The Prophet’s Birth
Muhammad, son of Abdullah, son of Abdul Muttalib, of the tribe of Quraysh, was born in Makkah fifty-three years before the Hijrah. His father died before he was born, and he was protected first by his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, and after his grandfather’s death, by his uncle Abu Talib.
As a young boy he traveled with his uncle in the merchants’ caravan to Syria, and some years afterwards made the same journey in the service of a wealthy widow named Khadijah. So faithfully did he transact the widow’s business, and so excellent was the report of his behavior, which she received from her old servant who had accompanied him, that she soon afterwards married her young agent; and the marriage proved a very happy one, though she was fifteen years older than he was. Throughout the twenty-six years of their life together he remained devoted to her; and after her death, when he took other wives he always mentioned her with the greatest love and reverence. This marriage gave him rank among the notables of Makkah, while his conduct earned for him the surname Al-Amin, the “trustworthy.”
The Makkans claimed descent from Abraham through Isma`il and tradition stated that their temple, the Ka`bah, had been built by Abraham for the worship of the One God. It was still called the House of Allah, but the chief objects of worship here were a number of idols, which were called “daughters” of Allah and intercessors. The few who felt disgust at this idolatry, which had prevailed for centuries, longed for the religion of Abraham and tried to find out what had been its teaching. Such seekers of the truth were known as Hunafa (sing. Hanif), a word originally meaning “those who turn away” (from the existing idol-worship), but coming in the end to have the sense of “upright” or “by nature upright,” because such persons held the way of truth to be right conduct. These Hunafa did not form a community. They were the non-conformists of their day, each seeking truth by the light of his inner consciousness. Muhammad son of Abdullah became one of these.
The First Revelation
It was his practice to retire often to a cave in the desert for meditation. His place of retreat was Hira’, a cave in a mountain called the Mountain of Light not far from Makkah, and his chosen month was Ramadan, the month of heat. It was there one night toward the end of his quiet month that the first revelation came to him when he was forty years old.
He heard a voice say: “Read!” He said: “I cannot read.” The voice again said: “Read!” He said: “I cannot read.” A third time the voice, more terrible, commanded: “Read!” He said: “What can I read?” The voice said:
“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth.
“Createth man from a clot.
“Read: And it is thy Lord the Most Bountiful
“Who teacheth by the pen,
“Teacheth man that which he knew not.”
The Vision of Cave Hira’
The cave Hira’ in the Mountain of Light (Jabal Al-Nur)He went out of the cave on to the hillside and heard the same awe-inspiring voice say: “O Muhammad! Thou art Allah’s messenger, and I am Jibril (Gabriel).” Then he raised his eyes and saw the angel, in the likeness of a man, standing in the sky above the horizon. And again the dreadful voice said: “O Muhammad! Thou art Allah’s messenger, and I am Jibril (Gabriel).” Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) stood quite still, turning away his face from the brightness of the vision, but wherever he turned his face, there stood the angel confronting him. He remained thus a long while till at length the angel vanished, when he returned in great distress of mind to his wife Khadijah. She did her best to reassure him, saying that his conduct had been such that Allah would not let a harmful spirit come to him and that it was her hope that he was to become the Prophet of his people. On their return to Makkah she took him to her cousin Waraqa ibn Nawfal, a very old man, “who knew the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians,” who declared his belief that the heavenly messenger who came to Moses of old had come to Muhammad, and that he was chosen as the Prophet of his people.
Muhammad eventually accepted the tremendous task imposed on him, becoming filled with enthusiasm of obedience
To understand the reason of the Prophet’s diffidence and his extreme distress of mind after the vision of Hira’, it must be remembered that the Hunafa, of whom he had been one, sought true religion in the natural world and regarded with distrust the intercourse with spirits of which men “avid of the Unseen” sorcerers and soothsayers and even poets, boasted in those days. Moreover, he was a man of humble and devout intelligence, a lover of quiet and solitude and the very thought of being chosen out of all mankind to face mankind, alone, with such a message, appalled him at the first.
Recognition of the Divine nature of the call he had received involved a change in his whole mental outlook sufficiently disturbing to a sensitive and honest mind, and also the forsaking of his quiet, honored way of life. The early biographers tell how his wife Khadijah “tested the spirit” which came to him and proved it to be good, and how, with the continuance of the revelations and the conviction that they brought, he at length accepted the tremendous task imposed on him, becoming filled with enthusiasm of obedience which justifies his proudest title of “the Slave of Allah.”
For the first three years, or rather less, of his mission, the Prophet preached to his family and his intimate friends, while the people of Makkah as a whole regarded him as one who had become a little mad. The first of all his converts was his wife Khadijah, the second his first cousin Ali, whom he had adopted, the third his servant Zayd, a former slave. His old friend Abu Bakr also was among those early converts.
Beginning of Persecution
At the end of the third year the Prophet received the command to “arise and warn,” whereupon he began to preach in public, pointing out the wretched folly of idolatry in face of the tremendous laws of day and night, of life and death, of growth and decay, which manifest the power of Allah and attest His sovereignty. It was then, when he began to speak against their gods, that Quraysh became actively hostile, persecuting his poorer disciples, mocking and insulting him. The one consideration which prevented them from killing him was fear of the blood-vengeance of the clan to which his family belonged. Strong in his inspiration, the Prophet went on warning, pleading, threatening, while Quraysh did all they could to ridicule his teaching, and deject his followers.
The Flight to Abyssinia
A 16th century map of Abyssinia – modern day Ethiopia – The converts of the first four years were mostly humble folk unable to defend themselves against oppression. So cruel was the persecution they endured that the Prophet advised all who could possibly contrive to do so to immigrate to a Christian country, Abyssinia. And still in spite of persecution and emigration the little company of Muslims grew in number. Quraysh were seriously alarmed. The idol worship at the Ka`bah, the holy place to which all Arabia made pilgrimage, ranked for them, as guardians of the Ka`bah, as first among their vested interests. At the season of the pilgrimage they posted men on all the roads to warn the tribes against the “madman” who was preaching in their midst. They tried to bring the Prophet to a compromise offering to accept his religion if he would so modify it as to make room for their gods as intercessors with Allah, offering to make him their king if he would give up attacking idolatry; and, when their efforts at negotiation failed, they went to his uncle Abu Talib offering to give him the best of their young men in place of Muhammad, to give him all that he desired, if only he would let them kill Muhammad and have done with him. Abu Talib refused.
Conversion of Omar
The exasperation of the idolaters was increased by the conversion of Omar, one of their stalwarts. They grew more and more embittered, till things came to such a pass that they decided to ostracize the Prophet’s whole clan, idolaters who protected him as well as Muslims who believed in him. Their chief men caused a document to be drawn up to the effect that none of them or those belonging to them would hold any intercourse with that clan or sell to them or buy from them. This they all signed, and it was deposited in the Ka`bah. Then for three years, the Prophet was shut up with all his kinsfolk in their stronghold which was situated in one of the gorges which run down to Makkah. Only at the time of pilgrimage could he go out and preach, or did any of his kinsfolk dare to go into the city.
Destruction of the Document
At length some kinder hearts among Quraysh grew weary of the boycott of old friends and neighbors. They managed to have the document which had been placed in the Ka`bah brought out for reconsideration; when it was found that all the writing had been destroyed by white ants, except the words Bismik Allahumma (“In thy name, O Allah”). When the elders saw that marvel the ban was removed, and the Prophet was again free to go about the city. But meanwhile the opposition to his preaching had grown rigid. He had little success among the Makkans, and an attempt which he made to preach in the city of Ta’if was a failure. His mission was a failure, judged by worldly standards, when, at the season of the yearly pilgrimage he came upon a little group of men who heard him gladly.
The Men from Yathrib
They came from Yathrib, a city more than two hundred miles away, which has since become world-famous as al-Madinah, “the City” par excellence. At Yathrib there were Jewish tribes with learned rabbis, who had often spoken to the pagans of a Prophet soon to come among the Arabs, with whom, when he came, the Jews would destroy the pagans as the tribes of ‘Aad and Thamud had been destroyed of old for their idolatry. When the men from Yathrib saw Muhammad they recognized him as the Prophet whom the Jewish rabbis had described to them. On their return to Yathrib they told what they had seen and heard, with the result that the next season of pilgrimage a deputation came from Yathrib purposely to meet the Prophet.
Quraysh dreaded what the Prophet might become if he escaped from them and so plotted to kill himFirst Pact of al-‘Aqabah
These swore allegiance to him in the first pact of al-‘Aqabah. They then returned to Yathrib with a Muslim teacher in their, company and soon “there was not a house in Yathrib wherein there was not mention of the messenger of Allah.”
Second pact of al-‘Aqabah
In the following year, at the time of pilgrimage, seventy-three Muslims from Yathrib came to Makkah to vow allegiance to the Prophet and invite him to their city. At al-‘Aqabah, by night, they swore to defend him as they would defend their own wives and children. It was then that the Hijrah, the flight to Yathrib, was decided.
Plot to Murder the Prophet
Soon the Muslims who were in a position to do so, began to sell their property and to leave Makkah unobtrusively. Quraysh had wind of what was going on. They hated Muhammad in their midst, but dreaded what he might become if he escaped from them. It would be better, they considered, to destroy him now. The death of Abu Talib had removed his chief protector; but still they had to reckon with the vengeance of his clan upon the clan of the murderer. They cast lot and chose a slayer out of every clan. All these were to attack the Prophet simultaneously and strike together, as one man. Thus his murder would be blamed on all Quraysh. It was at this time (Ibn Khaldun asserts, and it is the only satisfactory explanation of what happened afterwards) that the Prophet received the first revelation ordering him to make war upon his persecutors “until persecution is no more and religion is for Allah only.”
The Hijrah (June 20th, 622 C.E.)
The last of the able Muslims to remain in Makkah were Abu Bakr, Ali and the Prophet himself. Abu Bakr, a man of wealth, had bought two riding camels and retained a guide in readiness for the flight. The Prophet only waited for God’s command. It came at last. It was the night appointed for his murder. The slayers were before his house. He gave his cloak to Ali, bidding him lie down on the bed so that anyone looking in might think Muhammad lay there. The slayers were to strike him as he came out of the house, whether in the night or early morning. He knew they would not injure Ali. Then he left the house and, it is said, blindness fell upon the would-be murderers so that he put dust on their heads as he passed by-without their knowing it.
The Hijrah counts as the beginning of the Muslim eraHe went to Abu Bakr’s house and called to him, and they two went together to a cavern in the desert hill and hid there till the hue and cry was past, Abu Bakr’s son and daughter and his herdsman bringing them food and tidings after nightfall. Once a search party came quite near them in their hiding-place, and Abu Bakr was afraid; but the Prophet said: “Fear not! Allah is with us.” Then, when the coast was clear, Abu Bakr had the riding-camels and the guide brought to the cave one night, and they set out on the long ride to Yathrib.
After traveling for many days of unfrequented paths, the fugitives reached a suburb of Yathrib, whither, for weeks past, the people of the city had been going every morning, watching for the Prophet till the heat drove them to shelter. The travelers arrived in the heat of the day, after the watchers had retired. It was a Jew who called out to the Muslims in derisive tones that he whom they expected had at last arrived.
Such was the Hijrah, the Flight from Makkah to Yathrib, which counts as the beginning of the Muslim era. The thirteen years of humiliation, of persecution, of seeming failure, of prophecy still unfulfilled, were over.
* Taken, with some editorial changes, from Pickthall’s introduction to his translation of the Qur’an.