Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Muhammad in Medina (Part 1)

The following is from a work-in-progress called "A Brief History of Islam" which is basically a book report on scholar Reza Aslan's book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which is an awesome and eye-opening book.

622 C.E. is “Year One” on the Islamic calendar.  That was the year Muhammad led his small community of followers out of Mecca on the great “Hijra” (or, migration) to the city that would become known as Medina, the City of the Prophet.  It was in Medina that this relatively small and powerless community would grow into a massive religious movement.

But in 622, Medina was called Yathrib, and Muhammad’s community was small and vulnerable.  They numbered around 100 followers, barely enough to qualify as a clan.  Yathrib wasn’t even really a city.  Rather, it was a “loose federation of villages inhabited by farmers and orchardists.”  Most of the arable land was owned by Jewish clans, and their main crop was dates.  Muhammad was able to purchase a small plot of land in Yathrib, where he and his followers built what might be called the fist “mosque” - a modest wood and mud structure.  Today it is known as the Quba Mosque, the oldest mosque in the world.

The main reason Muhammad chose Yathrib for his followers new home was because he’d been invited by a tribe called the Khazraj, who were in the midst of a dispute with another clan called the Aws.  The Khazraj invited Muhammad to act as a “hakam” (or, arbiter) between these two tribes, a function which earned him great respect.

What was unique about the new community Muhammad formed in Yahrib?  Without the persecution of the powerful Quraysh tribe, the prophet was able to institute the sweeping religious and social reforms that had earned him so much disdain in Mecca.  Conrary to the tribal ethic of the day, Muhammad allowed anyone to join his new community, regardless of ethnicity, culture, race, or kinship.  Justice was administered using the same method virtually all peoples used at the time—the Law of Retibution, which stated that an offense was punishable by the same offense.  However, contrary to the custom of the time, Muhammad urged his followers to temper this “justice” with forgiveness.  

Muhammad strove to create the egalitarian ideal that was absent in Mecca.  Every member of the community had equal worth.  He outlawed the predatory lending practices that had created the economic inequality in Mecca.  He also abolished taxes and interest.  He created a kind of welfare fund called takat, which redistributed funds among the neediest members of the community.

Contrary to stereotypes, Muhammad’s early community was characterized by a level of gender equality unheard of at that time and place.  Women were no longer to be regarded as property.  He also instituted property and inheritance rights for women, limited how many wives men could have, and gave women the right to divorce their husbands.

As was practiced virtually everywhere in the 7th century, polygamy was permitted, but it was often seen as a way to form political and clan alliances.  What was most shocking, in the context of 7th century Arabia, about Muhammad was not the fact that he took several wives in Yathrib (all tribal leaders did that) but the fact that, prior to that, he lived for 25 years in a monogamous relationship, with Khadija, a woman who was his equal in terms of wealth and power.  That was virtually unheard of at the time.  Again, contrary to stereotypes, Muhammad was a real “progressive” in the context of his culture and time period.

The Quba Mosque today (in Medina, Saudi Arabia)

No comments:

Post a Comment