The Return to Mecca, Muhammad and the Beginnings of Islam

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  • Topic: Muhammad, Medina, Islam
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  • Published : May 11, 2000
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Muhammad, whose full name was Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, was born in Mecca around 570 AD after the death of his father, 'Abd Allah. Muhammad was at first under the care of his paternal grandfather, 'Abd al-Muttalib. Because the climate of Mecca was considered to be unhealthful, he was given as an infant to a wet nurse from a nomadic tribe and spent some time in the desert. At six, he lost his mother, Aminah of the clan of Zuhra, and at eight his grandfather. Though his grandfather had been head of the prestigious Hashem clan and was prominent in Mecca politics, he was probably not the leading man in Mecca as some sources suggest. Muhammad came under the care of the new head of the clan, his uncle Abu Talib, and is reputed to have accompanied him on trading journeys to Syria. About 595, on such a journey, he was in charge of the merchandise of a rich woman, Khadijah of the clan of Asad, and so impressed her that she offered marriage. She is said to have been about 40, but she bore Muhammad at least two sons, who died young, and four daughters. The best known daughter was Fatimah, the wife of Muhammad's cousin 'Ali who is regarded as Muhammad's divinely ordained successor by the Shi'ah branch of Islam. Until Khadijah's death in 619, Muhammad took no other wife. The marriage was a turning point in Muhammad's life. By Arab custom, minors did not inherit, and therefore Muhammad had no share in the property of his father or grandfather. However, by his marriage he obtained sufficient capital to engage in mercantile activity on a scale commensurate with his abilities.

Muhammad appears to have been of a reflective turn of mind and is said to have adopted the habit of occasionally spending nights in a hill cave near Mecca. The poverty and misfortunes of his early life doubtless made him aware of tensions in Meccan society. Mecca, inhabited by the tribe of Quraysh to which the Hashim clan belonged, was a mercantile center formed around a sanctuary, the Ka'bah, which assured the safety of those who came to trade at the fairs. In the later 6th century there was extensive trade by camel caravan between the Yemen and the Mediterranean region (Gaza and Damascus), bringing goods from India and Ethiopia to the Mediterranean. The great merchants of Mecca had obtained monopoly control of this trade. Mecca was thus prosperous, but most of the wealth was in a few hands. Tribal solidarity was breaking up and merchants pursued individual interests and disregarded their traditional duties to the unfortunate. About 610, as he reflected on such matters, Muhammad had a vision of a majestic being (later identified with the angel Gabriel) and heard a voice saying to him, "You are the Messenger of God. " This marked the beginning of his career as messenger of Allah, or Prophet. From this time, at frequent intervals until his death, he received "revelations"; that is, verbal messages that he believed came directly from God. Sometimes these were kept in memory by Muhammad and his followers, and sometimes they were written down. About 650 they were collected and written in the Qur`an (or Koran, the sacred scriptures of Islam), in the form that has endured. Muslims believe the Qur`an is divine revelation, written in the words of God himself.

Muhammad is said to have been perturbed after the vision and first revelation but was reassured by his wife, Khadijah. In his later experiences of receiving messages, there was normally no vision. Occasionally, there were physical concomitants, such as perspiring on a cold day, giving rise to the suggestion, now agreed to be unwarranted, that he was an epileptic. Sometimes he heard a noise like a bell but apparently never a voice. The essence of such an experience was that he found a verbal message in his heart; that is, in his conscious mind. With the help of Khadijah's Christian cousin Waraqah, he came to interpret these messages as...
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