“As-salamu’alaykum” (May peace be upon you), the greeting of Islam taught by Muhammad.
The prophet Muhammad, whose full name was Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abdullah, was born in Mecca, Arabia, in 570 AD, where he would spend the first fifty-two years of his life. He was the son of Abdullah, a poor merchant of the Banu Hashim clan, of the powerful tribe of Quaraysh. His mother was Amina. Muslim tradition adds that Muhammad was also a descendent of Ishmael, the first son of Abraham. Orphaned at six, he was raised by his grandfather and uncle to become a merchant. As a child he was known as al-Amin, “the honest and trustworthy”, though much like Jesus before him, Muhammad’s teen years go unrecorded. At 25 he married Khadijah, a rich widow, fifteen years his senior, who also so happened to be his employer. They would have two sons and four daughters together. During his life Muhammad would have an estimated nine to thirteen wives, but never while married to Khadijah. His other marriages were for either political or humanitarian reasons, such as alliances or compassionate moves regarding the widows of those killed in battle.
As the years slipped by and working as a trader, he started to be drawn more and more towards spiritual contemplation and would often go on long walks alone or sit within a cave and meditate. By 600 AD he began to receive revelations from a god who called himself Allah, claiming to be the one and only God. These initial revelations then stopped and nothing was heard for three years, until a day came when Muhammad received a message from the angel Jibril (Gabriel) insisting he recite (Iqra) everything that would soon to be revealed to him in visions from Allah. Over the next twenty two years he would receive many messages through many visions. Each vision and message became the surahs or chapters which would eventually make up the Qur’an (Koran). Because Muhammad was illiterate, he had to recite each surah often, to commit it to memory, which made him appear to be a very serious, highly moral and aloof character. Muslims commemorate this event, Muhammad’s first experience of divine revelation, as the “Night of Power” (Lailat ul-Qadr). It is said that after these first revelations Muhammad worried that people would think he was either possessed or deeply distressed mentally. Nonetheless he stayed the path exhibiting extreme devotion.
The faith of the Qur’an would become the foundation of Islam; “submission” to God. Islam also means peace. Followers of the faith are Muslims, “ones who submit” and believe the Qur’an to be Allah’s own words and not that of any human being. Muhammad’s achievement of having memorized the words of their one god, in its entirety, is viewed as Muhammad’s greatest miracle. His messages were called the “Seal of the Prophets.” Muslims today still believe that in memorizing the Qur’an as a sign of achievement; In fact the Qur’an is the most memorized book in history.
The first surah of the Qur’an is universally incorporated in the daily prayers of all Muslims; “In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. All praises and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful, the Only Owner of the Day of Recompense (to reward). You (alone) we worship and You (alone) we ask for help. Guide us to the Straight Way. The way of those whom you have bestowed your Grace and not (the way) of those who have earned your anger, nor those who went astray.”
During Muhammad’s life, each tribe had its own pagan god; each perceived as being protectors and spirits and who were associated with sacred trees, stones, springs and wells. But the recited word of Allah commanded that these idols and shrines be destroyed. This alone made Muhammad a threat to the local tribes and the rulers of Mecca, as they had become wealthy on idol worship. Also disturbing them was that Allah’s message was being delivered to humanity as a whole, not one race or class. Muhammad also began to preach that the rich should give to the poor, which provoked even more hostility, especially in Mecca, which was an important financial center. The first religious duties Muhammad would claim were; belief in only one god, Allah; ask for forgiveness of sins; offer frequent prayers; assist those in need; reject cheating and love of wealth; be chaste; and, as was the common practise at the time, stop killing newborn females. After these declarations, the persecution and abuse upon Muhammad and his followers began in earnest, with most Meccans ignoring and mocking him in equal measure. His earliest converts were mostly brothers and sons of wealthy merchants, people who had fallen out of their tribe’s favour as well as poor and unprotected foreigners.
In 620 AD, Muhammad would take a night journey (Isra and Mi’raj) with the angel Gabriel. Astride the winged horse, Buraq, they flew from Mecca to Jerusalem and back, surveying the land from above. Soon after, both his wife Khadijah and his uncle died and the now fifty year old Muhammad losing his position and income was quickly reduced to poverty. He spent his days making more converts from the pilgrims to Mecca, many of whom were from the agricultural oasis of Yathrib. These people were familiar with monotheism, as there was a large Jewish community.
By 622 AD he and his followers were no longer tolerated in Mecca. And as rumours of assassination plots against him increased, the people of Yathrib offered Muhammad and his followers’ sanctuary in their town and felt Muhammad could assist them in arbitration in the many feuds among the tribes in the area. Muhammad was a well known and respected arbitrator, dealing with many practical disputes about the simple ideology, “My community will never agree in an error”; interpreted to mean that the consensus of the community is a source of moral and legal authority.
Muhammad gathered his people making their way the 338 km (210 miles) trek to the town that would soon be called Medina, “city of the prophet.” This migration would be called the Hijira, and marked the beginning of the Muslim era. It was at this point that Muhammad felt he and his followers had been persecuted enough. From being a poor prophet, despised by his community, moving to Medina was the next step in his becoming the leader of a community governed by Islamic law.
Muhammad would soon form the “Constitution of Medina” (Sahifat al-Madinah), a formal agreement between Muhammad and all of the significant tribes and families of Yathrib, his fellow Muslims who had followed him from Mecca, and Jews, Christians and pagans. This constitution was the first forms of government established in Islam and brought much inter tribal fighting to an end. To this effect it instituted a number of rights and responsibilities for the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and pagan communities of Medina bringing them within the fold of one community, the Ummah, which would be presided over by the Caliph (head of state). Though having a religious outlook, the Constitution also included practical considerations, as well as preserving the legal forms of the old nomadic Arab tribes. The large, wealthy Jewish population did not accept such a constitution since they believed instead in Judaism Mosaic law. They also did not believe Muhammad to be of the race of Adam. They and the Jewish tribes, such as the Banu Nadir and the Banu Qaynuqa, were soon banished to Syria without their property.
Eventually all of Medina was converted to Islam, while Muhammad and the original Muslims from Mecca began acquiring wealth and power by raiding Meccan caravans and fighting skirmishes against them.
In 624 AD, with the revelations from Allah continuing to flow through him, Muhammad, on his knees and facing Jerusalem praying heard Allah whisper to him to turn and face Mecca while in prayer. The same year Muhammad was granted permission from Allah to go to war against the enemies of Islam and the process of conversion or the sword began, and would last eight long years.
The war brought their enemies to their knees and were either immediately converted by reciting the first surah, or were killed right there as they knelt. The Muslims were victorious in their first battle against the Meccans, but at the next at Ohod, Muhammad was severely wounded and his forces retreated.
Two years later in 627 AD Muhammad reversed the situation and seized Medina and took control of Mecca. By their surrender Muhammad was recognized as chief and prophet of Mecca. Islamic myths tell of his bravery in battle and his leadership. He was revered for killing many and converting many more to Allah’s ways. The Muslims then ransacked and destroyed all the idols and images from Mecca’s temples. This anti-idolatry was reflected in the fact that after Islam became established as an organized religion, the representation of Muhammad or Allah in art became strictly forbidden.
In 630 AD, at sixty years of age Muhammad would rule over not only Medina and Mecca, but soon all of Arabia. Though at first many of the Bedouin tribes disagreed with Islam and refused to give up their independence, they eventually established a code of virtue and ancestral traditions. Muhammad allowed them to do this, but only after getting them to sign an agreement, where they would have to pay zakat, the Muslim tax.
Besides guiding all areas of Muslim behaviour, Muhammad’s revelations also brought forth obligations which were essential to the lives of Muslims and to the values of uniting Muslims into a community. The outline of these obligations was called the “Five Pillars.”
The first pillar was Shahadah, the basic creed of Islam which is the confession of one’s faith in God and the prophet Muhammad, “I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Saying this aloud before witnesses was the only requirement to become a Muslim.
The second pillar was Salah, the ritual worship performed five times a day by kneeling while facing towards Mecca. It was the time to focus the mind on God. The breaks were excellent times, over the course of one’s day, to reflect, stretch, with set cycles of bowing, standing and sitting, and relaxing while breathing deeply.
The third was Zakat, the giving and caring for the poor and needy. Assistance to the poor was based on one’s accumulated wealth and mandatory for all Muslims who could afford the tax, which was about two and a half percent of one’s earnings. As well as helping the poor and needy, all Muslims had to help in assisting in the spread of Islam.
The fourth pillar, Sawm, represented the time to atone for past sins and to reflect upon those in need through fasting and prayer during the month of Ramadan (Arabic calendar). From dawn to dusk each day of Ramadan, one did not eat nor drink.
The fifth and final pillar was Hajj (Pilgrimage) and was where every Muslim, at least once in his or her life, had to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Besides the Five Pillars, Allah also required that each Muslim show moral behaviour and devotion. These five pillars remain as the cornerstones of Islam.
To Muhammad, religion was not a private or individual matter; it was the religious, intellectual, economic, social and political pressures of the day. Islamic philosophy would become the search for wisdom (Hekma) through the views of life, the universe, ethics and society, and over the next few hundred years’ Islamic literary, scholarly and scientific works would have a profound impact on societies everywhere.
The people of Muhammad’s generation knew about Christianity, which had become the Roman Catholic Church, while Judaism they had known about for even longer and viewed it as a religion strictly for the Jews. The idea of God that Muhammad presented to his people was that the Jews misrepresented the Old Testament, turning the universal religion of Abraham into an exclusive, race-based, nationalistic system. He felt Islam to be a revival of the pure religion of Abraham that even Adam followed in the beginning. But this time, the “chosen peoples” lineage was the Arab offspring of Ishmael, first son of Abraham and Hagar, instead of the Jewish offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. Many scholars believe Muhammad took Judaism and Christianity and simply created an uncorrupted version.
In 632 AD, ten years after Hijira and the migration from Mecca to Medina, Muhammad finally united all the tribes of Arabia into an Arab Muslim religious entity and undertook his last pilgrimage to Mecca. Eventually making his way to Mount Arafat outside of Mecca, he gave his “Farewell Sermon.” He told the large crowd travelling with him that they were to not follow pre-Islamic customs and that an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab or of a non-Arab over an Arab, nor is there superiority of black over white and vice versa, except by their devoutness to Allah and their individual good actions. He abolished all blood feuds and disputes and for all old pledges to be returned, as solemn promises of the creation of the new Islamic Order.
After Muhammad returned from his pilgrimage to Mount Arafat, his health began to fail him and he soon died, at the age of 62 yrs, in the home of his favourite wife, Aishah. Right up to his death he continued doing his own household chores, as he had always done, including preparing the food for meals, sewing and mending his own shoes. And though a prophet, Muhammad was also very much a man of his time and enjoyed the finer things in life as well, such as the pleasures of the dining table and the division of spoils after his many battles. His wives appreciated the fact he offered them dialogue, he listened to them, took advice, debated and argued. His tomb lies in the mosque at Medina. Within ten years after Muhammad’s death, Muslims would conquer Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
Muslims believe the Arabic of the Qur’an is the finest form of the language and as a document it is indeed the Arabic language’s masterpiece. They also believe the word of Allah can never be effectively translated and is only authoritative in and inspired by the Arabic language. After Muhammad’s death the Qur’an was checked for accuracy by the scribe Zayad Ibn Thabit under the authority of Caliph Uthman with the holy scripture of the Qur’an written in about 651 AD. The Qur’an lies at the heart of Islam; it is the Word of Allah, the fundamental source of guidance for Muslims and is treated with the utmost respect. Muslims believe Muhammad’s message is the true, final and uncorrupted word of Allah and they believe that all other scriptures are fabrications and altered by humans to become simply, described doctrine and formulated statements.
There are 114 surahs (divisions or chapters) of varying lengths contained in the Qur’an; with many similar stories from the Bible, in particular, Noah, Abraham and Moses, with Jesus an especially important figure. In fact, Moses is mentioned more than any other individual, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned more in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Adam and Eve are also in the Qur’an, though Eve is not blamed for their disobedience and Allah forgives the pair. Muslims believe that Noah was the first prophet and Muhammad to be the last. Other surahs in the Qur’an covers all aspects of life, including governance, foreign relations, inheritance, marriage, transactions and civil restitution, among many other aspects of religious worship and social life.
Islamic law was written over the first three centuries of Islam, using both the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the assembly of traditions, acts and sayings of Muhammad, which covered such aspects as personal matters and secular law. Islamic law, from both sources combined, sought an ideal order for society. Islamic social reforms that came into being at the time improved the status quo, especially when it came to social security, family structure, slavery and the rights of women and children. Islam also denounced aristocratic privilege, rejected hierarchy and established that one could seek a career not just by having family contacts, but according to their talents.
Much like Judaism and Christianity, the Qur’an tells of a Day of Judgement, where everyone will be rewarded or punished for their actions in this life, and of a Resurrection of their God, whether it is Yahweh, Jesus Christ or Allah. Within Islam, life is a trial with no reincarnation or Son of God; personal accountability is with Allah alone. On the Day of Judgement, Allah will raise all humanity to life. Each person will be told a chronicle of their life, of the deeds they had performed, whether good or bad. It is believed that this accounting would show what was actually important in one’s life. Those who perform good works, who are generous, pray religiously, seek forgiveness of sins and fear Allah, would go to Paradise, which Muslims believe to be above both language and human comprehension. Those who believed they were the reason for their own good fortune and never sought forgiveness, or ignored others because they felt they were beneath them, would be cast into Hell. The description of Hell, as written in the Qur’an, is known to be among “the most terrifying ever committed to paper.”
Muhammad was blessed with numerous descendants, which as in life would create many squabbles, quarrels and pretenders claiming they were blood linked to their dynastic and hereditary principle. Also, much like other religions, Islam is divided into two main sects; the majority of Muslims are Sunni, the others are Shi’ites, who predominate Iran and Iraq. Their antagonistic behaviour towards each other is rooted in each group having their own theory as to the legitimacy of Muhammad’s spiritual and political heirs, as well as each having their own versions of Islamic law.
The Sunni’s believe the unity of the Muslim community is more important than the pedigree of its leader. They feel Muhammad never appointed a successor and that political leaders (caliphs), who are chosen by religious scholars, represent the legitimate succession. Sunni’s also believe in a very limited scope of human free will.
Shi’ites meanwhile, believe Muhammad did name a successor, his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, and that his descendents were the rightful leaders (Imams) chosen by Allah to oversee the Muslim community. Believing their leaders are hereditary is the 2nd largest group of Shi’ites, the Ismaili sect, who believe the Qur’an has two meanings, one being the apparent and the other a hidden meaning, known only to them.
Islamic tradition separates the prophets of their people into two groups. The direct messengers of Allah, who received divine revelation, were called the Rasul, “bearers of the word.” This group of prophets included, Nuh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), Isa (Jesus), and Muhammad. The other group of prophets were non-divine human beings called the Nabi. Their task was to bring forth the word of Allah and preach the avoidance of idolatry and sin. Islam tradition says Allah sent Nabi messengers to every nation and that collectively more than 124,000 have been sent all over the world.
Extreme Islamists today have hijacked the contemporary belief that Islam is, and have made it a “convert thru conquest”, by using terrorism, radical movement of religion and spirituality through their own interpretations, much like the extreme Evangelicals from the West have done with their God. This happens because a problem with Islam, as well as other religions, is often their scriptures lacks context. Thus there is always bound to be many diverse interpretations of the facts or substance of their scripture.
Case in point, one of the surahs deals with Allah’s belief in jihad, which Muhammad recited as meaning the struggle against oneself. To abandon oneself to lust, greed, anger, cynicism or to forget one’s accountability to Allah, is to abandon jihad. To make a conscious effort to develop temperance, generosity and trust in providence, and to remember one’s eventual reckoning, is to wage jihad. Muhammad maintained that jihad is the work of a lifetime, with the enemies being self-centeredness and willingness to build one’s life around material comforts and pleasures. It was also important that while on jihad, a Muslim was to not inflict pain or damage to a fellow human being. It would not be until centuries later that extremist fundamentalists would use military action and terror and associate it with jihad, leaving a fifteen hundred year old message totally misinterpreted. Another case in point is the recent belief that when an extremist suicide attacker dies for his God, he will go to Paradise and into the arms of 72 virgins. This belief is nowhere stated in the Qur’an. What is stated explicitly and without exemption is the forbidding of suicide in all situations.
The parts of the Qur’an known as the “satanic verses” came to be when Muhammad was trying to conciliate some Meccan polytheists who wanted to continue worshipping some of the older deities. He soon had a vision which told him to allow these polytheists to worship other gods. He later admitted that he didn’t agree with such an allowance, but had been fooled and under a spell of the devil at the time. He was known to have many revelations with outcomes such as this that suited short-term needs of his people.
Though Muhammad could not read or write, was human and not without sin, he was however, a living commentary on the Qur’an. He cannot be regarded as the founder of Islam as Muslims believe Islam has always existed, but Muhammad was seen simply as being the final revelation, an instrument which Allah used to spread his Word of God. Even in the Qur’an, Muhammad is only mentioned four times and is not addressed by name, but in the second person.
As determined by the Islamic calendar, which is lunar based, the holiest month for Muslims is Ramadan, in the 9th month. Therefore within the Gregorian calendar Ramadan is honoured in a different month each year. It is a time for purification, to forgo all indulgences and a time for reflection of life and past misdeeds. From sunrise to sunset of each day during Ramadan a Muslim cannot smoke, eat, drink or have sex. One must read the Qur’an start to finish, reinforce their basic personal discipline and show gratitude to Allah.
In summary, the main points of Islam include the sole sovereignty of Allah, the sinfulness of worship of an idol, for fear it could lead to idolatry. That Islam is no one person; it is a belief, a faith, the certainty of resurrection with the rewards of heaven and the punishments of hell, and the divine vocation that Mohammed was the prophet that god has spoken through.
Islam today is pervasively involved in the conduct of its social patterns, military, worship, communities and governments, where Islamic law does not distinguish between matters of church and state. Most Muslims of the world today are not necessarily Arabians, as Islam, much like other belief systems, has become a global faith religion, not a regional or Middle Eastern phenomenon, despite current perception. Allah’s faithful now number over a billion worldwide.
Though Islam states that there is no difference between men and women in their relationship with God, with identical rewards and punishments, traditional Islamic law authorizes severe repression and submissiveness of women. Men are deemed more valuable, with the reason being, the different religious laws for the sex is biological and sociological in nature. Muslim conservatives say that both genders must have a different role in society with the only criteria being their devotion to God, while Muslim social reformers argue against traditional laws towards women. Whether perceived injustice to women is according to Islam religious doctrines or culture, it is an ongoing dispute within the religion. Many Muslim women of today are attempting to reconcile tradition with modernity by becoming more active in their lives, with outward modesty and demure. Though prejudice is blind, in many Muslim countries women have come a long way on their road to equality. In Iran today 60% of university students are women. The biggest change that has allowed positive change is the simple fact that 70% of all Muslims live in Asia and not Arabia, Iran or Iraq, with the majority of Muslims living in cities of multi-traditional, multi-racial, multi-cultural and mostly secular, modern nations.
Thirteen hundred years after Muhammad, another prophet, Mahatma Ghandi, would read two volumes of Muhammad’s biography, trying to understand how Muhammad could have earned such respect and importance to millions of Muslim lives. “I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle.”