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Arabia Before Muhammad
Under Roman rule, the province of Arabia included southern Syria, present-day Jordan, the Negev, and the northwest of what is today Saudi Arabia. The center of the Arabian Peninsula consisted of vast deserts, and its inhospitable nature kept invaders away and made central Arabia a refuge for people from neighboring countries, especially religious dissidents. Since few people dared to travel in such a wilderness, it became a land of mystery. The Romans called the south of the peninsula "Fortunate Arabia" (Arabia Felix) because it had some very fertile regions, and several of its states and legendary kingdoms, such as Sheba, Ma'in, and Hadramaut, were well known. This was the land that produced the incense so coveted by the ancient powers. Frankincense and myrrh were used by the Egyptians for embalming and by the Romans for funerals. As is mentioned in Leviticus (2:14-16), the Israelites used frankincense as an essential part of the first fruits offering and to accompany the bread offering in the Temple.
In the centuries preceding the common era, the Arabs were nomads with a typical tribal society. Desertification left them no other choice but to become Bedouins (nomads), and the introduction of the camel in about 600 B.C.E. made them highly mobile. Given Arabia's long coastline, many Arabs turned to seafaring, which took them as far as China, where they founded Macao as a trading post. Several cities in Indonesia and in East Africa were originally settlements of Arab traders, and the stories ofSindbad the Sailor reflect an ancient tradition. These two factors, the unrivaled mobility of the Bedouins and the widespread network of Arab traders in Southeast Asia, later contributed to the rapid spread of Islam from one end of the "known world" to the other.
Today some Muslims are fond of claiming that Arabic was the original language of mankind. It may, in fact, be close to the original Semitic language that was the mother of Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Syriac, and other Semitic tongues. Many of the peoples in the areas surrounding the Arabian Peninsula are said to have migrated there from Arabia over the course of thousands of years. The spread of the desert forced one group after the other to move to more fertile regions. In recorded history, Arab tribes claimed descent from two ancestors, the northern ones from `Adnân, the southern from Qahtân. Both are said to have been descendants of Ibrâhîm (Abraham) through his son Ismâ`îl (Ishmael).
Most Arab households possessed their own individual idols. In the north, tribes and clans would put their idols in the central sanctuary at Mecca, until it was home to some 360 statuettes and pictures. Though worshipers of numerous idols, Arabs did have a notion of a Supreme God as the Creator, called Al-Lâh (Al-ilâh), "The God" or "The One God." One of the major female deities was Al-Lât.
The temple at Mecca was called the Ka`ba (Kaaba), which means "cube." Muslims believe that Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it on the ruins of the oldest temple dedicated to the worship of the One God. Noteworthy is the form in which it was restored to monotheism. The ritual performed in the sanctuary bears a certain resemblance to that of the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem: the Ka`ba is but an empty room, to be entered only twice a year for a cleansing ceremony by the highest authority.
In pre-Islamic Arabia there were several Ka`bas, a fact suggesting that this kind of temple, as an aid in contemplating God not as an idol but as an abstraction, is based on an ancient tradition of pilgrimage to holy shrines.
Muhammad's tribe, the Quraish, made themselves custodians of the Ka`ba in Mecca only about a hundred years before his birth. Conducting an annual fair and festival at the sanctuary, which obliged the warring tribes to keep peace every year for a few months, the Quraish became sedentary. Mecca was ideally situated halfway between the north and the south of the peninsula. Moving merchandise between Yemen and Syria, the Quraish became mercantile aristocrats. The idol worship at the Ka`ba with the annual pilgrimage season and its fair was a major source of income for them. Therefore, when Muhammad began preaching monotheism, they saw their vested interests threatened.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, much of southern Arabia was occupied by Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and sometimes by Persia. The three great powers of the time were Byzantium, Ethiopia, and Persia. The Gulf was then really a Persian Gulf because the eastern coast of Arabia was occupied by the Persians and so was Mesopotamia, now called Iraq. During Muhammad's lifetime the Persians sacked Jerusalem, which resulted in a prophecy in the Qur'ân, in the chapter entitled "The Byzantines," to the effect that soon Byzantium would defeat Persia:
The Byzantines have been defeated not far from here. Within a few years of this defeat, however, they will be victorious again. It is all up to God, as it has been in the past. The Believers will be able to rejoice and thank God for his help. He gives victory to whom He pleases (Sûra 30:1-6).
This quotation indicates Muhammad's identification with Christians and Jews as monotheists struggling against idol worship. The Persians had their own prophet, Zoroaster (d. 1800 B.C.E.), though over the centuries his religion had been compromised by superstitious beliefs. Neither Jews nor Christians recognized that the original Zoroastrianism was akin to the faith of Abraham. The way Persians practiced their religion in the sixth century made them seem to be fire worshipers. In reality, it was not the fire that was worshiped but the purity it symbolized. Zoroastrians keep an eternal flame in their temples that burns away all impurity. Some historians of religion believe that many notions we are familiar with from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had precursors in Zoroastrianism, in particular the concept of heaven and hell the Day of Judgment, and the angels. It is an old dispute whether the word dîn ("law," "religion") is Semitic and was adopted by the Persians, or whether it was originally Zoroastrian and found its way into Arabic and Hebrew.
Egypt was a province of Byzantium, but the Copts (Egyptians) and the Greeks followed different forms of Christianity. At times the imperial church of Greek Orthodoxy oppressed the Coptic Church. The Ethiopians adhered to the Coptic Church, under which Abyssinia became a superpower that frequently intervened in Arabia, contending with Persia for dominance in the region. In Yemen the Himyarite dynasty adopted Judaism, which was introduced to the region by a group of Jewish immigrants who intermarried with the local population. The Yemenite kings may have chosen Judaism as a dividing line between southern Arabia and imperial Abyssinia. There was much conflict between Jews and Christians in the region. Najran, an area to the south of Mecca, was then northern Yemen; today it is southern Saudi Arabia. The population was largely Christian but was ruled by Jews. All of them were Arabs, and the Arab Jews persecuted the Arab Christians. It has sometimes been said that this was a unique case in history where Jews persecuted Christians rather than the reverse.
Revelation and Mission
Muhammad was born in the "Year of the Elephant," so called because at that very time an Ethiopian army withdrew without attacking Mecca when one of its war elephants, so legend has it, bowed down upon seeing the Ka`ba. Apparently the Ethiopians were stricken by some natural calamity. These events are recounted in Sûra (chapter) 105 of the Qur'ân, entitled Al-Fîl, "The Elephant."
Muhammad was born into one of Mecca's important clans, the Hâshim. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised in poverty along with his uncle's many children. Diligence and intelligence made him rise quickly from camel driver to businessman with a reputation for managerial efficiency and honesty. Employed by a rich widow, he led her caravans in the summer to Syria and in the winter to Yemen, as was the custom with the Quraish, the tribe of merchants to which he belonged.
To become acquainted with Jewish and Christian beliefs and traditions was practically unavoidable. In those days Manichaeism, founded by Mani in the third century, was still a force on the religious scene, and a handful of the Meccan merchant aristocracy were adherents. The term zindîq (from "gnostic") was sometimes used for the followers of Mani. Due to its geographic location midway between two dozen political and religious forces, Mecca had become something of an intellectual crossroads just as much as a junction for trade. Today we would call such an entity an independent, neutral, nonaligned Third World state, and a "tiger" to boot.
At age twenty-five Muhammad married his employer, Khadîja, who was then forty. Despite the age difference, they remained happily married until her death twenty-five years later. Khadîja's role can hardly be overstated. Some ten years after their marriage, Muhammad began to spend extended periods in the wilderness meditating. When, at age forty, he had his first revelations, accompanied by a state of trance, his wife comforted him, insisting that what happened to him was a call to prophethood. In his vision he saw the angel Gabriel, who ordered him to read. For a moment Muhammad felt helpless because he was illiterate, but suddenly he could in the sense that there was a text that he was made to recite:
In the name of your Lord who created,
who created man from a clot of blood.
Your Lord is the most generous,
He taught to write with the pen,
Taught man what he did not know (Sûra 96:1-5).
Muhammad was so shaken by this experience that when he reached home, Khadîja had to wrap her shivering husband in a blanket. Later she took him to a cousin of hers who was a Christian, and this man told Muhammad that he was a prophet and his appearance had been foretold by both Moses and Jesus. Moses had announced the coming of a prophet "from among your brethren," the Ishmaelites, and Ishmael, the "wild ass" in the desert, was Muhammad's ancestor. Jesus had told his followers that he still had many more things to tell them, more than they could then bear, and that teaching them what remained to be learned would be the task of the Holy Spirit (Paraclete).
Thus a Christian was the first person to tell Muhammad that he was a prophet, the announced messenger of God for whom his people had been waiting. Waraqa, Khadîja's cousin, was not the last Christian to interpret Jesus' prophecy in this manner. Throughout history, many Christians have accepted Islam by putting their trust in Muhammad rather than in an unfathomable Holy Spirit. Initially at least, Muhammad saw himself as part of the Judeo-Christian patrimony.
Muhammad's climbing a mountain on the outskirts of Mecca and meditating there in a cave for days on end until the angel appeared to him is reminiscent of Moses on Mount Sinai. Solitary meditation was not an uncommon practice at that time. As was mentioned earlier, Arabia used to be a favorite refuge for hermits. Some of them were "religious dropouts" from adjacent lands where different sects of Christians were locked in bitter feuds; others were indigenous seekers after truth, like Muhammad himself. They were collectively known as hunafâ' (singular hanîf). In later Muslim parlance this term became a collective name for nondenominational monotheists, the Abrahamic prototype in Muhammad's imagery. Abraham was a hanîf, says the Qur'ân. Today Hanîf is a Muslim given name, like Ibrâhîm (Abraham), Ismâ`îl (Ishmael), and Ishâq (Isaac).
Choosing a religious career did not make Muhammad rich; on the contrary, he ended up as poor as he had been in childhood. Khadîja did not complain, even though in previous marriages she had been wealthy.
The excerpt that follows is taken from The Book of the Prophet's Ancestors: A Genealogy of the Best in God's Creation by a sixteenth-century Syrian writer. Typical of this biographical genre, it mixes historiography with popular piety. Produced as a piece of decorative art, the text had to be succinct, forcing the author to be selective, and the resultant shorthand shows what is most essential in Muslim eyes, how the Believers love to see Muhammad. The author was neither an eminent thinker nor a great scholar; he was a well-educated librarian who reproduced the image of the Prophet that is commonly depicted in sermons. Whether accurate or inaccurate, this is the picture most Sunni Muslims have of Muhammad. The genealogy at the beginning is of special interest in that it connects the forebears of Arab tribal tradition with the biblical ancestors of mankind. After the connecting link the names are no longer Arabic, but Hebrew or other:
Muhammad, son of `Abdullâh Ibn `Abdi-l-Muttalib Pon Hâshim Ibn `Abd Manâf Ibn Qusayy Ibn Kilâb Ibn Murra Ibn Ka`b Ibn Lu'ayy Ibn Ghâlib Ibn Fihr (known as Quraish) Ibn Mâlik Ibn An-Nadr Ibn Kinâna Ibn Khuzaima Ibn Mudrika Ibn Ilyâs Ibn Mudar Ibn Nizâr Ibn Ma'add Ibn `Adriân Ibn Udad Ibn Al-Muqawwim Ibn Al-Yas`a Ibn Al-Humaisa' Ibn Nibt Ibn Salâmân Ibn Hamal Ibn Kedar Ibn Ishmael Ibn Abraham Ibn Terah Ibn Nahor Ibn Serug Ibn Reu Ibn Peleg Ibn Eber Ibn Salah Ibn Arphaxad Ibn Sem Ibn Noah Ibn Lamech Ibn Methuselah Ibn Enoch Ibn Jared Ibn Mahalalel Ibn Kenan Ibn Enosh Ibn Seth Ibn Adam, whom God may bless.
God's Messenger (peace and the blessings of God be upon him) was born in the Year of the Elephant, on a Monday. His father died when he was only two months old, though it is also said that his father died before he was born. He was reared among the tribe of Banî Sa`d for four years until his mother took him to Medina, where he lived among his maternal relatives. While returning to Mecca she died, and he was taken to his grandfather, `Abdu-l-Muttalib. When the Blessed One was eight years old, the grandfather died, entrusting the orphan to the care of his son, Abeû Tâlib. At the age of twelve, the Blessed One had already been to Syria with his uncle Abû Tâlib, and when he was twenty-five he went there again, this time on business, working for Khadîja. When the Ka`ba was reconstructed, there erupted a dispute about how to complete it. The controversy lasted for two months. Finally, the Quraish accepted the young man's Solomonic judgment on rebuilding the Ka`ba and how to place the Black Stone back into its wall. At that time he was thirty-five years old. When he was forty, he was sent as a prophet to both kinds of creatures, the humans and the jinn [jinni, spirits]. His uncle, Abû Tâlib, died when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was about fifty. Three days later the Prophet's wife, Khadîja, also died. God's Messenger called this the Year of Sorrow, because Abû Tâlib had protected him against those who wished to harm him, and Khadîja had believed in him when he took refuge at home. She kept on reassuring him, against all odds, by telling him, "Your are God's Messenger."
On a moonlit night the Blessed One rode on Burâq [the celestial mare] to Jerusalem, from where he ascended physically and fully awake to the heavens. He returned to Mecca but later migrated from there, accompanied by his friend Abû Bakr, leaving behind on his bed `Alî with whom God may be pleased to whom he assigned the task of returning whatever belongings of others were in his possession, to pay off debts and later join him. At the time of his emigration he was fifty-three years old. He entered Medina on Monday, the twelfth of Rabî, Al-Awwal. This became the first day of the new era.
The Prophet's coming to Medina led to a change in the direction of prayer. Henceforth the believers prayed no longer toward Jerusalem but toward the Holy House in Mecca. The Blessed One died in Medina after he had stayed there for ten years and two months. The years in Medina combined with the preceding thirteen years in Mecca, constitute the prophetic phase of his life. He died on Monday, the first of Rabî, Al-Awwal, in the year 64 of the Elephant, and eleven years after his emigration. At the time of his death he was sixty-three [lunar] years and three months old. He was buried in `A'isha's house, may God be pleased with her. Gabriel led God's angels in prayer for his soul, followed by the Prophet's family. After Muhammad's clan, the Hâshim, had prayed for him, the Muhâjirûn [Muslims from Mecca] and Ansâr [Muslims from Medina] entered, followed by crowds of people whom no one led in prayer, then the women and the children. It was like the Day of Resurrection. May peace and God's blessings be upon him.
Shortly before his death, the Prophet delivered a last sermon, standing on Mount Mercy (jabalu r-rahma), a hill near Mecca. This Farewell Sermon sums up an important part of his teachings:
People! Just as you take this month, this day, this city to be sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. Keep in mind that you will definitely meet your Lord, and that He will take you to account for what you have done.
God has forbidden you to take interest; therefore, all interest obligations shall henceforth be forgiven. Your capital, however, is yours to keep. You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity. God has ruled that there shall be no interest, and that all interest due `Abbâs Ibn `Abdi-l-Muttalib [the Prophet's uncle] is to be waived.
Every right arising out of homicide in pre-Islamic days is henceforth waived. The first such right I waive is that arising from the murder of Rabiya Ibnu l-Hârith [a relative of the Prophet].
People! The unbelievers tamper with the calendar in order to make permissible what God has prohibited, and to forbid what God has allowed you to do. Beware of Satan, for the safety of your faith. He has lost all hope ever to lead you astray in big things, so be sure not to follow him in small things.
People! It is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. If they abide by your right, they are entitled to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers. It is your right that they do not make friends with anyone you do not approve of, as well as never commit adultery.
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