His ancestry was distinguished, his patrimony modest: Abdallah had left him five camels, a flock of goats, a house, and a slave who nursed him in his infancy. His name, meaning “highly praised,” lent itself well to certain Biblical passages as predicting his advent. His mother died when he was six; he was taken over by his grandfather, then seventy-six, and later by his uncle Abu Talib. They gave him affection and care, but no one seems to have bothered to teach him how to read or write;12 this feeble accomplishment was held in low repute by the Arabs of the time; only seventeen men of the Quraish tribe condescended to it.13 Mohammed was never known to write anything himself; he used an amanuensis. His apparent illiteracy did not prevent him from composing the most famous and eloquent book in the Arabic tongue, and from acquiring such understanding of the management of men as seldom comes to highly educated persons.
Of his youth we know almost nothing, though fables about it have filled ten thousand volumes. At the age of twelve, says a tradition, he was taken by Abu Talib on a caravan to Bostra in Syria; perhaps on that journey he picked up some Jewish and Christian lore. Another tradition pictures him, a few years later, as going to Bostra on mercantile business for the rich widow Khadija. Then suddenly we find him, aged twenty-five, marrying her, aged forty and the mother of several children. Until her death twenty-six years later Mohammed lived with Khadija in a monogamous condition highly unusual for a Moslem of means, but perhaps natural in their recipient. She bore him some daughters, of whom the most famous was Fatima, and two sons who died in infancy. He consoled his grief by adopting Ali, the orphan son of Abu Talib. Khadija was a good woman, a good wife, a good merchant; she remained loyal to Mohammed through all his spiritual vicissitudes; and amid all his wives he remembered her as the best.
Ali, who married Fatima, fondly describes his adoptive father at forty-five as
of middle stature, neither tall nor short. His complexion was rosy white; his eyes black; his hair, thick, brilliant, and beautiful, fell to his shoulders. His profuse beard fell to his breast…. There was such sweetness in his visage that no one, once in his presence, could leave him. If I hungered, a single look at the Prophet’s face dispelled the hunger. Before him all forgot their griefs and pains.14
He was a man of dignity, and seldom laughed; he kept his keen sense of humor under control, knowing its hazards for public men. Of a delicate constitution, he was nervous, impressionable, given to melancholy pensiveness. In moments of excitement or anger his facial veins would swell alarmingly; but he knew when to abate his passion, and could readily forgive a disarmed and repentant foe.
There were many Christians in Arabia, some in Mecca; with at least one of these Mohammed became intimate—Khadija’s cousin Waraqah ibn Nawfal, “who knew the Scriptures of the Hebrews and the Christians.”15 Mohammed frequently visited Medina, where his father had died; there he may have met some of the Jews who formed a large part of the population. Many a page of the Koran proves that he learned to admire the morals of the Christians, the monotheism of the Jews, and the strong support given to Christianity and Judaism by the possession of Scriptures believed to be a revelation from God. Compared with these faiths the polytheistic idolatry, loose morality, tribal warfare, and political disunity of Arabia may have seemed to him shamefully primitive. He felt the need of a new religion—perhaps of one that would unify all these factious groups into a virile and healthy nation; a religion that would give them a morality not earth-bound to the Bedouin law of violence and revenge, but based upon commandments of divine origin and therefore of indisputable force. Others may have had similar thoughts; we hear of several “prophets” arising in Arabia about the beginning of the seventh century.16 Many Arabs had been influenced by the Messianic expectations of the Jews; they, too, eagerly awaited a messenger from God. One Arab sect, the Hanifs, already rejected the heathen idolatry of the Kaaba, and preached a universal God, of whom all mankind should be willing slaves.17 Like every successful preacher, Mohammed gave voice and form to the need and longing of his time.
As he approached forty he became more and more absorbed in religion. During the holy month of Ramadan he would withdraw, sometimes with his family, to a cave at the foot of Mt. Hira, three miles from Mecca, and spend many days and nights in fasting, meditation, and prayer. One night in the year 610, as he was alone in the cave, the pivotal experience of all Mohammedan history came to him. According to a tradition reported by his chief biographer, Muhammad ibn Ishaq, Mohammed related the event as follows:
Whilst I was asleep, with a coverlet of silk brocade whereon was some writing, the angel Gabriel appeared to me and said, “Read!” I said, “I do not read.” He pressed me with the coverlets so tightly that methought ’twas death. Then he let me go, and said, “Read!” … So I read aloud, and he departed from me at last. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart. I went forth until, when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, “O Mohammed! thou art the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.” I raised my head toward heaven to see, and lo, Gabriel in the form of a man, with feet set evenly on the rim of the sky, saying, “O Mohammed! thou art the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.”18
Returning to Khadija, he informed her of the visions. We are told that she accepted them as a true revelation from heaven, and encouraged him to announce his mission.
Thereafter he had many similar visions. Often, when they came, he fell to the ground in a convulsion or swoon; perspiration covered his brow; even the camel on which he was sitting felt the excitement, and moved fitfully.19 Mohammed later attributed his gray hairs to these experiences. When pressed to describe the process of revelation, he answered that the entire text of the Koran existed in heaven,20 and that one fragment at a time was communicated to him, usually by Gabriel.21 Asked how he could remember these divine discourses, he explained that the archangel made him repeat every word.22 Others who were near the Prophet at the time neither saw nor heard the angel.23 Possibly his convulsions were epileptic seizures; they were sometimes accompanied by a sound reported by him as like the ringing of a bell24—a frequent occurrence in epileptic fits. But we hear of no tongue-biting, no loss of prehensile strength, such as usually occurs in epilepsy; nor does Mohammed’s history show that degeneration of brain power which epilepsy generally brings; on the contrary, he advanced in clarity of thought and in confident leadership and power until his sixtieth year.25 The evidence is inconclusive; at least it has not sufficed to convince any orthodox Mohammedan.
During the next four years Mohammed more and more openly announced himself as the prophet of Allah, divinely commissioned to lead the Arab people to a new morality and a monotheistic faith. Difficulties were many. New ideas are welcomed only if promising early material advantage; and Mohammed lived in a mercantile, skeptical community, which derived some of its revenues from pilgrims coming to worship the Kaaba’s many gods. Against this handicap he made some progress by offering to believers an escape from a threatened hell into a joyous and tangible paradise. He opened his house to all who would hear him—rich and poor and slaves, Arabs and Christians and Jews; and his impassioned eloquence moved a few to belief. His first convert was his aging wife; the second his cousin Ali; the third his servant Zaid, whom he had bought as a slave and had immediately freed; the fourth was his kinsman Abu Bekr, a man of high standing among the Quraish. Abu Bekr brought to the new faith five other Meccan leaders; he and these became the Prophet’s six “Companions,” whose memories of him would later constitute the most revered traditions of Islam. Mohammed went often to the Kaaba, accosted pilgrims, and preached the one god. The Quraish heard him at first with smiling patience, called him a half-wit, and proposed to send him, at their own expense, to a physician who might cure him of his madness.26 But when he attacked the Kaaba worship as idolatry they rose to the protection of their income, and would have done him injury had not his uncle Abu Talib shielded him. Abu Talib would have none of the new faith, but his very fidelity to old ways required him to defend any member of his clan.
Fear of a blood feud deterred the Quraish from using violence upon Mohammed or his freemen followers. Upon converted slaves, however, they might employ dissuasive measures without offending tribal law. Several of these were jailed; some were exposed for hours, without head covering or drink, to the glare of the sun. Abu Bekr had by years of commerce saved 40,000 pieces of silver; now he used 35,000 to buy the freedom of as many converted slaves as he could; and Mohammed eased the situation by ruling that recantation under duress was forgivable. The Quraish were more disturbed by Mohammed’s welcome to slaves than by his religious creed.27 Persecution of the poorer converts continued, and with such severity that the Prophet permitted or advised their emigration to Abyssinia. The refugees were well received there by the Christian king (615).
A year later an event occurred which was almost as significant for Mohammedanism as the conversion of Paul had been for Christianity. Omar ibn al-Khattab, hitherto a most violent opponent, was won over to the new creed. He was a man of great physical strength, social power, and moral courage. His allegiance brought timely confidence to the harassed believers, and new adherents to the cause. Instead of hiding their worship in private homes they now preached it boldly in the streets. The defenders of the Kaaba gods formed a league pledged to renounce all intercourse with members of the Hashimite clan who still felt obligated to shield Mohammed. To avert conflict, many Hashimites, including Mohammed and his family, withdrew to a secluded quarter of Mecca, where Abu Talib could provide protection (615). For over two years this separation of the clans continued, until some members of the Quraish, relenting, invited the Hashimites to return to their deserted homes, and pledged them peace.
The little group of converts rejoiced, but the year 619 brought triple misfortune to Mohammed. Khadija, his most loyal supporter, and Abu Talib, his protector, died. Feeling insecure in Mecca, and discouraged by the slow increase of his followers there, Mohammed moved to Taif (620), a pleasant town sixty miles east. But Taif rejected him. Its leaders did not care to offend the merchant aristocracy of Mecca; its populace, horrified by any religious innovation, hooted him through the streets, and pelted him with stones until blood flowed from his legs. Back in Mecca, he married the widow Sauda, and betrothed himself, aged fifty, to Aisha, the pretty and petulant seven-year-old daughter of Abu Bekr.
Meanwhile his visions continued. One night, it seemed to him, he was miraculously transported in his sleep to Jerusalem; there a winged horse, Buraq, awaited him at the Wailing Wall of the Jewish Temple ruins, flew him to heaven, and back again; and by another miracle the Prophet found himself, the next morning, safe in his Mecca bed. The legend of this flight made Jerusalem a third holy city for Islam.
In the year 620 Mohammed preached to merchants who had come from Medina on pilgrimage to the Kaaba; they heard him with some acceptance, for the doctrine of monotheism, a divine messenger, and the Last Judgment were familiar to them from the creed of the Medina Jews. Returning to their city, some of them expounded the new gospel to their friends; several Jews, seeing little difference between Mohammed’s teaching and their own, gave it a tentative welcome; and in 622 some seventy-three citizens of Medina came privately to Mohammed and invited him to make Medina his home. He asked would they protect him as faithfully as their own families; they vowed they would, but asked what reward they would receive should they be killed in the process. He answered, paradise.28
About this time Abu Sufyan, grandson of Umayya, became the head of the Meccan Quraish. Having been brought up in an odor of hatred for all descendants of Hashim, he renewed the persecution of Mohammed’s followers. Possibly he had heard that the Prophet was meditating flight, and feared that Mohammed, once established in Medina, might stir it to war against Mecca and the Kaaba cult. At his urging, the Quraish commissioned some of their number to apprehend Mohammed, perhaps to kill him. Apprised of the plot, Mohammed fled with Abu Bekr to the cave of Thaur, a league distant. The Quraish emissaries sought them for three days, but failed to find them. The children of Abu Bekr brought camels, and the two men rode northward through the night, and through many days for 200 miles, until, on September 24, 622, they arrived at Medina. Two hundred Meccan adherents had preceded them in the guise of departing pilgrims, and stood at the city’s gates, with the Medina converts, to welcome the Prophet. Seventeen years later the Caliph Omar designated the first day—July 16, 622—of the Arabian year in which this Hegira (hijra—flight) took place as the official beginning of the Mohammedan era.