Who was Muhammad, and how did the Arab world of the seventh century shape his teachings?
|A) Pre-Islamic Arabia||Take action on a global scale|
|B) Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam||Bring social justice to your school|
|C) Muhammad’s Revelation – the Quran||Learn about the hadith|
|D) Upsetting the Social Order|
There is plenty of false information about Islam on the internet. For many reasons, you must be careful of what you read – pay close attention to your sources and always ask yourself, “How does this piece of information fit with what I already know?”
Here’s an honest attempt to accurately convey the most basic beliefs and practices of Islam in a form suitable for use in the classroom or for anyone who is just curious about a topic relevant in a rapidly globalizing world. Please read the following in the spirit with which it was written – with good intentions toward greater understanding and tolerance.
This lesson was reported from:
A) Pre-Islamic Arabia
The Arabian Peninsula is a largely arid place, with vast expanses of sandy desert, making agriculture difficult except near oases or springs. Arabia has few lakes or permanent rivers. Most areas are drained by ephemeral watercourses called wadis, which are dry except during the rainy season. Plentiful ancient aquifers exist beneath much of the peninsula, however, and where this water surfaces, oases form (e.g. Al-Hasa and Qatif, two of the world’s largest oases) and permit agriculture, especially palm trees, which allow the peninsula to produce more dates than any other region in the world.
In ancient times and in the time of Muhammad (around the year 600 CE), this landscape was dotted with towns and cities, with two of the most prominent being Mecca and Medina. Medina was a flourishing agricultural settlement, while Mecca was an important economic and religious center for many surrounding tribes.
Indigenous Arabs were either nomadic or sedentary, the former, commonly referred to as Bedouin, travelling from one place to another seeking water and pasture for their flocks, while the latter settled and focused on trade and agriculture. Bedouin survival also depended on raiding caravans or oases; nomads did not view this as a crime, so much as a toll for passing through tribal territory.
Whether nomadic or sedentary, communal life was essential for survival in these desert conditions, supporting indigenous tribes against the harsh environment and lifestyle. Tribal grouping was encouraged with unity being based on blood relations.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, gods or goddesses were viewed as protectors of individual tribes, their spirits being associated with sacred trees, stones, springs and wells. Monotheistic communities also existed in Arabia, including Christians and Jews.
Prior to the spread of Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the Kaaba shrine in Mecca was a holy site for the various Bedouin tribes of the area. Once every lunar year, the Bedouin tribes would make a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Kaaba housed at least 360 idols of tribal patron deities, including Hubal, Allah, and even Christian figures. In this way, Mecca became not only the most important religious center in Arabia, but also its most important economic center as well – setting aside any tribal feuds, pilgrims from across the desert would worship their pagan gods in the Kaaba and trade with each other in the city. This made the tribes who controlled the Kaaba very wealthy.
B) Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam
- Summarize the early life of Muhammad. Could his life be called auspicious?
- History and legend are often difficult to separate, especially when discussing the lives of religious figures or rulers. What is the difference between history and legend? Is it important to discern this difference when studying the past? Who would create legends around the life of a figure like Muhammad, and why?
- How do you think Muhammad’s personal experience as an orphan might have shaped his future teachings on social justice and equality in the Muslim society?
Muhammad was born about the year 570 CE. He belonged to the Banu Hashim clan, part of the Quraysh tribe, one of Mecca‘s prominent families.
Muhammad’s father, Abdullah, died almost six months before he was born. According to Islamic tradition, soon after birth he was sent to live with a Bedouin family in the desert, as desert life was considered healthier for infants. Muhammad stayed with his foster-mother, Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb, and her husband until he was two years old. At the age of six, Muhammad lost his biological mother Amina to illness and became an orphan. For the next two years, until he was eight years old, Muhammad was under the guardianship of his paternal grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, of the Banu Hashim clan until his death. He then came under the care of his uncle Abu Talib, the new leader of the Banu Hashim.
According to Islamic historian William Montgomery Watt, “Muhammad’s guardians saw that he did not starve to death, but it was hard for them to do more for him, especially as the fortunes of the clan of Hashim seem to have been declining at that time.” This minimal commitment was a common attitude toward orphans and other weaker members of society in Arabia during this period.
In his teens, Muhammad accompanied his uncle on Syrian trading journeys to gain experience in commercial trade. Islamic tradition states that when Muhammad was either nine or twelve while accompanying the Meccans’ caravan to Syria, he met a Christian monk or hermit named Bahira who is said to have foreseen Muhammad’s career as a prophet of God.
Little is known of Muhammad during his later youth. Available information is fragmented, causing difficulty to separate history from legend. It is known that he became a merchant and “was involved in trade between the Indian ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.” Due to his upright character he acquired the nickname “al-Amin” (Arabic: الامين), meaning “faithful, trustworthy” and “al-Sadiq” meaning “truthful” and was sought out as an impartial arbitrator. His reputation attracted a proposal in 595 from Khadijah, a 40-year-old widow, some 20 years his elder. Muhammad consented to the marriage, which by all accounts was a happy one.
Several years later, according to a narration collected by historian Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad was involved with a well-known story about setting the Black Stone in place in the wall of the Kaaba in 605 CE. The Black Stone, a sacred object, was removed during renovations to the Kaaba. The Meccan leaders could not agree which clan should have the honor of returning the Black Stone to its place. They decided to ask the next man who comes through the gate to make that decision; that man was the 35-year-old Muhammad. He asked for a cloth and laid the Black Stone in its center. The clan leaders held the corners of the cloth and together carried the Black Stone to the right spot, then Muhammad laid the stone, satisfying the honor of all.
C) Muhammad’s Revelation – the Quran
- How do Muslims believe that God (Allah) spoke to Muhammad?
- What is the Quran, and why is so important to Islam?
- What does it mean to say that Islam is Abrahamic and monotheistic? Do Muslims believe that Allah is a different God than the one worshiped by Jews or Christians?
It was around this time that Muhammad began to pray alone in a cave named Hira on Mount Jabal al-Nour, near Mecca for several weeks every year. Islamic tradition holds that during one of his visits to that cave, in the year 610 CE the angel Gabriel appeared to him and commanded Muhammad: “Read.”
Muhammad replied, “I am unable to read.”
Thereupon the angel caught hold of him and embraced him. The angel commanded Muhammad to recite the following verses:
- “Proclaim! in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who Created man, out of a clot of congealed blood: Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,– Who taught by the pen– Taught man that which he knew not.”
Muhammad was deeply distressed upon receiving his first revelations, thinking he might be going insane. After returning home, Muhammad was consoled and reassured by his wife Khadijah.
That initial revelation was followed by a three-year pause during which Muhammad felt depressed and further gave himself to prayers and spiritual practices. When the revelations resumed he was reassured and commanded to begin preaching: “Thy Guardian-Lord hath not forsaken thee, nor is He displeased.”
Muhammad described his revelations, saying, “sometimes it is (revealed) like the ringing of a bell.” Another witness reported, “I saw the Prophet being inspired Divinely on a very cold day and noticed the sweat dropping from his forehead (as the Inspiration was over).”
Muhammad was confident that he could distinguish his own thoughts from these messages.
This was the basis for Islam, which means “submission to God’s will” – a religion today practiced by nearly 2 billion people worldwide, or about one quarter of the world’s population. One who follows the religion of Islam is called a Muslim. Islam is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion that upholds that God is one and incomparable and that the purpose of existence is to worship God. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet of God. Muhammad himself is NOT worshiped, though his life and behavior are considered to be moral examples which other Muslims should emulate.
Muslims also believe that Islam is the original, complete and universal version of a primordial faith that was revealed many times before through prophets including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, from banking and welfare to women and the environment.
Muhammad’s revelations would later be included in the Quran, which literally means “the recitation.” The Quran is considered by Muslims to be the verbatim word of God (Allāh, in Arabic). Muhammad and the first Muslims did not write down the Quran – it was memorized and recited orally, only to be written down some time after Muhammad’s death, as the first generation of Muslims died off from old age.
The key themes of the early Quranic verses included the responsibility of man towards his creator; the resurrection of the dead, God’s final judgment followed by vivid descriptions of the tortures in Hell and pleasures in Paradise, and the signs of God in all aspects of life. Religious duties required of the believers at this time were few: belief in God, asking for forgiveness of sins, offering frequent prayers, assisting others particularly those in need, rejecting cheating and the love of wealth (considered to be significant in the commercial life of Mecca), being chaste and not killing newborn girls, a common practice not just in Arabia, but in many ancient societies.
D) Upsetting the Social Order
- Why did Muhammad and his early followers come into conflict with those who ruled Mecca?
- What is jihad?
- What is the ummah, and why is the ummah established in Medina a landmark in Arab history?
- Why did Muhammad empty the Kaaba?
Muhammad’s teachings caused great conflict in his hometown of Mecca. Remember that the Kaaba was a polytheistic place of worship that attracted pilgrims from all over the Arabian peninsula. Those who controlled the Kaaba controlled the valuable trade that centered around pilgrimage to this site and became quite wealthy as a result. Muhammad preached strict monotheism. He also preached an egalitarian, charitable way of life. All of this threatened business as usual for those who controlled Mecca.
These wealthy Meccan clans attempted to assassinate Muhammad and destroy his followers.
Muhammad’s resistance to these attacks was the first jihad. In Arabic, the word jihād is a noun meaning the act of “striving, applying oneself, struggling, persevering.” Jihad has two meanings: an inner spiritual struggle (the “greater jihad”), which is the internal struggle to follow God’s will, and an outer physical struggle against the enemies of Islam (the “lesser jihad”), which may take a violent or non-violent form. Though some extreme, minority interpretations of Islam have used the term to justify acts of terrorism in the 20th and 21st centuries, most Muslims believe in a definition must emulate Muhammad’s war of self-defense.
This is a good time to quote Reza Aslan, who writes about a common misunderstanding of jihad – that jihad is an offensive war, or a war with the intention of converting followers of other faiths. “….the idea of killing nonbelievers who refused to convert to Islam not only defied the example of Muhammad but also violated one of the most important principles in the Quran: that “there can be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Indeed, on this point the Quran is adamant. “The truth is from your Lord,” it says; “believe it if you like, or do not” (18:29). The Quran also asks rhetorically, “Can you compel people to believe against their will?” (10:100). Obviously not; the Quran therefore commands believers to say to those who do not believe, “To you your religion; to me mine” (109:6).”
Muhammad and his followers retreated, fleeing from Mecca occurred in 622 CE. It is from roughly this time period that the Islamic calendar counts. (For example, the year 2018 CE/AD corresponds with roughly the year 1439 in the Muslim calendar.)
After Muhammad and the first converts to Islam were forced to leave Mecca, the community was welcomed in Medina by the Ansar, a group of pagans who had converted to Islam. Despite Medina already being occupied by numerous Jewish and polytheistic tribes, the arrival of Muhammad and his followers provoked no strong opposition from Medina’s residents. Upon arriving in Medina, Muhammad established the Constitution of Medina with the various tribal leaders in order to form the Meccan immigrants and the Medinan residents into a single community, the ummah.
Rather than limiting members of the ummah to a single tribe or religious affiliation as had been the case when the ummah first developed in Mecca, the Constitution of Medina ensured that the ummah was composed of a variety of people and beliefs – or, in other words, it was a tolerant, pluralistic community, unifying many beliefs and cultures in peaceful coexistence.
Scholar Reza Aslan continues, describing some of Muhammad’s other egalitarian reforms. “As for the Law of Retribution [the ancient Mesopotamian notion of an eye for an eye], he equalized the blood worth of every member of his community (previously, a sheikh’s eye would have been worth much more than an orphan’s eye). He categorically outlawed usuary […] He opened local markets and charged no tax on transactions. Instead, he instituted a mandatory tithe (zakat), the proceeds of which were redistributed to the poor. He greatly expanded the rights of women (especially in terms of inheritance laws). He limited how many wives a man could marry and granted women the right to divorce their husbands. None of these reforms were implemented without resistance.”
After much conflict – battles and retreats, a life in exile and the foundation of an egalitarian model Muslim community in the city of Medina – Muhammad and his followers eventually conquered Mecca. They emptied the Kaaba of its many polytheistic idols and proclaimed it to be the center of Muslim worship, the direction in which Muslims all over the world are to pray five times a day.
Muhammad died an old man at the center of a great ummah, or community of believers. His revelations would live on to guide the lives of billions of Muslims.
Next: How do Muslims practice their faith?
- Speaking of the need for a fair, socially just ummah, Muhammad once said, “The Believers, in their mutual love, mercy and compassion, are like one body: if one organ complained, the rest of the body develops a fever.” Consider the entire world as one ummah, one body. Visit a news website, like NPR.org, and read stories about the issues facing the world today. Reconvene with your classmates to develop an action plan for some tangible steps (even small ones!) that you might take as a class or school to advance mercy and compassion to alleviate one of these issues.
- Consider your classroom or school as an ummah. Is it a merciful and compassionate place? If not, what steps might be taken to make it more so? Work with your classmates, teacher, and principal to create an action plan to make your school a more just, compassionate place.
- Read and research the hadith, reports describing the words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. How do they compare to the Quran? Why are they important to Islam? Can you make any comparisons between the hadith and any secular (non-religious) documents or practices?
No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan.
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson.
From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi by Mohammed al Fahim.
You can actually visit parts of the world featured in the lesson:
Sweat in the streets of Manama and Doha, ride to the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, witness the grandeur of Islamic architecture at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque before spending the evening dune bashing with high paying tourists in the sands of Abu Dhabi.
- A Guided Tour of Bahrain, 2016 – supplementary photos and information on the Kingdom of Bahrain.
- A Guided Tour of Qatar, 2016 – supplementary photos and information on the State of Qatar.
- A Guided Tour of the United Arab Emirates, 2016 – supplementary photos and information on the Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
- Adventure Blog.
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