Sunday, April 19, 2015

Muhammad: The Early Years

I'm currently reading scholar Reza Aslan's book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which gives a pretty concise history of Islam.  I've decided to write a series of posts about what I learn.  For my first post, I wrote about the religious life of pre-Islamic Arabia.  For this post, I'll cover the early years of the prophet, from his birth to the famous migration to Medina.

The Birth and Childhood of the Prophet

Tradition holds that the prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca, in the year 570.  It is impossible to know the exact date because it was not recorded.  But 570 was an important year—it was “The Year of the Elephant” — when the Christian Abyssian ruler of Yemen attacked Mecca with an army riding elephants.  Later traditions also ascribe various “signs and wonders” to the prophet’s birth.  It is said that, when his mother was pregnant, she would see a light shining from her womb.  Most prophets have stories like this about them, ascribing meaning and portent to their lives.

Muhammad’s father Abdallah died before he was born, and his mother died when he was six.  Luckily, his uncle Abu Talib agreed to take him in.  Abu Talib was the leader of the Hashim clan, which was part of the larger Quraysh tribe (more on them in a moment).  There are also stories regarding Muhammad’s childhood.  Once, when he was traveling with his uncle, a Christian monk named Bahira proclaimed him “the Messenger of the Lord of the Worlds.”  Muhammad was nine years old.  

Aslan compares these “signs” surrounding the birth and childhood of Muhammad with those of Jesus and the Hebrew prophet Samuel, and concludes that it doesn’t really matter if they are “true” in the literal sense.  Instead, “what matters is what these stories say about our prophets, our messiahs, our kings: that theirs is a holy and eternal vocation, established by God from the moment of creation.”

The Birth of the Prophet Mumammad (from a 14th century Persian manuscript)

The Quraysh Tribe Controls Mecca

In a previous post, I discussed the religious climate of pre-Islamic Mecca.  Now, I’d like to say something about the political climate of this important city.  Beginning in the 4th century, Mecca was basically ruled by a powerful tribe known as the Quraysh.  This began under a powerful leader named Qusayy, who united various smaller clans into a single, and powerful, tribe.  He declared himself “King of Mecca.” To consolidate his power, he collected the various tribal gods of Arabia, and placed them in and around the Ka’aba, thus establishing Mecca as a dominant place of worship for many people.  Qusayy then collected taxes on pilgrims passing through Mecca, whether for religious or trade purposes.

Basically, what Qusayy created, and what the Quraysh tribe continued, was a religio-economic system of control of the city.  The great commercial fairs were planned to coincide with the pilgrimage season to the Ka’aba, which made the ruling tribe wealthy.   Before the dominion of the Quraysh, tribal life in Arabia tended to have a kind of social equality, or as Aslan explains, “The tribal ethic was meant to maintain a semblance of social egalitarianism so that regardless of one’s position, every member could share in the social and economic rights and privileges that preserved the unity of the tribe.”  

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a single tribe, and the ruling elite of that tribe, had a devastating effect on the equality of the tribal ethic.  Instead, society in Mecca became stratified, with a few at the top, and many at the bottom.  Aslan explains: “The problem in Mecca was that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few ruling families had not only altered the social and economic landscape of the city, it had effectively destroyed the tribal ethic…The Shaykhs (leaders) of Quraysh had become far more interested in maintaining the apparatus of trade than in caring for the dispossessed.”  

Actually, that kind of sounds like 21st century America.  Aslan continues, “With the demise of the tribal ethic, Meccan society became strictly stratified.  At the top were the leaders of the ruling families of Quraysh.  If one was fortunate enough to acquire enough capital to start a small business, one could take full advantage of the city’s religio-economic system.  But for most Meccans, this was simply not possible.  Especially or those with no formal protection—such as orphans and widows, neither of whom had access to any kind of inheritance—the only option was to borrow money from the rich at exorbitant interest rates, which inevitably led to debt, which in turn led to crushing poverty and, ultimately, to slavery.”

In Muhammad's early years, the religious and economic life of Mecca was controlled by the Quraysh tribe.

The First Revelation

Muhammad was an orphan so, were it not for the protection and hospitality of his uncle, he might very likely have ended up a slave.  But Abu Talib allowed the young Muhammad to work as a caravan trader, under his protection.  All accounts suggest that Muhammad was good at this job, and acquired a reputation as a fair dealer.  He earned the nickname “the trustworthy one.”

When he was 25, Muhammad attracted the attention of a widow 15 years his senior named Khadija.  In many ways, Khadija is an enigma.  She was a wealthy female business owner in a male dominated society.  Also, contrary to custom, she proposed to Muhammad!  He accepted.

With the wealth and influence of Khadija, Muhammad rose to a comfortable position in Meccan society.  However, he was increasingly unhappy.  Perhaps because he was an orphan himself, Muhammad could not stomach the social inequality he saw all around him, even in the religio-economic system he benefitted from.  His clan was, in fact, a part of the Quraysh tribe.  He had become, in many ways, an oppressor, and he could not live with this.

He began to take long pilgrimages into the mountains and caves around Mecca, seeking spiritual guidance to resolve his inner conflict.  And one night, around his 40th year, in the year 610, he got his answer.  He was on one of his solitary spiritual retreats, in a cave on Mt. Hira, when he felt a powerful presence and heard a voice, which commanded him to “Recite!”  Confused and overwhelmed, Muhammad asked, “Recite what?”  Three times the voice told him to recite, and finally he received his first revelation, one in a series of which he would have sporadically throughout his life, which would ultimately form the content of the Qur’an.

This first revelation was devastating to the prophet.  Aslan writes, “Muhammad, like all the prophets before him, wanted nothing to do with God’s calling.  So despondent was he about the experience that his first thought was to kill himself.”  Upon returning home to his wife Khadija, he crawled into his wife’s arms and said, “Wrap me up!  Wrap me up!”  She put her arms around him, comforting him.  He said, “Khadija, I think I have gone mad.”  Instead of criticizing or rebuking him, Khadija soothed the suffering man, and became his first convert.

Muhammad receiving his first revelation.

The Social Implications of Muhammad’s Message

Much has been made about the monotheism of Muhammad’s message.  But this was actually nothing really new.  There were Jews and Christians in Arabia of Muhammad’s day.  Monotheism, though an integral part of the prophet’s message, was not the truly revolutionary thing.  What was revolutionary was the fact that it directly challenged the power of the ruling class, the Quraysh, of which Muhammad was a beneficiary.

What often gets left out of accounts of the origins of Islam is the radical social reform that Muhammad preached.  Aslan writes, “In the strongest terms, Muhammad decried the mistreatment and exploitation of the weak and unprotected.  He called to an end to false contracts and the practice of usury (predatory lending) that had made slaves of the poor.  He spoke of the rights of the underprivileged and the oppressed, and made the astonishing claim that it was the duty of the rich and powerful to take care of them.  ‘Do not oppress the orphan,’ the Qur’an commands, ‘and do not drive away the beggar.’ (93:9-10)”

Muhammad freed his slave Zayd, and encouraged his followers to do the same.  An early convert named Abu Bakr’s “first act after accepting Muhammad’s message was to spend his wealth buying and freeing the slaves of his fellow merchants until he had almost nothing left.”  Also, contrary to commonly-held beliefs, many of Muhammad’s first followers were women.  It was not necessarily monotheism that made the prophet’s message so radical.  It was it’s message of sweeping social reform and social justice.

Muhammad encouraged people to free slaves.

The Quraysh Strike Back

After Muhammad began preaching his radical message in Mecca, by the Ka’aba no less, the Quraysh leaders were probably annoyed, but ignored him at first.  But then he began to attract more converts, and the leaders took notice.  At first, they approached Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib and asked him to quiet down his rambunctious nephew.  That didn’t work, so they resorted to the more intense measure of a city-wide boycott of the goods and services of Muhammad’s clan, the Hashim.  This proved to be devastating but unpopular in Mecca, because people didn’t like seeing their friends and neighbors starving and suffering.

Ultimately, it was the deaths of Abu Talib and his beloved Khadija that nearly broke the prophet and his community of followers.  Without the protection of his uncle, and the economic and emotional support of his wife, Muhammad was almost powerless against the Quraysh.  It was at this time that Muhammad began looking elsewhere.  If his community was going to survive, they had to get out of Dodge.  And, finally, they found refuge in a city a few hundred miles away called Yathrib.  The migration to Yathrib in 622 is called the “hijra” and it is year one on the Islamic calendar.  It was in Yathrib that Islam would truly be born.  And in a few years, the city would be re-named Medina, “the city of the prophet.”

Muhammad and his friend Abu Bakr on their way to Yathrib (Medina)

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