Dr. Linda Hayner, BJU Faculty
The world into which Muhammad was born was far from peaceful. Raiders attacked caravans for the goods they carried, while pirates threatened trade on the Red Sea. The people of the Arabian Peninsula were organized into tribes and clans or families. No central government existed. Each tribe was governed by a council of men who chose one of their number to be a shaykh, or leader. Tribes and clans often settled disagreements by war. They also fought over who would govern cities such as Mecca.
Mecca, located in the Hejaz Mountains, was an important city on the west side of the Arabian Peninsula. Caravans brought goods from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to its markets making Mecca a place of wealth. Mecca also was home to the Ka’aba, a small cube-shaped building. This ancient shrine housed more than 350 idols of the gods worshipped by the Arabs. Each year during the month of Ramadan Arabs visited this shrine to worship. The powerful Quraysh Tribe ruled Mecca.
Muhammad was born in Mecca about AD 570 into the Hashemite clan, a poor family of the Quraysh tribe. Muhammad’s father died before his son’s birth. Muhammad’s mother died when he was six. When Muhammad’s grandfather died, a merchant uncle, Abu Talib, took Muhammad in. Abu Talib was a leader of the Hashemite clan and a merchant. Muhammad learned to be a merchant and may have travelled with caravans from Syria in the north to Yemen in the south.
As a young adult, Muhammad entered the employ of Khadijah, a widow who had inherited the businesses of two previous merchant husbands. The arrangement worked well and Khadijah, then 40 years old, proposed to Muhammad who was in his mid-20s. He accepted. Muhammad was a good merchant and had married well.
In spite of his success, Muhammad was concerned for his people. Meccans were less interested in the gods than in getting rich. They did not believe in a judgment day, and they feared that holy laws might interfere with their pursuit of money. The Persians talked of their prophet Zoroaster and their holy book the Avesta. The Jews had Moses and the Torah. The Christians had Jesus and the Gospel. These prophets and their books told their followers how to live. Muhammad wondered why there was no prophet or book for the Arabs.
Muhammad spent many hours thinking about the difficulties and turbulence of Arab life. While meditating one night, he heard a voice that sounded like the reverberating of bells. The angel Gabriel appeared and told Muhammad that he was to be the prophet to his people.
"In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from clots of blood! Recite! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who by the pen taught man what he did not know" (Koran, Sura 96:1-4).
This was his first message from Allah. Khadijah immediately believed that her husband was the new prophet to his people. Abu Bakr, a young man living with them, was his second convert. All of this occurred around the year 608.
Gabriel visited Muhammad again and gave him his first message outline: there is one god Allah, Muhammad was Allah’s prophet, and there was judgment for those who did not believe his message. Muhammad waited three years before he began preaching publicly in 610. He taught that Islam, submission to Allah (The God), was a continuation of the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad’s preaching was necessary because the teachings of the Jews and Christians had become obscured by a lack of understanding and error. Islam reformed, purified, and completed those divine teachings. The number of Muhammad’s followers grew slowly, but it was enough to concern Mecca’s rulers.
They were not pleased with the message of only one god. What would happen to the yearly pilgrimage if people believed in only one god? After all, many came each year to worship the hundreds of gods at the Ka’aba. Pilgrims spent money for food, housing, and to purchase their needs for worship. Would they come if there was only one god?
When Muhammad condemned idol worship, Meccan persecution of Muhammad’s followers became great. In 615, he sent 85 of his followers to Ethiopia for safety. He had heard that Ethiopia was a Christian land. Perhaps there was a place of peace there for his people. The travelers didn’t stay long; the king of Ethiopia, Aṣḥama ibn Abjar, decided that Christianity and Islam were not much alike.
The year 619 was both a happy and a sad one for Muhammad. One night, he made a journey on a black, winged horse. The horse took him from his home in Mecca to Jerusalem. Muhammad stood on the Temple Mount before visiting the Seventh Heaven where he received from Allah the fundamental teachings of Islam. He also saw the heavenly Ka’aba and spoke with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus before returning to Mecca. This marvelous night is called the Night of Qadr (glory). This trip made Jerusalem a holy city for all Muslims. Shortly after the Night of Qadr, Muhammad’s wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib died. With the death of his uncle, Muhammad lost his protector. He needed to find his followers a place of refuge; they had to leave Mecca.
Muhammad discussed his need with some pilgrims from the oasis of Yathrib that lay 280 miles north of Mecca. Some of the Yathrib pilgrims became Muslims, and in 622 they promised to protect Muhammad. During the next few weeks, Muhammad’s followers trekked across the desert to the oasis now called Medina. This migration is called the hejrah. This happened on July 16th, 622, which is considered the first day of the Muslim calendar.
During the years of learning to live together, Muhammad received frequent recitations from Allah through Gabriel on how the people of Medina ought to treat each other. However, there were groups in Medina who disagreed with Muhammad’s teachings. Members of the Jewish community declared that the Torah was accurate, and that Muhammad’s teachings were wrong. Eventually, Muhammad declared war on the Jewish community and forced its members to leave Medina.
"Those [Jews] to whom the burden of the Torah was entrusted and yet refused to bear it are like a donkey laden with books. Wretched is the example of those who deny Allah’s revelations. Allah does not guide the wrongdoers" (Koran, Sura 62:5).
In Medina, Muhammad formed a new kind of community (called Ummah) based on loyalty to Islam.
Muhammad needed money to support his new community. Muhammad led and supported attacks on caravans bound for Mecca. When he was asked if it was good for Arabs to fight Arabs, Muhammad replied that the fighting was between followers of Allah from Medina and the pagans living in Mecca.
"Permission to take up arms is hereby given to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged. Allah has power to grant them victory: those who have been unjustly driven from their homes, only because they said: ‘Our Lord is Allah'" (Koran, Sura 22:39).
Meccans retaliated with war, but they were unsuccessful in defeating Muhammad’s army. For the next eight years Muhammad’s followers and Meccans fought several wars, but the religious center of the Arabs slowly shifted away from Mecca to Medina and Muhammad.
Muhammad wanted to convert the Meccans to Islam. He recognized the sanctity of the Ka’aba and made its possession one of his goals. In 628, he led a pilgrimage of 1400 Muslims to the outskirts of Mecca. Instead of war, Muhammad and the Meccans drew up the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. Both groups agreed to maintain the peace for 10 years. Muslims would begin their pilgrimages to Mecca the next year.
In 630, the peace ended. The Meccans had supported an attack made against Medina by another clan. Muhammad marched on Mecca with an army of 10,000. He seized control of the city and warned all the Meccans to stay off the streets as the Muslim army entered. Muhammad went to the Ka’aba and destroyed all the idol in and around it. He was proclaimed the ruler of the city.
After the conquest of Mecca, he defeated Arab tribes that challenged him, and some submitted to him. In the next two years, Muhammad had conquered much of the Arabian Peninsula. He ordered the destruction of all pagan idols.
Muhammad made his first full pilgrimage to Mecca in 632. While he was there, he delivered what is called his Farewell Sermon.
"This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed My favor to you. I have chosen Islam to be your faith" (Koran, Sura 5:3).
A few months after returning to Medina, Muhammad fell ill with a fever and severe headaches. He died on June 8th, 632.
*All quotations from the Koran are taken from The Koran, translated by N. J. Dawood, NY: Penguin Books, 1974.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.