The Messenger of Allah (S)

One night in the month of Ramadan in the year 609 AD, Muhammad Ibn Abdallah Ibn Abd al-Muttalib Ibn Hashim, the future Prophet Muhammad (SAWS), had a revelation in the cave of Hira near Makkah. A voice said: “I am Gabriel, the angel sent by Allah to communicate His messages, His revelation to humanity.”

The first revelation he received was this:

“Recite in the name of your Fosterer Who created\r\nHe created man from something that clings and hangs (like a leech)
Recite, and your Fosterer is the Most Honourable,
Who taught with the pen.
He taught man that which he did not know.”

These words form the first five verses of the 96th chapter of the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, which contains this and the many other revelations Muhammad (SAWS) would receive in the course of the next twenty-three years before his death.

Makkah, the birthplace of Islam, was at the beginning of the seventh century AD a prosperous trading centre with some 10,000 inhabitants. It stood at the cross-roads of several major trade routes, which traversed the Arabian Peninsula, which itself stood at the confines of the two most powerful empires of that time: The Persian Sessanid empire to the north-east, and the Byzantine empire to the north and west (Syria and Egypt).

Through Makkah passed caravans transporting the most precious commodities of the age: silk from China, spices from India, and perfumes from the Yemen, en route for Byzantium and the rest of Europe. It was a well organized city-state with a council of ten hereditary oligarchs and with ministries responsible for justice, defence, worship, external relations, consultations with the citizens and other civic affairs. Each of these ministries was held by one of the major clans of the tribe of Quraysh, to which Muhammad (SAWS) belonged.

The people of Makkah had a reputation for generosity and honesty: when famine struck they fed the poor; and to protect the interests of foreigners who had been unjustly treated in Makkah they had founded an “order of chivalry”. They believed in one God but, like most of the sedentary or nomadic peoples then living in the Arabian peninsula, they also worshipped idols which, they hoped, would intercede with the deity on their behalf. They did not believe in the resurrection or in an after life.

Makkah was noted for a temple known as the Ka’ba which had become a major centre of pilgrimage. Reputedly built by Adam and restored by Abraham, the Ka’ba was a cubical building, adorned all around with 360 idols. The Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus were among the figures depicted on frescoes inside. A black stone in on e corner of the Ka’ba was the object of particular veneration: it marked the spot where the ritual procession around the temple began, and on it pilgrims swore fidelity to God. The annual pilgrimage to the Ka’ba attracted crowds of worshippers from all over the Arabian peninsula.

The overwhelming majority of the people of Makkah, including Muhammad (SAWS), were illiterate but they were renowned for their eloquence and appreciation of poetry. Indeed, poets from all over the peninsula came there to display their talents and earn the approval of the Makkans.

Such was the setting to which the message of Islam was first brought by Muhammad (SAWS).

When he received the first revelation Muhammad (SAWS) was forty years old. An Arab born in Makkah into a family of merchants, he had become the leader of caravans, like his father and grandfather before him. His wife Khadijah (RA) was the widow of a merchant, and on her behalf he had journeyed to Syria, the Yemen, East Arabia (Bahrain, Oman), and possibly even as far as Abyssinia which had highly developed trading links with Pre-Islamic Makkah. As a young man Muhammad (SAWS) had already revealed exceptional qualities which distinguished him from his fellows. In particular he had won a reputation for probity (decency, honesty) in business which earned him the name of al-Amin (worthy of confidence).

According to historians, Muhammad (SAWS) once bought a young slave named Zaid Ibn Harithah (RA), whom he treated very kindly. Zaid (RA) had been captured during a war. After a long search his father, chief of a big tribe, found his son in Makkah and asked Muhammad (SAWS) to return the boy in exchange for a ransom. The future Prophet replied that he would free the young slave for nothing, provided the boy willingly agreed to go with his father. Faced with this choice, Zaid (RA) at once and unhesitatingly announced that he preferred to stay with Muhammad (SAWS). The latter was deeply moved and immediately set the boy free, took him to the Ka’ba and declared that he had decided to adopt his former slave as his son.

Another incident, which happened some five years before the first revelation, also sheds a revealing light on Muhammad’s (SAWS) character. The Ka’ba had been destroyed by fire and torrential rain, and then rebuilt by the Makkans. However, just as the Black Store was about to be returned to its place, a quarrel broke out between the different clans, each of which coveted the honour of replacing the sacred object. The issue seemed likely to be settled at sword point when an old man proposed that the decision be left in God’s hands and that whoever came on the scene first should arbitrate the issue.

The first comer turned out to be Muhammad (SAWS), who placed the stone in a wide piece of cloth and asked a representative of each clan to lift the cloth by its edge. In this way every clan participated in the restoration of the Black Stone to its niche, where it was placed by Muhammad (SAWS) to the satisfaction of everyone.

It was around this time that Muhammad (SAWS) became dissatisfied with the wordly life around him and began to retire to spend his days in meditation, his favourite retreat being the cave of Hira. For five successive years he thus went into seclusion during the whole month of Ramadan, which then fell in mid-winter. It was during his fifth annual retreat that he first had his revelation through the Archangel Gabriel.

When the revelation was over, Muhammad (SAWS) returned home, profoundly shaken, and described his experience to his wife Khadijah (RA). He was in a state of great agitation and feared that the angel might have been the devil in disguise. Khadijah (RA) did all she could to comfort him and the next day they both visited her cousin, Waraqah Ibn Nawfal, a blind old man who had been converted to Christianity and was versed in religious lore (knowledge, wisdom).

As soon as Muhammad (SAWS) finished telling his story, Waraqa exclaimed: “If what you say is true, this is similar to the Nomos (Torah) of Moses. If Allah spares me, I shall defend you when the hour of your persecution comes.

“What!” replied Muhammad (SAWS). “Shall I be persecuted for having talked to God and his blessings?”

“Yes,” said Waraqa, “no prophet has escaped persecution from a part of his people.”

The story of Muhammad’s revelation spread throughout the city. The first to proclaim their faith in his message were Khadijah (RA), the devoted Zaid (RA), Muhammad’s (SAWS) friend Abu Bakr (RA) and his young cousin Ali (RA), whom he had brought up as an adopted son. Others were sceptical, if not openly hostile.

Then three years went by without Gabriel appearing again to the Prophet (SAWS). Muhammad (SAWS) was on the verge of despair when his aunt, Umm Lahab, taunted him saying: “I am sure that your devil (Gabriel) has abandoned you and that he detests you.”

This insult touched the Prophet (SAWS) to the quick. He climbed a nearby mountain, and when he reached the summit Gabriel appeared before him, calmed him and recited to him the words of Allah:

“By the brightness of the day, and the night when it darkens. Your Fosterer has neither forsaken you nor does he hate you… So as for the orphan do not oppress (him), and as for the beggar do not drive him away and as for the favour of your Fosterer, do proclaim.” (Chapter 93: Verses 1-3 & 9-11)

Muhammad (SAWS) immediately grasped the meaning of this message ordering man to believe in Allah and to be charitable.

The message which Muhammad (SAWS) began to preach to the people of his birthplace had two main doctrines, the unity of God and the resurrection and life after death. The idea of a single omniscient and omnipresent God, to which everyone will one day have to give an account of himself, conflicted with the idolatrous beliefs and practices of the Makkans. At first they were amused by Muhammad’s (SAWS) teachings. Then they began to pour scorn (disrespect, ridicule) on him. Finally they unleashed a wave of persecution against the Prophet and the small group of converts who had embraced the new religion. When it became intolerable, Muhammad (SAWS) advised his new companions to seek refuge in Abyssinia where a Christian king gave them asylum and protection. When the Makkans furiously sent a delegation to demand the extradition of the Muslim refugees, the Abyssinian king turned down their request.

The Makkan delegation thus returned home frustrated, and as a result the persecution of those Muslims who had remained in Makkah was stepped up.

Eventually the pagan Makkans decided to proclaim a boycott of the Prophet (SAWS) and his clan. All commercial transactions, including the sale of food, were forbidden, and many Muslims died during the boycott.

After three long years the Makkans lifted the embargo, but his was not the end of Muhammad’s (SAWS) difficulties. His uncle, Abu Talib, head of the family and his protector, died, and the new haead of the clan, another uncle, Abu Lahab, declared Muhammad (SAWS) an outlaw whom anyone could kill. Faced with no alternative but to leave Makkah, Muhammad (SAWS) sought asylum in the neighbouring town of Ta’if. However, the people of Ta’if turned out to be even more hostile than the Makkans and the Prophet (SAWS) soon returned to his native city under the protection of a non-Muslim friend, since he himself was excommunicated by his clan.

He now conceived the idea of making contact with the foreigners who came to Makkah each year on the annual pilgrimage to the Ka’ba. After many vain efforts with contingents from different tribes, a small group of people from Yathrib, later to be known as Madinat al-Nabi, “the city of the Prophet”, or simply Madina, “the city” rallied to his cause and agreed to preach the message in their town. The following year twelve people from Madinah came to Makkah at the time of the pilgrimage and declared their conversion to Islam. When they returned home they were accompanied by a missionary from Makkah who had been instructed by the Prophet (SAWS) to preach Islam in Madinah.

The missionary was so successful that the next year dozens of converts came to Makkah from Madinah and invited the Prophet (SAWS) and all the persecuted Muslims to emigrate to their town. Muhammad (SAWS) accepted, but first he asked the Muslims in Makkah to go to Madinah in small groups because if they migrated en masse the people of Makkah would probably molest them. So secretly, in small groups, they went.

As more and more Muslims left Makkah, the Makkans became afraid that if Muhammad (SAWS) too found refuge elsewhere he would eventually return with his hosts and attack his native city. And so they decided to assassinate him. When news of the plot reached Muhammad (SAWS), he went to his friend Abu Bakr and they both decided to leave Makkah under cover of darkness and go to Madinah. Abu Bakr engaged a man to bring two camels to their hiding place and to guide them by unfrequented routes. After many adventures they arrived safely in Madinah, to the joy of the Muslims who were already there.

This event, the Hijrah, is the starting point of the Islamic calendar which has now ended fourteen centuries. Before it, life was full of difficulties for Islam; after it, in Madinah, there came a time of relative security and progress which permitted the establishment of an Islamic State.

Muhammad (SAWS) was a practical man. He wanted to establish how Muslims should act in every aspect of their existence – in their spiritual and personal lives and also in their political lives as members of the community. In Madinah he embarked on this great task.

The first problem facing him was that of the refugees. He suggested that each wealthy Madinian Family should fraternize (associate, mix, socialize) with a family of Makkan refugees; the two families should work together, earn together, and live together as a single family. The Madinian Muslims agreed and in this way the problem of the refugees was soon solved.

The next problem was that of security. On the Prophet’s arrival, there was a political vaccum in Madinah, which consisted merely of a number of warring clans who recognized no ruler and no form of state authority. Muhammad (SAWS) called together representatives of all the population – Muslims, idolatrous Arabs, Jews and Christians – and proposed the establishment of a city-state whose strength would deter anyone who might think of attacking it. The proposal was accepted, and Muhammad (SAWS) was himself selected as head of the new state.

As head of state his first measure was to draw up a constitution. The text, which has survived to the present day, is the world’s first known example of a written constitution. It defines the rights and duties of the head of state and his subjects, and makes provisions for defence, justice, social insurance and other needs. The hallmark of the constitution is tolerance in the widest sense. Under it everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to enjoy not only liberty of conscience but also liberty of law and justice: Muslim law was applied to non-Muslims neither in civil nor penal cases.

Muhammad (SAWS) next began to organize the security of the Muslim state by making a series of defensive alliances with the tribes which lived around Madinah. Strengthened by these alliances, he forbade the Makkan caravans travelling to Syria, Egypt or Iraq to cross Islamic territory. When the Makkans tried to force their way through they found their way blocked by bands of Muslims three and sometimes ten times fewer than their own forces. The great victory at the battle of Badr (year 2 Hijri) was won, for example, by some 300 Muslims pitted against some 950 pagans.

As the years went by, Makkah began to show signs of economic exhaustion. Muhammad (SAWS) generously offered a truce but when it was violated by the Makkans he occupied their city withouta blow being struck. His first decision was to proclaim a general amnesty which affected the Makkans so profoundly that most of them were converted to Islam overnight.

With the conquest of Makkah, the Prophet’s (SAWS) hands were freed to deal with the Byzantine empire which was hesitating neither to assassinate the Muslim ambassadors nor to put to death those of its subjects who embraced Islam. He could also pay attention to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, from where scores of delegations came to Madinah to declare their conversion.

Two years later he again went to Makkah to perform the pilgrimage of the House of Allah, that culminating () and final element of the edifice (building, structure) of Islam. His mission on earth had been accomplished: three months later he breathed his last.

By the time of his death in 11 AH / 632 AD the whole of the Arabian Peninsula as well as the southern parts of Palestine and Iraq had been converted to Islam. The Islamic state which had been born in a part of the town of Madinah in year 1 of Hirjah had expanded to cover three million square kilometres and was endowed (gifted) with the financial, military, educational, administrative, judicial and other institutions necessary for its survival and development.

Before he died he had summed up the basic duties of Islam: acceptance of the confession of faith (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad (SAWS) is his Messenger”); performing daily prayers (Namaz, Salah); paying tax (Zakat); the pilgrimage to Makkah; and fasting during the month of Ramadan. These five pillars of faith, where material and spiritual mingle in a single balanced whole, remain today the foundations of Islam.

Article was published in The Unesco Courier in 1981 by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, an Islamologist from Hyderabad, India; who was an honorary research officer at the French National Centre of Scientific Research in Paris. He taught for 25 years at the University of Istanbul and for shorter periods at the Universities of Ankara and Erzurum (Turkey) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). Among his published works are Le Prophete de I’Islam (Paris, 1950 and 1980), Muslim Conduct of State (Lahore, 1977) and a translation of the Qur’an into French (Beirut, 1980 tenth edition, this translation reached a total of 13 editions during his lifetime).

This article has been edited by Quranic Resources Admin

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