Concept of God
| Arabia | Religion | Society
| Birth of the Prophet
| An Order of Chivalry |
Beginning of Religious Consciousness
In the annals of men, individuals have not been
lacking who conspicuously devoted their lives to the socio-religious reform of
their connected peoples. We find them in every epoch and in all lands. In India,
there lived those who transmitted to the world the Vedas, and there was also the
great Gautama Buddha; China had its Confucius; the Avesta was produced in Iran.
Babylonia gave to the world one of the greatest reformers, the Prophet Abraham
(not to speak of such of his ancestors as Enoch and Noah about whom we have very
scanty information). The Jewish people may rightly be proud of a long series of
reformers: Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, and Jesus among others.
Two points to be note: Firstly these reformers
claimed in general to be the bearers each of a Divine mission, and they left
behind them sacred books incorporating codes of life for the guidance of their
peoples. Secondly there followed fratricidal wars, and massacres and genocides
became the order of the day, causing more or less a complete loss of these
Divine messages. As to the books of Abraham, we know them only by the name; and
as for the books of Moses, records tell us how they were repeatedly destroyed
and only partly restored.
Concept of God
If one should judge from the relics of the past
already brought to light of the homo sapiens, one finds that man has always been
conscious of the existence of a Supreme Being, the Master and Creator of all.
Methods and approaches may have differed, but the people of every epoch have
left proofs of their attempts to obey God. Communication with the Omnipresent
yet invisible God has also been recognized as possible in connection with a
small fraction of men with noble and exalted spirits. Whether this communication
assumed the nature of an incarnation of the Divinity or simply resolved itself
into a medium of reception of Divine messages (through inspiration or
revelation), the purpose in each case was the guidance of the people. It was but
natural that the interpretations and explanations of certain systems should have
proved more vital and convincing than others.
Every system of metaphysical thought develops
its own terminology. In the course of time terms acquire a significance hardly
contained in the word and translations fall short of their purpose. Yet there is
no other method to make people of one group understand the thoughts of another.
Non-Muslim readers in particular are requested to bear in mind this aspect which
is a real yet unavoidable handicap.
By the end of the 6th century, after the birth
of Jesus Christ, men had already made great progress in diverse walks of life.
At that time there were some religions which openly proclaimed that they were
reserved for definite races and groups of men only, of course they bore no
remedy for the ills of humanity at large. There were also a few which claimed
universality, but declared that the salvation of man lay in the renunciation of
the world. These were the religions for the elite, and catered for an extremely
limited number of men. We need not speak of regions where there existed no
religion at all, where atheism and materialism reigned supreme, where the
thought was solely of occupying one self with one's own pleasures, without any
regard or consideration for the rights of others.
A perusal of the map of the major hemisphere
(from the point of view of the proportion of land to sea), shows the Arabian
Peninsula lying at the confluence of the three great continents of Asia, Africa
and Europe. At the time in question. this extensive Arabian subcontinent
composed mostly of desert areas was inhabited by people of settled habitations
as well as nomads. Often it was found that members of the same tribe were
divided into these two groups, and that they preserved a relationship although
following different modes of life. The means of subsistence in Arabia were meager.
The desert had its handicaps, and trade caravans were features of greater
importance than either agriculture or industry. This entailed much travel, and
men had to proceed beyond the peninsula to Syria, Egypt, Abyssinia, Iraq, Sind,
India and other lands.
We do not know much about the Libyanites of
Central Arabia, but Yemen was rightly called Arabia Felix. Having once been the
seat of the flourishing civilizations of Sheba and Ma'in even before the
foundation of the city of Rome had been laid, and having later snatched from the
Byzantians and Persians several provinces, greater Yemen which had passed
through the hey-day of its existence, was however at this time broken up into
innumerable principalities, and even occupied in part by foreign invaders. The
Sassanians of Iran, who had penetrated into Yemen had already obtained
possession of Eastern Arabia. There was politico-social chaos at the capital (Mada'in
= Ctesiphon), and this found reflection in all her territories. Northern Arabia
had succumbed to Byzantine influences, and was faced with its own particular
problems. Only Central Arabia remained immune from the demoralizing effects of
In this limited area of Central Arabia, the
existence of the triangle of Mecca-Ta'if-Madinah seemed something providential.
Mecca, desertic, deprived of water and the amenities of agriculture in physical
features represented Africa and the burning Sahara. Scarcely fifty miles from
there, Ta'if presented a picture of Europe and its frost. Madinah in the North
was not less fertile than even the most temperate of Asiatic countries like
Syria. If climate has any influence on human character, this triangle standing
in the middle of the major hemisphere was, more than any other region of the
earth, a miniature reproduction of the entire world. And here was born a
descendant of the Babylonian Abraham, and the Egyptian Hagar, Muhammad the
Prophet of Islam, a Meccan by origin and yet with stock related, both to Madinah
From the point of view of religion, Arabia was
idolatrous; only a few individuals had embraced religions like Christianity,
Mazdaism, etc. The Meccans did possess the notion of the One God, but they
believed also that idols had the power to intercede with Him. Curiously enough,
they did not believe in the Resurrection and Afterlife. They had preserved the
rite of the pilgrimage to the House of the One God, the Ka'bah, an institution
set up under divine inspiration by their ancestor Abraham, yet the two thousand
years that separated them from Abraham had caused to degenerate this pilgrimage
into the spectacle of a commercial fair and an occasion of senseless idolatry
which far from producing any good, only served to ruin their individual behavior,
both social and spiritual.
In spite of the comparative poverty in natural
resources, Mecca was the most developed of the three points of the triangle. Of
the three, Mecca alone had a city-state, governed by a council of ten hereditary
chiefs who enjoyed a clear division of power. (There was a minister of foreign
relations, a minister guardian of the temple, a minister of oracles, a minister
guardian of offerings to the temple, one to determine the torts and the damages
payable, another in charge of the municipal council or parliament to enforce the
decisions of the ministries. There were also ministers in charge of military
affairs like custodianship of the flag, leadership of the cavalry etc.). As well
reputed caravan-leaders, the Meccans were able to obtain permission from
neighbouring empires like Iran, Byzantium and Abyssinia - and to enter into
agreements with the tribes that lined the routes traversed by the caravans - to
visit their countries and transact import and export business. They also
provided escorts to foreigners when they passed through their country as well as
the territory of allied tribes, in Arabia (cf. Ibn Habib, Muhabbar). Although
not interested much in the preservation of ideas and records in writing, they
passionately cultivated arts and letters like poetry, oratory discourses and
folk tales. Women were generally well treated, they enjoyed the privilege of
possessing property in their own right, they gave their consent to marriage
contracts, in which they could even add the condition of reserving their right
to divorce their husbands. They could remarry when widowed or divorced. Burying
girls alive did exist in certain classes, but that was rare.
Birth of the Prophet
It was in the midst of such conditions and
environments that Muhammad was born in 569 after Christ. His father, 'Abdullah
had died some weeks earlier, and it was his grandfather who took him in charge.
According to the prevailing custom, the child was entrusted to a Bedouin
foster-mother, with whom he passed several years in the desert. All biographers
state that the infant prophet sucked only one breast of his foster-mother,
leaving the other for the sustenance of his foster-brother. When the child was
brought back home, his mother, Aminah, took him to his maternal uncles at
Madinah to visit the tomb of 'Abdullah. During the return journey, he lost his
mother who died a sudden death. At Mecca, another bereavement awaited him, in
the death of his affectionate grandfather. Subjected to such privations, he was
at the age of eight, consigned at last to the care of his uncle, Abu-Talib, a
man who was generous of nature but always short of resources and hardly able to
provide for his family.
Young Muhammad had therefore to start
immediately to earn his livelihood; he served as a shepherd boy to some neighbors.
At the age of ten he accompanied his uncle to Syria when he was leading a
caravan there. No other travels of Abu-Talib are mentioned, but there are
references to his having set up a shop in Mecca. (Ibn Qutaibah, Ma'arif). It is
possible that Muhammad helped him in this enterprise also.
By the time he was twenty-five, Muhammad
had become well known in the city for the integrity of his disposition and the
honesty of his character. A rich widow, Khadijah, took him in her employ and
consigned to him her goods to be taken for sale to Syria. Delighted with the
unusual profits she obtained as also by the personal charms of her agent, she
offered him her hand. According to divergent reports, she was either 28 or 40
years of age at that time, (medical reasons prefer the age of 28 since she gave
birth to five more children). The union proved happy. Later, we see him
sometimes in the fair of Hubashah (Yemen), and at least once in the country of
the 'Abd al-Qais (Bahrain-Oman), as mentioned by Ibn Hanbal. There is every
reason to believe that this refers to the great fair of Daba (Oman), where,
according to Ibn al-Kalbi (cf. Ibn Habib, Muhabbar), the traders of China, of
Hind and Sind (India, Pakistan), of Persia, of the East and the West assembled
every year, traveling both by land and sea. There is also mention of a
commercial partner of Muhammad at Mecca. This person, Sa'ib by name reports:
"We relayed each other; if Muhammad led the caravan, he did not enter his
house on his return to Mecca without clearing accounts with me; and if I led the
caravan, he would on my return enquire about my welfare and speak nothing about
his own capital entrusted to me."
An Order of Chivalry
Foreign traders often brought their goods
to Mecca for sale. One day a certain Yemenite (of the tribe of Zubaid)
improvised a satirical poem against some Meccans who bad refused to pay him the
price of what he had sold, and others who had not supported his claim or had
failed to come to his help when he was victimized. Zuhair, uncle and chief of
the tribe of the Prophet, felt great remorse on hearing this just satire. He
called for a meeting of certain chieftains in the city, and organized an order
of chivalry, called Hilf al-fudul, with the aim and object of aiding the
oppressed in Mecca, irrespective of their being dwellers of the city or aliens.
Young Muhammad became an enthusiastic member of the organization. Later in life
he used to say: "I have participated in it, and I am not prepared to give
up that privilege even against a herd of camels; if somebody should appeal to me
even today, by virtue of that pledge, I shall hurry to his help."
Beginning of Religious Consciousness
Not much is known about the religious
practices of Muhammad until he was thirty-five years old, except that he had
never worshipped idols. This is substantiated by all his biographers. It may be
stated that there were a few others in Mecca, who had likewise revolted against
the senseless practice of paganism, although conserving their fidelity to the
Ka'bah as the house dedicated to the One God by its builder Abraham.
About the year 605 of the Christian era,
the draperies on the outer wall of the Ka'bah took fire. The building was
affected and could not bear the brunt of the torrential rains that followed. The
reconstruction of the Ka'bah was thereupon undertaken. Each citizen contributed
according to his means; and only the gifts of honest gains were accepted.
Everybody participated in the work of construction, and Muhammad's shoulders
were injured in the course of transporting stones. To identify the place whence
the ritual of circumambulation began, there had been set a black stone in the
wall of the Ka'bah, dating probably from the time of Abraham himself. There was
rivalry among the citizens for obtaining the honor of transposing this stone in
its place. When there was danger of blood being shed, somebody suggested leaving
the matter to Providence, and accepting the arbitration of him who should happen
to arrive there first. It chanced that Muhammad just then turned up there for
work as usual. He was popularly known by the appellation of al-Amin (the
honest), and everyone accepted his arbitration without hesitation. Muhammad
placed a sheet of cloth on the ground, put the stone on it and asked the chiefs
of all the tribes in the city to lift together the cloth. Then he himself placed
the stone in its proper place, in one of the angles of the building, and
everybody was satisfied.
It is from this moment that we find
Muhammad becoming more and more absorbed in spiritual meditations. Like his
grandfather, he used to retire during the whole month of Ramadan to a cave in
Jabal-an-Nur (mountain of light). The cave is called 'Ghar-i-Hira' or the cave
of research. There he prayed, meditated, and shared his meager provisions with
the travelers who happened to pass by.
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