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Muhammad And The Beginnings Of Islam

Tribal solidarity was breaking

up and merchants pursued individual interests and disregarded their

traditional duties to the unfortunate. About 610, as he reflected on

such matters, Muhammad had a vision of a majestic being (later

identified with the angel Gabriel) and heard a voice saying to him, “You

are the Messenger of God. ” This marked the beginning of his career as

messenger of Allah, or Prophet. From this time, at frequent intervals

until his death, he received “revelations”; that is, verbal messages

that he believed came directly from God. Sometimes these were kept in

memory by Muhammad and his followers, and sometimes they were written

down. About 650 they were collected and written in the Qur`an (or

Koran, the sacred scriptures of Islam), in the form that has endured.

Muslims believe the Qur`an is divine revelation, written in the words of

God himself.

Muhammad is said to have been perturbed after the vision and first

revelation but was reassured by his wife, Khadijah. In his later

experiences of receiving messages, there was normally no vision.

Occasionally, there were physical concomitants, such as perspiring on a

cold day, giving rise to the suggestion, now agreed to be unwarranted,

that he was an epileptic. Sometimes he heard a noise like a bell but

apparently never a voice. The essence of such an experience was that he

found a verbal message in his heart; that is, in his conscious mind.

With the help of Khadijah’s Christian cousin Waraqah, he came to

interpret these messages as identical with those sent by God through

other prophets to Jews, Christians, and others. He also came to believe

that by the first great vision, and by the receipt of the messages, he

was commissioned to communicate them to his fellow citizens and other

Arabs. Along with proclaiming the messages he received, Muhammad must

have offered explanations and expositions of them in his own words, as

is evident in the large body of prophetic traditions that the community

has preserved.

Soon he gathered some sympathetic friends who accepted his claim to be

a prophet and joined him in common worship and prayers. These

culminated in an act of prostration in which they touched the ground

with their foreheads in acknowledgment of God’s majesty; still a

cardinal act in Islamic worship. In about 613 Muhammad began preaching

publicly, and he and his followers spent their days together in the

house of a young man named al-Arqam. It is probable that they sometimes

worshipped together in the Ka’bah, a sanctuary of the Arab pagans.

The people of Mecca at the time worshipped many gods, but few believed

that man was dependent on supernatural powers. The merchants thought

most things could be accomplished by wealth and by human planning. Some

men regarded Allah as a “high god” who stood above lesser deities.

Allah, the Arabic word for God, is used by Christian Arabs as well as by

Muslims. The earliest passages of the Qur`an revealed to Muhammad

emphasize the goodness and power of God, as seen in nature and in the

prosperity of the Meccans, and call on the Meccans to be grateful and to

worship “the Lord of the Ka’bah,” who is thus identified with God.

Gratitude is to be expressed in generosity with one’s wealth and

avoidance of niggardliness. As a sanction, men are warned that they

will appear before God on the Last Day to be judged according to their

deeds and assigned to heaven or hell.

By proclaiming this message publicly, Muhammad gained followers, said

to be 39, before he entered the house of al-Arqam. The names of 70

followers are known prior to the appearance of opposition to the new

religion, and there were probably more. Most were young men under 30

when they joined Muhammad. They included sons and brothers of the

richest men in Mecca, though they might be described as persons excluded

from the most lucrative forms of commerce. A handful of Muhammad’s

early followers were spoken of as “weak,” which merely means that they

were not of the tribe of Quraysh and so not effectively protected by any

clan. The new religion was eventually called Islam, meaning “surrender

(to the will of God)”, and its adherents were called Muslims, meaning

“those who have surrendered”, though the Qur`an speaks of them primarily

as “the believers. ”

Although Muhammad’s preaching was basically religious, there was

implicit in it a critique of the conduct and attitudes of the rich

merchants of Mecca. Attempts were made to get him to soften his

criticism by offering him a fuller share in trade and a marriage

alliance with one of the wealthiest families, but he decisively rejected

such offers. In about 615, more active opposition appeared. Points in

the message of the Qur`an were questioned, such as the assertion that

men would be resurrected before the Judgment. Commercial pressure was

brought to bear on Muhammad’s supporters, and in some families there was

mild persecution of junior members who followed him. It is sometimes

suggested that the main reason for opposition was the merchants’ fear

that the new religion would destroy the recognition of the Ka’bah as a

sanctuary, but this is unlikely. Certainly, attacks on idols appeared

in the Qur`an, and Islam began to be characterized by the insistence

that “there is no god but God” (Allah). Despite this, no attack was

made on the Ka’bah, and the idols mentioned had their chief shrines


A leader of the opposition arose in the person of Abu Jahl who probably

felt that Muhammad, despite his claim to be “only a warner” of Judgment

to come, was building a position of authority that might one day make

him politically supreme in Mecca. This fear arose from the observation

that Arabs deeply respected the kind of wisdom or knowledge that

Muhammad clearly had. In about 616, Abu Jahl organized a boycott of the

clan of Hashim by the chief clans of Mecca, allegedly because the clan

continued to protect Muhammad and did not curb his preaching; but, since

few of the clan were Muslims, other issues may have been involved.

After three years the boycott lost momentum, perhaps because some of the

participants found they were harming their own economic interests.

Both Muhammad’s wife, Khadijah, and his uncle Abu Talib died in about

619. Another uncle, Abu Lahab, succeeded as head of the clan of

Hashim. He was closer to the richest merchants, and at their

instigation, he withdrew the protection of the clan from Muhammad. This

meant that Muhammad could easily be attacked and therefore could no

longer propagate his religion in Mecca. He left for the neighboring

town of at-Ta`if, but the inhabitants were insufficiently prepared to

receive his message, and he failed to find support. Having secured the

protection of the head of another clan, he returned to Mecca. In 620,

Muhammad began negotiations with clans in Medina, leading to his

emigration, or hijrah, there in 622.

It is difficult to assess the nature and extent of the persecution of

the Muslims in Mecca. There was little physical violence, and that was

usually within the family. Muhammad suffered from minor annoyances,

such as having filth deposited outside his door. The persecution is

said to have led to the emigration of some of the Muslims to Ethiopia

about 615, but they may have been seeking opportunities for trade or

military support for Muhammad. Some remained until 628, long after

Muhammad was established in Medina. Whatever the nature of the

persecution, the Muslims were very bitter about it.

In the summer of 621, 12 men from Medina, visiting Mecca for the annual

pilgrimage to the Ka’bah (still a pagan shrine), secretly professed

themselves Muslims to Muhammad and went back to make propaganda for him

at Medina. At the pilgrimage in June 622 a representative party of 75

persons from Medina, including two women, not merely professed Islam,

but also took an oath to defend Muhammad as they would their own kin.

These are known as the two Pledges of al-‘Aqaba. Muhammad now

encouraged his faithful Meccan followers to make their way to Medina in

small groups. The Meccans are said to have plotted to kill Muhammad

before he could leave. With his chief lieutenant, he slipped away

unperceived, used unfrequented paths, and reached Medina safely on

September 24, 622. This is the celebrated hijrah, which may be rendered

“emigration,” though the basic meaning is the severing of kinship ties.

It is the traditional starting point of Islamic history. The Islamic

Era (AH or Anno Hegirae) begins on the first day of the Arabic year in

which the hijrah took place; July 16, 622, in the Western calendar.

Medina was different from Mecca. It was an oasis in which date palms

flourished and cereals could be grown. Agriculture had been developed

by several Jewish clans, who had settled among the original Arabs, and

they still had the best lands. Later Arab immigrants belonging to the

tribes of al- Aws and al- Khazraj, however, were in a stronger

position. The effective units among the Arabs were eight or more clans,

but nearly all of these had become involved in serious feuds. Much

blood had been shed in a battle in about 618, and peace was not fully

restored. In inviting Muhammad to Medina, many of the Arabs there

probably hoped that he would act as an arbiter among the opposing

parties. Their contact with the Jews may have prepared them for a

messianic religious leader, who would deliver them from oppression and

establish a kingdom in which justice prevailed.

A document has been preserved known as the Constitution of Medina. In

its present form, it is a combination of at least two earlier documents

and was probably compiled later than 627, but its main provisions are

almost certainly those originally agreed upon between Muhammad and the

Muslims of Medina. In form the document creates a confederation on

traditional Arab lines among nine groups; eight Arab clans and the

emigrants from Mecca. Muhammad is given no special position of

authority except that the preamble speaks of the agreement as made

between “Muhammad the prophet” and the Muslims now resident in Medina,

and it is stated that serious disputes are to be referred to him. For

at least five years, Muhammad had no direct authority over members of

other clans, but, in the closing years of his life, the prestige of his

military successes gave him almost autocratic power. The revelations he

received at Medina frequently contained legal rules for the community of

Muslims, but they dealt with political questions only rarely.

The first 18 months at Medina were spent in settling down. Muhammad

was given a piece of land and had a house built, which eventually held

apartments grouped around a central courtyard for each of his wives.

The Muslims often joined Muhammad at prayers in his home, which, after

his death, became the mosque of Medina. The emigrants (muhajirun, the

men from Mecca) were at first guests of brother Muslims in Medina, but

Muhammad cannot have contemplated this situation continuing

indefinitely. A few emigrants carried on trade in the local market run

by a Jewish clan. Others, with the approval of Muhammad, set out in

normal Arab fashion on razzias (ghazawat, “raids”) in the hope of

intercepting Meccan caravans passing near Medina on their way to Syria.

Muhammad himself led three such razzias in 623. They all failed,

probably because traitors betrayed the Muslim movements to the enemy.

At last, in January 624, a small band of men was sent eastward with

sealed orders telling them to proceed to Nakhlah, near Mecca, and attack

a caravan from Yemen. This they did successfully, and in doing so they

violated pagan ideas of sanctity thereby making the Meccans aware of the

seriousness of the threat from Muhammad.

About the same time, there was a change in Muhammad’s general policy in

important respects. One aspect was the “break with Jews”; instead of

making concessions to the Jews in the hope of gaining recognition of his

prophethood, he asserted the specifically Arabian character of the

Islamic religion. Hitherto the Muslims had faced Jerusalem in prayer,

but a revelation now bade them face Mecca. Perhaps because of this

change some Muslims of Medina were readier to support Muhammad. In

March 624 he was able to lead about 315 men on a razzia to attack a

wealthy Meccan caravan returning from Syria. The caravan, led by Abu

Sufyan, the head of the Umayyah clan, eluded the Muslims by devious

routes and forced marches. Abu Jahl, the head of the Makhzum clan,

however, leading a supporting force of perhaps 800 men, wanted to teach

Muhammad a lesson and did not withdraw. On March 15, 624, near a place

called Badr, the two forces found themselves in a situation, perhaps

contrived by Muhammad, from which neither could withdraw without

disgrace. In the ensuing battle, at least 45 Meccans were killed,

including Abu Jahl and other leading men, and nearly 70 taken prisoner

while only 14 Muslims died. To Muhammad this appeared to be a divine

vindication of his prophethood, and he and all the Muslims were greatly


In the flush of victory, some persons in Medina who had satirized

Muhammad in verse were assassinated, perhaps with his connivance. He

also made a minor disturbance an excuse for expelling the Jewish clan,

which ran the market. This weakened his most serious opponent there,

the “hypocrite” (munafiq), or nominal Muslim, ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy, who

was allied with the local Jews. The remaining waverers among the Arabs

probably became Muslims about this time. Thus the victory of Badr

greatly strengthened Muhammad. At the same time he was using marriage

relationships to bring greater cohesion to the emigrants. Of his

daughters, Fatimah was married to ‘Ali (later fourth caliph, or leader

of the Islamic community) and Umm Kulthum to ‘Uthman (third caliph). He

himself was already married to ‘A`ishah, daughter of Abu Bakr (first

caliph), and was now espoused also to Hafsah, daughter of ‘Umar (second

caliph), whose previous husband was one of the Muslims killed at Badr.

In the same year, Muhammad led larger Muslim forces on razzias against

hostile nomadic tribes and had some success. Presumably, he realized

that the Meccans were bound to try to avenge their defeat. Indeed, Abu

Sufyan was energetically mobilizing Meccan power. On March 21, 625, he

entered the oasis of Medina with 3,000 men. One of the features of

Medina was a large number of small forts that were impregnable to Arab

weapons and tactics. Muhammad would have preferred the Muslims to

retire to these; but those whose cereal crops were being laid waste

persuaded him to go out to fight. By a night march with 1,000 men, he

reached the hill of Uhud on the further side of the Meccan camp. On the

morning of March 23, the Meccan infantry attacked and was repulsed with

considerable loss. As the Muslims pursued, the Meccan cavalry launched

a flank attack after the archers guarding the Muslim left had abandoned

their position. The Muslims were thrown into confusion. Some made for

a fort and were cut down, but Muhammad and the bulk of his force managed

to gain the lower slopes of Uhud, where they were safe from the

cavalry. The Meccans, because of their losses, were unable to press

home their advantages and without delay set out for home, while Muhammad

the next day made a show of pursuing. The battle produced neither a

clear victor nor loser. In Badr and Uhud together, the Meccans had

killed about as many men as they had lost; but they had boasted that

they would make the Muslims pay several times over, and they had not

shown the degree of superiority appropriate to their leading position in

Arabia. Muhammad, though he had lost above 70 men, realized that this

was a military reverse, not a defeat, but the confidence of the Muslims

and perhaps his own had been struck a serious blow. If the victory of

Badr was a sign of God’s support, did Uhud indicate that he had

abandoned the Muslims? Muhammad’s faith soon overcame any momentary

doubts, and he was gradually able to restore the confidence of his


For two years after Uhud, both sides prepared for a decisive

encounter. In the razzias Muhammad led or sanctioned, he seems to have

aimed at extending his own alliances and at preventing others from

joining the Meccans. In at least two cases, a small party of Muslims

was tricked or ambushed, and most of their lives were lost. In April

627, Abu Sufyan led a great confederacy of 10,000 men against Medina.

On this occasion Muhammad had ordered the crops to be harvested and a

trench to be dug to defend the main part of the oasis from the Meccan

cavalry. For a fortnight the confederates besieged the Muslims.

Attempts to cross the trench failed, and fodder for the horses was

scarce, while Muhammad’s agents among the attackers fomented potential

dissensions. Then, after a night of wind and rain the great army melted

away. The Meccans had exerted their utmost might and had failed to

dislodge Muhammad, whose position was now greatly strengthened.

For more than two years now there had been opposition to Muhammad in

Medina, chiefly from ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy and other so-called hypocrites

who had abandoned Muhammad at Uhud and who together had fostered

disaffection. Shortly before the siege Muhammad had a showdown with

‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy, who had joined in spreading slanders about

Muhammad’s wife ‘A`ishah. This confrontation revealed that ‘Abd Allah

had little support in Medina, and he became reconciled to Muhammad.

After the siege of Medina, Muhammad attacked the Jewish clan of

Qurayzah, which had probably been intriguing against him. When they

surrendered, the men were all executed and the women and children sold

as slaves.

Muhammad’s farsightedness as a statesman is manifest in the policies he

next adopted. He might have continued to crush the Meccans, and he

indeed put economic pressure on them; but his main aim was to gain their

willing adherence to Islam. He had already realized that, insofar as

the Arabs became Muslims, it would be necessary to direct outward the

energies expended on razzias against one another. There could be no

question of Muslims raiding Muslims. It is noteworthy that his largest

razzias, apart from the expeditions against the Meccans, were along the

route to Syria followed by the Arab armies after his death. He

doubtless realized that the administrative skill of the Meccan merchants

would be required for any expansion of his embryonic state.

In a dream, Muhammad saw himself performing the annual pilgrimage to

Mecca, and in March 628 he set out to do so, driving sacrificial

animals. He was disappointed because no more than 1,600 men would

accompany him. The Meccans were determined to prevent the Muslims from

entering their town, so Muhammad halted at al-Hudaybiyah, on the edge of

the sacred territory of Mecca. After some critical days, the Meccans

made a treaty with Muhammad. Hostilities were to cease, and the Muslims

were to be allowed to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in 629. The orderly

withdrawal showed how completely Muhammad controlled his followers.

Partly to reward this orderly conduct, Muhammad two months later led the

same force against the Jewish oasis of Khaybar, north of Medina. After

a siege, it submitted, but the Jews were allowed to remain on condition

of sending half of the date harvest to Medina. Throughout 628 and 629,

Muhammad’s power was growing. The success led more men to become

Muslims, for the religious attraction of Islam was apparently

supplemented by material motives.

Meanwhile, Mecca was in decline. Several leading men had emigrated to

Medina and become Muslims. New leaders had taken over from Abu Sufyan

but had accomplished little, although the treaty with Muhammad had

removed his pressure on their caravans. Shortly after the treaty,

Muhammad had married Umm Habibah, a daughter of Abu Sufyan, and a widow

whose Muslim husband had died in Ethiopia. This led to an understanding

with Abu Sufyan, who began to work for the peaceful surrender of Mecca.

It was probably when he was in Mecca for the pilgrimage in March 629

that Muhammad became reconciled with another uncle, al-‘Abbas, and

married his uncle’s sister-in-law Maymunah.

An attack by Meccan allies in about November 629 upon allies of

Muhammad led to the Muhammad’s denunciation of the treaty of

al-Hudaybiyah. After secret preparations he marched on Mecca in January

630 with 10,000 men. Abu Sufyan and other leading Meccans went out to

meet him and formally submitted, so Muhammad promised a general

amnesty. When he entered Mecca there was virtually no resistance. Two

Muslims and 28 of the enemy were killed. A number of people were

specifically excluded from the amnesty, but some were later pardoned.

Thus Muhammad, who had left Mecca as a persecuted prophet, not merely

entered it again in triumph but also gained the allegiance of most of

the Meccans. Though he did not insist on their becoming Muslims, many

soon did so.

Muhammad spent 15 to 20 days in Mecca settling various matters of

administration. Idols were destroyed in the Ka’bah and in some small

shrines in the neighborhood. To relieve the poorest among his

followers, he demanded loans from some of the wealthy Meccans. When he

marched east to meet a new threat, 2,000 Meccans went with him.

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