What can be said to have lasted long in history? As I post this article, Liz Truss has been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for only twelve days. Queen Elizabeth II has just died after a reign of 70 years. The United Kingdom itself has been in existence for 201 years.
What can be said to have left its mark on history? – Liz Truss certainly hasn’t (yet). Elizabeth II has, a delicate fingerprint of ceremonial monarchy. And the United Kingdom has left indelible traces almost everywhere in the world.
Yet all of them pale in longevity and importance to the story you’re going to read today. It begins almost one and a half millennia ago. It has swept the world from Spain to Indonesia. And almost two billion people follow its teachings today. I’m talking about Islam, of course (you read the headline, didn’t you?).
The story of early Islam is a story of a remarkable land – Arabia. It is the story of a remarkable experience – revelation. And it is the story of upheaval which was not only religious, but also social and political.
Arabia in the 6th century was a backwater. It bordered both the Byzantine (East Roman) and the Sasanian (Persian) empires, but the forbidding Arabian climate of heat and aridity prevented them from becoming overly interested in it. Arabia itself had never had a central government. The central unit of society was the clan which demanded loyalty and solidarity by kinship.
Several clans together formed a tribe. Some of these were nomadic and roamed with their herds of goats, sheep, and camels from pasture to pasture. Others had settled and farmed, where it was possible (often cultivating date palms, as the climate did not allow for grain), or traded. The center of trading was the city of Mecca, excellently located between Syria and Egypt (within the Byzantine Empire) as well as the south of Arabia and Abyssinia (outside of it). The nomadic and settled tribes interacted frequently – a settled trader might meet a nomad by chance at a watering hole in the desert, and a nomad would bring their herds to sell at a market town. The latter is the setup for Nomads of Arabia (Kris Gould, Wattsalpoag Games) – after roaming Arabia to grow their herds, the players make for the city of Mecca where they will make a religious offering of them.
That highlights another key aspect of early Arabia: The nomads generally held the military power – they were used to tough conditions and mobile, and thus could raid the cities if they wished. The settled tribes, however, could wield different forms of influence – like acting as intermediaries between the human and the divine. The Quraysh tribe of Mecca held such a position of religious authority, and many nomads made pilgrimages to Mecca to get Quraysh’s intercession on their behalf with the gods. Most Arabs of the time followed a form of polytheism, but monotheism in the form of Jewish tribes or contact with Christian traders in Syria or Abyssinia was known to them.
Arabia of old was the birthplace of Muhammad. He came from one of the less important clans within the Quraysh tribe. From a young age on, he showed himself to be talented, yet his humbler station prevented him from entering the Meccan circles of power. When he was around 25, he married the older widow Khadija. It cannot be pinpointed how exactly his marriage influenced his later religious tenets, but we know that Khadija had relatives who espoused Jewish or Christian beliefs.
When Muhammad was 40 years old (around the year 610), he felt the call to be a prophet. At the cave of Hira outside of Mecca – so he reported – he received divine revelations from the archangel Gabriel (this latter detail was only clarified later). As it goes with divine revelations, it is not given to humans to judge if they were real messages from a real god – but we do know that Muhammad experienced them as real, and, of course, that they were real in their consequences.
Muhammad recited his revelations in what would become the Quran (the Arabic word for “recitation”). The early Quranic passages speak of God’s goodness and power, of judgement after death, of man’s duty to be grateful and generous to others. Thus, the Quran had not only a theological, but also a social dimension. Muhammad’s teachings became known as “Islam” (Arabic for “submission [to God]”). He began to preach in Mecca and gathered a small following.
The Meccan Years
Muhammad’s following initially consisted of members of the less-influential clans (or younger sons of the influential ones) – those removed from the center of power in Mecca, as his demand for religious purity challenged the political-religious authority of the Quraysh elite.
Muhammad’s stance about his new teaching was not rigid. The famous “satanic verses” episode (to which the Salman Rushdie novel refers) illustrates this: In an early version of the Quran, Muhammad refers to three idols of the traditional pagan religion of Arabia, saying “These are the exalted cranes, whose intercession is hoped for”. Muhammad later claimed that Satan had tempted him into saying this (the line has been excised from the Quran as we know it today). Besides this explanation based on his religious experience other explanations are possible – it could be either evidence for an evolving belief system on Muhammad’s part which moved from an earlier henotheism (one main God with smaller deities in addition) to a strict monotheism later, or as a tactical move to make Islam more palatable to the established elites and the followers of the traditional religion.
If it was the latter, it was at best partially successful. Muhammad and his followers faced opposition in Mecca – they were frequently insulted, provoked, or excluded from trade ventures. However, there was no outright attempt to repress Islam. The social structures of Arabia prevented taht, as Muhammad’s clan shielded him. Taking on one clan member would have meant taking on the entire clan.
Still, the confrontational situation in Mecca cannot have been pleasant. Muhammad thus planned to move his religious community elsewhere. The city of Yathrib, some four hundred kilometers north of Mecca, presented itself as a promising new home: Yathrib was riddled with endemic internal feuding, and its inhabitants hoped that Muhammad could act as a neutral arbiter to resolve their disputes with his new moral teachings. Muhammad himself could not fail but to see Medina as a potentially fertile ground for his new faith, particularly as it had a sizable Jewish minority and was thus already well acquainted with ideas of monotheism and messianism.
Most of the early Muslims left Mecca over a span of several months. Muhammad waited until the last of them was gone and then left himself under the cover of night on September 9, 622. He arrived at his destination 15 days later on September 24, 622. Muhammad’s trip – called the Hijrah (Arabic for “migration” or “settlement”) – ushered in a new age: The date of his arrivals the beginning of the Islamic calendar. And Yathrib was to be named later Medina – “the city [of the prophet]”. The Hijrah is also referenced in secular forms of media – like the board game Mecca to Medina (Baba Ali, Muslim Games), a trading game (mechanically similar to Catan) with no religious component as such. The choice of name for both the game itself and the company seems to have been made with a presumably Muslim target audience in mind.
So much for today! We’ll pick up the threads a in a few weeks and have a look at Muhammad’s time in Medina and his uniting of Arabia behind the banner of Islam.
Muhammad’s life is told in a scholarly, but accessible way (as long as you are willing to skip over some very detailed parts on the Arabian tribes) in William Montgomery Watt’s two-volume biography: Muhammad at Mecca, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1968 (online here) and Muhammad at Medina, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1968 (online here).
For the period that followed Muhammad’s death, see Donner, Fred McGraw: The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1981 (online here, free registration required).