What are the origins of the Islamic faith? Before this question is asked, it has to be acknowledged that there are multiple approaches to the subject, each of which dictates different possible answers. If one begins, as non-Muslims tend to do, by assuming that Islam is a new phenomenon, radically breaking from the religions of the past, then one begins with the life of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) and goes forward, looking to find differences, or even deviations. In this perspective, Islam starts as a newcomer, staking out differences from previous religions in a competitive and critical manner. If, on the other hand, one assumes that there are continuities between the Islamic religion and previous traditions, as many Muslims do, then similarities become the focus of interest. From that point of view, one can look back upon Islam as a fulfillment and reflection upon a centuries-old tradition of prophecy, which stretches back through Jesus to Moses and Abraham. Both of these positions are debatable, since they rest upon essentially theological assumptions; neither view in itself is comprehensive enough to serve both insiders and outsiders. Here I would like to give attention to both external scholarship and internal statements of faith, in providing brief accounts of the sacred sources of Islam in the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur'an, and the complex known as Islamic law.
The Seal of the Prophets: The Prophet Muhammad
The Protestant approach to religion, at its most elemental, assumes that all the essentials are laid down in the foundation of a religion. From this perspective, only the Scripture, and perhaps the extra-scriptural actions and pronouncements of the founder of the religion, can be considered of crucial importance and divine inspiration. Everything that comes later has secondary importance, and is perhaps questionable as an innovation and even a deviation, due to human weakness. Yet the history of religion reveals a growth and development of thought, and an ongoing reflection on the original sources, none of which can be considered irrelevant or superfluous, except from a dogmatic point of view (the rise of Protestant Christianity, well over 1000 years after the life of Jesus, is itself arguably an example of such a development). Islam, likewise, cannot be limited to the “golden age” of the time of the Prophet in Medina. The community of believers has continued to elaborate and meditate upon the themes that emerged from his life and teachings. The importance of the Prophet Muhammad for the Islamic tradition is incalculably greater than one might suppose from the negative diatribes of European Christians, and I begin this account of the sacred sources of Islam with reflections on the Prophet. While the Qur'an as divine revelation may be the most important resource of the Islamic tradition, we would not have it in its present form without the Prophet Muhammad, and therefore I start with him. Nevertheless, the importance of Muhammad is not limited to those sources that can be dated with certainty to his own lifetime. He has served as an ongoing model for ethics, law, family life, politics, and spirituality in ways that were not anticipated fourteen hundred years ago. There are few people in history who have had a greater impact on humanity, and it is through the historical elaboration of tradition that we must seek to understand that impact.
Christian scholars engaged in the "quest for the historical Jesus" found it very difficult to separate a purely historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith. And while at first glance it seems that the life of Muhammad is much more fully documented by contemporary sources, on closer examination it is equally hard to isolate the historical Muhammad from the Muhammad of faith. This is not necessarily a problem. Most Christians do not expect to understand Jesus through some kind of equivalent of the television news, with Dan Rather reporting live on events at the Sea of Galilee. Nor do they think of Jesus in terms of a dry narration of facts from an encyclopedia. Instead, they are personally engaged with Jesus through scripture, which is treated as a living witness to divine truth, and by prayer and other practices tied to the holy days of the year. Art, architecture, music, literature, and film have all been used as means to convey imaginatively the religious importance of Jesus. Similarly, the significance of Muhammad for Muslims has been made plain not only by the Qur'an and other textual sources, but also through stories, poetry, calligraphy, and other arts. Major events in the life of Muhammad are recalled in the special calendar of the Muslim year. Inevitably, the growth of these traditions has included local inflections that vary from one place to another, expressed in different languages and cultures. While it is impossible to catalog all of these different views of Muhammad, it is important to acknowledge that many such perspectives exist. In the twenty-three years that Muhammad received prophetic revelations, he played multiple roles, and in subsequent generations, each group fixed upon that aspect of the Prophet's life that most interested them. The portraits that they present are accordingly partial and one-sided. As the great Persian poet Rumi said, "Everyone became my friend from his own opinion, and failed to seek my secrets within me."1
At this point in most standard treatments of Islam, it is customary to present a brief narrative summarizing the life of the Prophet Muhammad from a historical point of view, providing a standard consensus based on what scholars have sifted from available materials. Yet the earliest written sources address concerns very different from what modern historians seek. The classical documents in Arabic provide nothing like a modern psychological biography. Aside from the Qur'an and hadith (see below), we have access primarily to accounts of his battles in the style of ancient Arab epic, praise of the Prophet’s excellence (in prose and verse), Qur'an commentaries that seek to explain verses by references to Muhammad’s life, and stories that place Muhammad in relation to prophets of the past. In short, Muhammad is presented in terms of the cultural and religious imperatives of a religious tradition.
While it is desirable to provide some basic information, particularly since many American readers are unfamiliar with the story, it would not do justice to the many-faceted character of Muhammad to begin with a dry factual summary. How would it be if one summarized the life of Jesus Christ as the career of a Jewish carpenter of uncertain paternity, turned itinerant preacher of Judgment Day, who was executed as a rebel by the Romans? Or how would it be to consider the Buddha as a troubled prince who abandoned his throne and family responsibilities to live as a beggar? What meaning exists in a brief account of their external lives? The religious significance of such figures would be buried by such an approach, with its deceptive claims of historical objectivity that leaves aside the beliefs and devotion of generations.
Instead, let us begin with a religious artifact -- a calligraphic portrayal of the Prophet according to a traditional account of his physical appearance. This brief description, ordinarily in the version provided by Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law `Ali, is simple and straightforward. “Muhammad was middle-sized, did not have lank or crisp hair, was not fat, had a white round face, wide black eyes, and long eyelashes. When he walked, he walked as though he went downhill. He had the "seal of prophecy" between his shoulder blades.... His face shone like the moon on the night of the full moon.... ”2 Muslims in the Ottoman Turkish regions for centuries have expressed their devotion to the Prophet by making exquisite calligraphic copies of this text (known as the hilya or "adornment"), hanging them in their homes and workplaces in places of honor.
In this illustration (Figure 3.1), from the calligraphy of contemporary Pakistani artist Rashid Butt, the description of Muhammad is contained within the main circular disk that is the heart of the composition. The text in this case comes from a Bedouin woman named Umm Ma`bad, who met Muhammad when he was making his historic journey to Medina:
I saw a man, pure and clean, with a handsome face and a fine figure. He was not marred by a skinny body, nor was he overly small in the head and neck. He was graceful and elegant, with intensely black eyes and thick eyelashes. There was a huskiness in his voice, and his neck was long. His beard was thick, and his eyebrows were finely arched and joined together. When silent, he was grave and dignified, and when he spoke, glory rose up and overcame him. He was from afar the most beautiful of men and the most glorious, and close up he was the sweetest and the loveliest. He was sweet of speech and articulate, but not petty or trifling. His speech was a string of cascading pearls, measured so that none despaired of its length, and no eye challenged him because of brevity. In company he is like a branch between two other branches, but he is the most flourishing of the three in appearance, and the loveliest in power. He has friends surrounding him, who listen to his words. If he commands, they obey implicitly, with eagerness and haste, without frown or complaint.” May God bless him and grant him peace. God, pray for and grant peace to Muhammad, your servant, your Prophet and your messenger, the illiterate Prophet, and to his family and companions, and grant him peace. Written with the grace of God Most High by Rasheed Butt, may God forgive him.3
Four smaller disks containing the names of Muhammad's principal successors remind the viewer of the role of tradition in transmitting his legacy. Above in large letters are the words "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate," the phrase that begins nearly every section of the Qur'an. Highlighted below the text is the phrase in which God announces the universal role of Muhammad: "We only sent you as a mercy for creation" (Qur'an 21:107). The framing of this description by God’s words, proclaiming the cosmic role of the Prophet, signals the unique spiritual position that Muhammad holds.
This remarkable example of contemporary Islamic art indicates one way in which the Muhammad of faith is approached by believers. As an artistic creation, it is a calligraphic icon that represents the physical person of the Prophet without crossing over into a visual portrait. Many Muslims used this artifact as a devotional aid. According to a saying of Muhammad recorded in one of the standard collections, “For him who sees my hilya after my death, it is as if he had seen me myself, and he who sees it, longing for me, for him God will make Hellfire prohibited, and he will not be resurrected naked at Doomsday.”4 Although there are miniature paintings depicting Muhammad in some medieval manuscripts, those tended to be produced privately for elite patrons, rather than as public religious art such as one sees in Christian churches. Muslims have largely rejected the representation of human and animal forms in deliberately religious art. But calligraphy, ideally suited to transmitting the word of God in a beautiful physical form, was the religious art par excellence in Muslim cultures. In this way, it was possible to have a symbolic reminder of the presence of the Prophet Muhammad without creating any kind of "graven image" that would be unacceptable to Muslim sensitivities.
It would be more accurate, however, to say that this artistic concept represents only one of the Muhammads of faith. There are many Muslims today who will find this representation strange, partly because this regional artistic tradition is not well known outside of South Eastern Europe, Turkey, and the eastern Mediterranean. More importantly, this calligraphic evocation of the Prophet calls attention to the Prophet as the one who intercedes with God on behalf of humanity; this is the Muhammad of grace. In reformist circles, the notion that any human being, even the Prophet, can intercede on behalf of others, is often vehemently rejected as a kind of idolatry and worship of human beings. For them, it is another figure who commands their attention: the Muhammad of authority. For those who revere the Muhammad of grace, the historical details of his life and his legal pronouncements are of less interest than his beauty and his compassion for those in need. There is an immense literature on the subject of the physical appearance of the Prophet, stressing his remarkable beauty, and in the process creating legends of his miraculous deeds. This Muhammad is celebrated in festivals held around the world, marking the Prophet's birthday. Although this kind of devotional practice is certainly over a thousand years old, today’s reformists consider it an unpleasant and heretical innovation that has no basis in sacred texts. Saudi legal authorities have issued decrees in recent years denouncing the celebration of the Prophet's birthday as forbidden and blameworthy.
The Muhammad of authority is not necessarily in conflict with the Muhammad of grace. The Qur'an (33:21) calls the Prophet "a beautiful model," and subsequent generations carefully sifted oral tradition to find sayings and actions of the Prophet that could serve as ethical guidance and legal precedents. The Qur'an alludes to the special status of Muhammad and his closeness to God in a number of places. "Whoever obeys the messenger obeys God" (4:80). His position as representative of God made any agreement with him equivalent to an agreement with God. "Those who swear allegiance to you swear allegiance to God" (48:10). Although in some places the Qur'an declines to make distinctions among the prophets, Muhammad is singled out as "the seal of the prophets" (33:40), the one whose imprint on history is as final as a wax seal on a letter. Over the centuries, it was typical for legal scholars to combine study of prophetic sayings with deep reverence for the Prophet. The sayings of Muhammad, known as hadith (Arabic for "report, news"), constitute a kind of secondary scripture for Muslims, with an authority exceeded only by the Qur'an. Muhammad from this perspective acted primarily as the source of legislation and morality. Since the Qur’an contains relatively few specific legal injunctions, it was natural to turn to the far more extensive collections of reports of his sayings and deeds for precedents.
In the subsequent elaboration of Islamic law, the hadith sayings formed the body of material from which one could extract the Prophet's ethical and religious model of exemplary behavior (sunna). This prophetic example was, after the Qur'an, the second most important of the four recognized sources of Islamic law (scholarly consensus and reasoning by analogy were supplementary to Qur'an and sunna). So important was the concept of sunna or prophetic example that it became the basis for the name of the largest sectarian division in Islam, known as Sunni insofar as it claims to emulate the model of Muhammad. Collectors of hadith sayings sifted thousands of such reports for authenticity, using primarily the moral character of the oral transmitters as a guide to their authority. In modern times, European scholars have raised critical questions about the authenticity of the major collections of hadith reports, which were used to establish the prophetic sunna. Because it is always extremely tempting to have a proof text to back up one's position in a legal argument, as one tenth-century scholar remarked, "pious men are never so ready to lie as in matters of hadith." For this reason, Orientalist scholars cast doubt upon any quotations from the Prophet that seemed to have a clear and specific legal consequence; such an obvious legal application, in their view, meant that these reports were obviously forged, especially since many of them addressed specific issues that only arose many years after the time of the Prophet. This harsh criticism of hadith has not failed to have an effect on contemporary Muslim thought as well. Considerable debate has taken place regarding the extent to which hadith sayings can be relied upon as a source of religious guidance. This is one additional reason for the exclusive focus on the Qur'an and rejection of subsequent tradition among some modern Muslim intellectuals.
Early theologians, particularly those of the Shi`i school, regarded the existence of prophets as a necessary corollary to God's mercy (the distinctive doctrines that separate the Shi`i from the Sunni will be discussed later on). These scholars reasoned that mercy is one of the divine attributes, and that therefore God would not deny his mercy to creation. Given the weakness and imperfection of human nature, it is impossible for humanity to overcome ignorance and suffering without the aid of divine knowledge. And how else should that knowledge be communicated to humanity, except through one among them who is chosen by God to deliver that message? The prophets are therefore regarded as the best of humanity, whom God necessarily preserves from sin, since otherwise they could not function as genuine moral and religious leaders. Only through divine inspiration can the knowledge of God's unity be revealed to humanity. Through this reasoning, the Shi`is observed that the appearance of a profound religious leader like Muhammad in the benighted ignorance of pagan Arabia is a perfect example of the providence and mercy of God.5 While Muhammad is regarded as the last such Prophet to be sent by God, Shi`i scholars consider that the divine mercy continues to function after his death through the office of the charismatic leaders known as the Imams, who are physical descendants of the Prophet. The Shi`i perspective claims both the Muhammad of authority and the Muhammad of grace, but systematizes both concepts through a rigorous theology.
Yet another approach to prophecy came from the philosophers, who undertook an elaborate and ingenious interpretation based upon Plato's concept of the philosopher-king. The tenth-century philosopher al-Farabi brilliantly joined Aristotelian cosmology with Islamic theology, declaring that the intellects that move the heavenly spheres are identical with the angels of revelation. A prophet, like a philosopher, has attained to union with the Active Intellect (also known as the Angel Gabriel), so they have essentially the same consciousness. The difference lies in the public role of the prophet, who has the duty of revealing the religious law as a moral code and symbolic structure for all who are incapable of philosophical reasoning. From this perspective, while the ultimate truth of revelation is identical with the conclusions of metaphysics, religion as the public implementation of philosophy performs the roles of politics and ethics. Using Qur'anic language, al-Farabi says that all of the prophets and philosophers are "a single soul" (Qur'an 31:28, etc.). Like Augustine, he regards the particular religion adopted by the philosopher-king as a matter of divine dispensation according to the time and place. The philosophical interpretation of prophecy in a sense subordinated religion to philosophy and devalued history, valuing Muhammad not so much for his individual characteristics as for the cosmic function he fulfilled. While this perspective remained limited to small circles of philosophers, it nonetheless had an important impact, particularly on those philosophically-minded rulers who aspired to be the successors to the role of the Prophet, as God’s representative and Muhammad’s successor (khalifa or Caliph) on earth. Here too we find both Muhammad of authority and the Muhammad of grace, but refracted through the lens of philosophy.
The 15th-century Persian philosopher and prime minister Davani appreciated both the transcendental position of the Prophet, as a recipient of divine light, and the necessity for him to be a normal man. Here is how he balanced the two aspects of Muhammad's existence:
Since the revered Chief of the Messengers (upon whom be prayers and peace) was the source of the majestic and beautiful divine lights, and the revealer of the effects of divine greatness and unlimited glory, he inspired awe to a remarkable degree. [Muhammad's pagan opponent] Abu Sufyan, when he was still a non-Muslim, came near the Prophet to make a treaty. When he returned, he said, "By God! I have seen many kings and leaders, and none of them inspired this fear and awe in my heart." The Prophet Muhammad's grace and friendliness were also extraordinary. One day a woman came before the Prophet, wishing to present a request. Indeed, because of the sparks of holy lights from the windows of the holy soul of the revered Prophet, his light was reflected on the four walls of that purified house. As her obvious astonishment increased, when the Prophet became aware of this, he said, "Do not fear; I am the son of an Arab woman who used to eat dried meat." The intention of the Prophet was to pacify the fear and awe from the heart of that woman, so that she could make her request known. Showing pride to the proud and humility to the poor and oppressed is part of the ethics of generosity.6
For this philosopher, Muhammad provided a model for justice by treating everyone as he or she deserved, whether it meant appearing as a powerful leader or as a humble ordinary person.
These are by no means the only conceptions of Muhammad that Muslims have articulated. Among the Muhammads of faith one should also include, for instance, the socialist Muhammad, embodying modern ideals of social liberation and justice. The history of Muslim views of Muhammad until fairly recently has been dominated for centuries by an emphasis on his cosmic role as the main intercessor for humanity. Mystical concepts of Muhammad portrayed him not only as an ethical guide, but also as the pre-eternal light from which God created the world.7 The main shift in the past century has been in part a response to the stridently negative depictions of the Prophet created by European authors, though it also reflects the growth of bourgeois scientific rationalism in Muslim countries. No longer is the Prophet a mystical presence or a semi-mythical figure wielding apocalyptic powers; now he is viewed as a social and political reformer, who coolly dealt with corrupt pagan opponents as he set up a society that would stand as the model for human perfection on earth. Supernatural events and miracles are de-emphasized, to such an extent that the ascension of Muhammad to the presence of God, the subject of countless stories and commentaries in pre-modern Muslim literatures, recedes in the twentieth century to become for many a psychological event that in no way confers extraordinary status on the Messenger of God.
Keeping in mind this insistence on the multiplicity of the “Muhammads of faith,” it is useful to turn to tradition for a brief snapshot of Muhammad and the world he lived in. It is widely held that Muhammad was born around 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca, then a trading center on the edge of the two great empires of the day, Rome (centered in Byzantium) and Persia. While the date of his birth is not exactly certain, it reflects the beginning of his career as a prophet around 610, customarily thought to have begun when he was forty years old, the standard number of completeness in Near Eastern lore. Muhammad’s father died before the child’s birth, and his mother not long after, so as an orphan he was raised by relatives from the powerful Quraysh tribe, which dominated Mecca at the time. Although he had experience of the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin Arabs, Muhammad’s own life centered on the urban environment, not the desert. In his early life he was a trader by profession, working for a widow named Khadija. Early accounts of his journeys to Syria include encounters with Christian monks who recognized him as a prophet. Though Khadija was 15 years older, she proposed marriage to him when he was 25 and she 40. When Muhammad began to receive his revelations, amidst his self-doubt Khadija was the one who had complete trust in him, becoming in effect the first Muslim.
He was, by all accounts, a charismatic person known for his integrity. His nickname al-Amin, "the trustworthy," is illustrated by numerous reports that even in his youth he was sought out as an impartial arbitrator. Some have argued that he experienced a gradual spiritual development, with extended periods of meditation and retreat in a cave on Mt. Hira not far from Mecca. Others believe that his religious awakening was very sudden, the product of powerful experiences of revelation that came upon him unannounced. Although the religious environment of pre-Islamic Arabia is hard to reconstruct, the message that Muhammad began to announce was something of a surprise. At its most basic, the contrast can be stated as the concept of one God as opposed to a polytheistic paganism. Monotheism itself was by no means unknown in Arabia; there were groups of Jews and occasional Christian monks in the peninsula, and certain Arabs (known as the Hanifs) were evidently religious seekers of some sophistication. Nevertheless, the public religious life of Mecca centered upon the cube-shaped temple known as the Ka`ba, which contained 360 idols dedicated to various gods, goddesses, and the Arabian spirits known as the jinn. At the same time, there were apparently ancient traditions that associated the Ka`ba with Abraham and his son Ishmael, the ancestors of the Arabs. In a sense, Muhammad's mission was to restore the primordial religion of the Prophet Abraham in Arabia, and to cast out the false idols of paganism. He also clearly aimed at the moral reform of society.
When Muhammad began to preach these ideas, his acceptance was slow. After his wife Khadija, the next to accept his message were a boy (his cousin `Ali) and a slave (Zayd). The more powerful members of society were not quick to listen to his insistence on moral responsibility, the overwhelming creative power of God, and the importance of caring for the poor, widows, and orphans. They also ridiculed the notion of the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment by God in the afterlife. Most significantly, Muhammad's emphasis on the one true God and his rejection of polytheism posed a threat to the local power structure. The annual trade fair and pilgrimage festival centered on the Meccan temple was a chief source of income for the Quraysh tribe, and the tribal leaders did not like what they saw as a threat to their livelihood. Muhammad's clan relatives mostly protected him from the wrath of his opponents, although he was subjected to humiliation and abuse. But the persecution of his followers was serious enough to cause a number of them to emigrate to Ethiopia, where the Christian king received them warmly. Meanwhile Muhammad struggled with the harsh reception afforded him by his community. It was reportedly during this dark time that he experienced the ascension to Paradise and the divine presence.
Muhammad's ascension, only briefly alluded to in a couple of places in the Qur'an, has been the subject of considerable elaboration in hadith reports and later literature. The Qur’an is generally understood as referring to the ascension of Muhammad in this short passage: "Praise be to him who brought his servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose vicinity we have blessed, that we might show him our signs." (17:1). In the most common interpretation of this verse, the Sacred Mosque is identified as the shrine of Mecca, while the Farthest Mosque is considered to be Jerusalem (and indeed the great mosque adjacent to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is known as al-Masjid al-Aqsa, the "Farthest Mosque"). As the story goes, God miraculously transported Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem through the various heavens, where he met all the great prophets of the past; in some accounts, considerable extra detail is provided about Muhammad's encounters with the angels and with God. At the highest heaven, where the Prophet Moses resides, the two talked briefly until it was time for Muhammad to enter the divine presence, an encounter only elliptically described in the Qur’an (53:13-18):
And he saw him by another place,
By the lotus of the farthest edge,
Near which is the paradise of refuge,
When the lotus was veiled by what veiled it,
His eye did not waver, nor did he transgress;
He had seen one of the greatest signs of his lord.
On his return, Moses asked him what God had said. In an exchange that has a certain folk humor about it, Muhammad indicates that God had instructed him to order his community to perform 50 prayers a day. "50 prayers a day!" responds Moses; "I know these people -- they will never perform what you ask." Noting this objection, Muhammad follows the advice of Moses and returns to the presence of God to ask for a reduction. Returning with this favor granted, he informs Moses that the daily prayer requirement will now be 45 prayers a day. Again, Moses is incredulous and advises Muhammad to seek a further reduction. This sequence continues until at last Muhammad returns with the announcement that his community must pray to God five times a day. When Moses once more tries to convince him to get this reduced, Muhammad finally announces that he is ashamed to make this request of his Lord. This story purports to explain how the requirement of five daily prayers arose for the Muslim community. Behind this narrative is concealed a deeper point. On another occasion, the Prophet observed that "ritual prayer is the ascension of the believer," a saying that is inscribed on the wall of many a mosque. The motions of bowing, kneeling, prostration, and standing that comprise this sequence of ritual prayer can be understood in part as a re-enactment or evocation of the Prophet Muhammad's ascension to the presence of God. As indicated earlier, spiritual virtue had been defined as praying as though you see God face-to-face, or failing that, praying as though God sees you. In this way the extraordinary spiritual experience of the Prophet in his ascension serves as a model for what the ordinary believer should focus on in regular worship.
The subsequent career of the Prophet Muhammad was increasingly involved with his role as leader of the new community that emerged in acceptance of his message. Despite his rejection by Meccan society, Muhammad was sought out by the leaders of the town of Yathrib, subsequently known as Medina ("the city," short for "the city of the Prophet"). Medina was experiencing conflict between its different tribal groups, and in accordance with Arab custom, they sought a mediator to arbitrate the situation. Representatives from Medina met Muhammad in Mecca and invited him to take on this role, which he accepted. Muhammad's followers gradually departed from Mecca, and he finally slipped away unobtrusively with a single companion, much to the chagrin of his Meccan opponents, who would have preferred keeping him under their eye. Muhammad now became the leader of Medina. Although it has been described as a theocracy, which would put Muhammad into a position analogous to Samuel among the Israelites as God’s representative, the political order of Medina under Muhammad’s authority was more complex. As shown by the document known as the “Constitution of Medina,” Medina was a polity composed of Muhammad’s religious followers plus Jews and pagans, all of whom nonetheless accepted his position of leadership, at least in theory. From the beginning, therefore, it is clear that religious pluralism was a principle accepted as the basis for a Muslim society. In this respect Muslim politics was a radical departure from the example of Christian Rome, which did not tolerate rival faiths, the only exception being when certain rulers found it useful for the moment to protect a minority like the Jews.
Although the new Muslim community had temporarily prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, acknowledging the Abrahamic origins of their faith, the ongoing revelation of the Qur’an soon altered that by recognizing Mecca as the orientation of prayer. European scholars have tended to view this change as a symptom of Muhammad’s failure to convince the Arabian Jews of his mission as a prophet; according to this theory, in his disappointment Muhammad elevated Mecca to the status of rival to Jerusalem in a nationalistic response to his rejection by the Jews. This simplistic reading betrays a cynical approach, assuming that the new revelation (unlike Judaism and Christianity) was fabricated as a response to changing political conditions. Such a prejudicial attitude does not attempt to understand the way in which Muhammad systematically sought to go beyond the official representations of Judaism and Christianity to their ultimate revelatory source. Nor does it explain why even to the pagan Arabs, the Lord of Mecca was the high god simply known as “the God” (allah), even if the character of the deity was not clearly thought out.
One of the characteristic issues of the Medinan phase of the Prophet's life was how to face political and military conflict. This arose in particular with two groups: the pagan rulers of Mecca, and Jewish tribes of Medina who were unsatisfied with Muhammad's leadership. He successfully opposed the Meccans in a series of raids and battles, and eventually the Muslim forces, including various allied nomadic tribes, proved so superior that the Meccans were forced to yield. Charges of treason and collaboration with the Meccans led to the expulsion of two of the major Jewish tribes, while members of a third tribe suffered execution and captivity (the details and extent of this incident are disputed). This was in any event a political conflict, and there was never any requirement that Jews and Christians should have to convert to Islam (this recognition of the "peoples of the book" was later extended to other religions such as Zoroastrianism and Hinduism). For this reason, scholars are suspicious about the letters allegedly written by Muhammad to the emperors of Roman and Persia, in which he demanded their submission and their conversion to Islam. These letters are a much better fit with the world-conquering ambitions of the Arab empire that arose at the end of the seventh century. The pagan Arab tribes were, however, required to abandon their polytheism for Islam when they accepted the authority of the Prophet. In the end, Muhammad entered Mecca without opposition at the head of an imposing force, and he extended amnesty to his former opponents.
Throughout the time that Muhammad acted as Prophet and political leader, he was also a husband and father, a man who was attracted to women and was intensely devoted to his family and children. After the death of his first wife, Khadija, Muhammad married a number of wives; although some of these were political arrangements to cement tribal alliances, he physically consummated marriages with nine women and fathered several children. While his family affairs had their share of difficulties, they were a clearly a central part of his life. Muhammad remarked in a hadith saying, "Three things in your world have been made lovely to me: perfume, women, and prayer is the delight of my eyes." This remarkable statement unites sensory pleasure, the attraction of the sexes, and deep religious sentiment; all of life, physical and spiritual, forms a single continuum. It is important to note that Muhammad's life, though in many respects exemplary for Muslims, is also in part exceptional. The legal possibility of four wives for Muslim men (which is comparatively rare in those countries where it is still permitted) clearly differs from the larger number of marriages afforded to the Prophet. The Prophet's wives were exceptional, too; they were forbidden to remarry after his death, and unlike other women, they alone were specifically required by the Qur'an (33:32, 33:53) to conceal themselves from men behind a curtain in their household. The widespread adoption of the custom of veiling, in part on the basis of aristocratic Greek and Persian models, is a separate development.
Christians typically have seen Muhammad's marriages as a black mark against him, in comparison with the life of celibacy led by Jesus. The early Christian emphasis on virginity and the monastic way of life perhaps made it inevitable that Christians would reject Muhammad's marriages. St. Paul, with his advice that "it is better to marry than to burn," can hardly be called an enthusiastic champion of marriage. Celibacy was, after all, much better suited to the early Christian anticipation of the apocalypse, when there was no need to prepare for future generations. Monastic celibacy and vows of chastity are on the retreat, however, in modern Europe and America. While the Catholic Church still insists on priestly celibacy in imitation of Jesus, Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches for centuries have dispensed with this aspect of the life of Jesus, rejecting both celibate priesthood and (for most Protestants) monasticism. In today's society, despite calls for advocating sexual abstinence before marriage, popular entertainment and advertising are saturated with enticing images of sexual fulfillment. As with Christian criticism of Muhammad's military activities, shock expressed at his multiple marriages masks a considerable gap between ideal and reality in Euro-American societies. Neither pacifism nor celibacy has played anything more than a minor role in our modern social or political history, and advocates for these ideals are typically regarded as crackpots today. Thus it is more than ironic to see Christians rejecting Muhammad on the grounds that he was both an effective leader and a zealous and affectionate husband and father.
At the end of his life (Muhammad died in 632 CE), the Prophet was head of a major community, having created alliances with all of the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, probably the very first time that had ever occurred. What is more significant is that his prophetic experience provided the basis of fervent ritual practice, ethical ideals, and social structures that are deeply etched into human history. Yet the way in which those ideals and practices would play out depended on many unforeseeable local adaptations.
Share with your friends: