The Birth of Islam
Arabia at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries consisted of a complex of tribes—either nomadic, seminomadic, or settled—and an urban society along the coasts whose rich merchants traded with the nomadic interior and engaged in political relations with its tribal chieftains.
Mecca, the trading capital of the western peninsula, was linked to Yemen in the south; Palestine, Syria, and Egypt in the west; and Iraq in the east. Its chief monopoly was in the trade of slaves and spices. The town was also the seat of an important pilgrimage site centered on the sacred area (haram) of the Kaaba, a key center for worship for tribal migrants and pilgrims from inside and outside the city.
A group of wealthy merchants, some of whom belonged to Mecca’s most important tribe, the Quraysh, controlled the city, where growing wealth vied for recognition alongside more traditional tribal identity.
The many opportunities in Mecca attracted tribesmen and settlers from other areas. Power grabs by Byzantine and Sassanian rulers succeeded only temporarily in deﬂ ecting Mecca’s trade away from Qurayshi control. By the time of Muhammad’s birth in 571, the Quraysh tribe had reverted to a near-monopoly of Mecca’s economy and control of the land and pilgrimage routes into the city (Ibrahim 1982, 343–358).
Muhammad was born into an economically disadvantaged clan of the ruling Quraysh tribe of Mecca, the Banu Hashim. It has often been said that whereas other religions emerged in eras before recorded history, Islam was born in the full light of day. Unlike other prophets and men of God who had appeared before him, details of the prophet Muhammad’s life were well established in his own time, especially from the time he was 40 and beginning to receive divine revelation, which were later collected in the Qur’an.
Beneﬁ ting from his home city’s renown as a center of East-West trade, Muhammad became a merchant and quickly earned the title of al-amin (the trustworthy one) because of his honesty and scruples. As noted, Mecca was an urban haven for businessmen as well as pilgrims; long-distance traders, of whom Muhammad was one, were the lifeblood of the economy. Having become the business agent of a rich 40-year-old widow, Khadija, he gained her trust and admiration, eventually making her his ﬁ rst wife.
The Clash with Mecca, the Flight to Medina, and Ultimate Victory
The Prophet’s preaching gained him a number of followers, some from his immediate family. After his wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, and cousins Ali and Jaafar submitted to Islam, a wise and highly respected companion of the Prophet, Abu Bakr converted as well. The Prophet’s ﬁ rst challenge was preaching the sacred message to his tribe, the powerful Quraysh. Although they listened to him at ﬁ rst, the tribe’s leaders soon became angry by his insistence on forsaking idols and praying to the one God.Their worry centered on their position as the aristocracy of the commercial elite in Mecca.
If pilgrims and traders converging on Mecca at the time of the annual pilgrimage were to hear that their traditional gods were being attacked, and that the attacker was none other than a member of the Quraysh, they would stop coming. Having approached the Prophet’s uncle, Abu Talib, to ask him to stop his nephew from attacking the traditional gods in Mecca and been sent away empty-handed, they now resolved to guard against the new religion by posting men at the entrance to Mecca denouncing Muhammad as a sorcerer and liar.
However, by the time of the pilgrimage, Islam had already inﬂ uenced a number of smaller clans and families in and around Mecca. In particular, the Prophet’s reputation as a mediator and evenhanded diplomat had reached the warring clans of Yathrib, some distance away from Mecca, who came together just long enough to ask the Prophet for counsel and advice.
In Islamic tradition, Muhammad’s ﬂ ight to Medina (the former Yathrib) along with several of his most loyal followers marks the beginning of a new calendar, the hijri. In Islam, hijra, or “ﬂ ight,” is considered to be both a positive as well as negative occurrence, because the Muslim who ﬂ ees to a more secure country or region where he can practice his faith in a protected environment is understood to be making the only choice left to him.
In a broad sense, the Hijra (Hegira), the Prophet’s escape to Medina, is considered both a beginning and an end: a beginning because it led to the phenomenal rise of the last monotheistic religion to pervade the Arab and Middle Eastern region and an end because it brought to a close an era often based on pagan injustice and oppression (Hourani 1991, 17).
As soon as he had settled down in Medina, the Prophet started to make plans to challenge the Quraysh. Meccans were jealous of Medina’s commercial prosperity, and any move to establish a secondary trade center so close to Mecca itself would have been seen as a dangerous signal. The fact that Muhammad was not only advocating better trade terms for his new hometown but a whole revolution in religious and social practices made his authority in Medina doubly threatening.
It was one thing to go to war against a commercial rival and another thing altogether to do battle with an opponent who held up the standard of religious legitimacy and promoted the message of the one true God.Muhammad’s followers began to attack Meccan caravans and to inﬂ ict serious losses on Mecca’s trade. They gained their ﬁ rst military victory in the Battle of Badr in 624, which was fought against a much larger Meccan army. The Battle of Uhud in 625 ended in a draw, with both sides retreating to count their losses.
The Battle of the Ditch (alKhandaq) in 627 again resulted in defeat for Mecca, and it showed the Qurayshi leadership that their days were numbered. For the Muslims, Mecca’s eventual surrender in 630 was the worthiest prize of all; but even in peace, the Prophet had to tread carefully. He did not try to humiliate the Meccans but immediately set down terms to include them within the umma (Muslim community of believers), knowing full well that strength lay in numbers.
And, in fact, Mecca’s submission opened the door to the whole of Arabia. Delegations from all the powerful tribes in Arabia began to arrive at Medina to reach agreements with the Prophet. The Muslims had grown from a small band of loyalists to become the basis for a new community of believers in the one God and the followers of his messenger, a brand new distinction for which there was little precedent in seventh-century Arabia.
The Death of the Prophet Muhammad
Muhammad died suddenly in 632 after a brief illness, leaving the question of succession unresolved. He had paciﬁ ed an unruly region of nomadic and semi-settled tribes, large towns, and small oases; brought social justice to the poor and oppressed; and told men that they were all brothers in Islam. But his achievements had to be followed through in order to reach a wider audience. And they had to last. The question of who would succeed Muhammad would prove to be the most dangerous fault line in the early history of Islam and would eventually tear the young community apart.
There was no real authority to decide once and for all how the mantle of leadership would pass down from the Prophet to his successors. One thing, however, was agreed upon, and it was that there would be no prophet after Muhammad. He was the Seal of the Prophets (Khatim al-Anbiyya), and none could replace him.
Upon the urging of a close companion, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Abu Bakr Muhammad’s closest friend and father-in-law (father of Aisha, whom Muhammed married after Khadija’s death), became the successor (khalifa; r. 632–634) of the Messenger of God, an institution that is virtually without parallel outside of the Islamic world. While the khilafa, or Islamic leadership (caliphate, in English), lasted for centuries, it was to change many times, bringing with it countless disturbances in its wake.
However, it remained a potent symbol for Muslims everywhere, as the ultimate contract between rulers and ruled. So long as the ruler was just and followed the principles laid down by the Prophet and in the holy book of the Qur’an, his subjects were satisﬁ ed. The problem lay with obedience to an unjust ruler, an issue that would trouble Muslims throughout their long history.