Monday, March 18, 2013

Muhammad and the Qur'an

In the year 610 of the Christian calendar, Muhammad received the first revelations during the night while on Mount Hira (Ramadan/March 26-27).  This night came to be known as AThe Night of Destiny@ (layla al-qadar) and is commemorated every year.  Muhammad=s revelations became the basis for the Qur=an, and the Qur=an came to be the collection of revelations that Muslims believe God vouchsafed to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel.  The Qur=an is one of the main sources of Islamic law, literature, and culture.  The Qur=an is also known as the AKoran@.
Muhammad seems to have followed the customs of his contemporaries, and, if some Western analyses of Qur=anic passages are to be relied on, he looked first to the religious traditions of his clan and tribe for answers to his spiritual quest.  Muhammad seems not to have been alone in this search.  Hadith tell of at least four other contemporaries of Muhammad who broke with polytheism and adopted a form of monotheism.  In addition, the presence of a thriving Jewish community along with several Christian denominations actively engaged in missionary efforts in and around Arabia was bound to have an effect on the religious climate.

Muhammad followed the custom of religious withdrawal and devotion for a month every year.  This custom may have been influenced by Christian practices, but it is said to have been the practice of the Quraysh before the rise of Islam.  It was during one of these devotional retreats on Hira, a mountain near Mecca, that Muhammad had his first religious experience.   Opinions differ about which Sura represents the first revelation, a minority giving Sura 74 that position, and the rest holding that Sura 96:1-5 was the first.  In any event, the revelations came on Muhammad suddenly and frightened him.  Muhammad even contemplated suicide so as not to be thought a kahin B an ecstatic seer or lunatic B an epithet which would later be lodged against him by his detractors.
Muhammad was dissuaded from the notion of self-delusion by a vision of a figure which has generally been identified as the Angel Gabriel.  Gabriel is believed to have been the bearer of God=s revelations to Muhammad.  The first of these revelations were generally in the form of inspiration -- wahy -- rather than visions.  Sometimes Muhammad would wrap himself in a cloak, possibly an inducement for the reception of revelation, but he was not in control or able to predict when revelations would come to him.  When they did come, Muhammad would undergo physical changes apparent to those around him, such as shaking and profuse sweating, even on cold days.  This led his detractors to charge that he had fits or epilepsy, a charge which persisted among Western writers for many centuries.
The first messages of the Qur=an emphasize Muhammad=s relationship to God, what he received from God, God=s goodness, and Muhammad=s obligations for that goodness.  Then, by extension, these messages were applied to the rest of the Quraysh and, ultimately, to all Arabs.  There is, however, no agreement about the order of the chapters and sections of the Qur=an, and many arguments about some aspect of Muhammad=s early spiritual life are based on arrangements of the pieces of the Qur=an to fit the argument. 

There is general agreement that Muhammad=s spiritual awareness began with the realization of his good fortune, partly through his participation in the Meccan trade and partly through his association with Khadija.  Allah is represented as being a good, giving God, Who created all people, Who provides for all of creation.  Human response to these actions of God should ideally be a sense of gratitude and humility, a recognition of the position of being a creature with respect to the creator and benefactor.  Unfortunately, humans are usually ungrateful.  Each is kafir, a term which came to mean Aunbeliever@ because of the denial of the obligations of Allah=s munificence.


Humans also have obligations to other people -- to God=s other creatures.  One should not oppress the weak, and should be generous with that which God has given.  Many see Muhammad=s early experiences in this social message.  There is more than just the responsibility of the individual.  God is seen as having given wealth to the tribe of Quraysh through their commercial activities, in return for which they are expected to give proper worship.  Failure to show gratitude was to invite calamity in this world, and the next.  Thus, Muhammad believed he was sent to remind his fellow humans of God=s gifts to them and their obligations.


These themes form the basis of the earliest message of Islam.  Muhammad, the warner, is made aware of what he had received from God, and is told of his obligations to God and to his fellow man.  These obligations apply to all Arabs who received God=s blessing.  Failure to heed the warnings would result in dire consequences on the Day of Judgment or even before.  While it is not explicitly stated that Muhammad believed his early mission had universal applicability, there is nothing in the early Qur=anic passages to prevent such an interpretation.




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