Early Western Civilization The Return to Mecca, Muhammad and the Beginnings of Islam Muhammad, whose full name was Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, was born in Mecca around 570 AD after the death of his father, ‘Abd Allah. Muhammad was at first under the care of his paternal grandfather, ‘Abd al-Muttalib. Because the climate of Mecca was considered to be unhealthful, he was given as an infant to a wet nurse from a nomadic tribe and spent some time in the desert. At six, he lost his mother, Aminah of the clan of Zuhra, and at eight his grandfather. Though his grandfather had been head of the prestigious Hashem clan and was prominent in Mecca politics, he was probably not the leading man in Mecca as some sources suggest. Muhammad came under the care of the new head of the clan, his uncle Abu Talib, and is reputed to have accompanied him on trading journeys to Syria. About 595, on such a journey, he was in charge of the merchandise of a rich woman, Khadijah of the clan of Asad, and so impressed her that she offered marriage.
She is said to have been about 40, but she bore Muhammad at least two sons, who died young, and four daughters. The best known daughter was Fatimah, the wife of Muhammad’s cousin ‘Ali who is regarded as Muhammad’s divinely ordained successor by the Shi’ah branch of Islam. Until Khadijah’s death in 619, Muhammad took no other wife. The marriage was a turning point in Muhammad’s life. By Arab custom, minors did not inherit, and therefore Muhammad had no share in the property of his father or grandfather.
However, by his marriage he obtained sufficient capital to engage in mercantile activity on a scale commensurate with his abilities. Muhammad appears to have been of a reflective turn of mind and is said to have adopted the habit of occasionally spending nights in a hill cave near Mecca. The poverty and misfortunes of his early life doubtless made him aware of tensions in Meccan society. Mecca, inhabited by the tribe of Quraysh to which the Hashim clan belonged, was a mercantile center formed around a sanctuary, the Kabah, which assured the safety of those who came to trade at the fairs. In the later 6th century there was extensive trade by camel caravan between the Yemen and the Mediterranean region (Gaza and Damascus), bringing goods from India and Ethiopia to the Mediterranean.
The great merchants of Mecca had obtained monopoly control of this trade. Mecca was thus prosperous, but most of the wealth was in a few hands. Tribal solidarity was breaking up and merchants pursued individual interests and disregarded their traditional duties to the unfortunate. About 610, as he reflected on such matters, Muhammad had a vision of a majestic being (later identified with the angel Gabriel) and heard a voice saying to him, “You are the Messenger of God. ” This marked the beginning of his career as messenger of Allah, or Prophet.
From this time, at frequent intervals until his death, he received “revelations”; that is, verbal messages that he believed came directly from God. Sometimes these were kept in memory by Muhammad and his followers, and sometimes they were written down. About 650 they were collected and written in the Qur`an (or Koran, the sacred scriptures of Islam), in the form that has endured. Muslims believe the Qur`an is divine revelation, written in the words of God himself. Muhammad is said to have been perturbed after the vision and first revelation but was reassured by his wife, Khadijah. In his later experiences of receiving messages, there was normally no vision. Occasionally, there were physical concomitants, such as perspiring on a cold day, giving rise to the suggestion, now agreed to be unwarranted, that he was an epileptic.
Sometimes he heard a noise like a bell but apparently never a voice. The essence of such an experience was that he found a verbal message in his heart; that is, in his conscious mind. With the help of Khadijahs Christian cousin Waraqah, he came to interpret these messages as identical with those sent by God through other prophets to Jews, Christians, and others. He also came to believe that by the first great vision, and by the receipt of the messages, he was commissioned to communicate them to his fellow citizens and other Arabs. Along with proclaiming the messages he received, Muhammad must have offered explanations and expositions of them in his own words, as is evident in the large body of prophetic traditions that the community has preserved.
Soon he gathered some sympathetic friends who accepted his claim to be a prophet and joined him in common worship and prayers. These culminated in an act of prostration in which they touched the ground with their foreheads in acknowledgment of Gods majesty; still a cardinal act in Islamic worship. In about 613 Muhammad began preaching publicly, and he and his followers spent their days together in the house of a young man named al-Arqam. It is probable that they sometimes worshipped together in the Kabah, a sanctuary of the Arab pagans. The people of Mecca at the time worshipped many gods, but few believed that man was dependent on supernatural powers.
The merchants thought most things could be accomplished by wealth and by human planning. Some men regarded Allah as a “high god” who stood above lesser deities. Allah, the Arabic word for God, is used by Christian Arabs as well as by Muslims. The earliest passages of the Qur`an revealed to Muhammad emphasize the goodness and power of God, as seen in nature and in the prosperity of the Meccans, and call on the Meccans to be grateful and to worship “the Lord of the Kabah,” who is thus identified with God. Gratitude is to be expressed in generosity with ones wealth and avoidance of niggardliness.
As a sanction, men are warned that they will appear before God on the Last Day to be judged according to their deeds and assigned to heaven or hell. By proclaiming this message publicly, Muhammad gained followers, said to be 39, before he entered the house of al-Arqam. The names of 70 followers are known prior to the appearance of opposition to the new religion, and there were probably more. Most were young men under 30 when they joined Muhammad. They included sons and brothers of the richest men in Mecca, though they might be described as persons excluded from the most lucrative forms of commerce. A handful of Muhammads early followers were spoken of as “weak,” which merely means that they were not of the tribe of Quraysh and so not effectively protected by any clan.
The new religion was eventually called Islam, meaning “surrender (to the will of God)”, and its adherents were called Muslims, meaning”those who have surrendered”, though the Qur`an speaks of them primarily as “the believers.” Although Muhammads preaching was basically religious, there was implicit in it a critique of the conduct and attitudes of the rich merchants of Mecca. Attempts were made to get him to soften his criticism by offering him a fuller share in trade and a marriage alliance with one of the wealthiest families, but he decisively rejected such offers. In about 615, more active opposition appeared. Points in the message of the Qur`an were questioned, such as the assertion that men would be resurrected before the Judgment. Commercial pressure was brought to bear on Muhammads supporters, and in some families there was mild persecution of junior members who followed him. It is sometimes suggested that the main reason for opposition was the merchants fear that the new religion would destroy the recognition of the Kabah as a sanctuary, but this is unlikely.
Certainly, attacks on idols appeared in the Qur`an, and Islam began to be characterized by the insistence that “there is no god but God” (Allah). Despite this, no attack was made on the Kabah, and the idols mentioned had their chief shrines elsewhere. A leader of the opposition arose in the person of Abu Jahl who probably felt that Muhammad, despite his claim to be “only a warner” of Judgment to come, was building a position of authority that might one day make him politically supreme in Mecca. This fear arose from the observation that Arabs deeply respected the kind of wisdom or knowledge that Muhammad clearly had. In about 616, Abu Jahl organized a boycott of the clan of Hashim by the chief clans of Mecca, allegedly because the clan continued to protect Muhammad and did not curb his preaching; but, since few of the clan were Muslims, other issues may have been involved.
After three years the boycott lost momentum, perhaps because some of the participants found they were harming their own economic interests. Both Muhammads wife, Khadijah, and his uncle Abu Talib died in about 619. Another uncle, Abu Lahab, succeeded as head of the clan of Hashim. He was closer to the richest merchants, and at their instigation, he withdrew the protection of the clan from Muhammad. This meant that Muhammad could easily be attacked and therefore could no longer propagate his religion in Mecca.
He left for the neighboring town of at-Ta`if, but the inhabitants were insufficiently prepared to receive his message, and he failed to find support. Having secured the protection of the head of another clan, he returned to Mecca. In 620, Muhammad began negotiations with clans in Medina, leading to his emigration, or hijrah, there in 622. It is difficult to assess the nature and extent of the persecution of the Muslims in Mecca. There was little physical violence, and that was usually within the family.
Muhammad suffered from minor annoyances, such as having filth deposited outside his door. The persecution is said to have led to the emigration of some of the Muslims to Ethiopia about 615, but they may have been seeking opportunities for trade or military support for Muhammad. Some remained until 628, long after Muhammad was established in Medina. Whatever the nature of the persecution, the Muslims were very bitter about it. In the summer of 621, 12 men from Medina, visiting Mecca for the annual pilgrimage to the Kabah (still a pagan shrine), secretly professed themselves Muslims to Muhammad and went back to make propaganda for him at Medina.
At the pilgrimage in June 622 a representative party of 75 persons from Medina, including two women, not merely professed Islam, but also took an oath to defend Muhammad as they would their own kin. These are known as the two Pledges of al-Aqaba. Muhammad now encouraged his faithful Meccan followers to make their way to Medina in small groups. The Meccans are said to have plotted to kill Muhammad before he could leave. With his chief lieutenant, he slipped away unperceived, used unfrequented paths, and reached Medina safely on September 24, 622.
This is the celebrated hijrah, which may be rendered”emigration,” though the basic meaning is the severing of kinship ties. It is the traditional starting point of Islamic history. The Islamic Era (AH or Anno Hegirae) begins on the first day of the Arabic year in which the hijrah took place; July 16, 622, in the Western calendar. Medina was different from Mecca. It was an oasis in which date palms flourished and cereals could be grown. Agriculture had been developed by several Jewish clans, who had settled among the original Arabs, and they still had the best lands. Later Arab immigrants belonging to the tribes of al- Aws and al- Khazraj, however, were in a stronger position.
The effective units among the Arabs were eight or more clans, but nearly all of these had become involved in serious feuds. Much blood had been shed in a battle in about 618, and peace was not fully restored. In inviting Muhammad to Medina, many of the Arabs there probably hoped that he would act as an arbiter among the opposing parties. Their contact with the Jews may have prepared them for a messianic religious leader, who would …