Introduction to Islam
The Prophet of Islam – His Biography (Part 1)
In the annals of men, individuals have not been lacking who conspicuously devoted their lives to the socio-religious reform of their connected peoples. We find them in every epoch and in all lands. In India, there lived those who transmitted to the world the Vedas, and there was also the great Gautama Buddha; China had its Confucius; the Avesta was produced in Iran. Babylon gave to the world one of the greatest reformers, the Prophet Abraham (not to mention those of his ancestors like Enoch and Noah of whom we have very scant information). The Jewish people may rightly be proud of a long series of reformers: Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, and Jesus among others.
Two points are noteworthy: First these reformers claimed in general to be the bearers each of a Divine mission, and they left behind them sacred books incorporating codes of life for the guidance of their peoples. Second there followed fratricidal wars, and massacres and genocide became the order of the day, causing more or less a complete loss of these Divine messages. As to the books of Abraham, we know them only by the name; and as for the books of Moses, records tell us how they were repeatedly destroyed and only partly restored.
Concept of God
If one should judge from the relics of the past already brought to light of homo sapiens, one will find that man has always been conscious of the existence of a Supreme Being, Master and Creator of all. Methods and approaches may differ, but the people of every epoch have left proofs of their attempts to obey God. Communication with the Omnipresent yet invisible God has also been recognized as possible in connection with a small fraction of men with noble and exalted spirits. Whether this communication assumes the nature of an incarnation of the Divinity or simply resolves itself into a medium of reception of Divine messages (through inspiration or revelation), the purpose in each case is the guidance of the people. It is natural that the interpretations and explanations of certain systems should have proved more vital and convincing than others.
3/a. Every system of metaphysical thought develops its own terminology. In the course of time, terms acquire a significance hardly contained in the word and translations fall short of their purpose. Yet there is no other method to make people of one group understand the thoughts of another. Non-Muslim readers in particular are requested to bear in mind this aspect which is a real yet unavoidable handicap.
By the end of the 6th century, after the birth of Jesus Christ, men had already made great progress in diverse walks of life. At that time there were some religions which openly proclaimed that they were reserved for definite races and groups of men only, of course they bore no remedy for the ills of humanity at large. There were also a few which claimed universality, but declared that the salvation of man lay in the renunciation of the world. These were the religions for the elite, and catered to an extremely limited number of men. We need not speak of regions where no religion existed at all; where atheism and materialism reigned supreme; where one’s thought was solely of occupying the self with one’s own pleasures, without any regard or consideration for the rights of others.
A perusal of the map of the major hemisphere (from the point of view of the proportion of land to sea), shows the Arabian Peninsula lying at the confluence of the three great continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. At the time in question, this extensive Arabian subcontinent, composed mostly of desert areas, was inhabited by people of settled habitations as well as nomads. Often it was found that members of the same tribe were divided into these two groups, and that they preserved a relationship although following different modes of life. In Arabia, the means of subsistence were meagre. The desert had its handicaps, and trade caravans were of greater importance than either agriculture or industry. This entailed much travel, and men had to proceed beyond the peninsula to Syria, Egypt, Abyssinia, Iraq, Sind, India and other lands.
We do not know much about the Libyanites of Central Arabia, but Yemen was rightly called Arabia Felix. Having once been the seat of the flourishing civilizations of Sheba and Ma’in even before the foundation of the city of Rome had been laid, and having later snatched from the Byzantians and Persians several provinces, greater Yemen which had passed through the hey-day of its existence, an was at this time broken up into innumerable principalities (and even occupied in part by foreign invaders). The Sassanians of Iran, who had penetrated into Yemen had already obtained possession of Eastern Arabia. There was socio-politico chaos at the capital (Mada’in = Ctesiphon), and this found reflection in all her territories. Northern Arabia had succumbed to Byzantine influences and was faced with its own particular problems. Only Central Arabia remained immune from the demoralizing effects of foreign occupation.
In this limited area of Central Arabia, the existence of the triangle of Mecca-Ta’if-Madinah seemed something providential. Mecca, a desert, deprived of water and the amenities of agriculture in physical features represented Africa and the burning Sahara. Scarcely fifty miles from there, Ta’if presented a picture of Europe and its frost. Madinah in the North was not less fertile than even the most temperate of Asiatic countries like Syria. If climate has any influence on human character, this triangle standing in the middle of the major hemisphere was, more than any other region of the earth, a miniature reproduction of the entire world. And here was born a descendant of the Babylonian Abraham, and the Egyptian Hagar, Muhammad (PBUH) the Prophet of Islam, a Meccan by origin and yet with stock related, both to Madinah and Ta’if.
From the point of view of religion, Arabia was idolatrous for only a few individuals had embraced religions like Christianity, Mazdaism, etc. The Meccans possessed the notion of One God, but they also believed that idols had the power to intercede with Him. Curiously enough, they did not believe in the Resurrection and Afterlife. They had preserved the rite of the pilgrimage to the House of the One God, the Ka’bah, an institution set up under divine inspiration by their ancestor Abraham, yet the two thousand years that separated them from Abraham had caused to degenerate this pilgrimage into the spectacle of a commercial fair and an occasion of senseless idolatry which far from producing any good, only served to ruin their individual behaviour, both social and spiritual.
In spite of the comparative poverty in natural resources, Mecca was the most developed of the three points of the triangle. Of the three, Mecca alone had a city-state and was governed by a council of ten hereditary chiefs who enjoyed a clear division of power. (There was a minister of foreign relations, a minister guardian of the temple, a minister of oracles, a minister guardian of offerings to the temple, one to determine the torts and the damages payable, another in charge of the municipal council or parliament to enforce the decisions of the ministries. There were also ministers in charge of military affairs like custodianship of the flag, leadership of the cavalry etc.). As well reputed caravan-leaders, the Meccans were able to obtain permission from neighbouring empires like Iran, Byzantium and Abyssinia – and to enter into agreements with the tribes that lined the routes traversed by the caravans – to visit their countries and transact import and export business. They also provided escorts to foreigners when they passed through their country as well as the territory of allied tribes, in Arabia (cf. Ibn Habib, Muhabbar). Although not much interested in the preservation of ideas and records in writing, they passionately cultivated arts and letters like poetry, oratory discourses and folk tales. Women were generally well treated, they enjoyed the privilege of possessing property in their own right, they gave their consent to marriage contracts, in which they could even add the condition of reserving their right to divorce their husbands. They could remarry when widowed or divorced. Burying girls alive did exist among certain classes, but that was rare.
Birth of the Prophet
It was in the midst of such conditions and environments that Muhammad (PBUH) was born in 569 after Christ. His father, ‘Abdullah had died some weeks earlier, and it was his grandfather who took charge of him. According to the prevailing custom, the child was entrusted to a Bedouin foster-mother, with whom he passed several years in the desert. All biographers state that the infant prophet sucked only one breast of his foster-mother, leaving the other for the sustenance of his foster-brother. When the child was brought back home, his mother, Aminah, took him to his maternal uncles at Madinah to visit the tomb of ‘Abdullah. During the return journey, he lost his mother who died a sudden death. At Mecca, another bereavement awaited him, in the death of his affectionate grandfather. Subjected to such privations, he was at the age of eight, consigned at last to the care of his uncle, Abu-Talib, a man who was generous of nature but always short of resources and hardly able to provide for his family.
Young Muhammad (PBUH) had therefore to start immediately to earn his livelihood; he served as a shepherd boy to some neighbours. At the age of ten he accompanied his uncle to Syria when he was leading a caravan there. No other travels of Abu-Talib are mentioned, but there are references to his having set up a shop in Mecca. (Ibn Qutaibah, Ma’arif). It is possible that Muhammad (PBUH) helped him in this enterprise also.
By the time he was twenty-five, Muhammad (PBUH) had become well known in the city for the integrity of his disposition and his honest character. A rich widow, Khadijah, took him in her employ and consigned to him her goods to be taken for sale to Syria. Delighted with the unusual profits she obtained and also by the personal charms of her agent, she offered him her hand. According to divergent reports, she was either 28 or 40 years of age at that time, (medical reasons prefer the age of 28 since she gave birth to five more children). The union proved happy. Later, we see him sometimes in the fair of Hubashah (Yemen), and at least once in the country of the ‘Abd al-Qais (Bahrain-Oman), as mentioned by Ibn Hanbal. There is every reason to believe that this refers to the great fair of Daba (Oman), where, according to Ibn al-Kalbi (cf. Ibn Habib, Muhabbar), the traders of China, of Hind and Sind (India, Pakistan), of Persia, of the East and the West assembled every year, travelling both by land and sea. There is also mention of a commercial partner of Muhammad (PBUH) at Mecca. This person, Sa’ib by name reports: “We relayed each other; if Muhammad led the caravan, he did not enter his house on his return to Mecca without clearing accounts with me; and if I led the caravan, he would on my return enquire about my welfare and speak nothing about his own capital entrusted to me.”
An Order of Chivalry
Foreign traders often brought their goods to Mecca for sale. One day a certain Yemenite (of the tribe of Zubaid) improvised a satirical poem against some Meccans who had refused to pay him the price of what he had sold, and others who had not supported his claim, or had failed to come to his help when he was victimized. Zuhair, uncle and chief of the tribe of the Prophet, felt great remorse on hearing this just satire. He called for a meeting of certain chieftains in the city, and organized an order of chivalry, called Hilf al-fudul, with the aim and object of aiding the oppressed in Mecca, irrespective of their being dwellers of the city or aliens. Young Muhammad (PBUH) became an enthusiastic member of the organization. Later in life he used to say: “I have participated in it, and I am not prepared to give up that privilege even against a herd of camels; if somebody should appeal to me even today, by virtue of that pledge, I shall hurry to his help.”
Beginning of Religious Consciousness
Not much is known about the religious practices of Muhammad (PBUH) until he was thirty-five years old, except that he had never worshipped idols. This is substantiated by all his biographers. It may be stated that there were a few others in Mecca, who had likewise revolted against the senseless practice of paganism, although conserving their fidelity to the Ka’bah as the house dedicated to the One God by its builder Abraham.
About the year 605 of the Christian era, the draperies on the outer wall of the Ka’bah took fire. The building was affected and could not bear the brunt of the torrential rains that followed. The reconstruction of the Ka’bah was then undertaken. Each citizen contributed according to his means; and only the gifts by honest gains were accepted. Everybody participated in the work of construction, and Muhammad’s (PBUH) shoulders were injured in the course of transporting stones. To identify the place whence the ritual of circumambulation began, there had been set a black stone in the wall of the Ka’bah, dating probably from the time of Abraham himself. There was rivalry among the citizens for obtaining the honour of transposing this stone in its place. When there was danger of blood being shed, somebody suggested leaving the matter to Providence, and accepting the arbitration of him who should happen to arrive there first. It chanced that Muhammad just then turned up there for work as usual. He was popularly known by the appellation of al-Amin (the honest), and everyone accepted his arbitration without hesitation. Muhammad (PBUH) placed a sheet of cloth on the ground, put the stone on it and asked the chiefs of all the tribes in the city to lift together the cloth. Then he himself placed the stone in its proper place, in one of the angles of the building, and everybody was satisfied.
It is from this moment that we find Muhammad becoming more and more absorbed in spiritual meditations. Like his grandfather, he used to retire during the whole month of Ramadan to a cave in Jabal-an-Nur (mountain of light). The cave is called `Ghar-i-Hira’ or the cave of research. There he prayed, meditated, and shared his meagre provisions with the travellers who happened to pass by.
[From the book – ‘Introduction to Islam’ by ‘Dr Muhammad Hamidullah]