IN THE year 571, in Mecca, a boy was born in a humble household of the Quraysh. No one knows what name he was given. His father died before his birth and his mother when he was six. The orphan, boy now called Mohammed, was brought up by his grandfather. When his grandfather also died, he came into the care of his uncle, Abu Talib.
Nothing definite is known about his early life. As a boy, he may have tended sheep at the edge of the desert outside the city. When he was old enough to ride a camel, he probably traveled with caravans to Syria and Yemen. Later, he worked for a woman named Khadijah, the wealthy widow of two merchants. When he was twenty-five, he married her.
Khadijah, who was forty, was still quite beautiful and had a fine mind. Mohamed himself was a handsome young man with broad shoulders and a curly black beard. His speech was musical, rolling from his tongue with the rhythm of poetry. In spite of the difference in their ages, their marriage was a happy one. Most men in those days kept as many wives as they could afford, but Mohammed refused to take any wife but Khadijah as long as she lived.
Like most people of his time, Mohammed could not read or write. Even so, he was a thoughtful person, eager for knowledge. He listened to Jews and Christians tell about their beliefs and heard some of his pagan neighbours make fun of the gods their fathers had worshiped. Slowly he came to believe that there was really only one true God. He called him Allah, after Allah Taala, the Most High God of the Kaaba.
During his travels he had seen much that troubled him. The half-wild Bedouins drank too much wine and gambled away the few things they owned. The merchants of the towns often cheated and lied. As his belief in Allah grew, it seemed more and more clear to Mohammed that his pagan countrymen had been led away from goodness by their belief in false gods.
Now that he was married to a rich woman and no longer had to work for a living, Mohammed spent many hours by himself in a little cave outside Mecca, meditating and praying. Again and again he asked God to reveal himself to the Arabs, as he had to the Jews and the Christians. Suddenly, one night his prayers were answered. An angel seemed to stand before him, commanding him to speak out in the name of Allah. The vision faded, but when it appeared a second time he rushed home in terror. He threw himself down on his bed, begging Khadijah to cover him with a blanket. The moment she did he heard a voice cry: “0 thou, enwrapped in thy mantle, arise and warn!”
When Mohammed told his wife what he had seen and heard, she immediately believed in his mission and urged him to obey the angel’s command. He went out among his relatives and friends and told them about his revelations. So Mohammed became the prophet of Allah and in this simple way founded the religion he was to call Islam. “Islam” means “surrender” in Arabic and its full meaning as the name of Mohammed’s faith is “surrender to the Will of God.” Followers of Islam are called Moslems.
MOCKERY AND MISFORTUNE
The first divine messages Mohammed brought to his people were the same ones the Old Testament prophets had brought to the early Jews. There was only one God, the all-powerful creator of the universe, who would judge everyone for his sins. Mohammed also said that people who had obeyed God’s laws would go to heaven and those who had not would be punished in hell.
Mohammed won a small number of followers, including his cousin Ali and his friend Abu Bakr. He had no success with most of his Qurayshite kinsmen. The leaders of his tribe were outraged by his preaching. They realized that if the Arabs came to believe that the gods of the Kaaba were false as Mohammed said, they would stop making pilgrimages to Mecca and the Qurayshite fortunes would suffer. They tried to silence Mohammed by making fun of him. When more and more slaves and poor people joined the movement, they grew worried and they made it a crime to be a Moslem.
To save his followers from being tortured, Mohammed had to send them away from Mecca. His band of believers became smaller and smaller. Then other misfortunes came his way. In one year, 619, Khadijah and his foster father Abu Talib both died. As the head of Mohammed’s clan, Abu Talib had protected him from the Quraysh leaders, but the man who took his place hated Mohammed and his teachings. Even so, the prophet kept on preaching. His faith became stronger each time he heard a voice giving him a new message from Allah. He now believed that the voice, which was always the same one he had heard in the cave, was that of the angel Gabriel.
One day in 620, at the Mecca fair, Mohammed preached to a group of pilgrims from Medina and won them over to Islam. The next year they came back, bringing more converts. They invited him to come and live with them. After thinking it over, he accepted. Throughout the summer of 622, about two hundred of his followers slipped out of Mecca a few at a time, to travel north to Medina. In the fall, Mohammed and Abu Bakr joined them there.
This migration was called the Hegira — the Arabic word for “flight.” It was later considered such an important event that it was made the official start of the Moslem era. Just as Christians reckon years from Christ’s birth, Moslems reckon years from the Hegira. The move to Medina also marked a great change in Mohammed‘s life. Although he continued to preach, he became more and more a man of action and a political leader.
As soon as he was settled in his new home, Mohammed sought out the leaders of Medina’s Jewish community and tried to convert them to his faith. There was a good reason why he went to the Jews first. He had learned much from Jews in Mecca. He had taken over a number of their beliefs and Islam and Judaism were alike in many ways. Mohammed knew that there were also sharp differences between the two religions. If he could only convince the Jews of their errors, he thought, he could easily persuade them to become Moslems.
The Jews refused to be converted. Jewish scholars pointed out the mistakes he had made by failing to understand the Old Testament as well as they did. He was the one who was wrong, they said, not they. Angered, Mohammed turned away from the Jews and preached to the pagans instead.
With the pagans, he was more successful. He settled a bloody feud between the city’s two main Arab tribes, and persuaded all of their clans to come together under the protection of Allah. Many of his old followers from Mecca, now in Medina, were homeless and hungry. To get them the things they needed, Mohammed turned highwayman. He led three hundred men to a place called Badr to wait for a rich caravan that was to pass by. Abu Sufyan‚ the leader of the caravan and head of the powerful Omayyah clan of the Quraysh, learned of Mohammed’s scheme. He sent to Mecca for reinforcements, and his men outnumbered the prophet’s three to one. The Moslems‚ however, attacked with such fury that they killed dozens of Abu Sufyan’s men and put the rest to flight.
This so-called Battle of Badr was not very important compared to the great battles that were to come. Nevertheless, it set the pattern for them. Islam had won its first victory in the field, leaving Mohammed the undisputed master of Medina.
Allah did not automatically grant his followers victory. A year after the fight at Badr, Abu Sufyan, with an army of Meccans, badly defeated the Moslems and wounded Mohammed. The defeat taught Mohammed the need for tighter discipline. To keep his men always ready to fight, he forbade them to drink wine. This order became a rule of the religion and since that time no strict Moslem drinks wine or liquor.
In 627, Abu Sufyan advanced on Medina with ten thousand Qurayshites and Bedouins. At the suggestion of a Persian follower, Mohammed had his men dig a trench along the city’s open side. The trench, which had never before been used in warfare in Arabia, prevented the Bedouins from making cavalry charges. They considered this unfair and went home in disgust. The Qurayshites, when their horses and camels began to sicken for lack of water and food, finally went home, too.
The Jews of Medina had either sided with Mohammed’s enemies or had been half-hearted in helping to defend the city. Now Mohammed took his revenge. He ordered 600 able-bodied Jews slaughtered. All the other Jewish men were exiled from Medina and their women and children sold as slaves. Their date plantations were taken over and Mohammed himself divided the land among his followers.
At about that time, he gave up hope of ever working out a compromise with Judaism or Christianity. Instead of Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, or Sunday, the Christian one, be made Friday the Moslem day of worship. He decided that Moslems should be called to prayer by the voice of a man instead of by the trumpets and gongs used by the Jews or the big wooden clappers used by the Christians. At first, the caller stood on the top of the highest building in the neighborhood. Later, as Islam grew, the Arabs began building towers, or minarets‚ as part of each mosque. He told his followers to face Mecca rather than Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews and Christians, when they said their prayers.
“FALSEHOOD HAS VANISHED!”
Mecca was holy to Mohammed for the same reason it was to the pagans: it was the site of the Kaaba. In his view, the Kaaba had been made unclean by generations of idol-worship. It would have to be purified and to do this, he would first have to capture the holy city.
Under his leadership, the Moslems continued to raid caravans, enriching themselves and weakening their enemies, the Meccan merchants. Soon he was able to make the Quraysh leaders accept a treaty of peace. The Bedouins from the area around Medina joined his ranks. Year by year, the number of Moslems who swarmed into Mecca during the holy truce grew larger, but the city was still in pagan hands.
At last a skirmish between an armed band of Meccans and some Moslem Bedouins gave Mohammed an excuse to break his peace with the Quraysh leaders. In 630, in the month of Ramadan — which Mohammed had already proclaimed a holy month — he set forth from Medina at the head of ten thousand men, all carrying swords or spears. As the procession slowly moved south by one of the main caravan routes, Meccans of all classes came out to join it. Even lslam’s arch-enemy Abu Sufyan turned up and became a Moslem then and there. The outnumbered Meccan garrison could not hope to throw back such a mighty army. After a brief battle, the city fell to the man who had fled from it eight years before.
When he arrived at the Kaaba, Mohammad shouted‚ “Truth has come and falsehood has vanished!” Following an old pagan custom, he rode around it seven times, each time touching the Black Stone with his staff. Then, however, he commanded his followers to smash every one of the idols inside. From this time on the sanctuary was to be sacred only to Allah.
Although he dealt severely with the false gods, he showed mercy toward their worshippers, the people of his native city. Another conqueror might have had them all killed. Some Moslems from Medina were hoping Mohammed would do so, but he ordered only a few Meccans put to death, including two women who had sung jeering songs about him.
Now that he held Mecca, Mohammed only needed to capture the city of Taif to control all of the Hejaz. This he did later in the same year and the new Islamic state began to grow. In the north, Moslem agents brought several Christian and Jewish oases under the protection of Islam peacefully, in return for payments of money. Throughout the year 9 A. D. — that is, AD. 631 — delegates came to Medina from the farthest corners of the peninsula to offer the allegiance of their tribes. No foreign invader, not even the mighty Roman Empire, had ever managed to tame Arabia‘s warlike tribes; yet they now seemed eager to be ruled by one man, the prophet-prince Mohammed.
THE DEATH OF MOHAMMED
The following year, in March, Mohammed again led the annual procession into Mecca. This visit is called the farewell pilgrimage, for three months after his return to Medina he fell sick and died, probably of malaria, on June 8, 632.
To the end of his days Mohammed lived simply, in an ordinary clay house much like the one in which he had lived as a boy. An orphan himself, he preached and practiced kindness toward the poor, the weak and the unprotected. Altogether he had about a dozen wives, his favourite being Aisha, the pretty, young daughter of his lifelong companion Abu Bakr. Except for Mary, a Christian, whose baby boy died before it was a year old only Khadijah bore him children. The only one of his children to outlive him was Fatima, the bride of his cousin and early convert Ali.