Muhammad the Unifier
By Sally Mallam
Muhammad, was tasked to unite not only the Arab tribes, but, as he proclaimed again and again, anyone who believes in the One True God. His mystical experience of the Night Journey prepared him for this life-long task. The record of his experience inspired generations of mystics, including the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and beyond.
In many traditional teaching stories there comes a point at which the protagonist, having gone through numerous hardships, continues to be faced with so many obstacles, he or she feels that “all is lost” then a breakthrough – psychological or circumstantial – occurs. People working creatively on a challenging task of any kind have frequently reported experiencing despair prior to a breakthrough. It was so with Muhammed when in 619 the “year of sadness,” he lost not only his wife of 25 years, Khadija, but also his uncle, and protector, the tribal chief Abu Talib. He was not only devastated but found himself in an extremely precarious situation. According to Reza Aslan in No god But God “The results were immediate. Muhammad was openly abused on the streets of Mecca. He could no longer preach or pray in public. When he tried to do so, one person poured dirt over his head, and another threw a sheep’s uterus at him.”
After his first revelation, Khadija’s elderly cousin Waraqa had warned Muhammad that his task would not be easy and that the Quraysh would eventually expel him from Mecca. Muhammad had been dismayed at hearing this then, but almost seven years later, it looked inevitable. His message was dividing the families of Mecca, appealing above all to the young. The Believers were in essence removing themselves from the traditions of the tribe. Because Muhammad and his followers were seen to be undermining the rituals and values upon which the Quraysh religious and economic foundation depended, a devastating boycott was put upon the whole tribe of Hashim to try to starve the Believers out of Mecca. It seemed inevitable that he and his followers would have to take steps unheard of in the Arab world: they would have to leave their city, their tribe, their clan, leave their family ties and possessions and go off into the desert to establish a new community.
Karen Armstrong writes in Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time “Muhammad must have felt that he had come to the end of his resources. He was still grieving for Khadijah; his position in Mecca was desperately precarious; and after preaching for seven years, he had made no real headway. Yet at this low point of his career, he had the greatest personal mystical experience of his life.” It appears then that at night he was awakened by the Angel Gabriel and conveyed miraculously to the holy city of the Jews and Christians – the Qur’an refers only obliquely to this vision:
“Limitless in His glory is He who transported His servant by night from the Inviolable House of Worship (al masjid al-haram) to the Remote House of Worship (al-masjid al-aqsa) – the environs of which We had blessed – so that We might show him some of Our symbols (ayat).” (Qu’ran 17:1) Jerusalem is not mentioned by name, but later tradition associated the “Remote House” with the holy city of the “People of the Book.”
Later Muslims, starting with Ibn Ishaq’s eighth-century biography of Muhammad, began to piece together all the fragmentary references to create a coherent narrative. Influenced perhaps by the stories told by Jewish mystics of their ascent through the seven heavens to the throne of God, they imagined their prophet making a similar spiritual flight. According to the historian Tabari, Muhammad told his companions that he had once been taken by the angels Gabriel and Michael to meet his “fathers”: Adam (in the first heaven) and Abraham (in the seventh), and that he also saw his “brothers”: Jesus, Enoch, Aaron, Moses, and Joseph. (Social Origins Of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse, Muhammad A. Bamyeh.)
Ibn Ishaq presents the event as a spiritual experience. He tells of Aisha, the prophet’s wife and daughter of Abu Bakr as saying, “The Prophet’s body stayed where it was, but God transported his spirit by night.” Later historians like Al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir describe it as a physical journey, which many Muslims prefer to believe.
Whatever one’s interpretation, the Night Journey is important. From his youth, the Prophet had been a unifier. The historian Ibn Ishaq, in a memorable story, tells of a reconstruction of the Ka’ba when Muhammad was a boy. A quarrel broke out between the Meccan clans as to which clan should set the Black Stone in place. The solution was to ask the first person who entered the Sanctuary from outside to be the judge. The young Muhammad was the first to do so. He put the stone on to a heavy cloth and had all the clan elders take part of the cloth to raise it and thus share in the task equally.
Now, not only did this mystical experience prepare the Prophet for the Hijra but, more importantly, from then on it is undeniable that “[Muhammad] goes away from tribalism, and finishes not with the tribe but with an embrace of humanity, and an abandonment of the tribal spirit and a reaching out to others. That is the theological meaning of what’s happening,” says Karen Armstrong in PBS “Muhammad.”
Muhammad, the last of the Prophets, was tasked to unite not only the Arab tribes, but, as he proclaimed again and again, anyone who believes in the One True God. Anyone can enter into a new community of unity between themselves and a unity with Him. “[God] has established for you the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus.” And “Believers, Jews, Sabaeans or Christians— whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right—shall have nothing to fear or to regret” (Sura 2, 62 the Qur’an).
The record of this Night Journey experience inspired generations of mystics to seek a similar experience of divinity. “It kept the religion open to the mystics, the Sufis, who followed in the steps of Mohammad, men such as al-Ghazzali, Ibn Arabi, Sidi Belhassan and Rumi Mevlana, who for generations would explode the stuffy legalism that threated to constrict Islam and recharge the creed with light, love and a divine scent that came not from this world.” says Barnaby Rogerson in The Prophet Muhammad. These savants and saints would inspire the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and beyond.
The Hijra, the name for the migration from Mecca to an area called Yathrib (later Medina), took place at night and was a clandestine operation. Sons and daughters left their family homes for a week-long journey through the barren wilderness. The old man Waraqa’s warning had proved correct.
Upon arrival Muhammad allowed his camel to select a place for the first masjid (place for prostration in prayer to Allah, which would later become a mosque) so as not to give any preference to anyone’s choice. This small group of about 70 Believers became the first of a new kind of community (Ummah), one whose establishment was commemorated many years later by a uniquely Muslim calendar. That year, 622 CE, became known as the year 1 AH (After Hijra) and at that time the oasis of Yathrib then became celebrated as Medinat an-Nabi, “The City of the Prophet” – Medina.
“Unlike Jesus or the Buddha, who seem to have been purely spiritual leaders with no temporal responsibilities whatever, Muhammad found himself now head of state,” author Karen Armstrong points out. “Having transferred the Muslim families from Mecca to Medina, he now had to make sure they could survive there.” Establishing the community in Yadith was not going to be easy and Muhammad and his Believers were pushed into conflict with the Quraysh, when desperation forced some believers to send out a ghazu raid to disrupt and loot Quraysh caravans. Unfortunately, this occured during the sacred month, so it galvanized the Quraysh and resulted in the Battle of Badr in 624 CE. A thousand Quraysh, some on horseback, met the smaller Muslim group, but the latter although poorly equipped, were highly motivated and won.
The Prophet Muhammad and his companions patiently bore vehement persecution in Mecca for nearly 13 years. This included a three-year starvation boycott which lead to his wife Khadija’s death. The situation worsened so that Muhammad sent some of the Believers to Abyssinia to seek refuge under a Christian King. When the Prophet’s companions asked to fight back, Muhammad told them, “I have not been given permission to fight.” And, finally, when the persecution became unbearable, Muhammad and the Muslims simply left Mecca – still refusing to fight back.
They trekked 240 miles through the desert to escape these aggressors, finally arriving in the predominantly Jewish city of Medina where the Prophet was invited to act as Conciliator between fractious Jewish and Pagan tribes. Muhammad, in his new role there as Head of State, formed what is known as the Constitution of Medina which established a unified secular state.
Yet the extremists from Mecca pursued the Community and – finally – the Qur’an addressed fighting for the first time, permitting them to fight, but only in self-defense. Qur’an 22:40-41 “Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them.” And fighting wasn’t just to defend Muslims from persecution, but to defend Christians, Jews, and people of all faiths that were under Mohammad’s protection. All subsequent verses addressing fighting are pre-conditioned on these clearly outlined rules of self-defense. For example, Qur’an 2: 194 “And fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is freely professed for Allah. But if they desist, then remember that no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors.”
So, according to the Qur’an, Muslims may only fight active combatants. And if during battle an enemy combatant asks for amnesty, a Believer must grant it.
Prisoners of War
The Prophet instructed that Prisoners of War should be treated as if they were family members.
He favored freedom after restitution.
Those who could not pay monetary restitution were asked to teach ten individuals to read and write.
According to Cherif Bassiouni of DePaul University (Chicago, IL) this is the first time in recorded history that POWs were treated humanely as a policy.
The Quraysh attacked at the Battle of Uhud two years later. This resulted in approximately seventy of the 700 believers killed and those taken prisoner by the Quraysh were tortured and mutilated. In the fifth year after the Hijra a third major confrontation occurred, The Battle of Khandaq (The Trench). This time the believers took the advice of a Persian and dug a trench along the side of the city most vulnerable to attack. The episode resulted in a victory for the Muslims without a battle actually being fought. The Quraysh, who had never encountered such a situation in battle, were unable to cross it and eventually turned back, defeated.
The community of Believers expanded rapidly since anyone from any culture, race or tribe could join the Ummah by simply declaring: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger.” As head of the Ummah, Muhammad undertook the protection of every member. Here there were no class distinctions; the value of one man was not higher than another’s. Muhammad urged against the traditional tribal Law of Retribution towards forgiveness: “The retribution for an injury is an equal injury, but those who forgive the injury and make reconciliation will be rewarded by God” (The Qur’an 42:40).
Usury was forbidden and taxes were replaced by a tithe called Zakat whereby everyone gave according to his means to provide care for the less fortunate: “True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the East or the West – but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance – however much he himself may cherish it – upon his kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [the truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God.” (The Qur’an 2:177)
- The Qur’an (in 33.35) emphasizes the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God in all but physical strength, which men should use to provide for women.
- Muhammad said: “Women are the twin-halves of men.”
- He changed the laws of inheritance so that women could inherit and maintain their own wealth and their husband’s in the event of his death.
- Women could now keep their marriage dowries as their own personal property, even if they became divorced.
- For the first time he gave women the right to divorce their husbands if they feared cruelty or ill-treatment. (4:128).
- For the first time he limited the number of wives a man could have. He accepted that men should be able to have up to four wives, with one proviso: “only if you can treat them all equally” (The Qur’an 4:3).
- He did not allow women to have more than one husband. The scholar Reza Aslan describes this step as one that was necessary to ensure the survival of the community at Yathrib, which, after war with the Quraysh, resulted in hundreds of widows and orphans who needed to be provided for and protected.
- The tradition of women wearing a veil was borrowed from the upper classes of Iranian and Syrian women and used by Muhammad’s wives as an identifier and for their protection. Though modesty was required of all believers, during the Prophet’s lifetime only his wives wore a veil (Hijab).
- As Leila Ahmed and others have observed, nowhere in the Qur’an is the term Hijab applied to any other women.