The Muhammad (PBUH)

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In or about the year 570 the child who would be named Muhammad and who would become the Prophet of one of the world’s great religions, Islam, was born into a family belonging to a clan of Quraysh, the ruling tribe of Mecca, a city in the Hijaz region of northwestern Arabia.

Originally the site of the Ka’bah, a shrine of ancient origins, Mecca had with the decline of southern Arabia (see Chapter l ) become an important center of sixth-century trade with such powers as the Sassanians, Byzantines, and Ethiopians. As a result the city was dominated by powerful merchant families among whom the men of Quraysh were preeminent.

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Muhammad’s father, ‘Abd Allah ibn’Abd al-Muttalib, died before the boy was born; his mother, Aminah, died when he was six. The orphan was consigned to the care of his grandfather, the head of the clan of Hashim. After the death of his grandfather, Muhammad was raised by his uncle, Abu Talib. As was customary, Muhammad as a child was sent to live for a year or two with a Bedouin family. This custom, followed until recently by noble families of Mecca, Medina, Tayif, and other towns of the Hijaz, had important implications for Muhammad. In addition to enduring the hardships of desert life, he acquired a taste for the rich language so loved by the Arabs, whose speech was their proudest art, and learned the patience and forbearance of the herdsmen, whose life of solitude he first shared and then came to understand and appreciate.

About the year 590, Muhammad, then in his twenties, entered the service of a widow named Khadijah as a merchant actively engaged with trading caravans to the north. Sometime later Muhammad married Khadijah, by whom he had two sons – who did not survive – and four daughters.

During this period of his life Muhammad traveled widely. Then, in his forties he began to retire to meditate in a cave on Mount Hira outside of Mecca, where the first of the great events of Islam took place. One day, as he sat in the cave, he heard a voice, later identified as that of the Angel Gabriel, which ordered him to:

Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created, Created man from a clot of blood.

Three times Muhammad pleaded his inability to do so, but each time the command was repeated. Finally, Muhammad recited the words of what are now the first five verses of the 96th surah or chapter of the Quran – words which proclaim God the Creator of man and the Source of all knowledge.

At first Muhammad divulged his experience only to his wife and his immediate circle. But as more revelations enjoined him to proclaim the oneness of God universally, his following grew, at first among the poor and the slaves, but later also among the most prominent men of Mecca. The revelations he received at this time and those he did so later are all incorporated in the Quran, the Scripture of Islam.

Photo: The sun rises over Jabal al-Rahmah, the Mount of Mercy, where Muhammad in his farewell sermon told the assembled Muslims, “I have delivered God’s message to you and left you with a clear command: the Book of God and the practice of His Prophet. If you hold fast to this you will never go astray.”

Not everyone accepted God’s message transmitted through Muhammad. Even in his own clan there were those who rejected his teachings, and many merchants actively opposed the message. The opposition, however, merely served to sharpen Muhammad’s sense of mission and his understanding of exactly how Islam differed from paganism. The belief in the unity of God was paramount in Islam; from this all else followed. The verses of the Quran stress God’s uniqueness, warn those who deny it of impending punishment, and proclaim His unbounded compassion to those who submit to His will. They affirm the Last Judgment, when God, the Judge, will weigh in the balance the faith and works of each man, rewarding the faithful and punishing the transgressor. Because the Quran rejected polytheism and emphasized man’s moral responsibility, in powerful images, it presented a grave challenge to the worldly Meccans.

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Divine Revelation

In his late 30s Muhammad took to regularly visiting a cave in Mount Hira, on the outskirts of Mecca, to seek solitude and contemplation. In 610, at the age of 40, Muhammad returned from one such visit telling his wife he had either gone mad or become a prophet, for he had been visited by an angel. The initially startled Khadija became his first convert.

Muhammad reported that while in a trance-like state, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and said “Proclaim!” But like Moses, Muhammed was a reluctant prophet. He replied, “I am not a proclaimer.” The angel persisted, and the Prophet repeatedly resisted, until the angel finally overwhelmed Muhammad and commanded him:

Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created!
Created man from a clot of blood.
Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous,
Who teaches by the pen;
Teaches man what he knew not. (Qur’an 96:1-3)

After receiving Khadija’s support, and additional angelic visits, Muhammad became confident he had indeed been chosen as the messenger of God and began to proclaim as he had been commanded.

Muhammad’s message to his countrymen was to convert from pagan polytheism, immorality and materialism, repent from evil and worship Allah, the only true God. He was always careful to clarify his role in God’s work – he was only a prophet. He was not an angel, he did not know the mind of God, he did not work miracles. He simply preached what he had received.

In the first three years of his ministry, Muhammad gained only 40 followers. And as his teachings threatened the Meccan way of life, both moral and economic, he and his followers experienced heavy persecution. It first took the form of mockery, but soon turned into open violence. Members of the small movement were stoned, covered in dirt as they prayed, beat with sticks, thrown into prison and refused service by merchants.

Hijira

Persecution continued to increase until Muhammad received some welcome news: he had gained followers in the city of Yathrib, 280 miles north of Mecca. The city was in need of a strong leader, and a delegation from Yathrib proposed that Muhammad take the job. In return, they pledged to worship Allah only, obey Muhammad and defend him and his followers to the death. Allah revealed to Muhammed his approval of this arrangement, and Muhammad made plans to escape to Yathrib.

The leaders in Mecca heard of the planned escape, and attempted to prevent it. But Muhammad and his closefriend Abu Bakr managed to make a narrow escape north out of the city, evading a Meccan search party and arriving safely in Yathrib. This event is celebrated by Muslims as the Hijira. The year in which it occurred, 622, is the date at which the Muslim calendar begins. Yathrib was renamed Medinat al-Nabi, “the City of the Prophet,” and is now known simply as Medina, “the City.”

In Medina, Muhammad proved himself an able politician and statesman as well as a prophet.

Exercising superb statecraft, he welded the five heterogenous and conflicting tribes of the city, three of which were Jewish, into an orderly confederation…. His reputation spread and people began to flock from every part of Arabia to see the man who had wrought this ‘miracle.’ (Smith, 230).

Battle for Mecca

After establishing himself in Medina and accomplishing the job he had been invited to do, the people of Medina began several years of battle with Muhammad’s former home city. In 624, the Muslims won their first battle against the Meccans. As the latter had a much larger army, the former took the victory as a sign that God was on their side. However, a subsequent battle was not victorious, and Muhammad himself was wounded. But in 627, the Meccans attacked Medina, and Medina came out on top. The Prophet was not to lose again.

In 630, Muhammad and his forces marched to Mecca and defeated it. The Prophet rededicated the Ka’ba temple to Allah, witnessed the conversion to Islam of nearly the entire Meccan population, then returned to Medina. Muhammad died in 632, having conquered nearly all of Arabia for Islam.

Spread of Islam

By 634, Islam had taken over the entire Arabian peninsula. Within 100 years of Muhammad’s death, it had reached the Atlantic in one direction and borders of China in the other. This success was due in large part to the military and political abilities of Muhammad’s successors, the caliphs.

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