Perhaps more so than any other religion, Islam is defined by one man; Mohammed. Muslims believe he was the perfect man and strive in every way to emulate him. Islamic tradition dictates that the eldest son in a Muslim family is named after him. The example he set, the laws he passed and the message he preached were 'good for all time'. The words he spoke were said to have been given to him directly from God and preserved unchanged and in their entirety in the Koran. Mohammed provided an 'excellent code of conduct' and in creating Islam, he not only founded a religion but formed a socio-political and moral structure that underpins each and every aspect of a Muslim's life.
Understand Mohammed and you understand Islam.
An Uncomfortable Upbringing
Born in Mecca on 20 April, 570 AD, Ubu'l Kassim was brought up in an extended middle-class family within a tribe called the Hashim. This was not a wealthy clan and it often found itself at odds with the rich merchant clans within the tribe of the Quraysh. A later theme of Mohammed's teachings extolled the even distribution of wealth and charity to the poor. This may stem from the poverty of his early years. The society was polytheistic or pagan; that is the people worshipped many Gods and Goddesses. Within Mecca was a holy shrine called the Ka'bah, which housed pagan idols of many of these Gods and Goddesses. By controlling access to the Ka'bah, the Quraysh were a major tribe in the area and became wealthy and powerful from the many pilgrims to the shrine.
Ubu'l Kassim's family were camel-traders and, although his parents had died by the time he was six, Ubu'l was cared for first by his grandfather and then his uncle Abu Talib who named him Mustafa, (or Mohammed, meaning 'chosen one'). His uncle encouraged him to become part of the family business and the trading caravans took Mohammed far and wide around Arabia.
A Successful Trip
At the age of 25, Mohammed was hired as a salesman by a woman called Khadija bint Khuwaylid1, actually a distant cousin, to travel to Syria and sell her goods. It was a successful trip by all accounts as he doubled her wealth at a stroke. Upon his return in 595 AD, she proposed marriage and became Mohammed's first wife.
The First Revelation
Mohammed thus became a wealthy man of influence. He was also devoutly religious. During the Holy Month of Ramadan, in common with many men of the Quraysh, he would go into seclusion for the whole month and pray constantly. It was during one of these periods of seclusion in 610AD that he began to have dreams which he later described as visitations from the angel Gabriel, a familiar figure in the Jewish and Christian religions. In the dreams, Gabriel told Mohammed to read and recite back what he showed him. Mohammed protested that he could not read. So Gabriel instructed him to memorise what he told him2. In this fashion, via repeated dreams over the following 22 years of Mohammed’s career as a prophet, he received the detailed instructions from Allah, (God) which were transcribed as the Koran (which translates as 'to read' or 'to recite').
The Koran is a collection of the sayings of Mohammed that he believed came directly from Allah via the angel Gabriel. The book may not contain all of his utterances and he was not responsible for the order of the chapters. The early chapters were not written down immediately and the first transcribers wrote it with only a sketchy grasp of Arabic grammar. No vowels are indicated and there are no diacritical marks on consonants. As such marks indicate the different meanings to different words, the interpretation of the text is difficult. The book is not laid out chronologically. Instead the lengthiest chapters come first with the shortest texts last. Events are referred to and situations alluded to, but with no explanation. The gaps in the Koran are filled with two separate texts called the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) and the Tafsir (commentary on the Koran). These are a collection of witness testimonies which were compiled after Mohammed's death. The Sunnah (model of the Prophet) mainly consists of Hadith and represents the second most authoritative source in Islam. The principle compiler of ahadith was an Imam called Muhammad Ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (810 - 870 AD). He collected over 300,000 ahadith which he assessed for authenticity and edited down to around 7,000.
Mohammed began telling people of his dreams and was proclaimed as a prophet. People were receptive to his message as this was a culture of many Gods. But Mohammed was clear from the outset that there was only one real God, the same God of the Jews and Christians. He told how the Jews had corrupted the message from Allah, the Christians had gone astray from His message and he was now delivering the final and complete direct word of God3. In the early years, the message from God was quite tolerant of others and described those who did not believe in Him as merely misguided. However, despite this open-handed approach, many of the Quraysh were unwilling to give up their previous Gods. Mohammed continued quietly preaching, hoping to persuade the doubters to join his new religion of Islam. In 619 AD his wife, Khadija died aged 64. In the same year, two events occurred which have dogged Islam ever since.
The first was his meeting with Aisha, his favourite wife. Aisha was young when they met, but the prevailing culture in Arabia at the time was for girls to marry when they reached puberty, (further defined as nine years old). Obviously on what is considered a delicate subject by modern standards, there has been much debate as to the age of Aisha when they met. Some accounts put her as young as six4, others two or three years older5, but most agree that the marriage was not actually consummated until she was nine years old, in common with most young brides of the time. Mohammed was fifty-two. He went on to marry between 11 and 13 more wives, but Aisha always remained his favourite.
The second incident struck at the theological heart of Islam. Friction between Mohammed and the tribal leaders of the Quraysh had been growing. Many of Mohammed's followers had fled Mecca fearing attack, but when the leaders approached Mohammed it was with an offer. They asked Mohammed to worship traditional Quraysh Gods for a year and in return the Quraysh would worship Allah for a year. Mohammed asked for time to think about the offer and initially the visitations from Gabriel told him to refuse, as there was only one God6. But the Quraysh persisted until Gabriel came to Mohammed in a dream and said it would be acceptable to worship other Gods7. The Quraysh were elated and the Muslims that had left Mecca in fear came back reassured that the future was rosy. But not all Muslims were so pleased. They pointed out that Allah had explicitly stated that He was the only God. How could He now say that He wasn't? They began to openly question whether Mohammed was in fact a charlatan.8Wrought with self-doubt, Mohammed was again visited by Gabriel. Mohammed was told that the previous dream where he, Gabriel, had instructed him to worship other Gods had been an illusion created by Satan9. There was indeed only one God and Mohammed must therefore break off his agreement with the Quraysh. This incident is the one recounted in Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, and the reason it causes such a stir in Islam is that it suggests that at least one of Mohammed's dreams was false. And if one dream could be false, how many others could also be?
A Miraculous Journey
There now followed a spectacular confirmation to the Muslims that Mohammed was indeed a true Prophet of Allah. Mohammed recounted how Gabriel took him from Mecca to Jerusalem and from the Temple Mount he was taken to heaven where he met Allah, Adam, John the Baptist, Jesus, Joseph, Moses and Abraham. They each told him that he was indeed the final prophet and gave him advice. Mohammed was then returned to Mecca. The whole journey took place in a single night and became known as the Night Journey10.
Banished From Mecca
The Quraysh were unimpressed and predictably furious at the turnaround in the agreement they thought they had with Mohammed and in 622 AD they forced the Muslims to leave Mecca for the town of Yathrib, now known as Medina, where Muslim converts offered Mohammed and his followers shelter11. This flight is known as the Hegira and was a major turning point for the Muslims. From being a small, persecuted minority in a large city, they became the dominant people in a small town. So significant is this to Islam that this marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Mohammed became not only a preacher to the Muslims, but their political and military leader. Although the Muslims now formed a majority in Medina, they shared the town with a number of Jewish tribes. Mohammed's negotiations with the Jews led to what Muslims now believe was the world's first constitution. No longer forced to be diplomatic and malleable as he had been with the Quraysh, Mohammed laid firm conditions on the Jews if they wished to receive the protection of the Muslim majority12. These conditions became more stringent over time but initially they stipulated that Jews (and Christians) must pay a tax to the Muslims called Jizya. In addition it firmly established a social hierarchy with Muslims at the top, Jews and Christians who paid Jizya second and pagans at the bottom. Whereas the early parts of the Koran, revealed to Mohammed while he was in Mecca emphasised peaceful co-existence with other religions and a non-violent approach, the tenor of the Revelations became progressively harsher as the Muslims became more powerful.
Outnumbered and fearful of attack from not only the Quraysh but various other tribes, the Jews agreed to Mohammed's conditions. The original Muslim converts who had invited Mohammed into Medina acted as a buffer for the Jewish tribes. These were people who had been born and brought up together and, initially at least, they were more lenient in the application of Mohammed's instructions. They became known as the Hypocrites13. As the Hypocrites repeatedly interceded on the Jews behalf on various matters, Mohammed issued an instruction that no Muslim could take a Jew or a Christian as a friend14.
Lessons In Economics
Medina however was a small town and most of the trading caravans bypassed it while headed for Mecca. Soon, the Muslims began to run out of money. In 624 AD, Mohammed led a raiding party out of Medina and attacked a Quraysh caravan, seizing the trade goods15. This became the first of many such raids and formed the basis of the Medinan economy. In a further dream, Gabriel instructed the Muslims via Mohammed that one fifth of the booty from such raids were the property of Mohammed16. Mohammed's wealth and prestige grew, befitting his new station as a tribal leader.
A Military Career Begins
The Quraysh began escorting their caravans with troops. It was a raid upon one of these armed caravans that became known as the battle of Badr and provided Mohammed with his first military victory. Although outnumbered by the Quraysh, the Muslims chased the escorts away and seized the caravan. Mohammed attributed the victory to a host of angels helping the Muslims17. He also inspired his men to fight by promising them automatic entry into heaven (paradise) if they died fighting for Islam where they would be rewarded with sexual favours, wine and slaves18.
Emboldened by this victory, Mohammed stepped up his attacks on the caravans and dealt harshly with some of the Jews of Medina who had pointed out that the escorts at Badr had been poor troops19. Mohammed besieged the Jews within Medina until they surrendered. He initially wanted to execute all of the Jews, but the Hypocrites managed to intercede and spare them. The Jews were stripped of their possessions and banished from Medina. Mohammed was criticised for this action, principally by an eminent Jewish poet called Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf. Infuriated by the stinging rebukes, Mohammed had him assassinated20. The young volunteer he chose for the deed asked Mohammed if he could lie to gain the poet's trust in order to kill him. Mohammed reassured him that any act that advanced the cause of Islam was permissible21.
The First Setback
The Quraysh meanwhile wanted to put an end to the raiding of their caravans and in 625 AD, sent a force of three thousand troops to deal with the Muslims. Mohammed assembled an army of one thousand and led his men into battle. Once again he promised his men riches if they won and rewards in Paradise if they died. However, the Muslims were routed and Mohammed barely escaped with his life. The disillusioned survivors asked why they had been beaten and he told them they had not been devout enough. Only total and unwavering commitment to Allah could bring success22.
The Battle Of The Trench
Following this defeat, the Jews who had been expelled from Medina by Mohammed approached the Quraysh asking for their help to in turn expel the Muslims23. As the Quraysh gathered allies to attack Medina, the Muslims dug a huge trench around the town. The subsequent siege in 627 AD became known as the Battle of the Trench. The siege was unsuccessful. Mohammed sent emissaries to the two main tribes, the Quraysh and the Ghatafan and played them off against each other with sophistry24. At the end of the siege, Mohammed was furious with the Medinan Jews still left in the town who had conspired with the Quraysh25. He attacked the Jewish tribe and once he had defeated them, passed judgement26. Every man in the tribe, (estimated at between 600 – 900) was beheaded and the women and children taken as slaves. Mohammed himself participated in the beheadings27.
The Treaty Of Hudaybiyya
The enmity between the Muslims and the Quraysh rumbled on. One consequence of this was that Mohammed could no longer make his annual visit to the Ka'bah shrine in Mecca. Seeking a way to ensure safe passage for those amongst the Muslims who wished to make the pilgrimage, Mohammed negotiated the Treaty of Hudaybiyya with the Quraysh in 628 AD28. By this point, the Muslims were in a strong military position, so Mohammed's followers were shocked at the onerous terms of the Treaty. While allowing unarmed Muslims to enter Mecca, the Treaty also stipulated that anyone leaving the Quraysh to join the Muslims should be returned to Mecca while Muslims leaving Islam would be allowed sanctuary with the Quraysh. When the Muslims protested to Mohammed, he had another vision where Allah informed them that Mohammed had gained a great victory29. In the event, they needn’t have worried. Shortly after Mohammed made his pilgrimage to Mecca, a woman of the Quraysh, Umm Kultham, sought sanctuary with the Muslims. When the Quraysh demanded that she be returned as agreed in the Treaty, Mohammed refused on the basis that the Treaty explicitly referred to men, not women30.
An Assassination Attempt
Later the same year an attempt to assassinate Mohammed was made by poisoning. A Jewish woman from the recently conquered town of Khaybar, Zaynab bint al-Harith prepared a roast lamb for Mohammed to which she had added poison. Mohammed tasted the meat was bad instantly and called for the woman to be brought to him. She explained away the poisoning as a test. If he truly was a prophet, he would have known that the lamb was poisoned. If he were an impostor, he would have died. Mohammed spared the woman as she had indirectly confirmed his status as a prophet, but the poison he had swallowed is believed to have ultimately caused his death three years later31.
Spreading The Word
The Muslims had been quick to utilise their military strength after the Battle of the Trench, sweeping through towns and villages throughout Arabia offering the inhabitants three choices. If they were Jews or Christians they could either convert to Islam, submit to lesser status and pay the Jizya (this was called dhimmitude. Those that chose to live this way were known as Dhimmis. Dhimmi can be translated as 'guilty ones'), or they would be killed. The pagan Arabs had a lesser choice: either submit to Islam or die32. In 630AD, Mohammed turned his sights on Mecca and the Quraysh. An army of ten thousand33 marched upon the city. They met little resistance as the Quraysh had been steadily weakened by defections to the Muslims and had been effectively starved by the Muslim's dominance of the surrounding lands. Mohammed ordered that his men fight only those who resisted and to accept anyone who wished to convert, with the exception of those who had been Muslim but had subsequently left the religion. Mohammed was quite clear that such people, apostates, had to be killed34. When Mohammed arrived at the shrine of Ka'bah, he had all the icons destroyed except two. Jesus and Mary were spared the destruction35.
Expanding An Empire
Mohammed quickly eradicated all remaining resistance in Arabia and became undisputed ruler of the peninsula. He now began looking to expand and sent letters to the adjoining countries and empires such as the Byzantines and Persians, inviting them to submit to Islam or be conquered36. They refused and Mohammed led a series of raids into their territory. Each raid brought him more territory and converts, but he was nearing the end of his life and suffering constant pain from the poisoning attempt on his life. In 632 AD, he made what was to be his final pilgrimage to Mecca. He died in the lap of his favourite wife Aisha on 8 June; having stated that he was satisfied that he had ‘been made victorious with terror cast in the hearts of the enemy’37. His last instructions were that Arabia be totally cleansed of all non-Muslims38.
When Mohammed died, he left no successor. Of his many children born to wives and concubines, no son survived childhood. It was left to Aisha to indicate who should take over the burgeoning Islamic Empire, or Caliphate. She stated that Mohammed would have chosen Abu Bakr if asked, especially as he had been standing in for Mohammed in leading the Muslims in prayer while Mohammed had been too ill39. Abu Bakr thus became the first Caliph. However, one faction of Muslims insisted that it should have been a man called Ali who should take over. They were rebuffed by Aisha. The faction split from the main body of Muslims and became known as the Party of Ali or the Shi'at Ali, popularly known as the Shi'a. As they separated from the other Muslims, their religious rituals became markedly different from those of the Sunnis (derived from their strict adherence to the traditions or Sunnah as established by Mohammed). This schism within Islam exists into the modern day with both sides still arguing bitterly over who was Mohammed’s rightful heir.
Then And Now
In many ways it is wrong to judge Mohammed by the moral standards of today. He was a man of his time and what is abhorrent now was acceptable 1400 years ago. The accusations of paedophilia laid against him for marrying and having sex with such a young girl as Aisha are nonsensical and worse, they offend the one and a half billion Muslims who hold Mohammed to be the perfect example to all mankind. Similarly his division of people into Muslims and lesser men is a reflection of a society that was rigidly hierarchical. The brutality of the punishments and laws he enacted were no worse than any other society at that time. Mohammed was spectacularly successful in the use of psychology, brutality and inspiring terror as a means to creating an empire, but that is a mono-chromatic view. In the course of his 22 year career he also established principles that cover everything from art to inheritance laws, including Sharia Law. He made it possible for the Arabs to create an Empire that was technologically and philosophically far in advance of any other society of the era.
- 570 Muhammed born in Mecca
- 595 Marriage to Khadija
- 610 Muhammed visited by Gabriel in a dream
- 613 Mohammed begins openly preaching in Mecca
- 619 Khadija dies, Satanic Verses
- 619 The Night Journey
- 622 The Hegira, flight from Mecca to Medina
- 622 Marriage to Aisha consummated
- 624 Battle of Badr
- 624 Jewish tribe Quaynuqa exiled from Medina
- 625 Muslims defeated at the Battle of Uhud
- 625 Jewish tribe Nadir exiled from Medina
- 627 The Battle of the Trench : Jewish tribe Qurayzah slaughtered and enslaved
- 628 Treaty of Hudaybiyya
- 628 Battle of Khaybar: Jews exiled : Assassination attempt on Mohammed
- 630 Muslims take Mecca
- 631 Remaining Arabian tribes submit to Islam
- 632 Mohammed dies in Medina