Monday, March 18, 2013


Muhammad (c.570-632) was the founder of Islam.  His name means Aone praised@.

Muhammad was born in Mecca into an impoverished clan of the dominant tribe, the Quraish.  The record of his life and prophetic activity is found in the Qur=an and in various posthumous traditions, including the hadith, which became authoritative for Islamic law.  Muhammad=s actions and sayings are the paradigm for proper Muslim behavior.  Muhammad is held to be the Seal of the Prophets, the last in the line of prophets which began with Adam.  The message of Muhammad -- the Qur=an -- is regarded as Allah=s final revelation to mankind. 
Little is known about Muhammad=s birth and early life.  Traditions place the year of his birth around 570 of the Christian calendar, which is called the Year of the Elephant after the Ethiopian general Abraha=s unsuccessful attempt to capture Mecca by an army equipped with a war elephant.  In reality, that event must have taken place some time earlier, and it can be shown that the description of it in early Qur=an commentary and in the first complete biography of Muhammad, the Sira of Ibn Ishaq, was meant to portray Mecca as the new Jerusalem by paralleling the event with Sennacherib=s siege of Jerusalem.
The biographical hadith also depict other miracles at the time of Muhammad=s birth, such as an annunciation, but these are late and are not necessary for Muslim belief.  What is certain is that Muhammad was orphaned, his father, >Abdullah, having died while his mother, Amina, was pregnant, and his mother having died shortly after his birth.  Muhammad=s uncle, Abu Talib, who is represented favorably in hadith, became Muhammad=s guardian.  The Sira reports that Muhammad was put out for fosterage among the bedouin tribe of the abna=a Sa=d ibn Bakr, and a hadith  attributed to Muhammad has him claim that he was the most Arab of all because of his descent from the Quraysh and his suckling among the abna=a Sa=d ibn Bakr.  The story of the opening of Muhammad=s breast and the weighing and cleansing of his heart is associated with this tradition and reflects later apologetic interpretations of Sura 94.
Sura 93 summarizes Muhammad=s youth and the transition from poverty to prosperity and ease: ADid {God} not find you as an orphan and give you a home, and find you in error and rightly guided you, and find you impoverished and make you rich?@  This remembrance is presented in the Qur=an as the basis for Muhammad=s relationship to God and his fellow man, just as Sura 106 enjoins the Quraysh to worship God for what God had given them. 

Part of Muhammad=s material success can be attributed to his association at first commercially and then in marriage with the rich widow Khadija.  Khadija was related to the Christian scholar Waraqa ibn Nawfal, but it is not clear whether she or her family provided any religious inspiration or instruction for Muhammad.  Khadija did, however, give Muhammad social standing and personal support during the initial crises of his religious experiences, and she was the mother of all his children except Ibrahim.  Khadija bore Muhammad three sons (who along with Ibrahim died in infancy) and four daughters: Zaynab, Ruqayya, >Umm Kulthum, and Fatima.  It was after Muhammad=s marriage to Khadija that hadith credit Muhammad with a central role in the rebuilding of the Ka=ba.
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 men 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 is the first.  In any event, the experience came on Muhammad suddenly and frightened him.  Muhammad even contemplated suicide so as not to be thought a kahin -- an ecstatic seer or lunatic -- 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 the 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 whcih they are expected to give proper worship.  Failure to show gratitude was to invite calamity in this world and the next: ANay, but verily man is rebellious that he thinketh himself independent!  Lo! Unto thy Lord is the return.@  This was the return at the Day of Judgment, described in Sura 84 with images of heaven splitting, the earth being spread out, and the sinner being thrown into scorching fire.  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.
A careful reading of the Qur=an and the hadith indicates that Muhammad enjoyed initial success in persuading people to follow his new message.  There is almost universal agreement in the sources that Khadija was the first to convert to Islam, probably along with her daughters.  There is considerable disagreement, however, about who was the first male convert.  Shi=ites claim Ali ibn Abi Talib.  He was about nine and a member of Muhammad=s greater household, so it is not an improbable claim.  Others claim that the manumitted slave Zayd ibn Haritha was first, while the standard Sunni position holds that Abu Bakr, Muhammad=s successor, was first.  At any rate, the first converts were for the most part not influential in Meccan society, and for a time Muhammad=s preaching caused little concern.  Possibly the Meccans thought that he was merely another mantic seer who would help them find lost sheep or camels and would settle disputes.  However, as the monotheistic message of Islam became clearer, and Muhammad=s stand against the old gods became better understood, the Meccans began to realize that Muhammad and Islam posed a threat to their commercial and religious ascendancy in the Hejaz.

The persecutions that resulted from the Meccans realization of the threat posed by Muhammad were not initially severe.  The moderation of the persecutions seems to be because violent physical harm to Muhammad or his followers, except the poorest of them, would have provoked retaliation that could have erupted into civil war.  At this time, for reasons that remain obscure, Muhammad sent a group ofhis followers to Abyssinia, where it is reported that the Negus, a Christian people, received them warmly.  This event, later called a Alittle hijra,@ may have had economic as well as religious motives, but it seems to have had little impact on problems in Mecca. 
With the death of his two main supporters -- his protector Abu Talib, and his beloved wife Khadija -- Muhammad=s position in Meccan society seems to have worsened.  The Meccans reportedly attempted an economic boycott of Muhammad=s clan, the Hashimites.  Though not all the clan followed Muhammad=s religion, they remained loyal to the clan ideal and stood by him, except for Abu Lahab, who, along with his wife, is assigned to hell for his actions.  While the boycott failed to crush the clan, the situation was critical, for it was clear that Islam could not expand within the hostile Meccan atmosphere.  So, Muhammad began to seek other places in Arabia in which to continue his mission.
Extra-Qur=anic traditions commenting on Sura 17:1 describe a journey that Muhammad is supposed to have taken from Mecca to Jerusalem, and from there through the seven heavens to the throne of God, a journey said to have taken, at most, one night.  Early authorities disagree as to whether this was a purely spiritual journey or vision, or whether it was physical, but when it was reported to the new Muslim converts, some turned away in disbelief.  Abu Bakr is represented as one of the few true believers, and received the title Witnesser of the Truth (as-Siddiq).  Later versions of the night journey and ascent stories show elements borrowed from Jewish and Christian tradition.  The theme has become a favorite subject for popular stories and legends.

Muhammad, after several unsuccessful negotiations with towns of the Meccan economic confederation, turned to members of the Arab tribes in the city of Medina, ancient Yathrib, who were attracted to him not only for his message but also for his skill as a mediator.  During the negotiation period of 621-622, the main outlines of the so-called AConstitution of Medina@ were drawn in which Muhammad and his followers became part of the body politic of the city and Muhammad became first among equals as the final arbiter of all disputes.  This document assumes the autonomy of at least the two religious communities of the Muslims and the Jews and seems to anticipate later patterns of relationship between Muslims and People of the Book.
By this time, most Meccan converts to Islam had migrated to Medina, a wise precaution in view of growing Meccan hostility.  Muhammad and Abu Bakr were the last to leave, pursued by a party of Quraysh intent on harming them, since they were then outside the protection of customary law.  Muhammad arrived in Medina around September 22, 622.  Muhammad and his small band of followers were aided by an even smaller group of Medinans who had converted to Islam before the hijra or shortly thereafter.  These and later Medinan converts to Islam were called Ahelpers@ -- ansar --, while those who made the migration with Muhammad were the Aemigrants@ -- muhajirun -- a distinction which perpetuated the pre-Islamic North Arab-South Arab rivalry.
Arrayed against him in Medina were tribes of Jews and their Arab allies, who seem to have controlled the major sectors of the local economy.  These tribes of Jews, tribes of mixed Jews and Arabs, and some almost exclusively Arab tribes ranged in attitude from actively hostile to generally supportive.  All elements of the city had been openly fighting one another for some time, and it was Muhammad=s task to weld them into one community.

To form the community of Islam -- the umma --in Medina, Muhammad had to find a way to support his followers who were living on the charity of the ansar.  For this reason and as part of his larger plans in the Hejaz, Muhammad adopted the course of raiding a Meccan trade caravan.  The first raid took place in one of the months in which there was customary truce on religious grounds.  The indignation that this caused even among his followers was allayed in part by the rich booty and finally by the revelation recorded in Sura 2:217.  This raid led to the first major Muslim victory at Badr, where the Muslims met a large Meccan armed force rather than the expected rich caravan.  A variety of factors, including Muhammad=s generalship and Muslim cohesiveness, contributed to the victory, which had the effect of persuading more groups and individuals in the Hejaz to ally themselves with Muhammad and, in some instances, to convert to Islam. 
Because of the continued Muslim threat to their economic interests, the Meccans mounted an offensive in 624-625.  The opposing forces met near a hill called Uhud, and, in spite of early Muslim success, the Meccans succeeded in slightly wounding Muhammad and forcing the Muslims to flee and regroup on the nearby hill.  While this has been termed the first Muslim defeat, the Meccans were unable to follow up their advantage.  They made one final attack with an army which included not only those who owed Mecca military service but also a mercenary force of bedouin who were promised an easy victory and rich booty.  They besieged the Muslims in Medina (whose exposed flank was fortified by a trench, from which the battle is called the Battle of the Trench), but were unable to prevail and were forced to withdraw.  This marks the end of Meccan domination of the Hejaz, confirmed in January, 630, by the the Muslim conquest of Mecca.
During this time, Muhammad also dealt directly with the dissident elements in Medina itself.  Some groups were openly hostile to Muhammad and had aided the Meccans, while others had only half-heartedly converted to Islam.  The main Jewish tribes which had aided Muhammad=s enemies were expelled from the city, but a fair number of individual Jews were left.  Muhammad=s raid against the fortified Jewish city of Khaybar in 628 is significant, because the defeated inhabitants were allowed to remain on their land in payment of a capitulation tax of half their annual crops.  This was a continuation of the principles found in the Constitution of Medina and forms, along with other similar incidents, a paradigm for Muslim treatment of subject minorities.

By the time of the taking of Mecca in 630 and the cleansing of the Ka=ba of its hundreds of pagan idols, the basic tenets or pillars of Islam had been formed.  The one institution which had not been set forth was that of the annual pilgrimage -- the hajj.  In March of 632, Muhammad performed the reformed pilgrimage to the cleansed Ka=ba, setting the pattern for this rite for all Muslims.  This was Muhammad=s last great act, for, much to the surprise of those who expected him to live until the Day of Judgment, Muhammad, without having provided for a temporal successor, died in early June, 632, in the company of his favorite wife, >A=isha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, and was buried in her apartment.


Until modern times, Western views of Muhammad have, with only rare exceptions, been hostile.  The tendencies in the Sira of Ibn Ishaq which depict Muhammad as an isomorph of various prophets, including Jesus, have been seized upon by Western polemicists to make Muhammad into a deceiver, a heretic Christian priest, and even into the Anti-Christ.  This bias has been so pervasive that it is found in much of the material available in Western languages.  Western writers have also criticized Muhammad for the large number of his wives.  Recent scholarship is more balanced and appreciative of his life and work.



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