Islam (part 2)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

Muhammad, Prophet Of Islam

Into this environment at Mecca was born a man who would change completely
the religious, political, and social organization of his people. Muhammad (c.
570-632) came from a family belonging to the Koraysh. His early years were
difficult because of the deaths of both his parents and his grandfather who
cared for him after his parents' loss. He was raised by his uncle, Abu Talib,
a prominent merchant of Mecca. His early years were spent helping his uncle in
the caravan trade. Even as a young man, Muhammad came to be admired by his
fellow Meccans as a sincere and honest person, and earned the nickname
al-Amin, "the trustworthy." When he was about twenty years old, he accepted
employment by a wealthy widow, Khadija, whose caravans traded with Syria. He
later married Khadija and took his place as a leading influential citizen of
the city. Muhammad's marriage to Khadija was a long and happy one, and
produced two sons, who both died as infants, and two daughters, of whom the
younger, Fatima, is best known.

A description of Muhammad, and probably a very accurate one, has been
preserved in the Sira, the traditional biography of the Prophet. He is
described as a handsome, large man with broad shoulders, black, shining eyes
flecked with brown, and a fair complexion. His personality was reserved and
gentle, but he was a man of impressive energy. He walked quickly, and always
seemed to make it difficult for his friends to keep up with him. Although he
was a popular companion, an energetic businessman, and a responsible husband
and father, Muhammad was a very introspective man. Often he would escape from
the society, which he considered too materialistic and irreligious, and spend
long hours alone in a cave on nearby Mount Hira. In these hours of meditation
Muhammad searched for answers to the metaphysical questions that many
thoughtful Arabs were beginning to explore. Muhammad's meditations many times
produced nearly total mental and physical exhaustion. During one such solitary
meditation, Muhammad heard a call that was to alter the history of the world.

Muhammad's first communication from heaven came in the form of a command:

Recite! In the name of your Lord, who created all things,
who created man from a clot (of blood).
Recite! And your Lord is Most Bounteous
Who teaches by the Pen,
teaches man that which he would not
have otherwise known (Koran 96:1-5)

The Arabic word for "recitation" or "reading" is qur'an, and the
collected revelations given to Muhammad are known to us as the Koran. The
revelations that continued to come over the next twenty years were sometimes
terse and short, at other times elaborate and poetic. The early revelations
did not immediately convince Muhammad that he was a messenger of God. In fact,
his first reaction was fear and self-doubt. During his depressions brought on
by fears over the source and nature of his revelations, he sought the comfort
and advice of Khadija. As the revelations continued, Muhammad finally became
convinced that the message he was receiving was the truth, and that he had
been called to be a messenger of divine revelation. He came to think of
himself and his mission as one similar to prophets and messengers who had
preceded him in announcing the existence of the one God, Allah. Allah, "the
God," was the same God worshiped by the Christians and Jews, but Allah had now
chosen Muhammad to be his last and greatest prophet to perfect the religion
revealed earlier to Abraham, Moses, the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus. The
religion Muhammad preached is called Islam, which means surrender or
submission to the will of God. The followers of Islam are called Muslims. The
term Muslim refers to one who submits to God's law.

Muhammad's Message And Early Followers

At first Muhammad had little success in attracting followers in Mecca.
The early message Muhammad brought to the Arabs was one of sternness and
strength: that Allah was one and majestic, all-powerful and demanding of the
faith of his followers. Furthermore, Allah demanded that his followers be
compassionate, ethical, and just in all their dealings:

In the name of Allah, the most Beneficent, the
Most Merciful
by the night as it enshrouds
by the day as it illuminates
by Him Who created the male and female
indeed your affairs lead to various ends.
For who gives (of himself) and acts righteously,
and conforms to goodness,
We will give him ease.
But as for him who is niggardly cleaning himself,
self-sufficient and rejects goodness,
We will indeed ease his path to adversity.
Nor shall his wealth save him as he perishes
for Guidance is from Us
and to Us belongs the Last and First (92:1-14)

Muhammad was able to win the early support of some of his relatives and
close friends. His first converts were his wife, his cousin Ali, and Abu Bakr,
a leading merchant of the Koraysh tribe who was highly respected for his
integrity. Abu Bakr remained the constant companion of the Prophet during his
persecution and exile and later became the first caliph (leader) of Islam. But
opposition to Muhammad's message was very strong, especially from Mecca's
leading citizens. Many thought Muhammad was a poor poet attempting to pass on
his own literary creations as the word of God. Others believed him to be
possessed by demons. Muhammad's strong monotheism worried those residents of
Mecca who obtained their income from the pilgrims to the Kaaba. Most of
Muhammad's early converts were among the poorest of the city's residents, and
Mecca's leading citizens feared social revolution.

Since Muhammad was himself a member of the Koraysh tribe, its leaders
first tried to convince Abu Talib to persuade his nephew to stop preaching.
Next they tried to bribe Muhammad himself with the promise of a lucrative
position in tribal affairs. When such offers were rejected, actual persecution
of Muhammad's converts began, and a commercial and social boycott of the
Prophet's family was attempted. During this time Abu Talib and Khadija both
died, and Muhammad's faith and resolution was greatly tested. But inspired by
the spirit and example of earlier prophets such as Abraham and Moses, who were
also tested and persecuted, Muhammad persevered in his faith and continued his

The Hijrah

To the north of Mecca is the city of Medina, which was then called
Yathrib. The residents of Medina were more familiar with monotheistic beliefs,
perhaps because of the Jewish community in residence there. They also had no
dependence on the revenues from a pagan site of pilgrimage, as the Meccans
had. Some pilgrims from Medina saw in Muhammad a powerful and influential
leader and invited him to come to Medina to settle differences among rival
factions. Muhammad sent some of his followers from Mecca to take up residence
in Medina in order to escape persecution. Muhammad and Abu Bakr were the last
to leave when it became known that the Koraysh intended to kill the Prophet.
They were followed, but escaped, the story goes, by hiding in a narrow cave
whose entrance was quickly covered by a spider's web. The web convinced
Koraysh that the cave had been abandoned for a long while.

The Hijrah, or "migration" from Mecca to Medina (often transliterated as
Hegira), took place in September 622. The event was such a turning point in
the history of Islam that the year is counted as Year One of the Islamic
calendar. In Medina, the Prophet met with entirely different circumstance than
in his birthplace. His leadership turned Medina (Madinat al Nali, or the City
of the Prophet) into the leading center of power in the Arabian peninsula.

The Community At Medina

Muhammad was received in Medina as a leader and a spiritual visionary. He
and his followers set about the establishment of a genuine community, or
Ummah, free of pressure and persecution. The community at Medina included a
number of Jewish and Christian families, whom Muhammad tried to convert. His
efforts were successful with some Jewish residents, but the Jews who did not
choose to accept Muhammad's faith were allowed to continue their way of life,
since they were also held to be "people of the Book" to whom Allah had made
himself known through earlier prophets.

The care of the community at Medina was of grave concern to Muhammad.
Many of those who followed the prophet to Medina were without work, and
necessary food was sometimes obtained by plundering the caravans passing
Medina on the way to Mecca. Also, Muhammad and his followers became steadily
more agressive in their attempts to win converts to Islam. The word jihad,
meaning struggle, was applied to the early efforts of the Ummah to win
converts and strengthen its own recruiting. Military encounters with the pagan
opponents of Islam began in 624, with the battle of Bedr. Muhammad defeated
the stronger Koraysh army of Mecca, and the victory reinforced the resolve of
the new religion's followers. Succeeding battles established the Muslims as
the dominant force in Arabia, and finally a truce with Mecca was arranged,
under which the Muslims could visit the holy shrines in the city.

Return To Mecca

In 629 Muhammad returned with his followers to take control of the city
of Mecca and to cleanse the Kaaba of pagan idols. The temple itself, together
with the Black Stone, was preserved as the supreme religious center of Islam
the "Mecca" to which all devout Muslims are to attempt to make a pilgrimage
during their lifetimes. Muhammad urged his old enemies and unbelievers to
accept Islam and become part of the Ummah. By 632, almost all of the Arabian
peninsula had accepted Islam, and Muhammad had even sent ambassadors to the
neighboring Byzantine and Persian empires to announce the new religion and
encourage converts. Clearly Muhammad did not look upon Islam as only a
religion of the Arabs, and certainly sought converts other than the residents
of the Arabian peninsula.

The Death Of Muhammad

Muhammad died on June 8, 632 in Medina. He succumbed to a fever, probably
induced by the great strains brought on by constant campaigns for new converts
and the unrelenting demands for his attention. Muslims at first refused to
accept his death, but were reassured by Abu Bakr, who recited this verse from
the Koran:

Muhammad is only a messenger: many are the messengers
who have died before him; if he dies, or is slain, will
you turn back on your heels? (3: 144)

On the day of Muhammad's death, the question of leadership of the
faithful was solved by the democratic election of Abu Bakr, who became the
Prophet's first successor or caliph (from the Arabic khalifa). Abu Bakr was
not looked upon as a prophet; Muhammad was seen as the last and the greatest
of Allah's messengers. The caliph was regarded as the head of the Islamic

The significance of Muhammad to the birth and growth of Islam is
impossible to overestimate. The Prophet and his message inspired his followers
to create and work for the betterment of a society united by the Islamic
faith. Tribal loyalties were replaced by faith in the One God, who chose to
speak to his people in their own language through a messenger who was also one
of their own.

Soon after Muhammad's death, his followers and companions, many of whom
were scholars and teachers, began to collect and codify his teachings and
actions. The result of their efforts was the hadith, or reports of the
activities and sayings of Muhammad. The hadith has become an important source
of values and ethical paths of behavior for the Islamic world. The Sunnah, the
custom or practice of the Prophet, is grounded in the hadith and serves as a
pattern for a model way of life to be imitated by the faithful. Sunni Islam is
thus based on imitation of the Prophet's behavior as a proper goal for a
meaningful life; 85 percent of the modern world's Muslims are Sunni.

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