The Community of Believers
Just as the first followers of Jesus did not think of themselves as part of a new religion, the original community around Mohammad did not either, but rather one akin to the Hanifs – they sought the pure form of monotheism and called themselves the “Believers” (mu’minum). Allah was the God of the Jews and the Christians. According to Prof. Donner, the Qur’an uses mu’minum to describe the early community around Mohammad far more frequently than it does the term Muslim. “A number of Qur’anic passages make it clear that the word mu’min and muslim, although evidently related and sometimes applied to one and the same person, cannot be synonyms. For example, Q 49:14 states, ‘The Bedouins say: ‘We Believe’ (aman-na). Say [to them]: ‘You do not Believe; but rather say, ‘we submit’ (aslam-na), for Belief has not yet entered your hearts.’” (Muhammad and the Believers ) Here belief seems to mean something more advanced than “submission” (islam) which was perhaps a first step in the journey.
These Believers differentiated themselves from polytheism in all its forms. The one belief that there is only one God was crucial. Thus Christians who believed in the Trinity would be excluded: “Those who say that God is the third of three, disbelieve; there is no god but the one God …” (Q 5:73). Hence, for example, Christians from communities who had originally fled persecution in Byzantium for refusing to believe in the Trinity were certainly welcome, and we know that Jews were, too. Christians who followed the Gospels, Jews who obeyed the laws of the Torah and converts from paganism who obeyed the injunctions of the Qur’an would all be included.
This ecumenical community was perhaps easier to achieve since the majority in the community would have been illiterate, and most likely only the most basic ideas were held between them. “It is fair to assume that most of the early Believers probably knew only the most basic and general religious ideas we today can find articulated in some detail in the Qur’an. That God was one, that the Last Day was a fearful reality to come (and perhaps to come soon), that one should live righteously and with much prayer, and that Muhammad was the man who, as God’s apostle or prophet, was guiding them in these beliefs.” (Muhammad and the Believers, Fred M. Donner).
Foremost the community strove to live a pious life. They saw this life as a preparation in a sense for the Last Day or Day of Judgment; it should be lived in obedience to God’s word as now laid out in the revelations of Mohammad. They believed that throughout man’s history God has from time to time revealed his intentions to a series of messengers or prophets of whom Mohammad was the last. Their steps towards inner purity included prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. Distractions from the path of piety could include even family: “wealth and sons are the ornaments of the nearer life; but enduring works of righteousness are better before your Lord…” (Q 18:46), a passage that is somewhat reminiscent of a saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas. In another passage the Qur’an appears to contradict it: “O you who Believe, do not forbid the good things that God has allowed you,” (Q 5:87) but the passage goes on to say: “nor go to extremes, for God does not love those who go to extremes.” Their piety was to be always with them as a source of balance and harmony, part of their everyday life. They were to be: “In the world, not of the world.”
After the Prophet’s Death
In the last years of his life Mohammad solidified his military and political situation. Following the conquest of Mecca in 630 he no longer needed to make alliances with pagan communities in order for the community of Believers to survive and grow. Now tribes wanted to become allies, and could do so once they declared their belief in the one true and only God and contributed taxes as a token of their commitment. So the community grew in size and complexity, spreading from western Arabia as far as Yemen in the South, to the East and throughout much of northern Arabia as well.
The history of the collection and codification of the text of the Qur’an is confusing and contradictory. According to traditional scholars such as the late Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, Selections from the Koran, Mohammad related his revelations verbatim to Zayd or an available scribe. “The order in which the verses were to stand was arranged by the Prophet Mohamed himself, so that at the time of his demise the entire Koran was in complete written form.” The verses were memorized by the believers and collected into a single volume about six months after his death. Other sources suggest that the recitations were stored in the chest of the companions, and parts of it were written on the leathery sheets, white stones, palm’s sheets and ostrich bones.
Others disagree, and their researches indicate that Mohammad’s revelations were not gathered into the single source we know today as the Qur’an until after his death. One historical tradition holds that the prophet dictated some revelations to Zayd bin Thaabit and other scribes, while others were remembered and repeated by his closest followers who learned them by heart. Shortly after the Prophet died in 632, Arab tribes revolted against the State of Medina. After the bloody Battle of Yamamah in which a large number of those who had committed the Qur’an to memory perished, recording became a more urgent task. The Caliph Abu Bakr assigned the task to Zayd, who, it is said, collected the revelations “from pieces of papyrus, flat stones, palm leaves, shoulder blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather and wooden boards, as well as from the hearts of men.”
It is possible that the documentation of Mohammad’s revelations may not at the time have been seen as the most important activity, because for them, as for many early monotheistic communities, time was running out: the Day of Judgment was approaching, so spreading the crucial tenet of salvation, “there is no God but God,” may well have been seen as their primary concern and duty. Within ten years of their Prophet’s death the Believers had spread their idea of monotheism to Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, moving over the next three decades into parts of Europe, North Africa and Central Asia.
The still prevalent idea of Islam being a religion of violence dates from the Middle Ages when the conflict between the West and East and invasions such as the Crusades produced vicious polemics against Islam.
Archaeological evidence challenges the view that Islam’s expansion was primarily by the sword: many churches, some still standing today, were built in lands whose occupation by Islamic activists pre-date their construction. Scholars point out that if Islam’s goal was to eradicate all other existing faiths in favor of forced submission to their own, these places of worship would have been destroyed. On the contrary, the evidence shows that in assuming control of towns and villages a peaceful approach of integration was the preferred method by which the Believers’ message was spread. Communities were adjured to live sufficiently righteous lives and accept the “oneness of God” and to pay taxes to the Umma. Known to the Believers as the “people of the book” adherents to other monotheisms were allowed to maintain their own faith without fear of persecution.
By the time of the third Caliph Uthman (644 - 656) differences in reading the Qur’an in the many dialects of the Arabic language became troublesome, and he was urged to “save the Muslim ummah before they differ about the Qur’an.” Uthman asked a team of companions led by Zayd to collect and compare all available copies and oral versions of the revelations and to prepare a single, unified text. Copies were sent to the main provinces and people were told to burn earlier versions in order to eliminate variations or differences, though many, including key people, refused to do so.
The new young Believers and people in these new communities had no memory of the Prophet himself, so piety became routine and less personal and guidelines needed to be standardized and written down. Eventually about seventy-five to one hundred years after the Prophet’s death the community members started to identify themselves as a different religion. They became Muslims.
During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication and the hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad.
To decide which of the sayings and deeds were authentic hundreds of thousands of sayings and stories ascribed to the Prophet were gathered together. Scholars such as Imam Bokari, Ibn Rustam and Asim Ibn Ali spent decades investigating and testing texts for accuracy. Bokari reviewed over 600,000 entries, of which he selected as incontestably correct only 5,000. Those that were deemed by these scholars as authentic were collected and called Hadiths or Traditions. Like The Gospel of Thomas, some of the sayings of the Prophet give us insight into the man and his teaching. Here are some examples from an authoritative collection by Baghawi of Herat in modern Afghanistan, from his Mishkat Al-Masabih:
“Speak to everyone in accordance with his degree of understanding.”
“Unto every one of you have We appointed a different law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but He willed it otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ (Qur’an 5:48).”
The Prophet said: “There will be a time when knowledge is absent.”
Ziad son of Labid said: “How could knowledge become absent, when we repeat the Koran, and teach it to our children, and they will teach it to their children, until the day of requital?”
The Messenger answered: “You amaze me, Ziad, for I thought that you were the chief of the learned of Medina. Do the Jews and the Christians not read the Torah and the Gospels without understanding anything of their real meaning?”