Founding of Islam

Feature, Middle Ages

A Dominant Factor in the Development of the Middle and Near East

Some six hundred years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, the people of Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia all professed His faith, while in the Arabian peninsula communities of Christians existed in the Yemen and on the borders of Persia, where the very ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, older than Buddhism by a couple of centuries, was still professed, and settlements of Jews were to be found here and there outside Palestine.

In A.D. 6xo a new prophet began to preach in Mecca, an important centre on the trade route between Syria and South Arabia, and the focal point of a people so steeped in barbarism and idolatry that the city contained a temple in which were kept 365 gods. The teaching of the new prophet was summed up in the name which he gave to his religion, Islam, which means submission to God and His Divine Will, and in two short sentences which every new convert was required to pronounce publicly: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.”

Mohammed had been born between A.D. 569 and 571, to Abdullah and his wife Aminah, of the Arab tribe of Koreish. He was a posthumous child, and when he was only six years old his mother also died. His grandfather, ‘Abd al-Mottalib, then brought him up, and when he died in his turn the boy was taken into the family of his uncle Abu Talib. One tradition has it that his grandfather ‘Abd al-Mottalib was a wealthy merchant; on the other hand, evidence can be brought forward which suggests that though he was a leading citizen of Mecca he was by no means well-off.

As a boy Mohammed is said to have accompanied his uncle on trading journeys to both the north and the south with the two yearly caravans which were dispatched from Mecca each summer (to Syria) and each winter (to the Yemen). He may also have visited Egypt and Mesopotamia whiles still a young boy. His knowledge of the language of the Bedouins he is thought to have acquired in his wanderings as a caravan guide, while a young man.

This occupation he gave up when at the age of twenty-five he married a wealthy widow, Khadija, who was some fifteen years older than himself. He now became a partner in a Meccan greengrocer’s shop.

In the Koran, the “Bible” of Islam, when referring to himself at this time he frequently uses the word ummi. In its primary sense ummi means “of the people, not high-born”, though elsewhere in the Koran it is used to designate one who cannot read or write.” The word can also mean Meccan, its derivation in this sense being Umm at Qura, the Mother of Villages.

It is known that by the time he was twenty-five he had acquired a reputation for practical wisdom well above the average, for many of his older fellow-citizens apparently sought his advice and help in financial and religious matters, a position not often accorded to one so young by his seniors. From this it is surmised that he could read and write, if not with any very great facility.

Unfortunately, those parts of the Koran which deal with the early period of Mohammed’s life, and which should be reliable since the book was composed by the Prophet himself, are so full of cryptic allusions phrased in a language equally cryptic, that it is difficult to state with any certainty exactly when it was that Mohammed began to feel that he was being called upon to act as the mouthpiece of God. However, by his earliest biographer, Ibn Is-hak,’ who died in 768, the date of his Call, as it is known, is set in 610.

What exactly motivated him he never clearly explained himself? It would seem, however, that he was impressed by the effects of the paganism all around him, and being aware from his travels both to the north and to the south of the influence of Christianity there, he aspired to restore the ancient “religion of Abraham”.

Why he chose the “religion of Abraham” has been the subject of much scholarly speculation, since before his time this religion was not widely known among the inhabitants of Mecca. It has been suggested, per contra, that it had been generally practised in the city though so far back in time that everything relating to it had been forgotten. The theory is based on a nice point; one of the features of the religion “of Abraham” was circumcision, and circumcision was observed, though with technical differences from the Jewish method, by the tribes of Mecca, but not by any other tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, except in the Jewish communities.

It is thought that the religious confusion which the recognition of scores of gods created impressed itself upon Mohammed and that he saw that a monotheistic religion would remove the confusion. In his search for such a system, influenced no doubt by what he had learned of Jewish traditions, and by the Jewish practice of circumcision and the observance of the custom by the Meccan tribes, he decided to revive and restore the ancient religion.

The revelation that he was to be the mouthpiece of God reputedly came to him while he was in a religious retreat on Mount Hira, near Mecca. There, one day, while he was meditating, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and not only announced to him his mission, but related the first pronouncements on which the restored religion was to be based.

From now on, and especially during the three following years, Mohammed claimed that he received Divine guidance either through the intervention of the Archangel Gabriel, or in direct contact with God. In the Koran he says that the first revelations were handed to him on rolls or parchments, a method soon replaced by oral communications made to him while he was in a trance. He did in fact self-induce these trances by enveloping himself in blankets which produced copious sweating. To begin with, he was enjoined to carry his mission only to his nearest relatives. After a time, however, the scope of his mission was widened, though he was still required to perform it in the greatest secrecy.

This phase ended in 616, when, it is thought, he began to preach in public in response to the pleading of his most ardent followers. His sermons were mostly violent attacks on the local Meccan deities and expositions of the true religion.

Gradually his following increased, being drawn chiefly from the poorer strata of Meccans. A number of prominent men, however, were also attracted to him, though there were others who saw that if he were allowed to continue winning adherents he would soon become dictator of Mecca. When counter-arguments failed to have any effect on his success, these men instigated a persecution of his less influential followers, a number of whom sought safety in Ethiopia.

Hoping to win the support of the Ethiopian authorities through these exiles, Mohammed sent his cousin Ja’far to them, charged with explaining what the new religion was about. Through a complete misunderstanding of the situation, apparently the Ethiopians gained the impression that the refugees were persecuted Christians, Mohammed achieved his object.

Seeing this, his Meccan opponents set siege to that quarter of the city in which he and his followers were living, intending to starve them either into submission or to death. For a time the siege was withstood, but soon some of the besieged began to falter. Since the besiegers made it a condition of their withdrawal that Mohammed should retract all he had said about the Meccan deities, seeing no other way out of the situation, Mohammed complied.

This defeat did a great deal of harm to his mission, but just as total failure seemed imminent, help came from an unexpected quarter. The city of Medina had for a long time been troubled by a feud between its two Arab tribes, the Aus and the Khazraj. They had heard of the teachings of Mohammed, and now, as a last resort, they invited him to come to keep the peace between them.

Since the Meccan authorities would have taken steps to prevent Mohammed from thus becoming the actual dictator of the important rival city, his acceptance of the offer was kept a strict secret. In order not to attract the attention of the Meccans his followers began to slip away to Medina in small groups, until only Mohammed, his friend Abu Bekr and his cousin Ali were left in the city.

On 16 July, 622, Mohammed and Abu Bekr made their escape, and were followed shortly afterwards by AH. The Mohammedan era thereafter was proclaimed to begin from this date.

For the next eight years, Mohammed and his followers made war on the surrounding Arab tribes. He had hoped for the conversion of the Jewish tribes of Medina, but when they rebelled against him, he destroyed one and expelled the other. Gradually he extended his territory and his power until in 630 he re-entered Mecca, which he had left as a fugitive, as conqueror. Two years later he died, but by this time he was master of all Arabia.

The public life of Mohammed falls into two halves which are so distinct that he seems to be in each a different person. In Medina he was a political ruler. Though his goal, the conversion of Arabia, remained the same, the end now justified the means. The conversion of chiefs he bought by presents of cattle. The loyalty of the most powerful of the converts he secured by marriage either of himself or his relatives or chief adherents. When an occasion arose which seemed to call for special solution, he produced a new “revelation” to meet it. Some authorities even contend that assassination and murder in cold blood were considered legitimate in removing the most obstinate opposition.

In Mecca, both before and after the Flight, he was a prophet like one of the prophets of Israel. His main and only aim in this role was to convert the people from their idolatry. Those parts of the Koran —he began to compose it in 610, and continued to add to it until his death twenty-two years later, which belong to the period before the Flight, seek to establish the unity of God in the understanding of his followers, and by their preaching against the use of force, which Mohammed reinforced by his own patience under persecution, display, at least on the surface, the Christian qualities.

It is widely held that the secret of Mohammed’s success lay in his courtesy and polished manners. He could be all things to all men, and he fought them with their own weapons. In his personal behaviour he never swerved from the severe simplicity of the Arab life. The chief among equals, he shared all the hardships and dangers of his followers.

The follower of the religion of Islam is called a Moslem, that is, “One who submits to God”. In the Koran, interwoven with descriptions of the Prophet’s experiences and his revelations, are set out the articles of the Moslem’s faith.

He must believe in God, the Last Day, the Angels, in the books revealed by God, and in all the prophets, of whom Mohammed is the last. Among these prophets are Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament, and Jesus. He must believe that God rules the universe by an unchangeable law, and he must accept the finality of death to be followed by a life to come in which everyone will be rewarded according to how he has behaved on earth.

In addition to these articles of faith, the Moslem is required to observe the Pillars of Islam, prayer, the giving of alms and the Pilgrimage to Mecca.

A Moslem is required to pray five times a day. The prayers are of different length, in set form, and should preferably be said in Arabic, though other languages may be used. Before praying, the hands, mouth, nose, face, neck, forearms, head and feet of the worshipper must be washed three times.

The times for prayer are just before dawn, when it is beginning to get light; at noon; when the sun is halfway down the sky towards setting; just after sunset; and one and a half to two hours after sunset. The faithful are called to prayer by the Muezzin. Each prayer consists of two parts, one recited in unison with other worshippers, if any are present, and the other silently. The prayers are, in fact, recitations from the Fatihah or opening chapter of the Koran and from other portions of the book, and are accompanied by certain ritual movements; they conclude with a greeting to right and left.

Not only is the Moslem required to practise charity in the broad sense of doing well to his fellow-men, but he is required to give one-fortieth of his capital every year to some charitable purpose.

For one month in the year, all Muslims must fast from two hours before sunrise till sunset, during which time no food or drink must be allowed to pass their lips. The month set aside for this is the ninth month of the Moslem year, Ramadan. Since the Moslem calendar is a lunar calendar, Ramadan falls ten days earlier each year. Besides fasting, extra devotions are prescribed.

The Moslem Sabbath is Friday. On this day they assemble in their mosques, hear a sermon from their imam, and join him in prayers. Women are not permitted to enter the mosques.

The last Pillar of Islam is the Pilgrimage to Mecca. This pilgrimage had become an annual custom many years before the appearance of Mohammed. The Arabs believed that they were sprung from Ishmael, the son of Abraham, and that Mecca was the site of Jehovah’s request that the patriarch should sacrifice the first living thing on which his eyes alighted. The Jewish tradition has it that this was Abraham’s son Isaac, the Arab that it was Ishmael. In thanksgiving for his release from this promise, Abraham was believed to have built a mosque in Mecca. Islam took over this belief, and all Moslems are duty bound to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford it.

The pilgrimage takes place during a designated month each year. Arrived at Mecca, the pilgrim must undertake to perform a certain ritual. In the courtyard of the great mosque, towards which all Moslems must turn, no matter where they may be in the world, each time they pray, is a black stone, believed to be the last surviving relic of Abraham’s mosque, contained in a shrine called the Ka’aba. The pilgrim must walk round the Ka’aba three times, kiss the black stone and afterwards listen to a sermon preached on Mount Ararat.

Most pilgrims having completed the rituals at Mecca travel the 240 miles northwards to Medina, to visit the tomb of Mohammed.

As for the regulation of his daily life, the Moslem is forbidden by the Koran to eat the flesh of pigs or of any animal which has not been slaughtered in the name of God. Gambling and the lending of money on usury are also prohibited, and the drinking of intoxicants is discouraged. All men who can are required to marry, and each man is allowed to have four wives providing he can afford to treat them all equally. Divorce is permitted, and the process is extremely simple.

On the death of Mohammed, some of the Arab tribes attempted to return to their old ways, but his successor to the Caliphate, his great friend Abu Bekr, took energetic action against them, and turned the unbounded energies of the Arabs into other channels.

Within ten years they had subdued Persia, Syria and Egypt and forcibly converted their peoples to Islam. Within a hundred years their empire extended from Spain to central Asia.

In the mid-thirteenth century, Islam went into a decline from which it did not recover until the latter part of the nineteenth century. But Islam has always been a missionary religion, and it found great response in India, Africa and in parts of Asia. Though actual figures cannot be given, Moslem authorities put the number of adherents at the present time at between three hundred and fifty and four hundred millions, making it second numerically, after Christianity, of the world’s great religions.

The emergence of the Prophet and the great success he achieved in so comparatively short a time was a dominant factor in shaping not only the history of the Middle and Near East, but of the Mediterranean areas of Europe. The Moslem Moors, who ruled the greater part of Spain for more than six hundred years, had a culture of their own, the influence of which on the arts and on letters was not confined to that country. Further, it can be said that by delaying the natural development of Spain as a great power until such time as the Tudors were fitting on the throne of England, the Moors had a hand in shaping the emergence of the New World. It is doubtful whether any of these developments would, or could, have taken place but for the great welding powers of the religion which not only made it possible for kindred but warring races to forget their differences, but for them to combine together to exert an influence on the history of the world.