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A  COMMENTARY WRITTEN BY:

                                                    AUSTIN  CLINE

 

Agnosticism / Atheism
Islam FAQ
Who Was Muhammad?

 

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Not very much is known about Muhammad's early life, although he is widely believed to have been born in 570 C.E. in Mecca. The earliest accounts we have of him date to 750 C.E. with the book Life by Ibn Ishaq, more than one hundred years after Muhammad's death. Although this is the first and most basic source for information about the life of Muhammad for all Muslims, it does not present a very flattering portrait of him.

Even then, we don't have any original copies of Ibn Ishaq's work - we only have a later recension by Ibn Hisham (a recension is a critical revision of a text which incorporates plausible elements which can be found in varying sources). Because Hisham died in 834 C.E., that means that our earliest sources appear two hundred years after Muhammad died. Not even the evidence we have from the Sufyandi period, 661-684, makes any mention of Muhammad.

Surviving papyri of that era say nothing, and the coins invoke only Allah, not his Prophet. As late as the second century of the Muslim era, scholarly opinion on Muhammad's birth date differed by as much as 85 years, demonstrating that even at that point there was a great deal of variation in what people knew about Muhammad.

The focus on Mecca is also questionable. Muslim tradition teaches that Mecca was an important crossroads for trade caravans, but the location of Mecca today is not a natural stopping place for the incense route from south Arabia to Syria. Contemporary non-Muslims sources also don't make any mention of such a city, which is very strange if Mecca was indeed important for commerce and religion.

By and large, it appears that the Muslim belief that we have accurate eyewitness reports for every aspect of Muhammad's life is not unlike similar beliefs among Christians regarding Jesus and Orthodox Jews regarding Moses. The motivation lies more in a need to believe than in a sound foundation based on confirmed historical evidence.

Given that, the following description of Muhammad's life is based almost entirely upon the traditional beliefs of adherents and not upon historically confirmable fact. However, where such confirmations exist, they will be noted.

By the time of Ibn Hisham's writings, Islam had entered into extended contact with Christianity, and some scholars suggest that Muhammad's biography was deliberately constructed in an effort to offer a contrast to the gospel stories of Jesus. Indeed, for the first two hundred years of Islam, the Arab conquerors were a minority ruling a non-Muslim majority. Some scholarship estimates that by the middle of the eighth century, Muslims constituted only eight percent of the subject populations, vastly outnumbered by Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others.

The accounts we do have suggest that Muhammad was an honest and moral man because, for example, the rich widow fifteen years his senior who had put him in charge of her trade business offered herself to him in marriage. Whatever his early life might have been like, tradition has it that as he grew older, he became more distressed at the state of society around him and regularly retired to the cave Hira' outside of Mecca. Here he would sometimes spend days at a time, contemplating life.

During one of these retreats in the year 610 C.E., at about the age of forty, Muhammad experienced "the Call," a common event for religious reformers and revolutionaries. According to his own reports, he was in a dream or dream-like state when he received instruction from God (through the angel Gabriel) on what he must believe and what he must do. These instructions were not a one-time event, however, and lasted throughout his life.

The first instruction was that there existed only one god, and that strict monotheistic belief was required of all people. The second involved socioeconomic justice for all, and the third involved the existence of a final judgment for both the just and the unjust.

Muhammad's preaching of his new revelations was not especially welcome among his fellow citizens of Mecca. Muslims today believe that this was due largely to the fact that Muhammad emphasized economic and social justice too much for the rich and greedy traders there. Even if that is true, and the preaching of these ideals did impede his efforts at first, the doctrine of zakat, or alms for the poor, was important in the development of a tightly knit community of believers - and, ultimately, of Islam's success.

After thirteen years of preaching, the small band of followers he gathered was simply not powerful enough to take control of the city of Mecca. Nevertheless, even if his standing among the city's leaders was not especially good, he must have had a good enough reputation for the city of Medina (located 200 miles north) to approach him and offer him the position of ruler there.

He thus moved his group to Medina in 622, an event which is called the hijra and marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina he established a charter which guaranteed freedom of religion for the local Jews - but evidently he expected them to quickly convert to Islam once they heard what it had to offer, and he was disappointed when they didn't.

It is at this point where we have the only really secure date for early Muslim history, 622 C.E., which has been confirmed on coins as a the beginning of a new era. What exactly this new era meant is unclear, and there is no indication that it is the hijra of tradition. The only information that we have about it is from documents 676 and 680 C.E., two Nestorian documents which refer to 622 as the year of "the rule of the Arabs."

At this time, then, Muhammad changed the nature of the salat, the daily prayers which each Muslim must recite. Previously all Muslims had faced Jerusalem when saying the prayers, but now they all faced Mecca. This was surely connected to his disappointment with the Jews, but it may have also been connected to his hope of eventually winning over the city to his new religion. Some scholars also take this as a sign of his desire to create a national/ethnic religion for Arabs.

There are normally three reasons offered for Muhammad's interest in taking Mecca. The first was that it was supposed to be an important religious center for Arabs at the time - for his new religion to become widespread, he needed that city. Second, it was supposed to be the seat of Muhammad's own tribe, the Quraysh. If they could be won over, he could use them and their allies to further spread his message.

The third was that the Meccans simply didn't like him very much and continued to harass him and Medina in an effort to repress his efforts. The property and possessions of all of those who left with him had been seized, and a genuine state of war existed between Mecca and Medina.

Various skirmishes eventually lead to a major battle at Badr, where 300 Medinians are supposed to have defeated one thousand Meccans. Because of this, Muhammad was able to sign a treaty with several Bedouin tribes and gain their aid; but he lost it again after a defeat to the Meccans the next year.

During all of this, Muhammad accused local Jewish tribes of conspiring to aid Mecca. After Badr, the Medinese Jews were attacked and forced to emigrate to Syria. After the defeat at Uhud, the Nadir tribe of Jews received the same fate. Two years later, after a failed Meccan siege of Medina was over, the Qurayza tribe of Jews was attacked and all the men were killed.

Eventually, eight years after the hijra, Mecca was forced to negotiate a peaceful surrender to Muhammad and almost all citizens became Muslims. Thereafter Mecca would remain a center of devotion for Muslims all over the world. During the next two years, Islam swept across Arabia with most cities voluntarily joining, but a few remained stubborn and had to be brought in by force.

On June 8, 632 (eleven years after the hijra), Muhammad died. By the 640s, Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt. Thirty years later they were conquering parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia.