What was Alexandria? The gem of the ancient world; the Hellenic ideal of scholarship; birthplace of Neo Platonism; home of the scribes of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament; scene of Cleopatra’s demise. Gobbledygook, in other words, to most young westerners.
On the Clear Horizon: The Life of the Prophet Muhammad
Remember we gave Moses the book, and sent after him many messengers, and to Jesus, son of Mary, we gave clear evidence of the truth. (Koran: 2:86-7)
If you were to visit Egypt, you would most probably wake up to a very special noise. The noise is the call to prayer which comes from Muslim houses of worship, mosques. The call is a human voice which says:
God is Great! God is Great! I bear witness that there is no god but God. I bear witness that Muhammad is a messenger of God. Come to prayer. Come to prayer. Come to your good. Come to your good.
Although in many mosques today this call is recorded and played over a loud speaker, it was originally called by someone standing in a tower in the mosque. This person would have stood facing towards what is now a major city in Arabia, Mecca.
Most people in Egypt are Muslims. That means that they follow the religion of Islam. But Egyptians are by no means the only Muslims. Muslims can be found in most countries on earth, from Pakistan to the United States of America. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. They come from a wide range of different races and nationalities. Muslims believe many things, and have many disagreements, even among themselves. But one thing upon which they all agree is that Muhammad, a man who lived in Mecca over 1500 years ago, received messages from God. They also believe that it was his duty to pass these on to the rest of the world. These messages told people that there was only one God. This God made the earth and everything in it, including humans. And it was this God that was to be worshipped, and no others.
The core of Muhammad’s message was quite simple: This God had revealed Himself to humans before, through prophets such as Moses and Jesus. But the people had forgotten the message and wandered from the path to which God had directed them. Muhammad told his community that through him God was revealing his message to humanity for the last time.
This book tells the story of Muhammad’s life and the beginning of the Islamic religion as Muslims themselves believe it to have happened. For those readers who are not Muslims, many parts of this story may seem incredible, far fetched even. But I will not leave out these parts of the story for fear of not being believed: all religions have stories like these, which to many people sound impossible. This is the essence of religion, and for religious people practicing their religion often requires that they believe things which otherwise would seem impossible or magical. Many of these stories, therefore, reveal how Muslims themselves think about Muhammad, his life, and the way it all began.
A Cloud in a Clear Sky
We have sent you as a mercy to the World (Qur’an: Chapter 21: verse 107)
Much of what we know about Muhammad’s life comes from one large collection of stories by a man called Ibn Ishaq, which appeared more than one hundred years after Muhammad’s death. But in the years after Muhammad’s death his followers collected all the stories they could find about him and his life and wrote them down. This went on for years, and eventually there were hundreds of stories about Muhammad which people later looked to when they needed answers to problems and wanted to know what Muhammad would have done in their situation. One story told by Ibn Ishaq, however, was that of Bahira the monk.
In the summer of the year C.E. 600, a monk sat at the entrance of a cave somewhere in the Syrian desert. He looked out over the sand and rocks at some distant figures slowly taking shape as they approached. Soon he could see that the figures were a collection of men and pack animals that made up a caravan, or trading party. They were heading south. The heat bounced off the burning surface of the sand and caused the air above it to fall in and out of focus. They walked silently, with their heads wrapped in cotton scarves to protect against heat-stroke and dehydration. Their camels walked behind them, led by ropes, heavily laden with bags of goods.
The traders were returning home to the city of Mecca in the Arabian peninsula from the land of Al-Sham, today’s Syria. Such journeys were common for the men in the caravan; they often went to the shores of the Mediterranean with their camels loaded with silks, spices, and other goods. Once there, they would exchange their materials and return home with new merchandise to sell.
It was a long and dangerous journey. The unforgiving desert could easily kill a man, even experienced and travel-hardened men like these. Bands of nomadic tribesmen also provided a danger to caravans. These tribesmen often attacked traders. It was necessary, for this reason, for traders to have agreements with the tribes whose territory they passed through in order to guarantee safe passage. Even if this meant paying money to the tribes, it was worthwhile if they saved their precious cargoes, not to mention their lives. These dangers apart, on completing the trip, they would have traded many goods for a profit, and bought exotic items to sell at home.
The caravan was approaching Jebel-al-Druze, a lonely oasis where Romans occasionally came to trade. The traders hoped to do a little last-minute business before the final stretch of near-empty desert to Mecca. The monk, named Bahira, lived in this oasis, in a cave in the rocks. The sky was a clear, deep blue. But as Bahira looked in the direction of the caravan, he noticed an extraordinary thing: a single cloud hovered above the thin line of men and animals. The sky was otherwise entirely cloudless. As the men moved the cloud moved with them, but it seemed to only shade one part of the caravan, in fact, Bahira noticed as he looked more closely, it only threw its shadow over one man.
The cell that Bahira occupied had always been lived in by a monk. It was also home to a very old Christian book, which had been handed down from generation to generation of monks. It was this book which, day after day, kept Bahira busy in reading and studying, and from this he knew that, after Jesus, another prophet was expected to appear. It was his hope that he would live to see this prophet before dying. Now, looking at this extraordinary, lonely cloud following the caravan, Bahira had a the feeling that his hope might just come true.
The caravan finally entered the oasis, and Bahira learned that they were traders from Mecca. Curious about these travelers, he invited the men to share his midday meal with him. They were at first surprised; they had passed by this way many times before but had never talked to the old man, one of the oasis’s few residents.
“What has happened, Bahira, that today of all days you invite us to eat with you? We have passed by you a thousand times and never have you paid us any attention!” Bahira laughed this off.
“I want to give you men of Mecca some of my food, so come, eat with me!” He said. When everyone was seated, Bahira examined the group, but did not find anyone who resembled the description in his book.
He asked, “is there anyone else with your party?”
“Just a boy watching the animals,” the men answered, pointing to a boy under a tree.
“Then bring him here,” Bahira said, noticing the young man sitting watching the camels. To his amazement, the branches of the tree were bending over as if to give the young man shade. The youth came and sat with the others and ate his meal. As he did so, Bahira watched him closely. He found that he looked exactly like the boy described in his book.
When the meal was over and the men had left, Bahira held the boy back and began to ask him about his life in Mecca, and his habits and opinions, in particular about the practice of worshipping idols. Everything that the boy told him matched the description in his book. Finally, Bahira examined the boy’s back, and there he found, between his shoulder blades, the mark described in his book as the sign of the Seal of the Prophets, God’s final messenger to humanity.
The boy was an orphan. His parents had both died while he was still young. He was brought up by his uncle, whom he considered his father. This uncle was traveling with the caravan.
Bahira went to the older man, and asked him, “What relation is this boy to you?”
The older man answered, “he is my son.”
“This cannot be,” said Bahira. “Because this boy’s father is dead.”
Astonished at Bahira’s knowledge, the man said, “you are right, by God! I am his uncle, although he is as a son to me.”
Bahira knew by now that this boy was the prophet about whom he had read.
“This nephew of yours will be a great man. Guard him well.” He told the boy’s uncle.
The boy’s name was Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdallah, and he was to become the Prophet of Islam.
Muhammad was born in Mecca. In the sixth century, as today, the Arabian peninsula was almost entirely desert. Millions of years ago it was connected to the Sahara desert, but very gradually, with the formation of the Red Sea and the Nile Valley, it separated from the rest of Africa.
The center of the peninsula is scorched by the sun throughout the year, and agriculture is all but impossible, except close to the sea, and in small oases. One of the driest areas of this peninsula, known as the “Empty Quarter,” (because next to nothing can live there), is about the size of Ohio. Little can grow in such a harsh environment; sometimes it does not rain here for years at a time. It is extremely difficult to find your way through this area because the sand dunes, which are its only geographical features, are constantly shifting to form and reform in miniature mountain ranges which often reach heights of several hundred feet. In Muhammad’s time this meant that only skilled travelers could find their way through the desert, using the sun by day, and the stars by night to guide them.
While people on the coast could fish and grow some crops, those who lived inland had to adapts to the ever-changing conditions of the desert. People known as the Bedouin were the area’s main inhabitants. They became experts at living in the desert. Groups of families, which formed tribes, roamed from place to place in order to find grazing for their flocks of sheep and goats. But this was not a haphazard roaming: the Bedouin knew where the rain was likely to fall, and would move around according to the seasons. Their goats and sheep provided milk, cheese and meat which was the basis of their diet.
But the Bedouin sometimes settled in towns. Cities in the peninsula and around its coast contained many Bedouin who had given up the wandering life for the comforts of the town. There were also long-time residents, whose families had lived there for generations. Mecca at this time was one such city. It can be found less than 100 miles inland, about half-way down the western side of the peninsula. At the time of Muhammad’s birth, in A.D. 570, it was a growing city. Traders passed through Mecca exchanging perfumes, spices and jewels, among other things. Taking part in this trade allowed many inhabitants of Arabia to give up their flocks and their wandering and settle in one place.
Zamzam: A Spring in the Desert
In such a harsh desert land, Mecca was important because it had spring water. For this reason people had always stopped there on their travels from the Far East to the Mediterranean. Popular stories about the earliest inhabitants of Mecca tell of Hagar, the wife of Abraham, discovering a spring in the desert and settling there with her infant son Ishmael. Other stories tell of a wandering tribe called the Jurhum who settled there also. It was a girl from this tribe that Ishmael was supposed to have married, and many people believe that it was their descendants who eventually spread out over the whole of Arabia and formed separate tribes. These people became known as the Arabs, people who lived in Arabia and spoke the Arabic language, the language of Muhammad.
But Mecca remained important to all the inhabitants of Arabia for the simple reason that it was the home of the Ka’abah, an ancient building which occupied the center of a special holy site. Travelers came to this site from all over the world. They came because they believed that the Ka’abah was built by Abraham on God’s instructions, and was intended as a place of worship for all people. Over the centuries the Ka’abah became a center for idol worship – the worship of statues. It was filled with stone statues of local gods, which were worshipped by people from all over Arabia. It was the custom of the Meccans to look after these visitors and give them food and shelter when they came to Mecca. There were other places of importance to pilgrims in Arabia, but none as important as the Ka’abah, the House of God. Responsibility for the Ka’abah fell to one tribe, and for this responsibility it was given widespread respect.
Before Muhammad was born, it was his tribe, the Quraysh, which looked after the pilgrims. One of the leaders of this tribe in particular is responsible for making Mecca as important as it was to become. His name was Abd al-Muttalib, and he was Muhammad’s grandfather.
It is from the great historian Ibn Ishaq that we learn about Abd al-Muttalib and what an important place he had in Mecca before and during Muhammad’s lifetime.
Abd al-Muttalib was honored in Mecca and outside for the hospitality he gave to visitors. But his responsibilities were becoming more and more difficult because Mecca was running short of water. With so many people coming to the Ka’abah and needing food and drink, Mecca’s limited resources were being stretched. In addition, Mecca’s small wells were far from the Ka’abah, and Abd al-Muttalib had to fill goat skins with water and carry them all the way across the town for the pilgrims.
Ibn Ishaq tells how one night, Abd al-Muttalib sat resting in the northwest corner of the Ka’abah, the area believed to hold Hagar and Ishmael’s tombs. He loved that spot so much that he often spread out a blanket there and spent the night. This night he had decided to sleep there. The darkness had fallen, and the clouds covered the moon, and Abd al-Muttalib’s eyes were growing heavy. But in the gloom he saw a shadowy figure drifting over the floor of the Ka’abah towards him. He shook himself to make sure he was not dreaming, for the figure did not look real. Sure enough, he was wide awake. In the silence around him a strange whisper came from the figure:
“Abd al- Muttalib,” it said.
“Yes?” He answered. “Who are you, what do you want?” The figure stood still in front of him.
“Abd al Muttalib. Dig up the Good One. Dig up the Good One.”
“What is the Good One?” He asked, but he received no answer. The figure vanished as quietly as it had appeared.
The following night, sleeping in the same spot, the figure appeared again to Abd al-Muttalib, and again he heard the voice, in a whisper, emerging from it: “Abd al-Muttalib, dig up the Blessed One.”
“What is the Blessed One?” He asked, but again he but received no answer.
A third night, resting in the quiet of the sanctuary, the figure appeared and, standing over him.
“Abd al-Muttalib,” it said. “Dig up the Treasured One.”
Abd al-Muttalib could coax no more information. By now he was less frightened than impatient, and frustrated. What message did this apparition hold? Then, on the fourth night, he was woken from his sleep by a whisper
“Abd al-Muttalib, dig up Zamzam.”
Angry, by now, he shouted: “What is Zamzam!?” Then, finally, the voice told him about Zamzam, the well of Ishmael, and how it would provide enough water for all of Mecca and more, just as it had in Ishmael’s time, and the time of the Jurhum.
“Look for Zamzam,” the voice said, “Where there is blood, an ant’s nest, dung, and two ravens, pecking.” The figure then told him a prayer which he was to recite, and which would help him find the lost well.
Abd al-Muttalib tried to sleep that night but his dreams were troubled. He remembered talk of an ancient well; it was almost a legend. He knew that the Jurhum, when they left Mecca, were supposed to have buried all of the treasure that they kept in the Ka’abah in the well which had dried up under their care. As the first signs of light began to reveal the dark slopes of Mount Abu Qubays above the city, Abd al-Muttalib rose from his blanket and, barefoot on the sandy floor, walked along the walls of the Ka’abah, making his ritual rounds. When he had finished, he went to the Ka’abah’s great wooden door and, taking hold of its metal ring, he uttered the prayers which the figure had told him to use. When he had finished he noticed that two ravens were pecking in the sand behind him. He went over to them, and as they strutted away, he noticed blood on the sand. The area was used by the Quraysh for the sacrifice of animals to various gods, and the sheep’s blood had stained the ground. He looked again and noticed a pile of dung from the animals, and, sure enough, an ant’s nest next to it.
Abd al-Muttalib hurried home, and collected two shovels. He roused Harith, his only son, and in his company, headed back towards the Ka’abah, and the spot where, as the stories told, Hagar had found her infant son, Ishmael, sitting on a fresh-water spring. By this time some of the Quraysh were up and about, and, when Abd al-Muttalib began to dig, they were alarmed.
“What on earth are you doing, Abd al-Muttalib?” they asked him.
“I am only doing what I was told to do,” he replied mysteriously as he continued to dig. He had given Harith instructions to hold people back from him if they attempted to interfere with his efforts.
“You cannot dig there,” they told him. “That is a sacred spot.” They were at first outraged that anyone should interfere with a place which housed idols. But these particular stone idols were not of great importance to the people, and soon resistance to his digging disappeared, to be replaced by curiosity. After some time, and considerable effort, Abd al-Muttalib had found nothing and was becoming exhausted and disheartened. The crowd began to drift away, and Abd al-Muttalib was about to give up when, suddenly, his shovel hit something hard and metallic. He dropped to his knees, uttering thanks to God, and brushed the sand away from the hard object which, when visible, appeared to be a cover of some kind. He had found Zamzam, the well of Ishmael.
Abd al-Muttalib pulled open the cover and inside was a huge hole going deep into the earth. Just as legends had said, in the well were all sorts of treasures, which the Jurhum had buried there when they had left the city so long ago. By now the crowd had returned, as people started telling others what Abd al-Muttalib was doing and what he had found. After much argument about the ownership of the treasure, it was finally decided that lots should be drawn to determine which pieces of the treasure should go to Abd al-Muttalib, and which to the sanctuary of the Ka’abah.
The rediscovery of this ancient well seemed to suggest that something new was afoot. In particular, it had to do with one of the many gods believed to have a home in the Ka’abah, the God named AlLah (“The God”). Although the Meccans of Abd al Muttalib’s time worshipped many gods, there was a small group of people who believed that they should pray only to one god, not to a collection of stone idols. These people were not taken very seriously by most of the population, and largely kept to themselves. But the situation was soon to change in Mecca, and this change began with the birth of a child, Muhammad, to a mother whose husband had recently died.