ON THE EVE OF ISLAM: THE BYZANTINE AND SASSANID EMPIRES
Year Zero 622 CE
IN THE LATE sixth century of the Christian age, a number of cities flourished along the Arabian coast as hotbeds of commerce. The Arabians received goods at Red Sea ports and took camel caravans across the desert to Syria and Palestine, transporting spice and cloth and other trade goods. They went north, south, east, and west; so they knew all about the Christian world and its ideas, but also about Zoroaster and his ideas. A number of Jewish tribes lived among the Arabs; they had come here after the Romans had driven them out of Palestine. Both the Arabs and the Jews were Semitic and traced their descent to Abraham (and through him to Adam). The Arabs saw themselves as the line descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael and his second wife, Hagar. The stories commonly associated with the Old Testament—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, Joseph and Egypt, Moses and the pharaoh, and the rest of them—were part of Arab tradition too. Although most of the Arabs were pagan polytheists at this point and the Jews had remained resolutely monotheistic, the two groups were otherwise more or less indistinguishable in terms of culture and lifestyle: the Jews of this area spoke Arabic, and their tribal structure resembled that of the Arabs. Some Arabs were nomadic Bedouins who lived in the desert, but others were town dwellers. Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, was born and raised in the highly cosmopolitan town of Mecca, near the Red Sea coast.
Meccans were wide-ranging merchants and traders, but their biggest, most prestigious business was religion. Mecca had temples to at least a hundred pagan deities with names like Hubal, Manat, Allat, al-Uzza, and Fals. Pilgrims streamed in to visit the sites, perform the rites, and do a little business on the side, so Mecca had a busy tourist industry with inns, taverns, shops, and services catering to pilgrims.
Mohammed was born around the year 570. The exact date is unknown because no one was paying much attention to him at the time. His father was a poor man who died when Mohammed was still in the womb, leaving Mohammed’s mother virtually penniless. Then, when Mohammed was only six, his mother died too. Although Mohammed was a member of the Quraysh, the most powerful tribe in Mecca, he got no status out of it because he belonged to one of the tribe’s poorer clans, the Banu (“clan” or “house of ”) Hashim. One gets the feeling that this boy grew up feeling quite keenly his uncertain status as an orphan. He was not abandoned, however; his close relatives took him in. He lived with his grandfather until the old man died and then with his uncle Abu Talib, who raised him like a son—yet the fact remained that he was a nobody in his culture, and outside his uncle’s home he probably tasted the disdain and disrespect that was an orphan’s lot. His childhood planted in him a lifelong concern for the plight of widows and orphans.
When Mohammed was twenty-five, a wealthy widowed businesswoman named Khadija hired him to manage her caravans and conduct business for her. Arab society was not kind to women as a rule, but Khadija had inherited her husband’s wealth, and the fact that she held on to it suggests what a powerful and charismatic personality she must have had. Mutual respect and affection between Mohammed and Khadija led the two to marriage, a warm partnership that lasted until Khadija’s death twenty-five years later. And even though Arabia was a polygynous society in which having only one wife must have been uncommon, Mohammed married no one else as long as Khadija lived.
As an adult, then, the orphan built quite a successful personal and business life. He acquired a reputation for his diplomatic skills, and quarreling parties often called upon him to act as an arbiter. Still, as Mohammed approached the age of forty, he began to suffer what we might now call a midlife crisis. He grew troubled about the meaning of life. Looking around, he saw a society bursting with wealth, and yet amid all the bustling prosperity, he saw widows eking out a bare living on charity and orphans scrambling for enough to eat. How could this be?
He developed a habit of retreating periodically to a cave in the mountains to meditate. There, one day, he had a momentous experience, the exact nature of which remains mysterious, since various accounts survive, possibly reflecting various descriptions by Mohammed himself. Tradition has settled on calling the experience a visitation from the angel Gabriel. In one account, Mohammed spoke of “a silken cloth on which was some writing” brought to him while he was asleep.1 In the main, however, it was apparently an oral and personal interaction, which started when Mohammed, meditating in the utter darkness of the cave, sensed an overwhelming and terrifying presence: someone else was in the cave with him. Suddenly he felt himself gripped from behind so hard he could not breathe. Then came a voice, not so much heard as felt throughout his being, commanding him to “recite!”
Mohammed managed to gasp out that he could not recite.
The command came again: “Recite!”
Again Mohammed protested that he could not recite, did not know what to recite, but the angel—the voice—the impulse—blazed once more: “Recite!” Thereupon Mohammed felt words of terrible grandeur forming in his heart and the recitation began:
Recite in the name of your Lord Who created,
Created humans from a drop of blood.
And your Lord is most Bountiful.
He who taught humans by the pen,
taught humans that which they knew not.
Mohammed came down from the mountain sick with fear, thinking he might have been possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit. Outside, he felt a presence filling the world to every horizon. According to some accounts, he saw a light with something like a human shape within it, which was only more thunderous and terrifying. At home, he told Khadija what had happened, and she assured him that he was perfectly sane, that his visitor had really been an angel, and that he was being called into service by God. “I believe in you,” she said, thus becoming Mohammed’s first follower, the first Muslim.
At first, Mohammed preached only to his intimate friends and close relatives. For a time, he experienced no further revelations, and it depressed him: he felt like a failure. But then the revelations began to come again. Gradually, he went public with the message, until he was telling people all around Mecca, “There is only one God. Submit to His will, or you will be condemned to hell”—and he specified what submitting to the will of God entailed: giving up debauchery, drunkenness, cruelty, and tyranny; attending to the plight of the weak and the meek; helping the poor; sacrificing for justice; and serving the greater good.
Among the many temples in Mecca was a cube-shaped structure with a much-revered cornerstone, a polished black stone that had fallen out of the sky a long time ago—a meteor, perhaps. This temple was called the Ka’ba, and tribal tales said that Abraham himself had built it, with the help of his son Ishmael. Mohammed considered himself a descendant of Abraham and knew all about Abraham’s uncompromising monotheism. Indeed, Mohammed didn’t think he was preaching something new; he believed he was renewing what Abraham (and countless other prophets) had said, so he zeroed in on the Ka’ba. This, he said, should be Mecca’s only shrine: the temple of Allah.
Al means “the” in Arabic, and lah, an elision of ilaah, means “god.” Allah, then, simply means “God.” This is a core point in Islam: Mohammed wasn’t talking about “this god” versus “that god.” He wasn’t saying, “Believe in a god called Lah because He is the biggest, strongest god,” nor even that Lah was the “only true god” and all the other ones were fake. One could entertain a notion like that and still think of God as some particular being with supernatural powers, maybe a creature who looked like Zeus, enjoyed immortality, could lift a hundred camels with one hand, and was the only one of its kind. That would still constitute a belief in one god. Mohammed was proposing something different and bigger. He was preaching that there is one God too all-encompassing and universal to be associated with any particular image, any particular attributes, any finite notion, any limit. There is only God and all the rest is God’s creation: this was the message he was delivering to anyone who would listen.
Mecca’s business leaders came to feel threatened by Mohammed because they were making good money from religious tourism; if this only-one-god idea took hold, they feared, the devotees of all the other gods would stop coming to Mecca and they’d be ruined. (Today, ironically, over a million people come to Mecca each year to perform the rites of pilgrimage at the Ka’ba, making this the biggest annual gathering on earth!)
Besides, Mecca profited from drinking dens, gambling, prostitution, and other such attractions, and the tribal power brokers could not tolerate a man railing against the very entertainments that brought in their wealth, even if he had merely a smattering of followers, many of them powerless poor people and slaves. Well, for one thing, not all his followers were poor people and slaves: they included the wealthy and respected merchants Abu Bakr and Othman, and soon they even included the physically imposing giant Omar, who started out as one of Mohammed’s most bitter enemies. The trend looked disturbing.
For nearly twelve years, Mohammed’s uncle Abu Talib defended him against all criticism. According to most Muslims, Abu Talib never converted to Islam himself, but he stood up for his nephew out of personal loyalty and love, and his word had weight. Khadija also backed her husband unstintingly, which gave him precious comfort. Then, in the course of a single devastating year, both these major figures in Mohammed’s life died, leaving God’s Messenger exposed to his enemies. That year, seven elders of the Quraysh tribe decided to have Mohammed killed while he slept, thereby getting rid of the troublemaker before he could do real damage to the economy. One of Mohammed’s several uncles spearheaded the plot. In fact, all seven plotters were related to Mohammed, but this didn’t soften their resolve.
Fortunately, Mohammed caught wind of the plot and worked out how to foil it with help from two close companions. One was his cousin Ali, now a strapping young man, who would soon marry Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and become the Messenger’s son-in-law. Another was his best friend, Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s first follower outside his immediate family circle and his closest adviser, soon to become Mohammed’s father-in-law.
The Prophet had already been in contact with delegates from Yathrib, another town near the Red Sea coast, some 250 miles north of Mecca. It was an agricultural rather than a commercial town and it was torn by conflict because its inhabitants belonged to several quarreling tribes. The people of Yathrib wanted a fair-minded outsider to come in and oversee negotiations among the tribes; they hoped that if they ceded judicial authority to such a person, he would be able to bring about a peace. Mohammed had a reputation as a fair-minded and skillful arbitrator, a role he had played in several crucial disputes, and so the Yathribis thought he might be the man for the job. Several of them visited Mecca to meet Mohammed and found his charisma overwhelming. They converted to Islam and invited Mohammed to move to Yathrib as an arbiter and help put an end to all the quarrelling; the Prophet accepted.
Mohammed’s murder was planned for a September night in the year 622 CE. That night, the Prophet and Abu Bakr slipped away into the desert. Ali crawled into Mohammed’s bed to make it look like he was still there. When the would-be assassins burst in, they were furious to find Ali, but they spared the kid and sent a search party out to hunt down the Prophet. Mohammed and Abu Bakr had made it only to a cave near Mecca, but legend has it that a spider built its web across the mouth of the cave after they entered. When the posse came by and saw the web, they assumed no one could be inside, and so passed on. Mohammed and Abu Bakr made it safely to Yathrib, by which time some of Mohammed’s other followers had moved there too, and the rest soon followed. Most of these Meccan emigrants had to leave their homes and property behind; most were making a break with family members and fellow tribesmen who had not converted. But at least they were coming to a place where they would be safe, and where their leader Mohammed had been invited to preside as the city’s highest authority, the arbiter among the rival tribal chieftains.
True to his promise, Mohammed sat down with the city’s fractious tribes to hammer out a covenant (later called the Pact of Medina.) This covenant made the city a confederacy, guaranteeing each tribe the right to follow its own religion and customs, imposing on all citizens rules designed to keep the overall peace, establishing a legal process by which the tribes settled purely internal matters themselves and ceded to Mohammed the authority to settle intertribal disputes. Most important, all the signatories, Muslim and non-Muslim, pledged to join all the others to defend Medina against outside attack. Although this document has been called the first written constitution, it was really more of a multiparty treaty.
Mohammed also appointed one Yathribi Muslim to mentor and help each family of Meccan Muslims. The native was to host the newcomer and his family, get them settled, and help them start a new life. From this time on, the Yathribi Muslims were called the Ansar, “the helpers.”
The name of the city changed too. Yathrib became Medina, which simply means “the city” (short for a phrase that meant “city of the prophet”). The emigration of the Muslims from Mecca to Medina, is known as the Hijra (often spelled Hegira in English.) A dozen years later, when Muslims created their own calendar, they dated it from this event because the Hijra, they felt, marked the pivot of history, the turning point in their fortunes, the moment that divided all of time into before the Hijra (BH) and after the Hijra (AH).
Some religions mark their founder’s birthday as their point of origin; some, the day he died; and still others, the moment of their prophet’s enlightenment or his key interaction with God. In Buddhism, for example, the religion begins with Siddhartha Gautama’s achievement of enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Christianity attributes key religious significance to Christ’s death and resurrection (as well as his birth.) Islam, however, pays little attention to Mohammed’s birthday. Growing up as a Muslim, I didn’t know when he was born, because nothing special happened that day in Afghanistan. Some countries, such as Egypt, commemorate the day more elaborately, but still, there’s no analog to Christmas in Islam, no “Mohammedmas.”
The revelation in the cave is commemorated as the most sacred night in Muslim devotions: it is the Night of Power, Lailut al-Qadr, which falls on or near the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan, the month of fasting. But in the Muslim calendar of history, that event occurred ten years before the really crucial turning point: the Hijra.
What makes moving from one town to another so momentous? The Hijra takes pride of place among events in Muslim history because it marks the birth of the Muslim community, the Umma, as it is known in Islam. Before the Hijra, Mohammed was a preacher with individual followers. After the Hijra, he was the leader of a community that looked to him for legislation, political direction, and social guidance. The word hijra means “severing of ties.” People who joined the community in Medina renounced tribal bonds and accepted this new group as their transcendent affiliation, and since this community was all about building an alternative to the Mecca of Mohammed’s childhood, it was an epic, devotional social project.
This social project, which became fully evident in Medina after the Hijra, is a core element of Islam. Quite definitely, Islam is a religion, but right from the start (if “the start” is taken as the Hijra) it was also a political entity. Yes, Islam prescribes a way to be good, and yes, every devoted Muslim hopes to get into heaven by following that way, but instead of focusing on isolated individual salvation, Islam presents a plan for building a righteous community. Individuals earn their place in heaven by participating as members of that community and engaging in the Islamic social project, which is to build a world in which orphans won’t feel abandoned and in which widows won’t ever be homeless, hungry, or afraid.
Once Mohammed became the leader of Medina, people came to him for guidance and judgments about every sort of life question, big or little: how to discipline children . . . how to wash one’s hands . . . what to consider fair in a contract . . . what should be done with a thief . . . the list goes on. Questions that in many other communities would be decided by a phalanx of separate specialists, such as judges, legislators, political leaders, doctors, teachers, generals, and others, were all in the Prophet’s bailiwick here.
Portions of the Qur’an recited in Mecca consist entirely of language like this:
When earth is shaken with a mighty shaking
and earth brings forth her burdens,
and Man says, “what ails her?”
upon that day she shall tell her tidings
for that her Lord has inspired her.
Upon that day men shall issue in scatterings to see their works
and whoso has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it
and whoso has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it.
When you look at the verses revealed in Medina, you still find much passionate, lyrical, and imprecatory language, but you also find passages like this one:
God charges you, concerning your children:
to the male the like of the portion
of two females, and if they be women
above two, then for them two-thirds
of what he leaves, but if she be one
then to her a half; and to his parents
to each one of the two the sixth
of what he leaves, if he has children
but if he has no children, and his
heirs are his parents, a third to his
mother, or, if he has brothers, to his
mother a sixth, after any bequest
he may bequeath, or any debt.
Your fathers and your sons—you know not
which out of these is nearer in profit
to you. So God apportions; surely God is
This is legislation, and this is what the Muslim enterprise expanded to, once it took root in Medina.
After the Hijra, the native Arabs of Medina gradually converted to Islam, but the city’s three Jewish tribes largely resisted conversion, and over time a friction developed between them and the Muslims. Among the Arabs, too, some of the men displaced by Mohammed’s growing stature harbored a closely guarded resentment.
Meanwhile, the Quraysh tribe had not given up on assassinating Mohammed, even though he now lived 250 miles away. Not only did Quraysh leaders put a huge bounty of a hundred camels on Mohammed’s head, they remained fixated on stamping out his whole community. To finance an assault on Medina, the wealthiest merchants of Mecca stepped up their trading expeditions. Mohammed countered by leading Muslims in raids on these Meccan caravans (which helped solve another problem the Meccan emigrants faced: how to support themselves now that they had lost their goods and businesses.)
After a year of these raids, the Meccans decided to raise the stakes. A thousand of them strapped on weapons and marched out to finish off the upstarts. The Muslims met them with a force of three hundred men at a place called Badr and defeated them soundly. The Qur’an mentions the battle of Badr as proof of Allah’s ability to decide the outcome of any battle, no matter what the odds.
Before Badr, some of the bedouin tribesmen had worked for merchants in Mecca as contract bodyguards. After Badr, these tribes began to switch sides. The growing solidarity of the Muslim community in Medina began to alarm the Jewish tribes. One of the three renounced the Pact of Medina and tried to instigate an uprising against Mohammed and a return to the pre-Islamic status quo, but the uprising failed, and this tribe was expelled from Medina.
Now the Quraysh really did have cause to worry. Instead of eliminating Mohammed, it looked like they might have dug themselves the beginnings of a hole. In the year 3 AH, they decided to overwhelm the Muslims while they still had the numbers. They tripled the size of their army, heading for Medina with three thousand men. The Muslims could scratch up only 950 warriors. Again, they would be outnumbered three to one—but after Badr, how could this matter? They had the only asset that mattered: Allah was on their side.
The second of Islam’s three iconic battles occurred at a place called Uhud. At first the Muslims seemed to be winning again, but when the Meccans fell back, some of the Muslims disobeyed one of Mohammed’s explicit orders: they broke ranks and spilled across the field in a chaotic rush to scoop up their share of booty—at which point the Meccans struck from behind, led by Khaled bin al-Walid, a military genius who later converted to Islam and became one of the Umma’s leading generals. The Prophet himself was wounded at Uhud, seventy Muslims were killed, and many of the rest fled. The Umma survived, but this battle marked a bad defeat.
These seminal battles of Islamic history were so small-scale, measured against most real wars, that they barely qualify as battles. Each one, however, was incorporated into Muslim theology and vested with meaning. Thus, the battle of Badr showed that Allah’s will, not material factors, determined victory in battle. But the battle of Uhud raised a thorny theological question. If Badr showed the power of Allah, what did Uhud show? That Allah could also lose battles? That He was not quite as all-powerful as Mohammed proclaimed?
Mohammed, however, found a different lesson in defeat. Allah, he explained, let the Muslims lose this time to teach them a lesson. The Muslims were supposed to be fighting for a righteous cause—a just community on earth. Instead, at Uhud they forgot this mission and went scrambling for loot in direct disobedience to the Prophet’s orders, and so they forfeited Allah’s favor. Divine support was not an entitlement; Muslims had to earn the favor of Allah by behaving as commanded and submitting to His will. This explanation for defeat provided a stencil that Muslims invoked repeatedly in later years, after the Mongol holocaust of the thirteenth century, for example, when nomadic invaders from Central Asia overwhelmed most of the Islamic world, and again in response to Western domination, which began in the eighteenth century and continues to this day.
The Quraysh spent two years planning their next assault. Recruiting allies from other tribes, they built an army of ten thousand men—inconceivably gigantic for that time and place. When Mohammed heard about this force marching on Medina, he had his Muslims dig a moat around their town. The Quraysh arrived on camels, which would not or could not cross the moat. The stymied Quraysh decided to starve Medina with a siege.
The siege strategy, however, scuttled a secret plan the Quraysh were counting on. After the disastrous battle of Uhud, another of Medina’s Jewish tribes had been exposed as collaborating with the Meccans. Like the first Jewish tribe, they had been tried and sent into exile. The third tribe, the Banu Qurayza, then proclaimed its loyalty to the Pact of Medina. Now, however, in the run-up to the Battle of the Moat, its leaders had secretly conspired with the Quraysh to fall upon the Muslim forces from behind as soon as the Meccan forces attacked from the front.
When no frontal attack came, the conspirators within Medina lost their nerve. Meanwhile, the besieging force began to fragment, for it was a confederation of tribes, most of whom had come along only as a favor to their Qurayshi allies. With no battle to fight, they got restless. When a windstorm blew up—no small matter in this landscape—they drifted off, and soon the Quraysh gave up and went home too.
All this left the Banu Qurayza in a bad spot. Their plot had been discovered and now their allies were gone. Mohammed put the whole tribe on trial and appointed one of their former associates among the Medina tribes as judge. When the tribe was found guilty, the judge declared that the crime was treason, the punishment for which was death. Some onlookers protested against this sentence, but Mohammed confirmed the sentence, whereupon some eight hundred Jewish men were executed in the public square, and the women and children of the tribe were sent to live with the two tribes exiled earlier.
This whole drama sent a shock wave through Arabia. The trial and execution of the Banu Qurayza announced the grim resolution of the Muslims of Medina. In strictly military terms the Battle of the Moat was a stalemate, but the Quraysh had mustered a force of ten thousand with such fanfare that failing to win was as bad as losing, and this loss helped to stoke a growing myth of Muslim invincibility, communicating a broad impression that this community was not just another powerful tribe feeling its oats but something strange and new. The Muslims lived a distinctly different way of life, they practiced their own devotional rituals, and they had a leader who, when problems came up, went into a trance and channeled advice, he said, from a supernatural helper so powerful that Muslims had no fear of going into battle outnumbered three to one.
Who was this helper?
At first, many of the unconverted might have thought, It’s a really powerful god. But gradually the Muslim message sank in: not a god but the God, the only one. And what if Mohammed was exactly what he claimed to be—the one human being on earth directly connected to the creator of the entire universe?
Recruiting people to kill the man grew ever more difficult. Recruiting warriors to go up against his forces grew difficult too. After the Battle of the Moat, the trickle of conversions to Islam became a flood. It’s easy to suppose people were converting out of canny self-interest, a desire to join the winning side. Muslims, however, believe there was more to it. In Mohammed’s presence, they believe, people were having a religious experience.
Mohammed never claimed supernatural powers. He never claimed the ability to raise the dead, walk on water, or make the blind to see. He only claimed to speak for God, and he didn’t claim that every word out of his mouth was God talking. Sometimes it was just Mohammed talking. How could people tell when it was God and when it was Mohammed?
At the time, apparently, it was obvious. Today’s Muslims have a special way of vocalizing the Qur’an called qira’ut. It’s a sound quite unlike any other made by the human voice. It’s musical, but it isn’t singing. It’s incantatory, but it isn’t chanting. It invokes emotion even in someone who doesn’t understand the words. Every person who performs qira’ut does so differently, but every recitation feels like an imitation or intimation or interpretation of some powerful original. When Mohammed delivered the Qur’an, he must have done so in this penetrating and emotional voice. When people heard the Qur’an from Mohammed, they were not just listening to words but experiencing an emotional force. Perhaps this is why Muslims insist that no translation of the Qur’an is theQur’an. The true Qur’an is the whole package, indivisible: the words and their meanings, yes, but also the very sounds, even the look of the lettering when the Qur’an is in written form. To Muslims, it wasn’t Mohammed the person but the Qur’an coming through Mohammed that was converting people.
One other factor attracted people to the community and inspired them to believe Mohammed’s claims. In this part of the world, small-scale warfare was endemic, as it seems to be in any area populated by many small nomadic tribes among whom trading blends into raiding (such as North America’s eastern woodlands before Columbus arrived, or the Great Plains shortly after). Add the Arabian tradition of blood feuds lasting for generations, add also the tapestry of fragile tribal alliances that marked the peninsula at this time, and you have a world seething with constant, ubiquitous violence.
Wherever Mohammed took over, he instructed people to live in peace with one another, and the converts did. By no means did he tell Muslims to eschew violence, for this community never hesitated to defend itself. Muslims still engaged in warfare, just not against one another; they expended their aggressive energy fighting the relentless outside threat to their survival. Those who joined the Umma immediately entered Dar al-Islam, which means “the realm of submission (to God)” but also, by implication, “the realm of peace.” Everyone else was living out there in Dar al-Harb, the realm of war. Those who joined the Umma didn’t have to watch their backs anymore, not with their fellow Muslims.
Converting also meant joining an inspiring social project: the construction of a just community of social equals. To keep that community alive, you had to fight, because the Umma and its project had implacable enemies. Jihad never meant “holy war” or “violence.” Other words in Arabic mean “fighting” more unambiguously (and are used as such in the Qur’an). A better translation for jihad might be “struggle,” with all the same connotations the word carries in the rhetoric of social justice movements familiar to the West: struggle is deemed noble when it’s struggle for a just cause and if the cause demands “armed struggle,” that’s okay too; it’s sanctified by the cause.
Over the next two years, tribes all across the Arabian peninsula began accepting Mohammed’s leadership, converting to Islam, and joining the community. One night Mohammed dreamed that he had returned to Mecca and found everyone there worshipping Allah. In the morning, he told his followers to pack for a pilgrimage. He led fourteen hundred Muslims on the two-hundred-mile trek to Mecca. They came unarmed, despite the recent history of hostilities, but no battle broke out. The city closed its gates to the Muslims, but Quraysh elders came out and negotiated a treaty with Mohammed: the Muslims could not enter Mecca this year but could come back and perform their rites of pilgrimage next year. Clearly, the Quraysh knew the game was over.
In year 6 AH, the Muslims came back to Mecca and visited the Ka’ba without violence. Two years later, the elders of Mecca surrendered the city to Mohammed without a fight. As his first act, the Prophet destroyed all the idols in the Ka’ba and declared this cube with the black cornerstone the holiest spot in the world. A few of Mohammed’s former enemies grumbled and muttered threats, but the tide had turned. Virtually all the tribes had united under Mohammed’s banner, and all of Arabia was living in harmony for the first time in reported memory.
In year 10 AH (632 CE), Mohammed made one more pilgrimage to Mecca and there gave a final sermon. He told the assembled men to regard the life and property of every Muslim as sacred, to respect the rights of all people including slaves, to acknowledge that women had rights over men just as men had rights over women, and to recognize that among Muslims no one stood higher or lower than anyone else except in virtue. He also said he was the last of God’s Messengers and that after him no further revelations would be coming to humanity.2
Shortly after returning to Medina, he fell ill. Burning with fever, he went from house to house, visiting his wives and friends, spending a moment or two with each one, and saying good-bye. He ended up with his wife Ayesha, the daughter of his old friend Abu Bakr, and there, with his head in her lap, he died.
Someone went out and gave the anxious crowd the news. At once, loyal Omar, one of Mohammed’s fiercest and toughest but also one of his most hotheaded companions, jumped to his feet and warned that any man who spread such slander would lose limbs when his lie was exposed. Mohammed dead? Impossible!
Then the older and more prudent Abu Bakr went to investigate. A moment later he came back and said, “O Muslims! Those of you who worshipped Mohammed, know that Mohammed is dead. Those of you who worship Allah, know that Allah is alive and immortal.”
The words swept away Omar’s rage and denial. He felt, he told friends later, as if the ground had been cut out from under him. He broke down crying, then, this strong bull of a man, because he realized that the news was true: God’s Messenger was dead.