June 21, 2005 > The mosques behind the myth
The mosques behind the myth
Part II - Historical Background:
by S. Reshma Yunus
The Prophet, birth to adulthood
Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. in the city of Mecca where the holy Kaa'ba is located. His mother's name was Aminah. She was the daughter of Wahb Ibn Abdu Manaf, a leading merchant of the Zahrah clan (Rogerson, pg.21). His father, 'Abdullah, was the son of Abdul Muttalib. Abdul Muttalib was the leader of the Beni Hashim clan, one of the many kinship groups that make up the ruling tribe of Mecca, the Quraysh (Rogerson, pg. 21). According to tradition, the Prophet's genealogy has been traced to the noble house of Ishmael, the son of Prophet Abraham in about the fortieth descend (www.anwary-islam.com). Muhammad's father died before his birth.
He was sent to be nursed in the countryside, while an infant, as was the custom of that time to Halimah. She took loving care of him and finally he was returned to his own family when he was 6 years old. His mother died shortly thereafter - within the year. Muhammad was raised with great love and affection by his grandfather Abdul Muttalib and then by his uncle Abu Talib, the brother of his father. The life of an orphan was normally very harsh but while his grandfather and uncle lived, he was protected.
Muhammad learned a trade from his uncle and became noted for his trustworthiness and honesty and earned the nickname "Al- Amin" (the Trustworthy). In his early twenties, he stared to work for a powerful, wealthy and educated widow named Khadijah. She was very impressed with his honesty and abilities and proposed marriage. He was 25 and she was 40 when they wed. They were a happy and loving couple married for over 24 years until her death in 619 AD. Although it was the custom of the time for men to have many wives and concubines, while Khadijah lived, the Prophet was totally devoted to her alone. His later wives were often jealous of the love and esteem that he carried for Khadijah for all of his life.
The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, "peace be upon him" (pbuh) first received a message from God during the holy month of Ramadan, while he was meditating on the outskirts of the city of Mecca.
Muhammad was not a literate man. Hence, when the angel Gabriel first visited him and commanded him to "Read," "Read in the name of God" he was naturally shaken up.
A summary of his life at the website www.anwary-islam.com describes the incident thusly:
"...Angel Gabriel (Jibreel) appeared to him and said: 'Read!' But as Muhammad was illiterate, having never received any instruction in reading or writing, he said to the angel: 'I am not a reader.' The angel took a hold of him and squeezed him as much as he could bear, and then said again: 'Read!' Then Prophet said: 'I am not a reader.' The Angel again seized the Prophet and squeezed him and said: 'Read! In the Name of Your Lord, Who has created (all that exists), has created a man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood). Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who has taught (the writing) by the pen, has taught man that which he knew not.' (96:1-4 Quran).
Then the Prophet repeated the words with a trembling heart. He returned to Khadijah from Mount Hira and said, "Wrap me up! Wrap me up!" She wrapped him in a garment until his fear was dispelled. He told Khadijah what had occurred and that he was becoming either a soothsayer or one smitten with madness. She replied, "Allah forbid! He will surely not let such a thing happen, for you speak the truth, you are faithful in trust, you bear the afflictions of the people, you spend in good works what you gain in trade, you are hospitable and you assist your fellow men. Have you seen anything terrible?" Muhammad replied, "Yes," and told her what he had seen. Whereupon, Khadijah said, "Rejoice, O dear husband and be cheerful. He is Whose hands stands Khadijah's life bears witness to the truth of this fact, that you will be the prophet to this people."
His wife Khadijah became the first to embrace the message followed by the son of Abu Talib, Ali and then his adopted son Zaid.
The message of Islam burst through the fabric of Meccan society with ideas that shook its very foundation. Islam proclaimed that God was one and not the many deities which populated the Kaa'ba; that each individual had worth irrespective of ethnicity or even gender; that one would be judged one one's deeds and not one's social standing or tribal affiliations. The word of God forbade the burying alive of baby girls; it exhorted all to be kind to widows and orphans and the oppressed and it taught that there was an afterlife and a final reckoning after death.
These messages, which were contrary and often directly in opposition to existing customs, deeply angered the Meccans. Many plotted to assassinate the Prophet and believers were harassed and persecuted, often till death. While, Khadija and Abu Talib lived, the Prophet had protection from vindication of the powerful Quraish. When they both died, within a short period of each other in 519 AD, the Prophet was forced to migrate on the pain of death not just himself, but his message to a city then called Yathrib in the year 522. He migrated with this closest friend Abu Bakr.
In Yathrib, which later came to be called "Medina" meaning the City, he received a warm welcome. The Islamic calendar dates itself from this year. From Medina the small band of Muslims launched the message on to Arabia with the primary aim to cleanse the Kaa'ba of idols ( Richardson, pg__). The number of Muslim grew as Islam gained many new converts from among the Medinites. Many battles and skirmishes were fought against the Meccan army and their allies. The first notable battle was fought and won in 624 by about 300 Muslims against 1000 (or 3,000) Meccan's.
Women played a prominent role on both sides during these early battles and the formation of the Muslim community during these difficult times. In the Battle of Uhud, for example, where the Muslims lost to the Meccans, fought in 625A.D. Umm Omara was especially notable for having defended the Prophet even when the men had abandoned him to search for loot (Heath, pg.209-214). The Prophet was quoted as saying, "At the Battle of Uhud, wherever I turned to the left or the right, I saw her fighting for me." (Heath, pg. 214)
Finally, the struggles of this nascent community paid off as Mecca fell to the Muslims on 630 AD. The Prophet marched victoriously into Mecca with an army of 10,000 and the Meccans laid down their arms in surrender. The Prophet in an otherworldly act of diplomacy pardoned all of his former enemies and thereby became the epitome of compassionate behavior. He returned to Medina but his victory was bittersweet as that same month, his infant son Ibrahim died.
In 632, the Prophet returned to Mecca for a pilgrimage and one of the last chapters of the Quran (Sura 110, An-Nasr) was revealed to him at this time.
When comes the Help of Allah, and Victory
And thou dost see the people enter Allah's Religion in crowds
Celebrate the praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness: For He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy). (Yusuf Ali- 110.001-003)
It was during this time that the Prophet received a premonition of his approaching death.
His last sermon to the pilgrims included the following message to the new community of believers:
"...Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord, and that he will indeed reckon your deeds. God has forbidden you to charge interest, therefore interest obligations shall henceforth be waived. You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity.
".... O my people, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women but they also have rights over you. If they abide by your right then, to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.... Remember, one day you will appear before God and answer for your deeds. So beware, do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.
".... All humankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab: also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good actions...
"O my people, no prophet or apostle will come after me and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, my people, and understand my words which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Quran and my example, the Sunnah, and if you follow these you will never go astray. (Rogerson, pg. 207-208)"
The Prophet then returned to Median and died in the arms of his favorite after Khadijah and arguably the most brilliant wife, Ayesha, a few months later.
Upon the Prophet's death, there was no named successor and the young community was in danger of falling into disarray without leadership. His closest friend Abu Bakr, who was chosen to lead the community after him, rose up and said:
"O people. To those who used to worship Muhammad, Muhammad is dead. But for those who used to worship God, God is alive and can never die." He reminded the crowd of the Prophet's own Qur'anic recitation of his mortality, "Mohammad is but a messenger, messengers the like of whom have passed away before him. Will it be that, when he dies or is slain, you will turn back on your heals?" (Rogerson, pg. 212)
Abu Bakr managed to quell the unrest and thus began the spread of the message of Islam beyond the Arabia into every corner of the Globe.
Heath, Jennifer, The Scimitar and the Veil Extraordinary Women of Islam, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2004
Hallaq, Wael, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press 2005
Rogerson, Barnaby, The Prophet Muhammad, A Biography, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2003
Armstrong, Karen, Islam New York, NY, Random House, 2000
Stowasser, Barbara Freyer, Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press 1994.
www.masnet.org - Author
Recommended Qur'an Translation