A less pleasant side of Christian life is described in 9.34, where it is not certain whether the 'scholars' are Christian bishops or Jewish rabbis, though the monks are Christian.

O believers, many of the scholars and monks devour the people's wealth vainly and keep them from the way of God; they treasure gold and silver and do not spend them in the way of God. Give them tidings, (Muhammad), of a painful punishment.

The Qur'an has also many statements about Christian belief, many of them mistaken, and contrary arguments; but a detailed consideration of these does not fall within the scope of the present study.

The Hanifiyya. It has often been asserted by scholars, Muslims and Westerners, that during Muhammad's early life there was in Arabia a movement towards monotheism of which the individual participant was called a hanif. This is based on statements by early Muslim writers, and these in turn were trying to give some background to certain Qur'anic texts, or possibly countering the hostile suggestion that most Qur'anic ideas came from Judaism and Christianity. In the Qur'an itself, however, there is nothing about such a movement. All the uses of the word hanif fall under one of the following heads.

(I) Abraham was a hanif. This is precisely stated in 3.67: 'Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, he was a hanif, a muslim, and not one of the mushrikin (idolaters).'There are similar statements about Abraham in 6.79 and 16.120.

(2) Muhammad and the Muslims are told to follow the religion (millat) of Abraham as a hanif. Thus 2.135 runs: They say, (We follow) the religion of Abraham as a hanif, not one of the mushrikin'. Similar, but without mention of Jews and Christian, are 3.95; 4.125; 6.161; 16.123.

(3) A similar command but without any mention of Abraham.- In 10.105 Muhammad is told: 'Set your face to the religion as a hanif and do not be of the mushrikin'; and 30-30 is similar.

(4) The two remaining verses contain what are tantamount to com-mands to Muslims. The words 'be hunafd' (pl.) not mushzikin occur in 22.31 as part of instructions to be given by Abraham to would-be pilgrims to the Ka'ba. In 98.5 the People of the Book who rejected Muhammad are told that they are commanded only to worship God making him sole object of devotion as hunafa" and to perform the prayer and pay the legal alms; and prayer and alms were the basic requirement from Muslims.

There is thus not the slightest hint in the Qur'an about a hanif movement in the half century before Islam. The Qur'an uses the term only of Abraham and of Muhammad himself together with his followers and potential followers. The concept of the hanif is in fact part of the Qur'anic apologetic against Judaism and Christianity. The Muslims, it is claimed, are following the true religion of Abraham who was a monotheist but neither a Jew nor a Christian; and this last point is, of course, true, since Judaism took shape only some time after Abraham. It appears that for a time the religion of Muhammad and his followers was called the Hanifiyya, or the hanif-religion. The name even occurs as a variant reading in the verse: 'the (true) religion in God's sight is the hanifiyya/Islam' (3.19 ). 33 How the word came to be used in the Qur'an in this sense is not clear; in Christian Arabic and in pre-Islamic poetry hanif means heathen or idolater.34

A further fact to be noted is that there is no evidence that any of the men called a hanif by scholars ever used this name of himself or was so called by contemporaries. This means that prior to Muhammad's mission there was no such thing as a hanif movement so called; the movement is entirely the creation of second-century Muslim scholars such as Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Habib and Ibn Qutayba.

On the other hand, there could well have been a movement of some sort towards monotheism, fostered (as Teixidor suggests) by the belief in Allah as high god, and the apparent powerlessness of the pagan deities. Some of the men named might have been looking for a monotheism without political implications, for Christianity was linked with the Byzantine and Abyssinian empires, and Judaism had support in the Persian empire. In effect Islam gave the Arabs a monotheism independent of the empires.


The Qur'an contains, at least by implication, a certain amount of information about Mecca as it was before and during Muhammad's preaching there.

A. The sacredness of Mecca and the Ka'ba

The territory round Mecca had for centuries been regarded as sacred, and special sanctity was attached to the Haram or 'sanctuary area' immediately round the Ka'ba. It was probably the Ka'ba, and in particular the Black Stone set into it, which was the basis of the sacred character of Mecca. The Qur'an accepts the pre-Islamic belief in the sacredness of the Ka'ba and of the whole region, but sees this as coming from God. Muhammad is told to say:

I am commanded only to serve the Lord of this place (balda), who made it sacred, and to whom everything belongs. (27.91)

Another verse referring to unbelievers runs:

Have they not seen that we have appointed a sanctuary (baram) secure, while around them the people are plundered? (29.67)

Meccan affairs are the subject of Sura 106.

For the ilaf of Quraysh, the ilaf of the caravan of the winter and the summer, let them worship the Lord of this House, who against hunger has fed them, and against fear has given them security.

The use of the phrase 'the Lord of this House makes it likely that those Meccans who believed in Allah as a high god-and they may have been numerous-regarded the Ka'ba as his shrine, even though there were images of other gods in it. There are stories in the Sira of pagan Meccan praying to Allah while standing beside the image of Hubal. The word Ilaf is vocalized and interpreted in various ways, such as 'assembling' or 'bringing together'. Whatever the exact interpretation, the first two verses refer to the commercial activities of the Meccans, while the last two describe aspects of their commercial prosperity. They are able to import sufficient food to keep themselves well supplied, and they are threatened by no enemies. The 'security' may be due in part to the sacredness of the Meccan territory, but the wealth of Mecca and its economic power must also have contributed to their feeling of being safe in so far as the expedition with the elephant described in Sura 105 was directed against Mecca and was foiled by God, this would be another example of his giving the Meccans security (P. 15 above).

B Mecca as a commercial centre

The commercial character of Mecca is evident in many ways from the Qur'an. The absence of agriculture is indicated in a speech by Abraham:

I have caused some of my descendants to. dwell in a valley without cultivated land at your sacred house. (14.37)

Among the matters for which Quraysh are to thank God are their winter and summer caravans (106.2); traditionally the caravans went to the Yemen in winter and to Syria in summer. The Sira shows that there were also close relations between Mecca and the Abyssinian kingdom -and the numerous references in the Qur'an to ships and the sea suggest that many Meccans may themselves have made the journey to Abyssmia.36 In the parable of the blighted garden in 68.17-33 (P.12 above), though this is an agricultural rather than a commercial matter, the unfeeling self-seeking of the owners could indicate the operations of a Meccan syndicate.

The development of Mecca as a commercial centre was partly due to its geographical position about the middle of the caravan route up the west coast of Arabia from the Yemen, and at the beginning of a route to Iraq. It was also facilitated by the existence of the sanctuary, since in the sacred territory blood feuds were in abeyance and there was therefore some security for men to come together at trade fairs. Certain months were also regarded as sacred, and it was during these that the fairs took place. One verse indicates the dependence of Meccan prosperity on the sanctuary:

Have we not established for them a sanctuary secure to which the fruits of everything are brought, as a provision from us? (28.57)

This presumably refers to the collecting of goods for trade purposes, since it must be supposed that local produce, whether from the herds or from the land, was brought to Mecca to be exchanged for the goods carried by caravan from Syria, the Yemen and Iraq. The people to whom these words are addressed are said to be afraid that, if they 'follow the guidance', they may forcibly be removed from their land. This is obscure; the most likely meaning is that they were afraid that, if they followed Muhammad, the surrounding Arabs would cease to observe the sanctity of Mecca and would raid the town-dwellers. In a verse (9.28) debarring pagans from the Ka'ba, revealed after the capture of Mecca in 630, the words 'if you fear poverty..' are a further indication of the wealth derived from those who came to the sanctuary for trade and worship.

The American scholar C. C. Torrey made a careful study of all the commercial metaphors used in the Qur'an, and came to the conclusion that in some cases they were not used incidentally or by way of illustration, but expressed some of the central theological teaching of the Qur'an. [The Commercial-Theological Terms in the Koran, Leiden 1892. Tor Andrae, Mohammed, 86, suggests that the theological terms are borrowed from Syrian Christianity; but even if some conceptions came from this source, the appropriateness to the thinking of the Meccan merchants was also an important factor.] This is precisely what we should expect in a commercial centre. The points made by Torrey have been well summarized.

The number of commercial terms transferred to the religious sphere is noteworthy ... The deeds of men are recorded in a book; the judgement is the reckoning; each person receives his account; the balance is set up and men's deeds are weighed; each soul is held in pledge for the deeds committed; if a man's actions are approved, he receives his reward, or his hire; to support the Prophet's cause is to lend to (God ). [Bell, Introduction, 79; Watt, Bell's Introduction, 4.]

There are even indications in the Qur'an that in the years of Muhammad's success some of the Muslims continued to be so addicted to trade that they showed much more interest in that than in worship:

In (these houses) there give praise to God morning and evening men whom neither merchandise nor bargain lure from remembrance of God, from the offering of prayer and the giving of alms. (24.36f.)
When they see merchandise or play, they disperse to it and leave you standing. Say: What is with God is better than play and merchandise; and God is the best of providers. (61.11)

C attitudes to wealth

The numerous passages in the Qur'an describing and criticizing wealthy people for their attitudes and their acts may be taken as applying primarily to the great merchants of Mecca. It has also to be remembered, of course, that in the background of their lives was the life of the desert, and that at some points they were reacting to that.

A primitive stage in Arab experience is reflected in the verb ghaniya and its derivatives. The adjective ghani is commonly translated 'rich' or 'wealthy', but the fundamental meaning of the verb is 'to be free from want, to have few or no wants'. From this meaning others are derived such a 'to be in a state of sufficiency, to be rich'. In the life of the desert what is important is to have sufficient to eat and drink. The nomad must, of course, have a tent and other simple equipment, but more than a limited number of material possessions would be an encumbrance rather than an advantage. It is noteworthy that in most of the instances of ghani in the Qur'an it is applied to God, since only to him can the complete absence or non-existence of wants be attributed. It is interesting, too, that ghaniya has the sense of 'dwell, lodge' in the phrase 'as if they had not dwelt (lam yaghnaw) there', which is used twice of Midian (7.92; 11.95) and once of Thamud (11.68). The underlying thought is perhaps that the nomad, so long as he has a sufficiency, continues to lodge in the same place.

The new aspects of experience which came to the Arabs after they settled in towns and engaged in trade are indicated in the Qur'an in verses containing the word mal, plural amwal, 'wealth, property, possessions'. In 48.11 when the nomads excuse themselves for their absence from the expedition to al-Hudaybiya by saying their amwdl and their families kept them busy, by amwal they presumably mean their herds of camels and other animals. Mostly in the Qur'an, however, mal and amwal refer to the material goods bought, sold and stored up by the merchants. 'Sons' or'children' are frequently mentioned along with 'wealth', doubtless because both were a reason for pride and also a source of influence in the community; in 34.3 5 affluent unbelievers in a prophet say, 'We have more wealth and sons, and we shall not be punished'.

Various attitudes accompanied the possession of wealth. Thus in 104.1-3 the Meccan opponents who kept slandering Muhammad and the Muslims are described as not merely amassing wealth but as thinking that it will make them immortal. The same people are accused in 102.1 of being occupied with at-takdthur, wanting to have more than others, presumably in respect of wealth and children. These last are specifically mentioned in 57.20:

Know that this present life is play and outward show; it is emulous boasting with one another and takdthur in respect of wealth and children.

Rejection of a prophet's message seems to be frequent among the wealthy, as was certainly the case in Mecca.

We never sent a wamer to a town but the affluent in it said, 'In your message we disbelieve'. They also said, We are superior in wealth and children, and we are not punished'.

The implication appears to be that because they were wealthy they would not suffer the disasters foretold by the prophets. Elsewhere, how ever, it is pointed out that the wealthy are not immune from disaster.

(The hypocrites and unbelievers will be punished) like those before you; these were greater in strength than you and superior in wealth and children... the acts of these men are worthless in this world and the next, and they are the losers. (9.69)

For these affluent people a man's wealth was a criterion of his position in society and his personal authority. The Meccans would have approved of the attitude of the children of Israel when they objected to the appointment of Talut (Saul) as king over them, saying 'he has not been given abundance of wealth' (2.247 ). Since the wealthy thus regard wealth as the criterion of a man's worth and importance, it is not surprising that they manifest attitudes of arrogance and presumption. Such attitudes are connected with their rejection of the messages from God.

Presumptuous indeed is man, thinking himself (by his wealth) independent (istaghna) ; but to your Lord is the return (to be judged). (96.6-8)

Similarly the man 'who is ungenerous and wealth-proud (istaghna) and denies the fairest (message)' will have his way to punishment made easy, and 'his wealth will not avail him when he perishes' (92.8- I I). In Sura 8o Muhammad himself is reproached for observing Meccan standards and being unduly attentive to a man who was 'wealth-proud'. The word istaghna used here combines the ideas of priding oneself in one's wealth and feeling independent; it is a derivative of ghaniya.

The idea that a wealthy man who disregards what he has been told about God, even by a friend, will be punished is expressed fully in the story of the man with two gardens (18.32-44; mentioned on p.1I above). The main point here is that the wealthy man, though nominally believing in God and the judgement, does not take these beliefs seriously and does not act upon them. Opponents of Muhammad at Mecca and even at Medina seem to have assumed that, even if there is a judgement, they will receive preferential treatment at it in the way in which the wealthy could count on being given special consideration in human judgements; hence the warnings in the Qur'an that wealth will not avail or profit a man at his death or at the judgement. In a description of the Last Day one of the damned says, 'My wealth has not profited me' (69.28) ; and Abraham in a prayer speaks of 'the day when wealth and sons give no advantage' (26.88 ). The implication is that it is against God that wealth is of no avail and does not profit, and this is sometimes explicitly stated, as in 3.10, 116; 58.17.

Acceptance of the message revealed through Muhammad or one of the previous prophets leads to a change in a man's use of his wealth. The people of Shu'ayb are perturbed because they are required not merely to give up their fathers' idols but also to give up doing what they want with their wealth (11.87). What the Muslims are commanded to do or are described as doing is presumably what the wealthy in Mecca were not doing. The pious Muslim does not hoard his wealth and is not ungenerous with it (92.18; 9-103); he gives a proportion of it to the poor and unfortunate (5 L 19; 70.24) ; and he is honest in administering the property of orphans (4.2, 5,10; 6,152; 17.34) Many of Muhammad's followers in Mecca shared in the general attitude to wealth and found it difficult, on becoming Muslims, to abandon it. In 2.177 (according to the most likely translation) the ideal life is said to consist, among other things, in a man's giving of his wealth despite his love of it to those in need; and the believers are warned that wealth and children are a'trial' (fitna) for them (8.28; 64.15 ), and that they must not allow these to distract them from the remembrance of God (63.9).

There is little in the Qur'an about the virtue of hilm for which the wealthy men of Mecca were renowned. Hilm is essentially the opposite of the hotheadedness of the desert Arabs who rush into violent action when the blood is up; and thus it comes to mean the cool-headedness of the business man who puts business interests first. The common translation 'forbearance', is not altogether adequate. There may be a reference to this quality in 52-32 where the plural occurs: Do their ahlam bid them act thus (sc. deny the truth of Muhammad's proclamation)?'The word ahlam could appropriately be understood of the minds of business men calculating in an unemotional way. To those utterly convinced of the truth of the Qur'an it must have seemed that the Meccans, in opposing Muhammad, were not even following the course indicated by enlightened self-interest and were not displaying their usual cool-headedness. Their self-centred attitude is clearly expressed in 70.11-14 which depicts the feelings of unbelievers on the Last Day:

The sinner would love to be ransomed from the punishment of that Day by his sons, his wife, his brother, by his kin who shelter him and those in the earth altogether ...

This illustrates the breakdown of social solidarity and its replacement by individualism and selfishness, largely as a result of the predominantly mercantile economy of Mecca.

D knowledge of Judaism and Christianity

It is important to have some idea of what the Meccans in general knew about Judaism and Christianity. Some of the statements about these religions in the Qur'an are palpably false, and it was suggested above that this was because these were beliefs held by the Meccans and that God addressed them in terms of their existing beliefs, since the Qur'anic message could be communicated to them without correcting these beliefs.

The Meccans had numerous contacts with Christians. Their trading caravans took them to the Christian cities of Damascus and Gaza in the Byzantine empire, as well as to Christian Abyssinia and the partly-Christian Yemen. A few Christians also resided in Mecca itself, at least temporarily. There were hardly any Jews in Mecca, but the Jews were numerous in Medina, where Meccan caravans to the north some-times made a stop. Such contacts could, of course, lead to no more than an external knowledge of these religions, and it is probable that few Meccans engaged in religious discussions. We are told in the Sira, however, of one or two who had read some of the Christian scriptures (presumably in Syriac) and who eventually became Christians. The best known of these was Waraqa, Khadija's cousin. This knowledge of the Bible is presumably what the Qur'an refers to in the words 'your Lord ... taught by the pen, taught people what they knew not'(96.3-5).

The presence in Mecca of one or more persons with some knowledge of the Bible would seem to be attested by two verses which record Meccan accusations that Muhammad had informants.

We know they say, It is only a person teaches him. The tongue of the one they hint at is foreign, but this (the Qur'an) is (in) a clear Arabic tongue. (16.103)
The unbelievers say, This is only a falsehood he invented; other people helped him with it ... They said, Old-world fables, he has had written down; they are dictated to him morning and evening. (25.4f.)

There is no agreement among the Muslim commentators about the identity of the person hinted at. Several names are given, mostly of Christian slaves in Mecca, but of at least one Jew. As is suggested in the second verse quoted, there may well have been more than one person. What is important to notice is that the Qur'an does not deny that Muhammad was receiving information in this way; what it insists on is that any material he received could not have been the Qur'an, since a foreigner could not express himself in clear Arabic. The probability would seem to be that Muhammad talked about Biblical matters with people who knew more than the average inhabitant of Mecca, but what he received from them must have been limited in scope in view of the paucity of his knowledge of Judaism and Christianity. What he was given would be factual knowledge, whereas the meaning and interpretation of the facts would come to him by the usual processes of revelation.

The references in the Qur'an to the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs are cast in a form which suggests that at least some of the hearers already had an idea of the outline of the stories, and that what the Qur'an was doing was to point the lessons to be learnt from these stories; for example, they show how God defends his prophets from their opponents. The chief error in the Qur'an in respect of Judaism is the assertion that the Jews regarded Ezra ('Uzayr) as 'son of God' (9-30); while it is true that the Old Testament uses the term 'son of God' for the Messiah who was expected, there is no evidence that it was ever applied to Ezra.

The Qur'an shows that there was little knowledge in Mecca of the New Testament apart from the story of the virginal conception of Jesus (19.16-21). On the other hand several mistaken ideas about Christianity appear to have been current among the Meccans. They supposed that Christians worshipped three gods, taking both Jesus and Mary as gods.

Most serious of all they denied that Jesus had died on the cross (4-157). There was no appreciation or understanding of the central teachings of the New Testament.

III Muhammad's Early Life


It is only to be expected that the Qur'an tells us little about the circumstances of Muhammad's life before his call to be a messenger of God. Apart from Sura 93 (to be considered presently) all that can be gained are some confirmations of the general conditions in which he lived from infancy to early manhood.

There was doubtless a strong bond of attachment between him and his mother, with whose family he is said to have lived until her death when he was six. The following verse, though Medinan, may be in keeping with what his own attitude was

We have enjoined man in regard to his parents- his mother bore him in great weakness, and his weaning was at two years- 'Show gratitude to me and to your parents'. (31.14)

Another similar verse runs

We have enjoined kindness on man in regard to his parents; in pain his mother carried him and in pain brought him forth; his carrying and his weaning are thirty months. Then when he reaches maturity, reaches forty years, he says, My Lord make me grateful for the favour you have shown me and my parents ... (46.15)

Though 2.2 3 3 says that suckling is normally to be for two years, the Sira suggests that Muhammad may have been suckled for longer, since he was sent for a time to a wet-nurse in a nomadic tribe. The Qur'an bears witness to the practice of giving children to foster-mothers. A part of the verse mentioned (2.233) asserts that 'if you want to give your children out to nurse, it is no sin for you' (1d jundh 'alay-kum ); and this suggests that the practice may have been criticized in some quarters and that Muhammad may have been sensitive about it. Another verse (65.6), after emphasizing that a man must maintain his wife adequately while she is suckling his child, adds that, if there are difficulties between you, let another (woman) be found to give suck for (the husband)'. The fact that Muhammad was a posthumous child may, of course, have been part of the reason for sending him to a wet-nurse.

As a small boy Muhammad must soon have realized that he was different from other boys in having no father alive. He may have

End p47


Start P50:
God sent down upon you (Muhammad) the Book and the wisdom, and taught you what was unknown to you.

These words occur in a passage probably not revealed until after the battle of Uhud, charging 'a party of them' with desiring to lead Muhammad astray. The most likely reference would be to some event at Medina, but it is conceivable that it might refer to attempts of the Meccans before the Hijra to 'lead him astray' by engulfing him in commerce. In either case it is implied that there was a period when Muhammad did not know some of what came to him by revelation. His original ignorance is also mentioned in 42.5 2

We revealed to you a spirit from our amr (sphere?); unknown to you what the Book was, what faith was, but we made it (spirit?, Book?) a light by which we guide whom we will of our servants.

Finally there is the verse in Sura 93 about being poor and then enriched. The obvious reference is to Muhammad's marriage to Khadija, and it is unlikely that he could have been enriched at any other point before the Hijra (and the passage is always taken as Meccan ). By Arab laws of inheritance, where minors do not inherit and there is no representation (in the legal sense), Muhammad would inherit neither from his father nor his grandfather. The fortunes of the family, too, seem to have been declining. Thus he remained poor until Khadija made him her steward and subsequently married him, when he was about twenty-five. Afterwards he would be comfortably off, though not one of the leading merchants; this is implied in 43.31 where opponents say, Why was not this Qur'an sent down to some important man ('mum) of the two towns (Mecca and at-Ti'if )?'. The word aghnd, 'enriched', besides referring to the possession of money or goods, connotes having a place of relative independence and influence in the community.

Traditionally there were about fifteen years between this marriage and the beginning of the revelations. It was probably his exclusion from the most lucrative trade, coupled with his consciousness of having great organizing ability, that made Muhammad turn to brood over the general state of affairs in Mecca. Despite his financial dependence on Khadija he was definitely head of the household. Such at least is the natural deduction from 20.132: 'Command your ahl to pray'. The word ahl is often translated 'family', but it can also mean 'wife' and should prob-ably be so translated here; even if it means 'family' the primary reference is to the wife.

Insight is given by the last three verses of the sura into Muhammad's attitude to his early life. Psychology teaches us the importance of painful experiences in the first two or three years of life. The absence of a father must have produced a sense of deprivation in Muhammad, and the real experience of poverty as a young man may well have nourished the sense of deprivation. These verses assert that, despite the unfortunate circumstances of his early life, God's care and activity on Muhammad's behalf have made life tolerable; and then he is commanded to try to meet the needs of those in similar troubles and to speak of God's favour. In this the Qur'an is presumably only reinforcing an attitude Muhammad had already adopted, rather than suggesting something novel. Even if there is an element of novelty in these verses, however, the implication is that Muhammad eventually came to see his orphan-hood, poverty and lack of guidance as aspects of the ordering of his life by God the Merciful, and perhaps also as a preparation for his work as Messenger of God. After this revelation, as he looked back on his early life, he must have been most conscious of the favour or goodness of God.

During the years just before he received the call to prophethood Muhammad must have been increasingly aware of the unsatisfactory social conditions in Mecca. This was something he could observe for himself and did not require to be shown by revelation. The fundamental source of the trouble was that the traditional values of nomadic society (which was that of the recent ancestors of the Meccans ) were proving inadequate in the prosperous mercantile economy of Mecca, and were fading away. The wealthy merchants, who were also the leading men of the clans, were neglecting the traditional duty of caring for the needy and unfortunate among their kinsmen. Their great wealth made them proud, arrogant and presumptuous, ready to oppress and take advantage of any who were in any sense weak. Some of the Qur'anic evidence for these attitudes was presented in the last chapter. Muhammad may well have come to see the root of the troubles as the secular, materialistic outlook of the very wealthy, and may even have decided that this could only be got rid of by some form of religious belief. It is impossible, however, to know what precisely his religious views were prior to the divine irruption into his life which was inspiration and revelation.


There has been much discussion about whether Muhammad could read or write. The main body of later Muslim opinion argued that the revelation of the Qur'an was all the greater miracle because Muhammad could neither read nor write; and the weight of this argument rests on the dubious interpretation of the word ummf as 'illiterate', which will be looked at presently. Various other points, however, can be made from the Qur'an.

The Meccans were in general familiar with reading and writing. A certain amount of writing would be necessary for commercial purposes. The Sira speaks of the treaty of al-Hudaybiya having been written, and texts have been preserved of other treaties entered into by Muhammad. Muhammad is also reported to have sent letters to various princes, and for these he presumably had scribes. In the Qur'an there are references to the words of God being written with pens and ink (31.27; 1& 1o9). Scriptures are written on qirtas, probably papyrus (6.7, 91), or on raqq, probably parchment (52-3). The material was in the form of suhuf or 'leaves' (sing. sahifa ), but these could also be used for keeping records (8.10; perhaps also 74-52), and so may also have been used for commercial records; the word probably comes from South Arabian.3 Another word for 'writings' is zubur; in 5452 all men's deeds are inscribed on zubur. The singular zabdir, however, is used in the Qur'an exclusively for the Psalms of David. In 21.104 God is said to roll up the heavens as a written scroll (sijill) is rolled up. Even at Medina (2.28f) there were numerous scribes who could write down debts.

In view of this familiarity with writing among the Meccans particularly, both for records and for religious scriptures, there is a presumption that Muhammad knew at least enough to keep commercial records. There are, on the other hand, many reasons for thinking that he had never read the Bible or any other book. For one thing, if a copy of the Bible existed in Mecca, it must almost certainly have been in a Syriac version. Though some Western scholars have held that the Bible had been translated into Arabic, this was virtually impossible, since at this period there was no Arabic prose literature of any kind. If a man like Waraqa or some of Muhammad's alleged informants had read any of the scriptures, it was presumably in Syriac. Such scriptures were almost certainly intended by the assertion that God 'taught by the pen, taught people what they knew not' (96.4f ). That Muhammad himself had not read any scriptures is clearly stated in 29.48; 'you were not reciting reading any book before it (the Qur'an ), nor tracing it with your hand'. The accusation of pagan opponents that his revelations were 'old-world fables iktataba-ha' (25.5) can mean 'he had them written down for him (by secretaries )'and so does not necessarily imply that he himself wrote them down. The probability is that Muhammad was able to read and write sufficiently for business purposes, but it seems certain that he had not read any scriptures.

This conclusion gives Muslim scholars all that is essential for apologetic purposes. They have, however, argued that the word ummi which is applied to Muhammad implies complete inability to read and write. One of their arguments is that the plural ummiyyun in 2.78 means 'illiterate' or 'unlettered': 'among them are ummiyyun who do not know the book except from hearsay'. The rendering 'except from hearsay' (which is Pickthall's) is much disputed but hardly affects the argument. While kitab suggests writing as well as 'book', careful reading of the verse shows that the reference is to people without a written scripture, and Pickthall in fact translates kitdb as 'scripture'. This meaning suits the other instances where the plural occurs. In 3.75 some of the People of the Book say, 'We are not bound to justice in respect of the ummiyyun'; and from this it may be concluded that the word has been adopted from the People of the Book, that is, the Jews. The Jews, however, applied it to others and not to themselves, for in 3.20 Muhammad is commanded, 'Say to the People of the Book and the ummiyyun, Have you surrendered (to God)?' The ummiyynn, then, must be the non-Jews or Gentiles, who had no written scriptures and were in fact 'heathen' (as often translated); the word has presumably been derived from the Hebrew phrase ummot ha-'olan, the peoples of the world' or genies.

This sense of ummi as 'Gentile' or 'unscriptured' fits the verses where it is applied to Muhammad.

(God) it is who sent among the ummiyynn a messenger, (one) of themselves, to recite to them his signs, to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the wisdom, though before they were in clear error. (62.2)

Again God is described as saying to Moses that his mercy will be 'written' for those 'who follow the. messenger, the ummi prophet, whom they find written in the Torah and the Evangel which they have . . .' (7.15 7). In the next verse Muhammad is commanded to address all the people and to conclude with the words: 'so believe in God, his messenger, the urnmi prophet, who believes in God and his words' (7.158 ). Thus the ummi' prophet is the non-Jewish or Gentile prophet, whom Muslims held to be foretold in the Bible, and who was sent by God to his own non-Jewish or heathen people, as well as to the Jews and perhaps the Christians. Thus ummi does not mean 'illiterate' in the strict sense, though it could be rendered 'unscriptured'; but this still means-as is indeed obvious-that Muhammad had no direct knowledge of the Bible.

End p53


Start p108:



I Watt, 'he Reliability of Ibn Ishaq's Sources' in La Vie du prophiite Mahomet (Colloque de Strasbourg, Oct. I98o ), 3 r-43; an earlier version is 'The Materials used by Ibn Ishaq' in B. Lewis and P. Holt (eds ), Historians of the Middle East, London 1962.

2 Al-Baydawion2.22; other verses are: 13.3; 51.48; 71.89; 78.6; 88.20. 3 5.Ir6; 9.30.

4 See Bibliography.

5 See his Introduction and his translation. 6 See Bibliography.


I The passages are arranged in Blachere's order, but there is no indication of change or development.

2 See al-Baydawi's comment on 2.22.


4 5

6 The Martyrs ofNairdn:NewDocuments, 1g71,46f.Seealso: Watt,'The Men of the Ukhdud (Sura 85 )' in The Muslim East: Studies in Honour of Julius Germanus, ed. Gy. Kaldy-Nagy, Budapest 1974, 31-4.


8 9

I o See al-Baydawi's comment on 49.13. I I See Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary, s.v.

12 Deuteronomy 19.21; cf. Exodus 21.23f.; Leviticus 24.20.

13 See further Muhammad at Medina, 238-47.

Ibn Hishkn, 727f.; Muhammad at Medina, 185-7.


15 See: 4.100; 22.58; 29.26.

16 Seethe remarks about Man at in the next sub-section. 17 See Watt, Formative Period, q1.

Some commentators claim that the word ibl should be interpreted as 'clouds' here.

See Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, fifth edn., London 1951, 54, 64f.

See E12, arts. Ashab al-Ukhdud (Paret) and Dhu Nuwas (Al-Assouad ). The argument against the older interpretation is best stated in Josef Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, Berlin 1926, 12, 92f., and the view is also held by Hubert Grimme, Richard Bell and Rudi Paret.

Other similar verses are: 40.21, 82; 47.10; 12.109; 3.137; 16.36; 27.69; 30.42.

Watt, Muhammad at Medina, 372-92.

E12, art. 'Abd (R. Brunschvig ); Robert Roberts, The Social Laws of the Qordn, London 1925 (1971), 53-60; Sura 4.92.


18 Psalm 139.16, Jerusalem Bible. 1q 51.58.

20 5.114; 22.58; 23.72; 3439; 62.11.

21 24f.; see also Trimingham, Christianity among the Arabs, 243-8.

22 See: Julius Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, second edn., Berlin x897, reprinted 1927; Toufic Fahd, Le Panthgon de 1'Arabie centrale d la veille de Ph9gire, Paris 1968.

23 Helmer Ringgren, Studies in Arabian Fatalism, Uppsala 195 5, 29,41; cf. Fahd, op. cit., 123-6.

24 Ibn Hisham, 582.

25 Frants Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, tr. H. H. Schaeder, Leipzig 1930, 75, without references.

26 16.57; 17.40; 37149,153; 4315; 52.39; 53.2 If.

27 Ringgren, Studies, 40f., 63f., 76, 79; in Muslim poets-143, 173. 28 In addition to 17.40 and 37.150 see 43.19 and 53.27.

29 See: Watt, Belief in a "high god" in pre-Islamic Mecca', Journal of

Semitic Studies, xvi (1971), 35-40; also'The Qur'dn and Belief in a "high god"', Proceedings of the Ninth Congress of the Union Europ6enne des Arabisants et Islamisants, Leiden rg81, 327-33. The first also appeared in the Actes of the Fifth Congress of the U.E.A.I. (Brussels 19701, 499-505, and the Proceedings of the Twelfth Congress ( Stockholm 1970) ... for the History of Religion (Leiden 1975 ), 228-34; and the second also in Der

30 Javier Teixidor, The Pagan God: Popular Religion in the Greco-Roman Near East, Princeton 1977, 17.

31 Ibid., 161f.

32 See: Trimingham, Christianity among the Arabs.

Arthur Jeffery, Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur'dn, Leiden

33 34 35

r937,32 (from Ibn Mas'ud).

Watt, 'Two Interesting Christian-Arabic Usages', Journal of Semitic

Studies, ii (1957), 360-5.

See: at-Tabaxi, History, Leiden edition, i.1076. For what follows see the art. Ilaf in E12, which gives prominence to a hypothesis by M. Hamidullah for which the evidence is slender.

36 See: W.W.Barthold,'DerKoran unddasMeer',Zeitschriftderdeutschen morgenldndischen Gesellschaft, 83 i 1929), 37-43; also EII, art. Fulk (H. Banes ).

37Islam, lvi (1979),205-11.

38The word yu jbd is used of collecting taxes, but it often means'collect' in a general sense.

39The Commercial-Theological Terms in the Koran, Leiden 1892. Tor Andrae, Mohammed, 86, suggests that the theological terms are borrowed from Syrian Christianity; but even if some conceptions came from this source, the appropriateness to the thinking of the Meccan merchants was also an important factor.

Bell, Introduction, 79; Watt, Bell's Introduction, 4.


Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, W. Montgomery Watt, 1961, p229-235



Muhammad, according to some apparently authentic accounts, was of average height or a little above the average. His chest and shoulders were broad, and altogether he was of sturdy build. His arms were long, and his hands and feet rough. His forehead was large and prominent, and he had a hooked nose and large black eyes with a touch of brown. The hair of his head was long and thick, straight or slightly curled. His beard also was thick, and he had a thin line of fine hair on his neck and chest. His cheeks were spare, his mouth large, and he had a pleasant smile. In complexion he was fair. He always walked as if he was rushing downhill, and others had difficulty in keeping up with him. When he turned in any direction, he did so with his whole body. He was given to sadness, and there were long periods of silence when he was deep in thought; yet he never rested but was always busy with something. He never spoke unnecessarily. What he said was always to the point and sufficient to make his meaning clear, but there was no padding. From the first to last he spoke rapidly. Over his feelings he had a firm control. When he was annoyed he would turn aside; when he was pleased, he lowered his eyes. His time was carefully apportioned according to the various demands on him. In his dealings with people he was above all tactful. He could be severe at times, though in the main he was not rough but gentle. His laugh was mostly a smile.

Of the many stories illustrating his gentleness and tenderness of feeling, some at least are worthy of credence. The widow of his cousin Ja'far ibn-Abi-Talib herself told her grand-daughter how he broke the news of Ja'far's death. She had been busy one morning with her household duties, which had included tanning forty hides and kneading dough, when Muhammad called. She collected her children --she had three sons by Ja'far -- washed their faces and anointed them. When Muhammad entered, he asked for the sons of Ja'far. She brought them, and Muhammad put his arms round them and smelt them, as a mother would a baby. Then his eyes filled with tears and he burst out weeping. ' Have you heard something about Ja'far? ' she asked, and he told her he had been killed. Later he instructed some of his people to prepare food for Ja'far's household, ' for they are too busy today to think about themselves '.

He seems to have been specially fond of children and to have got on well with them. Perhaps it was the yearning of a man who saw all his sons die as infants. Much of his paternal affection went to his adopted son Zayd. He was also attached to his younger cousin 'Ali ibn-Abi-Talib, who had been a member of his household for a time; but he doubtless realized that 'Ah had not the makings of a successful statesman. For a time a grand-daughter called Umamah was a favourite. He would carry her on his shoulder during the public prayers, setting her down when he bowed or prostrated, then picking her up again. On one occasion he teased his wives by showing them a necklace and saying he would give it to the one who was dearest to him; when he thought their feelings were sufficiently agitated, he presented it not to any of them, but to Umamah.

He was able to enter into the spirit of childish games and had many friends among children. He had fun with the children who came back from Abyssinia and spoke Abyssinian. In one house in Medina there was a small boy with whom he was accustomed to have jokes. One day he found the small boy looking very sad, and asked what was the matter. When he was told that his pet nightingale had died, he did what he could to comfort him. His kindness extended even to animals, which is remarkable for Muhammad's century and part of the world. As his men marched towards Mecca just before the conquest they passed a bitch with puppies; and Muhammad not merely gave orders that they were not to be disturbed, but posted a man to see that the orders were carried out.

These are interesting sidelights on the personality of Muhammad, and fill out the picture formed of him from his conduct of public affairs. He gained men's respect and confidence by the religious basis of his activity and by qualities such as courage, resoluteness, impartiality and firmness inclining to severity but tempered by generosity. In addition to these he had a charm of manner which won their affection and secured their devotion.


Of all the world's great men none has been so much maligned as Muhammad. We saw above how this has come about. For centuries Islam was the great enemy of Christendom, since Christendom was in direct contact with no other organized states comparable in power to the Muslims. The Byzantine empire, after losing some of its best provinces to the Arabs, was being attacked in Asia Minor, while Western Europe was threatened through Spain and Sicily. Even before the Crusades focused attention on the expulsion of the Saracens from the Holy Land, medieval Europe was building up a conception of ' the great enemy '. At one point Muhammad was transformed into Mahound, the prince of darkness. By the twelfth century the ideas about Islam and Muslims current in the crusading armies were such travesties that they had a bad effect on morale. Practical considerations thus combined with scholarly zeal to foster the study and dissemination of more accurate information about Muhammad and his religion.

Since that time much has been achieved, especially during the last two centuries, but many of the old prejudices linger on. Yet in the modern world, where contacts between Christians and Muslims are closer than ever before, it is urgent that both should strive to reach an objective view of Muhammad's character. The denigration of him by European writers has too often been followed by a romantic idealization of his figure by other Europeans and by Muslim. Neither denigration nor idealization is an adequate basis for the mutual relations of nearly half the human race. We are now back at the questions with which we began. We have an outline of the facts on which ultimate judgements must be based. What are our ultimate judgements to be?

One of the common allegations against Muhammad is that he was an impostor, who to satisfy his ambition and his lust propagated religious teachings which he himself knew to be false. Such insincerity makes the development of the Islamic religion incomprehensible. This point was first vigorously made over a hundred years ago by Thomas Carlyle in his lectures On Heroes, and it has since been increasingly accepted by scholars. Only a profound belief in himself and his mission explains Muhammad's readiness to endure hardship and persecution during the Meccan period when from a secular point of view there was no prospect of success. Without sincerity how could he have won the allegiance and even devotion of men of strong and upright character like Abu-Bakr and 'Umar? For the theist there is the further question how God could have allowed a great religion like Islam to develop on a basis of lies and deceit. There is thus a strong case for holding that Muhammad was sincere. If in some respects he was mistaken, his mistakes were not due to deliberate lying or imposture.

The other main allegations of moral defect in Muhammad are that he was treacherous and lustful. These are supported be reference to events like the violation of the sacred month on the expedition of Nakhlah (624) and his marriage to Zaynab bint-Jahsh, the divorced wife of his adopted son. About the bare facts there is no dispute, but it is not so clear that the facts justify the allegations. Was the violation of the sacred month an act of treachery or a justified breach with a piece of pagan religion? Was the marriage with Zaynab a yielding to sexual desire or a mainly political act in which an undesirable practice of ' adoption ' belonging to a lower moral level was ended? Sufficient has been said above about the interpretation of these events to show that the case against Muhammad is much weaker than is sometimes thought.

The discussions of these allegations, however, raises a fundamental question. How are we to judge Muhammad? By the standards of his own time and country? Or by those of the most enlightened opinion in the West today? When the sources are closely scrutinized, it is clear that those of Muhammad's actions which are disapproved by the modern West were not the object of the moral criticism of his contemporaries. They criticized some of his acts, but their motives were superstitious prejudice or fear of the consequences. If they criticized the events at Nakhlah, it was because they feared some punishment from the offended pagan gods or the worldly vengeance of the Meccans. If they were amazed at the mass execution of the Jews of the clan of Qurayzah, it was at the number and danger of the blood-feuds incurred. The marriage with Zaynab seemed incestuous, but this conception of incest was bound up with old practices belonging to a lower, communalistic level of familial institutions where a child's paternity was not definitely known; and this lower level was in process being eliminated by Islam.

From the standpoint of Muhammad's time, then, the allegations of treachery and sensuality cannot be maintained. His contemporaries did not find him morally defective in any way. On the contrary, some of the acts criticized by the modern Westerner show that Muhammad's standards were higher than those of his time. In his day and generation he was a social reformer, even a reformer in the sphere of morals. He created a new system of social security and a new family structure, both of which were a vast improvement on what went before. By taking what was best in the morality of the nomad and adapting it for settled communities, he established a religious and social framework for the life of many races of men. That is not the work of a traitor or ' an old lecher'.It is sometimes asserted that Muhammad's character ( declined after he went to Medina, but there are no solid grounds for this view. It is based on too facile a use of the principal that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The allegations of moral defects are attached to incidents belonging to the Medinan and not the Meccan period, but according to the interpretation of these incidents given in this book they marked no failure in Muhammad to live to his ideals and no lapse from his moral principles. The persecuted preacher of Mecca was no less a man of his time than the ruler of Medina. If nothing is recorded of the preacher to show us how different his attitude was from that of nineteenth-century Europe, it does not follow that his ideals were any loftier (by our standards) than those of the reforming ruler. The opposite is more likely to be the case since the preacher was nearer to the pagan background. In both Meccan and Medinan periods Muhammad's contemporaries looked on him as a good and upright man, and in the eyes of history he is a moral and social reformer.

So much must be said in fairness to Muhammad when he is measured against the Arabs of his time. Muslims, however, claim that he is a model of conduct and character for all mankind. In so doing they present him for judgement according to the standards of enlightened world opinion. Though the world is increasingly becoming one world, it has so far paid scant attention to Muhammad as a moral exemplar. Yet because Muslims are numerous, it will sooner or later have to consider seriously whether from the life and teaching of Muhammad any principles are to be learnt which will contribute to the moral development of mankind.

To this question no final answer has yet been given. What has been said so far by Muslims in support of their claims for Muhammad is but a preliminary statement and has convinced few non-Muslims. It is still open to the Muslims of today, however, to give the rest of the world a fuller and better presentation of their case. Will they be able to sift the universal from the particular in the life of Muhammad and so discover moral principles which make a creative contribution to the present world situation? Or, if this is too much to expect, will they at least be able to show that Muhammad's life is one possible exemplification of the ideal for all humanity? If they make a good case, some Christians will be ready to listen to them and to learn whatever is to be learned.

In this enterprise the difficulties confronting Muslims are immense. A combination of sound scholarship and deep moral insight is needed, and this combination is rare. My personal view is that Muslims are unlikely to be successful in their attempt to influence world opinion, at least in the sphere of morals. In the wider sphere of religion they have probably something to contribute to the world, for they have retained emphases -- on the reality of God, for example -- which have been neglected or forgotten in important sections of the other monotheistic religions; and I for one gladly acknowledge my indebtedness to the writings of men like al-Ghazali. But towards convincing Christian Europe that Muhammad is the ideal man, little, indeed nothing, has so far been accomplished.


Circumstances of time and place favoured Muhammad. Various forces combined to set the stage for his life-work and for the subsequent expansion of Islam. There was the social unrest in Mecca and Medina, the movement towards monotheism, the reaction against Hellenism in Syria and Egypt, the decline of the Persian and Byzantine empires, and a growing realization by the nomadic Arabs of the opportunities for plunder in the settled lands round them. Yet these forces, and others like them which might be added, would not in themselves account for the rise of the empire known as the Umayyad caliphate nor for the development of Islam into a world religion. There was nothing inevitable or automatic about the spread of the Arabs and the growth of the Islamic community. Without a remarkable combination of qualities in Muhammad it is improbable that the expansion would have taken place, and the military potential of the Arabs might easily have spent itself in raids on Syria and 'Iraq with no lasting consequences. These qualities fall into three groups.

First there is Muhammad's gift as a seer. Through him -- or, on the orthodox Muslim view, through the revelations made to him -- the Arab world was given a framework of ideas within which the resolution of its social tensions became possible. The provision of such a framework involved both insight into the fundamental causes of the social malaise of the time, and the genius to express this insight in a form which would stir the hearer to the depths of his being. The European reader may be ' put off ' by the Qur'an, but it was admirably suited to the needs and conditions of the day.

Secondly, there is Muhammad's wisdom as a statesman. The conceptual structure found in the Qur'an was merely a framework. The framework had to support a building of concrete policies and concrete institutions. In the course of this book much has been said about Muhammad's far-sighted political strategy and his social reforms. His wisdom in these matters is shown by the rapid expansion of his small state to a world-empire after his death, and by the adaptation of his social institutions to many different environments and their continuance for thirteen centuries.

Thirdly, there is his skill and tact as an administrator and his wisdom in the choice of men to whom to delegate administrative details. Sound institutions and a sound policy will not go far if the execution of affairs is faulty and fumbling. When Muhammad died, the state he had founded was a ' going concern ', able to withstand the shock of his removal and, once it had recovered from this shock, to expand at prodigious speed.

The more one reflects on the history of Muhammad and of early Islam, the more one is amazed at the vastness of his achievement. Circumstances presented him with an opportunity such as few men have had, but the man was fully matched with the hour. Had it not been for his gifts as seer, statesman, and administrator and, behind these, his trust in God and firm belief that God had sent him, a notable chapter in the history of mankind would have remained unwritten.


So far Muhammad has been described from the point of view of the historian. Yet as the founder of a world-religion he also demands a theological judgement. Emil Brunner, for example, considers his claim to be a prophet, holds that it ' does not seem to be in any way justified by the actual content of the revelations ', but admits that, ' had Mohammed been a pre-Christian prophet of Arabia, it would not be easy to exclude him from the ranks of the messengers who` prepared the way for the revelation '. Without presuming to enter into the theological complexities behind Brunner's view, I shall try, at the level of the educated man who has no special knowledge of either Christian or Islamic theology, to put forward some general considerations relevant to the question.

I would begin by asserting that there is found, at least in some men, what may be called ' creative imagination '. Notable instances are artists, poets and imaginative writers. All these put into sensuous form (pictures, poems, dramas, novels) what many are feeling but are unable to express fully. Great works of the creative imagination have thus a certain universality, in that they give expression to the feelings and attitudes of a whole generation. They are, of course, not imaginary, for they deal with real things; but they employ images, visual or conjured up by words, to express what is beyond the range of man's intellectual conceptions.

Prophets and prophetic religious leaders, I should maintain, share in this creative imagination. They proclaim ideas connected with what is deepest and most central in human experience, with special reference to the particular needs of their day and generation. The mark of the great prophet is the profound attraction of his ideas for those to whom they are addressed.

Where do such ideas come from? Some would say ' from the unconscious '. Religious people say ' from God ', at least with regard to the prophets of their own tradition, though a few would go so far as to claim with Baron Friedrich von Hugel, ' that everywhere there is some truth; that this truth comes originally from God .' Perhaps it could be maintained that these ideas of the creative imagination come from that life in a man which is greater than himself and is largely below the threshold of consciousness. For the Christian this still implies some connection with God, for, according to Saint John, in the Word was life, and Jesus said ' I am the Life '.

The adoption of one of these views does not settle all the questions at issue. What about those ideas of the creative imagination which are false or unsound? Baron von Hugel is careful to say only that truth comes from God. Religious tradition has also held that ideas might come from the devil. Even if the creative imagination is an instrument which may be used by God or Life, that does not necessarily imply that all its ideas are true or sound. In Adolf Hitler the creative imagination was well developed, and his ideas had a wide appeal, but it is usually held that he was neurotic and that those Germans who followed him most devotedly became infected by his neurosis.

In Muhammad, I should hold, there was a welling up of the creative imagination, and the ideas thus produced are to a great extent true and sound. It does not follow, however, that all the Qur'anic ideas are true and sound. In particular there is at least one point at which they seem to be unsound. The idea that 'revelation' or the product of the creative imagination is superior to normal human traditions as a source of bare historical fact. There are several verses in the Qur'an (II. 5I; 3. 39; I2. I03) to the effect that 'this is one of the reports of the unseen which We reveal to thee; thou didst not know it, thou nor thy people, before this '. One could admit a claim that the creative imagination was able to give a new and truer interpretation of a historical event, but to make it a source of bare fact is an exaggeration and false.

This point is of special concern to Christians, since the Qur'an denies the bare fact of the death of Jesus on the cross, and Muslims still consider that this denial outweighs the contrary testimony of historical tradition. The primary intention of the Qur'an was to deny the Jews' interpretation of the crucifixion as a victory for themselves, but as normally explained it goes much farther. The same exaggeration of the role of ' revelation ' has also had other consequences. The Arab contribution to Islamic culture has been unduly magnified, and that of the civilized peoples of Egypt, Syria, 'Iraq and Persia, later converted to Islam, has been sadly belittled.

Too much must not be made of this slight flaw. Which of us, conscious of being called by God to perform a special task, would not have been more than a little proud? On the whole Muhammad was remarkably free from pride. Yet this slight exaggeration of his own function has had grave consequences and cannot be ignored.

Finally, what of our question? Was Muhammad a prophet? He was a man in whom creative imagination worked at deep levels and produced ideas relevant to the central questions of human existence, so that his religion has had a widespread appeal, not only in his own age but in succeeding centuries. Not all the ideas he proclaimed are true and sound, but by God's grace he has been enabled to provide millions of men with a better religion than they had before they testified that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God.

(Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, W. Montgomery Watt, 1961, p229-235)


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