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Laying Down the Law
“Recite!” The disembodied voice echoed around the cavern. “In the name of thy God who created man from a clot of blood!” With those words, according to the Qur’an, all of humanity was instructed to submit to Islam, but the only person present was a forty-year-old Arab merchant named Muhammad, who reacted by looking around with astonishment. Although it was the holy month of Ramadan and he had come to the cave to meditate, he had never before experienced so uncanny an event. The order was then repeated—“Recite!”—as incomprehensible symbols floated on a piece of cloth before his eyes. Muhammad protested that he could not even read, only to find himself lifted off the ground and crushed until words that he barely understood filled his mouth.
Muhammad was terrified. He came from Mecca, a trading center on the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula that doubled as a place of pilgrimage, and the pagan cults with which he was familiar had no shortage of malevolent deities. Their nymphs, satyrs, and storm gods were constantly up to no good, fighting dusty battles on the desert horizon or shifting villages across its shimmering sands, and Muhammad feared that he was falling victim to one of the most destructive creatures of them all—the jinn, a spirit capable of controlling a person’s mind. He scrambled out of the cave, besieged by visions, but as he swayed suicidally on a rocky precipice, he was at last made to realize that he was dealing with no mere demon. A colossal figure now filled the starry sky, and its voice addressed him wherever he turned. “O Muhammad!” it boomed. “You are the Messenger of God and I am Gabriel.”
Events on the hillside detained Muhammad for so long that his wife, Khadija, sent out a search party. She was an independently wealthy businesswoman, older than her husband, and when he was found, traumatized and shivering, she swiftly took charge. The region in which Mecca was situated, the Hijaz, was home to a number of faiths, and one of her cousins was an expert in matters spiritual, having studied the Torah and converted to Christianity. A visit was arranged, and Waraqa bin Nawfal’s response was both encouraging and ominous. The good news was that Muhammad had encountered the one true God and that the angel Gabriel had been associated with some very auspicious events. The bad news was that Meccans would vilify Muhammad, ridicule his story, and do their utmost to kill him.
Islam so despises the culture it replaced that its hostile claims about Arab paganism always merit a pinch of salt, but there would have been good reasons for Waraqa to be concerned. Although the Meccans considered one of their gods to be paramount, and even called him the god—al-lah, in Arabic—monotheism ran directly contrary to their traditions. As far as they were concerned, al-lah governed the universe in alliance with three daughters and several hundred subordinates, and that belief was fortified by some sound economic calculations. Across the city stood dozens of domed red leather tents, each of them housing holy statuettes and images, and an idol-strewn palace known as the Ka‘ba drew thousands of pilgrims annually. The shrine was jointly managed by two branches of the dominant Quraish clan—the Umayyads and the Hashemites—and their partnership was as delicate as it was lucrative. Muhammad was a respected Hashemite, but any attempt to revise the rules would not go down well.
The year was 610, and the channel of communication that had opened between Muhammad and God would transform the world. Thousands of lines of divine wisdom would reach him from the heavens over the next two decades, transmitted by a disembodied voice or heralded by a bell, and as he fell entranced and moved his lips to memorize God’s words, he would see far beyond the visible world, far into heaven and deep into hell. Even the jinns that he had initially feared were said to have converted en masse, after several overheard a nocturnal recitation and were struck by its beauty. Among Muslims, Muhammad has become a correspondingly heroic figure, and every child is brought up on stories about his valor, wisdom, and kindness. But though evidence of the admiration is ancient, the process that saw it recorded was far from straightforward. The revelations he received were collected together as a written Qur’an (recitation) soon after his death, but it took another century for the first written accounts of his life to appear, and only in the late ninth century did scholars compile collections of reports (hadiths) that the majority accepted as authentic. Older books were subsequently relegated to irrelevance insofar as they differed. As a consequence, the orthodox version of Islam’s origins became definitive only about three centuries after the events it described. Yet for many Muslims, history has turned into an aspect of faith rather than a subject for debate—assumed insofar as it supports the conventional view, and sacrilegious if it seems somehow to undermine it.
Any account of this period therefore faces some serious problems. Not only is there little way to test the received version of events, but the hadiths themselves are contradictory. There is plenty on which the biographers agree, to be sure. No one has ever denied that Muhammad was tall, dark eyed, handsome, fragrant, lustrous, well mannered, soft-spoken, modest, firm of handshake, and purposeful of stride. But the uncertainties quickly multiply. Some hadiths state that he was prone to tears, while others insist that he had an easy smile. There are claims that he once envisioned hell to be full of females, and many others that depict him not just comfortable with but delighted by the company of intelligent and opinionated women. He was a man of unyielding rigor, say some, but he is also supposed to have laughed when told that an arrested drunk had staggered free from a flogging, and to have counseled followers against further action. The truth must lie somewhere, but all that can be said for sure is that the descriptions frequently say more about the describers than they could possibly reveal about Muhammad himself.
A coherent picture does emerge out of the early biographies, however, and it portrays someone who was both resourceful and remarkable. Born after the death of his father, Muhammad lost both his mother and his grandfather during childhood and grew up in the household of an uncle named Abu Talib. Though orphaned and illiterate, he married well and built up a successful trading partnership with Khadija, and his acumen was impressive enough for his fellow Quraish to ask him at one point to arbitrate a dispute over management of the Ka‘ba. And even during the first quiet years of his mission, he won supporters. Khadija quickly accepted that her husband was a messenger of God, and though Abu Talib would never acknowledge Muhammad’s prophethood, his ten-year-old son, Ali, pledged his allegiance. Slaves and social outcasts also trickled to the cause, along with a prosperous merchant named Abu Bakr. Precisely what Muhammad was divulging at this early stage is not known, but he was clearly already inspirational.
Three years after first making contact, God told Muhammad that the time had come to spread the word more generally. With some trepidation, he duly informed his fellow Meccans that he was a prophet—the last in a line that ran via Jesus and Moses all the way back to Adam. Then, more boldly, he revealed that al-lah had neither companions nor daughters. The Quraish were blindly following their ancestors, he declared, “even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance,” and their activities at the Ka‘ba were fundamentally misdirected. They should pray twice daily toward Jerusalem instead and seek peace through submission to the divine—a state encapsulated by the Arabic word islam. Only then would they begin to appreciate God’s true nature: a spiritual presence “nearer to [man] than his jugular vein.”
Although no one would ever doubt Muhammad’s eloquence, early reactions were unpromising. Rumors rapidly spread that he had fallen under the spell of a jinn or poetic inspiration (maladies then considered much the same thing), and the first response of Mecca’s pagans was to offer Muhammad the best medical treatment that money could buy. But he had found his voice, and it was assuming ever greater urgency. Whereas Meccans seem to have believed that life after death differed little from life before it, Muhammad began to warn that a great reckoning awaited everyone and that earthly deeds carried eternal consequences. In his telling, God was about to snuff out His stars and set seas boiling, and as creation shuddered to a close, trumpet blasts were going to wake all the dead there had ever been. There would then be a time at which commendable deeds would be weighed against sins—the final Hour (al sa‘a)—and all the signs suggested that Meccans were in line for scorching winds, molten brass, and unquenchable hellfire.
The apocalyptic vision was informed by solid moral arguments. The world into which Muhammad had been born was so stratified that clans did not even intermarry, while women were chattels and slaves bore a shameful status that lasted through generations. Vengeance was as valued as mercy was considered weak, and though the Meccans venerated three goddesses, the birth of an actual girl was so inauspicious that custom allowed for female infanticide. Against that backdrop, Muhammad had begun to claim that his followers were morally equal, regardless of sex or social standing, and to teach that clemency was no flaw but a virtue—so much so that compassion (al-rahman) and mercy (al-rahim) were the first of God’s many names. The killing of a single person was meanwhile tantamount to the murder of all humanity, and at the Hour of Judgment every baby girl ever slaughtered in Mecca would indict her parents from her grave. But there was hope. Penitents might yet spend an eternal afterlife in cool gardens of endless delight.
The attitudes of many Meccans hardened to match. Muhammad’s supposed revelations were a mishmash of Jewish and Christian fables, jeered the Quraish. If he was a real prophet, why did he not produce some concrete evidence—a miracle, perhaps, or a public appearance alongside the angel that he talked so much about? Muhammad responded by challenging the naysayers to come up with some verses of their own, if divine inspiration was that easy to fake. He brushed aside charges of inconsistency with the disclosure that God sometimes supplemented His revelations with better ones, and he scorned the demand for miracles. Specific circumstances had required Moses to part the seas and Jesus to raise the dead, but Muhammad’s task was to transmit God’s final message to humanity—and was that not the greatest wonder of them all?
Many prominent Meccans thought not, and envoys were soon pressing Abu Talib to silence his irksome nephew as a matter of urgency. But though the older man advised Muhammad in private to tone down the revelations, he publicly let it be known that no one could harm his relative without risking retaliation from his household. It was an honorable stand, but its limits were also becoming clear. As conversions grew more frequent, Meccans took to torturing suspect slaves and beating up anyone who was caught trying to pray. Abu Bakr had his beard tugged, and Muhammad himself had the bloody uterus of a sheep hurled at him as he once prostrated. When a group of Muslims fled for Abyssinia, where the Christian king had offered them asylum, the pressure only intensified on those who remained. And crisis then turned to catastrophe—when, in 619, Abu Talib and Khadija both died.
The loss left Muhammad vulnerable as never before. In a hierarchical community where identities were defined by social connections, Muhammad had lost the two people closest to him. It was hard to see how he could recover his position in Mecca, and then, as if by a miracle, the possibility of powerful new allies elsewhere presented itself. As the annual pilgrimage to the Ka‘ba proceeded during the summer of 620, six visitors from Yathrib, an oasis situated some two hundred miles to the north, sought a meeting with Muhammad. Having been told by Jewish neighbors that an Arab prophet was long overdue, they were curious to see whether he might be one—and they carried back so favorable a report that many more Yathribis attended the following year’s pilgrimage. At a clandestine gathering alongside his own followers in the desert, Muhammad then divulged a momentous revelation. It had long been known that God expected believers to exert themselves—to do jihad—but Muhammad disclosed that spiritual exertions could include the use of force against anyone who opposed the revelations he was transmitting. In the words of an eighth-century biographer:
The apostle had not been given permission to fight or to shed blood before [then]. He had simply been ordered to call men to God and to endure insult and forgive the ignorant … [But now God] gave permission to His apostle to fight and to protect himself against those who wronged [his followers] and treated them badly.
It was the first sign of a phenomenon that would one day inspire fateful ideas about the legal interpretation of divine rules—God’s capacity to adjust His revelations—and its practical impact was immediate. On Muhammad’s instructions, Muslims began filtering north toward Yathrib. His enemies in Mecca, faced with a local difficulty that was turning regional, simultaneously resolved to terminate the problem at its source. A gathering of clans decided that the prophet in their midst should be murdered, and every family present agreed to assume a share of the blood guilt by contributing a killer to the death squad. But it was too late. After reportedly receiving a tip-off from the angel Gabriel, Muhammad made good his escape through a window, reconnoitered with Abu Bakr, and set off for Yathrib. Both men sheltered together in a cave for three days and then made their way to their destination, which consequently became known as al-madinat al-nabi (City of the Prophet)—or, more simply, Medina.
The Prophet’s emigration (hijra) in September 622 is the seminal moment of Islamic history. It marks the first year of the Muslim calendar, and like Paul Revere’s ride or the retreat from Dunkirk it has come to be seen as a portent of triumph rather than a sign of desperation. The righteous exile (muhajir) is a figure of Islamic folklore, and countless Muslim revolutionaries with pretensions to holiness have made sure to abandon their homelands during the course of their struggles. Many have gone all the way and spent time loitering around caves—among them Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose post-9/11 publicity material often seemed deliberately to invite comparisons to the travails of the Prophet. But though emulation of the hijra was long ago ritualized, it gained its significance in 622 for a very practical reason. An earlier era of wicked ignorance, known to Muslims as the jahiliyya, was dispelled forever as they became able for the first time to follow the path toward salvation that God was laying down—the shari‘a.
The notion of an absolute break with the past is as easily overstated as that summary suggests. Cultural continuities were legion. To take just one illustration, Arabs would transform their ancestors’ practice of circumcision into a religious duty, notwithstanding the absence of any revelation in its support.* An even more specifically pagan Meccan custom—clitoridectomy—has been so tenacious that some Muslims imagine to this day that it was commanded by God. And yet the move to Medina was undeniably momentous, for Islam now metamorphosed from a private faith to a public religion. The process reportedly began at the very moment of the Prophet’s arrival. Allowing his camel to choose an auspicious place to kneel, he, along with several followers, is said then and there to have constructed a mosque, and when the last palm frond had been set in place, he turned his attention to the practicalities of prayer. After contemplating whether to summon the faithful with a ram’s horn, like the Jews, or a nakus—the xylophone-like instrument used by Arab Christians—he settled on the unadorned human voice. Stentorian affirmations of God’s greatness, chanted by a freed black slave named Bilal, were soon drifting over the rooftops of Medina. As the duty of submission was broadcast, it also grew more onerous. The custom of fasting during Ramadan was turned into a solemn obligation. By way of another amendment to earlier revelations, Muhammad also revealed that God was requiring followers to increase their daily prostrations from two to three. The number would soon be upped again, to five.
Each step marked out the shari‘a a little more clearly, forging the core of a cultural identity that has remained sturdy for almost fourteen hundred years, and the elaborations of worship were complemented by reforms on a wider front. The changes have to be identified and inferred from later sources, but the record points to a genuinely radical program. Provisions in the Qur’an show that Muhammad frequently warned against economic injustice and established the basis for a welfare state: an alms tax (zakat) and inheritance rules that automatically granted a deceased Muslim’s next of kin a share in his or her estate. Women did not gain equality, but courts came to recognize that they could annul unhappy marriages and go before a judge to vindicate their property rights. As faith in God replaced clan allegiances, a relatively egalitarian outlook also made headway. Muslims remained eligible to hold slaves—as did Christians, Jews, and every other people known to seventh-century history—but believers were forbidden to own each other, and Muhammad repeatedly made clear that emancipation was among the most meritorious acts that anyone could undertake.
The criminal justice provisions instituted at this time, as reflected in the text of the Qur’an, were straightforward enough. God required humanity to punish four sins, known as haddood (sing. hadd). Theft was said to merit amputation of the right hand, fornication earned a hundred lashes, and falsely accusing someone of the same offense was punishable by eighty strokes. The gravest crime, the “waging of war against Islam or spreading of disorder in the land,” was attended by an entire battery of punitive possibilities: exile, double amputation, suspension from a cross, and decapitation. In the case of other acts of violence, a victim or the next of kin was formally authorized to retaliate, pursuant to a passage of the Torah that was reiterated by the Qur’an—“a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and, for wounds, punishment.” Two additional measures that were not mentioned in the holy book also seem to have been credited to God. The first was a fixed number of lashes, either forty or eighty, for intoxication. The second prescribed that people who had sex outside wedlock, having at some time in their lives been married, should be stoned to death.
The punishments look distinctly premodern from a twenty-first-century perspective, but it would take either naivete or ill will to characterize them in terms worse than that. Corporal punishments were a feature of the age, while crucifixion owed its popularity in the Middle East to centuries of Persian and Roman practice—and among Muslims, at least in later years, it was intended to be a nonfatal means of humiliation rather than a method of execution. Torture, which was routine under the Christianized Roman law of Byzantium, found no place in the Qur’an. And the holy book was suffused with more general concepts of mercy. Repentance was often reason enough to exclude punishment for a hadd. Where the offense gave someone else a right to seek vengeance, retaliation was limited by the scale of the original crime, and victims were urged to accept compensation or exercise mercy instead. The rules, for all their rigor, also reflected the ancient notion that responsibility was a matter of honor, and less was expected of those lower down the social pecking order: someone who had unlawful sex having never before been married was subject to lashing rather than stoning, and the number of strokes inflicted for adultery and intoxication was halved if the convict was a slave. The most striking fact of them all was the one that today is most likely to be overlooked: physical punishment was authorized just five times in the entire Qur’an.
The system’s relative leniency is paradoxically illustrated by its harshest prescription: the stoning to death of a married or divorced person who had sex outside wedlock. The penalty itself had been known since at least 2350 B.C.E., when a king of Mesopotamia stipulated in the world’s oldest known laws that promiscuous women should be executed with rocks bearing their names, and the Israelites notoriously adopted the punishment to kill adulterers—as well as blasphemers, witches, wizards, and disobedient sons. Islamic procedures were novel only insofar as they made it far harder to impose. In order for fornication (zina) to be proved against a defendant who denied guilt, four witnesses had to attest to the actual act of penetration—in explicit terms—and the evidential hurdle was as challenging as it sounds. The first written attempt to clarify what it entailed (published about one and a half centuries after the Qur’an’s revelation) records that a Muslim once asked Muhammad incredulously whether someone who caught his wife having intercourse was supposed to round up four men to watch. “Yes” was the Prophet’s categorical answer.
The actual operation of the system emerges in greatest detail from a story that is still taught to all students of Islamic criminal law. It concerns a young married man named Ma‘iz ibn Malik, who is said to have presented himself to the Prophet and declared that he had a confession to make. He was a fornicator. Muhammad reportedly refused to acknowledge the admission and turned away, whereupon Ma‘iz repeated himself—three times. The Prophet wondered aloud if Ma‘iz might be insane and had his breath smelled for signs of intoxication before tentatively inviting the youth to consider if he might simply have kissed or touched the girl. Ma‘iz was adamant that matters had gone further. According to a hadith that has always been held in high scholarly estimation, the Prophet’s inquiries then grew even more searching. In the words of a twentieth-century Islamic criminal law textbook (expurgated here, but not there):
Calling a spade a spade, [the Prophet asked,] “Did you ___* her?” [Ma‘iz] said “Yes.” He asked, “Like the kohl stick disappears into the kohl container and the bucket into the well?” He answered, “Yes.” Then he asked, “Do you know what zina means?” He said, “Yes, I did with her unlawfully what a man does with his wife lawfully.” Then the Prophet said, “What do you intend with these words?” He answered, “That you purify me.” Then he ordered him to be stoned.
The tale of Ma‘iz is hard to forget once heard, and whatever anxieties might have prompted his longing for purification, the story of his trial operates as something of a religious Rorschach test. Pious Muslims see only extraordinary restraint on the Prophet’s part, and they often point out additional signs of his mercy: the fact that he made no attempt to track down the woman concerned, for example. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who focus on nothing but the outcome. But a single perspective on a controversial event never makes for balance, and as soon as other hadiths are taken into account, a subtler picture begins to emerge. One of them states that the execution divided Muslims into two camps, and another has Muhammad asking the killers of Ma‘iz: “Why did you not leave him alone? He might have repented and been forgiven by God.” At least two more suggest that Ma‘iz’s real offense was not illicit sex but indiscretion. One contemporary was heard to ruminate many years later that the young man had been punished only because he insisted so publicly on his guilt. A second recalled that Muhammad once rounded on several followers who were ridiculing Ma‘iz for having been stupid enough to confess, telling them that they would be better off eating carrion than speaking so dishonorably of the dead.
Such stories are a reminder that criminal justice in the seventh century was underpinned by forces considerably more complex than compulsion. Although the Qur’an acknowledges a need to shame criminals in verses that speak of crucifixion as a “disgrace” and amputation as “exemplary,” its emphasis on repentance sought throughout to touch a wrongdoer’s conscience. It was only when an individual showed an unequivocal refusal to conform that punishment became inevitable, and that was why Ma‘iz was killed. In the confines of a desert community, someone who insisted that he had had penetrative sex with someone else’s wife, daughter, or slave was trouble personified. There would have been just as great a crisis had four men sworn before God that they had seen penetration taking place. It was not the gravity of the crime so much as the willingness to vocalize an accusation that made remedial action essential. If catharsis was to clear the air in such circumstances, the community needed a victim as much as it needed a verdict. Witnesses and neighbors constituted themselves into a kind of premodern firing squad—reconsecrating the community with blood, at a time when tensions might otherwise have pulled it apart.
There is one more story that, in a very different way, shows how context is essential to make sense of the Qur’an’s criminal justice provisions. It involves the offense of sexual slander—and the Prophet himself. As revelations proliferated in Medina, Muhammad received several that addressed his personal circumstances, and after being told that Muslim men could have up to four wives at a time, he learned that God was waiving the limits in his own case. Almost all of the dozen or so women he subsequently married were widows, but there was one exception—a young daughter of Abu Bakr’s named A’isha*—and the Prophet’s relationship with her was intense and, at one point, almost cataclysmic. That point came following a raid, when she accidentally fell behind. It was common at the time for women to accompany their menfolk on raiding parties, but what followed was far from normal. The teenager rode home on a camel belonging to one of the Prophet’s young companions, and though she was demurely mounted and he was on foot when they reentered Medina, rumors of cuckoldry were soon rife. As if that were not enough, allegiances divided down a line that ran straight through the Prophet’s household. On one side stood Abu Bakr, publicly defending the honor of his furious, tearful daughter. In the opposing camp was Ali, by now married to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, who tacitly advised his older cousin to contemplate divorce. Worst of all, the revelations simply ceased. The Prophet, facing a seismic split in his home, a scandal outside it, and a total silence from God, was left simply to persevere—until, at last, his faith was justified. One cold day, followers noticed with surprise that sweat was forming on his forehead. The long-anticipated communication then came through. A’isha, it turned out, was innocent. The fault lay with the gossipmongers, and slanderers who falsely alleged unchastity against women would henceforth merit a punishment of eighty lashes.
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As the Affair of the Lie illustrates, Muhammad was inherently well positioned to tackle any crisis that might come his way, and his status as God’s messenger was complemented in Medina by the emergence of great leadership skills. Armed hostilities against the Quraish began in earnest in March 624, when the Prophet led some three hundred men to victory against a Meccan force three times that size at a valley called Badr. As his followers began to feel their strength, the Muslim community also began to distance itself from Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad had originally expressed considerable admiration for both, acknowledging their followers to be fellow “Peoples of the Book,” but he now disclosed that they had been seriously misinterpreting the books concerned. At a series of debates, he informed Christians that the prophet Jesus was neither God’s son nor part of a holy trinity nor even the victim of a true crucifixion: God had in fact swept him off the cross and substituted a doppelgänger in his place. There was an even more dramatic deterioration of relations with Medina’s substantial Jewish population, and one of the spats, as reported by the eighth-century writer Ibn Ishaq, has an acrimony that still all but rises off the page. A group of Jews are said to have approached the Prophet with a question. “Now, Muhammad,” they asked. “God created creation, but who created God?” They followed up with an inquiry about the divine physiognomy. “Describe His shape to us, Muhammad; His forearm and His upper arm, what are they like?” Soothing words from the angel Gabriel enabled the Prophet to contain his anger, and a revelation soon confirmed that God was entire of Himself, with a right hand mighty enough to grasp both heaven and earth. But it was a turning point—literally. After one and a half years of uneasy coexistence, Muhammad instructed his followers to cease praying in the direction of Jerusalem and to realign their prostrations toward the Ka‘ba. In physical terms, that involved a 180-degree rotation. In theological ones, it was closer to a revolution.
As the rivalry sharpened, the potential for violence mounted, and another incident from this time demonstrates just how tense the situation had become. Muslim women were beginning to wear veils in increasing numbers, because God had recently required them of the Prophet’s wives, and a group of Jews supposedly tried to uncover someone’s face when she arrived at their market with goods to sell. A prankster then hitched her dress to her back as she squatted on the ground, and after she stood up to reveal considerably more than her face, a retaliatory murder escalated into a melee, which was followed by a full-scale assault by Muslim forces. Although relations remained fluid enough for another Jewish clan then to fight alongside Muslims at a battle on the slopes of Mount Uhud in March 625, communal relations worsened when the joint army went down to a shocking defeat, and several other Jewish settlements were soon being targeted by Muslim forces. Never was that more true than in 627, when one such force killed some seven hundred men from the hostile Qurayza clan—notwithstanding that they had capitulated and given up their weapons.
At the cost of stating the very obvious, troubles between Muslims and Jews did not end there, but the Quraish were still very much the main enemy. Muhammad’s followers were steadily gaining in both strength and confidence, however, and that conflict finally came to an end in 632, with the unconditional surrender of the Meccans. As Muhammad returned in triumph to his birthplace, the keys of the Ka‘ba were placed in his hand, and followers took pickaxes and sledgehammers to its 360 leaden effigies. And though the Prophet had previously revealed that there should be “no compulsion in religion,” God now spoke again. Most Meccans were given one last opportunity to submit, but scores were settled against several supposedly incorrigible enemies, and a new revelation informed Muslims that polytheists now had just four months to see the error of their ways. Once that period was passed, Muslims would be divinely obliged to “fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them. Seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them [unless they repent].” As emissaries set out to warn pagans across the Hijaz, Muhammad delivered a valedictory sermon and led his followers on the first exclusively Muslim pilgrimage (hajj) to the Ka‘ba. The fifth pillar of Islam was thereby set in place—complementing the avowal of faith, prayers, almsgiving, and Ramadan fasts—and after years of conflict the faith looked at last to be secure. And then, with suitably fateful timing, Muhammad died.
The death of a man in his early sixties might ordinarily be considered merely unfortunate, but the demise of the Prophet threatened catastrophe. The Muslim community, in the flush of its extraordinary victory, was suddenly confronted with the prospect of oblivion. Before his body was even in the grave, Medina’s two most powerful clans began squaring up against each other, while Muhammad’s Meccan followers frantically maneuvered to stake succession claims of their own. A people united by Muhammad’s charisma was spinning apart, and at least some of them took the turn of events very hard indeed. One of the Prophet’s earliest and most passionate followers, Umar ibn al-Khattab, simply refused to accept that he had gone, and threatened to dismember anyone who denied his imminent resurrection. Only when Abu Bakr gently reminded him that Islam involved submission to God, not a man, did he acknowledge the truth. “My legs would not bear me,” he later recalled. “I fell to the ground knowing that the apostle was indeed dead.”
There are two versions of what came next. The account accepted by most Muslims records that the Prophet had said nothing about who should succeed him and acknowledges that his followers briefly floundered. It claims that Umar recovered his composure, however, and defused the crisis by boldly acclaiming Abu Bakr as God’s vice-regent (khalifa, or caliph). The second account did not just differ. It dissented and undermined both men’s authority from the very outset. It claimed that Muhammad had appointed a successor—his cousin and son-in-law Ali—and that Abu Bakr and Umar had flagrantly disregarded his wishes by capturing the caliphate while Ali was preparing his relative’s body for burial.
The conflict would have profound consequences. It reflected the same familial tensions that were apparent during the Affair of the Lie—the crisis surrounding infidelity allegations against Muhammad’s young wife A’isha—and it institutionalized them. A’isha’s resentment against Ali hardened as the man who had failed to defend her honor implicitly challenged her father’s right to rule. Abu Bakr, meanwhile, alienated Ali’s wife and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, by ruling against her right to inherit property from her father, a decision which so angered her that she never spoke to him again. And though such controversies might seem from a distance to have little connection with religion, they resonated with spiritual meaning among early Muslims. Ali’s supporters came to argue not just that he should be caliph but that the Prophet had wanted leadership of the community to remain forever within his family. Their drift from the mainstream would continue for centuries, and Ali’s loyalists—the Alids—would eventually coalesce into the faction (shi‘a) that accounts today for around one in ten of all Muslims. And the conflict’s impact on understandings of the shari‘a was destined to be equally significant. Legal theorizing remained more than a century away, but rival claims about the Prophet’s views had begun to take root from the moment of his death.
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It is ordinarily natural to think that fourteen-hundred-year-old arguments belong in the past, but few assumptions are less valid when it comes to Islamic history. I was reminded of that in May 2009 when, in the Iranian town of Esfahan with a couple of hours to kill, I gate-crashed one of its venerable seminaries. After mumbling my way past the doorman, I entered a lush courtyard, its ancient cypresses towering over a riot of rosebushes, and settled into an alcove to read a book. An alert pupil soon guessed that I did not belong, but he seemed delighted to have found a chance to practice his English. I was equally happy to natter, but the small talk ended suddenly when he learned I was researching a book about the shari‘a. The disputation skills of a Shi‘a seminarian kicked in, and we quickly hurtled back to the seventh century as theological booby traps sprang up all around. If I was writing a history of Islamic law, he observed with a crocodile smile, I obviously knew the identity of the first legitimate caliph—so was it Ali or Abu Bakr? What was my view about the legality of Abu Bakr’s willingness to disinherit the Prophet’s own daughter? As a teenager, A’isha would clearly have been unbalanced by her husband’s death, and how, in my opinion, did that affect any claims about the shari‘a she may have made?
It was a good hour before my new friend sensed how much more he was enjoying the conversation than I was. But though the end of my cross-examination came as a great relief, I was also left marveling at the energy with which he had fought his corner—or at least shadowboxed in it. I knew from books that the Shi‘a considered themselves historical victims, but I had never before experienced the underdoggery at such close range. Convinced that the world had always been out to tell lies about those loyal to Ali, the seminarian was determined to set the record straight. History to him was the opposite of the cynical cliché: it was not just one damned thing after another but an unfolding cosmic drama, redolent with meaning and pregnant with the possibility of salvation.
A belief that God’s wonders are worked out over time can easily produce rigid views and ossified approaches to the present, of course. But over the centuries, countless pious Muslims have subjected received wisdom to scrutiny with a view to clarifying their faith. Although my seminarian friend would not have appreciated the thought, A’isha herself personifies that critical spirit, with a reputation that has survived the fug of centuries and the filter of many men’s pens. A well-known story records her contempt when, after Muhammad’s death, some of his companions attempted to dignify as divine their belief that women were intrinsically unclean. “You equate us with dogs and donkeys!” she snapped. “But the Prophet would pray while I lay in front of him on the bed.” Early Muslims displayed no less honesty when they memorialized her words. Ibn Sa‘d and al-Bukhari, whose ninth-century writings helped form the bedrock for more than a thousand years of religious scholarship, had no apparent compunctions about recording her reaction, for example, to a disclosure by Muhammad that God had just extended his unique marital privileges. “I feel,” she told him, “that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”
With the Prophet’s death in 632, the community of his followers was faced with a set of crucial choices about its attitude toward the past. The Muslim community had lost its direct access to divine revelations, and unequivocally earthly problems called for immediate responses. Muhammad’s rule over Medina had been an example of the shari‘a in action—of that there could be no doubt—but there were no permanent written records from the time. And what it entailed for the future was anyone’s guess. God would doubtless guide believers, but that assumption was destined forever to remain in the realm of faith. The rest is history.
Copyright © 2012 by Sadakat Kadri