Islam, Part II
It''s awful difficult to find out a heck of a lot about a person''s
life, especially when you are talking about someone born in the 6th
century. Thus is the case with Muhammad. This week I just
want to leave you with a sense of who he was and how he came
to be the founder of Islam.
Depending on the source, the birth of Muhammad is listed as
being somewhere between A.D. 570 and 580. I''m going to
choose 570 since I saw that date more than once. He was born in
Mecca. His father Abdallah died before his birth and his mother
passed away when he was only six. Orphaned, he first lived with
his grandfather, Abd-al-Muttalib, and then by his uncle, Abu
Talib. [I figured that there may be someone out there who wants
to test their spouse on names as part of a wild New Year''s Eve
We know that Muhammad grew up in humble circumstances.
Beyond that, we know little. We''ll assume that he was a pretty
serious little kid, listened to his elders, read the classics, and did
whatever kids did back then. Remember, this was long before
MTV and Pokemon, so his options were severely limited.
Tales of Muhammad''s life suddenly jump from his birth to age 25,
which, let''s face it, is much like the tale of Jesus. At 25,
Muhammad began working as a trading agent for Khadijah, a
wealthy widow of 40, and the two were married. [Khadijah being
15 years Muhammad''s senior is similar to the situation between
Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins].
For 25 years after, Khadijah (another spelling for her is
"Khajima") was Muhammad''s closest companion and she gave
birth to several children. Khadijah''s wealth provided Muhammad
with the funds necessary to lead an independent life and it freed
him to investigate and appraise the religious situation in Arabia.
Various anecdotes of the time portray a world waiting for a guide
and a man searching for a vocation. Jewish rabbis, Christian
monks and Arab soothsayers predicted the coming of a prophet.
In his book "A History of the Arab Peoples," Albert Hourani
describes a monk, met by Muhammad on a trading journey to
southern Syria, "looked at his back and saw the seal of
prophethood between his shoulders."
The Koran (Islam''s Holy Book) suggests that Muhammad was
exposed to both Christian and Jewish influence, most likely from
traders and travelers whose religious knowledge was sketchy.
What seems clear is that Muhammad was disturbed and disgusted
by the idolatry of his contemporaries and their lack of devotion to
Allah, the true God. He respected the disciplined life of Jews and
Christians which contrasted with the materialistic paganism of his
Muhammad became a solitary wanderer. He often withdrew to a
cave under Mount Hira, near Mecca, for meditation and prayer.
And then one day, in 610 or 611, some contact with the
supernatural took place (known as the "Night of Power or
Destiny"). Muhammad was about 40 years old at this time.
There are many different versions of what actually happened. The
one I read about most frequently has Muhammad receiving a flash
of divine insight, delivered by the angel Gabriel. He was
commanded to "recite," and he felt his body compressed until he
could hardly breathe.
Hourani writes that Muhammad was told to recite the following:
"in the name of thy Lord who created,
created man of a blood-clot."
"and thy Lord is the most bountiful,
who taught by the pen,
taught man what he knew not.
No, indeed: surely man waxes insolent,
for he thinks himself self-sufficient.
Surely unto thy Lord is the returning."
For the next two decades Muhammad would receive similar
revelations. Initially, his ambitions were modest, he hoped to
bring his people a unified Arab revelation similar to that of the
Christians and Jews. At first, he had few influential supporters in
addition to his wife, his friends Abu Bakr and Umar and his sons-
in-law Uthman and Ali. Outside of this inner circle, support was
At the core of his new religion was the doctrine that there is no
God but Allah and His followers must submit to Him - the word
Islam means "submission." Well, there''s nothing really special
about that message. After his death, it''s the interpretation of his
revelations that gets interesting.
As Muhammad became more confident in the importance of his
mission, he openly attacked the prevailing paganism and its
leaders. This antagonized the powerful merchants who controlled
Meccan society. They feared that his reforms would deprive
Mecca of its unique and profitable position as a center of both
pilgrimmage and trade. Eventually, Muhammad suffered setback
Khadijah died around 620 and Muhammad was now seeking a
new place to take his message of submission. He found his new spot
in the city of Medina, some 200 miles from Mecca.
Medina was a sophisticated city that had attracted many pagan
Arabs who eventually outnumbered its Jewish founders. It had no
stable government but was constantly torn by feuds between rival
Arab tribes. The leaders of Medina saw in Muhammad a man of
power, discipline, and spirit who could serve as an arbitrator and
conciliator rather than a religious leader. Muhammad''s "Hejira"
(migration) to Medina took place in 622. This is the date that
marks the formation of Islam.
Muhammad''s revelations changed in character at about this time.
They became less prophetic and religious and more regulatory.
Islam, the religion and church, became a community and a state,
with Muhammad as the lawgiver, the supreme judge, the
commander-in-chief, and the ruler.
Once his power was centralized in Medina, Muhammad
concentrated on the conquest of his native city, Mecca. His
forces defeated the Meccans in the Battle of Badr 624, and thus
gained control of the vital caravan routes. Badr was Islam''s first
ordeal by battle, and the cause was greatly strengthened by the
triumph. To followers, the victory was deemed prophetic. In 630
Muhammad entered Mecca as a conqueror. His success was now
complete. The Kaaba (the central shrine) and other holy places
were now in Islamic hands. Religious faith replaced old tribal
When Muhammad entered Mecca he announced the principles of
a new order: "Every claim of privilege or blood or property is
abolished by me except the custody of the temple and the
watering of the pilgrims." [Interpretation: Hourani]
In 632 Muhammad made his last visit to Mecca, with his speech
there being recorded as the final statement of his message: "Know
that every Muslim is a Muslim''s brother, and that the Muslims are
brethren; fighting between them should be avoided, and the blood
shed in pagan times should not be avenged; Muslims should fight
all men until they say, ''There is no god but God.''"
By the time of his death in 632, you can see from the last quote
that the philosophy which endures today was beginning to take
shape. Muhammad is entombed in the Holy Mosque of the
Next week, the guts of Islam and its application to today. [This
may take an additional week].
"The Columbia History of the World," edited by John A.
Garraty and Peter Gay.
"A History of the Arab Peoples," by Albert Hourani.
"American Heritage Encyclopedia."