MUHAMMAD WAS FORTY YEARS OLD‑IN THE YEAR 610 of the Christian era‑when the Divine Call came to him in his retreat in Hira, the cave to which he was in the habit of repairing for prayer and contemplation. He beheld a gracious Presence, who asked him to recite. Muhammad answered that he knew not how to recite. The Presence insisted: “Recite in the name of thy Lord Who created: Created man from a clot of blood. Recite! Thy Lord is the Most Beneficent, Who taught man by the pen, taught him what he knew not” (96: 2‑6).
Muhammad repeated the words as commanded. The Angel then vanished. Muhammad, overpowered by the experience, immediately made his way home, all atremble. He told Khadeeja what had happened. He expressed fearful apprehension whether a frail human being like himself could prove equal to the heavy responsibility that the incident portended God was about to lay upon him.
“Surely, God will never suffer thee to fail,” was Khadeeja’s comforting response. “Thou art kind and considerate toward thy kin. Thou helpest the poor and forlorn and bearest their burdens, Thou strivest to restore the high moral qualities that thy people have lost. Thou honorest the guest and goest to the assistance of those in distress.”
Khadeeja’s observations on this occasion throw a flood of light on the Prophet’s character as observed by his closest and most intimate companion. The honest testimony of husband or wife with regard to the character and disposition of the other is of the utmost value, for no other person has the opportunity to make so accurate an estimate based upon close observation and personal experience.
Khadeeja suggested that Muhammad go with her to her aged cousin Waraqa, who was a Christian hermit, and relate the experience to him. When Waraqa heard the account of the incident he observed: “The Angel that descended on Moses has descended on thee. I wish I would be alive to give thee my support when thy people turn thee out.”
“And will they turn me out?” Muhammad exclaimed in surprise.
“Never has that come to any which has come to thee but that his people have turned against him,” Waraqa replied.
Waraqa’s reference to Moses was probably based upon the prophecy contained in the words: “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put My words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require it of him” (Deut. 18:18-19).
It is striking that the first revelation that came to the Prophet commanded him: “Recite in the name of thy Lord.” Every chapter of the Quran opens with: “In the name of God, Ever Gracious, Most Merciful.”
The call was Muhammad’s first experience of verbal revelation. A tremendous concept is conveyed by the verses revealed to him on this occasion. Muhammad is warned that God has chosen him as the instrument for conveying His message to mankind. The Arabic word “iqra” connotes both recitation and conveying by word of mouth. This message is to be conveyed to mankind in the name of God who is the Creator of the Universe. Attention is drawn to the insignificant origin of man, but the comforting assurance follows that man’s progress and development are under the fostering care of the Most Beneficent, that God’s beneficence has decreed that many and varied avenues of knowledge shall be thrown open to man, and that all this increase and accession of knowledge shall be promoted through writing. One should remember in this connection that the Prophet himself was not able to read or write (29:49), and that proficiency in reading and writing was the privilege of only a few at that time in Arabia.
For a while there was no further experience of the same kind; and then the Prophet began to receive revelation at brief intervals. He has described the experience vividly, in this way: “Revelation comes to me in different ways. Sometimes the words strike directly at my heart, like the ringing of a bell, and this is physically hard on me. Sometimes I hear the words as if spoken from behind a veil. Sometimes I see a Presence that speaks the words to me.” This is confirmed by the Q,uran (42:52‑53).
Thus it is clear that revelation in this context meant direct verbal revelation, conveyed in any one of the forms just mentioned. There are other forms of revelation also, which will be referred to later in the chapter dealing with that subject.
Soon the Prophet was commanded to proclaim widely and openly that which was being conveyed to him, and to turn aside from those who ascribed associates to God (15:95) His attempts to convey God’s message to those around him in Mecca at first drew only ridicule upon him. Four persons, however, believed in him from the very outset: his wife, Khadeeja; his young cousin, Ali, son of Abu Talib, a lad only eleven years of age; his freedman, Zaid; and his friend, Abu Bakr.
Zaid was a well‑born, intelligent young man, who had been captured while in his teens in a tribal raid, and was sold from one person to another until finally he was purchased by Khadeeja. Zaid was given his freedom by Muhammad after his marriage to Khadeeja, but he chose voluntarily to stay on with Muhammad. Some time later, his father and uncle traced him to Mecca and came with the purpose of ransoming him from Muhammad. The Prophet told them that Zaid was already a free man and that there was no question of any ransom. Pleased with this news, the father invited his son to accompany them home. Zaid had naturally been overcome with emotion on meeting his father and uncle, more particularly at their reminder that his mother had remained grief‑stricken all through the period of separation from him and was impatiently awaiting his restoration to the family. He acknowledged the force of all this, but said his devotion to Muhammad had grown so deep that he could not bear the idea of parting from him. He sent loving messages to his mother, but was firm in his resolve not to leave Muhammad. When Muhammad found that Zaid was determined to remain with him, he took Zaid to the Ka’aba and, in the presence of his father and his uncle, announced that not only was Zaid a free man, but that henceforth he would be treated like a son.
Abu Bakr, who had been away from Mecca when the Prophet proclaimed his mission, returned to hear reports that his friend Muhammad must have become afflicted with madness, inasmuch as he had announced that God had commanded him to proclaim His Unity and to denounce idols. Abu Bakr on hearing this exclaimed: “That mouth utters no lies!” He then sought out the Prophet and inquired whether what he had heard was true. The Prophet tried to explain, but Abu Bakr was insistent that his question be answered Yes or No. The Prophet then affirmed that what Abu Bakr had heard was true. Said Abu Bakr: “I believe.” He added that he had not wished to hear any explanation at this stage because of his firm conviction that the Prophet was incapable of uttering an untruth, let alone inventing a lie against God.
These four joined the Prophet and undertook to help him spread the Divine Light. When this became known to the Meccans, they laughed in derision. But they did not laugh long. Verse by verse the revelation proceeded, “precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little there a little” (Isa. 28: 13) until many wondered, and some began to be drawn to it.
Among those who still resisted, mockery gave way to active concern. They awakened to the fact that the message Muhammad proclaimed threatened their whole way of life and their very means of subsistence. If the worship of idols were abandoned, they reasoned, Mecca would cease to be a resort for pilgrims, would lose its position as a leading town, and would see its main industry wither. Even the trade caravans might be altogether diverted from Mecca. It was, therefore, resolved to suppress by use of force this threat to their established way of life and to their prosperity.
The new doctrine made a strong appeal to the weak and the oppressed. The slaves, who suffered extreme hardship and indignity, began to hope that the Prophet’s message might bring deliverance to them. Women, who were in some respects treated worse than animals, began to look up, and felt that the time was nigh when they might gain a position of dignity and honor beside their fathers, husbands, and sons. Young men were inspired with visions of a noble and dignified existence. The early converts came from the ranks of such as these. As the little band grew in number, the Meccans embarked upon a course of persecution which grew more cruel and savage as time passed, but their efforts failed to arrest the progress of the new doctrine of the Unity of God, the dignity and equality of man, and the lofty and noble goal of human existence.
None was secure against persecution, not even the Prophet himself, who was continuously subjected to all kinds of indignities and molestations. But the worst affected were the slaves who accepted Islam, and whose masters inflicted unbearable torments upon them in vain attempts to force them to recant. They were taken out during the scorching heat of the midday sun and were made to lie down on their bare backs on the burning sands and rocks, while sun‑heated rocks and pebbles were heaped upon their bare bodies. Even inside the town, boys were incited to make them victims of their cruel sport. They would tie ropes to the ankles of a slave and drag him through the streets paved with rough, jagged stones, leaving him a lacerated mass of bruises and bleeding cuts. Some succumbed under such tortures. Nor were women spared, some of them being subjected to shameless and unmentionable torture.
The Prophet’s soul was tormented by the sufferings thus inflicted upon his helpless followers for no reason save that they said: “God alone is our Lord.” He could do nothing to alleviate his own or their lot. He counseled patience and steadfastness, and assured them that God would open a way for them.
The Qureish, becoming more and more apprehensive of the inroads being made by the new doctrine, sent a delegation to Abu Talib, the Prophet’s uncle. They asserted that though his nephew’s denunciation of idol worship was intolerable to them, they had so far refrained from taking any extreme measures out of respect for Abu Talib, who was a revered chief and whose protection Muhammad enjoyed. Could not Abu Talib persuade his nephew to give up the preaching of the new doctrine, perhaps on pain of being disowned? They made it plain that if Abu Talib did not adopt this course, they would be compelled to disown their chief.
Abu Talib agreed to do what he could. But when he spoke to his nephew gravely, conveying what the delegation had said, Muhammad firmly replied that, while he lamented his uncle’s dilemma, he was under Divine orders and could not disobey.
“Do not give up your people, Uncle,” Muhammad said. “I do not ask you to stand by me. You may disown me as they have suggested. As for me, the One and Only God is my witness when I say that if they were to place the sun on my right and the moon on my left I would not desist from preaching the truth that God commands. I must go on doing so until the end.”
Abu Talib plunged into deep thought. He had not himself declared his belief in the Prophet’s message, but he was very fond of his nephew and must have felt a surge of pride at Muhammad’s firm and noble resolve, which he had expressed, to carry out his mission as commanded by God. Finally he raised his head, saying:
“Son of my brother, go thy way: do thy duty as thou seest it; my people may disown me but I shall stand by thee.”
As the tempo of bitter persecution continued to mount, the Prophet advised some of his followers to leave Mecca and migrate across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, where they would find conditions more bearable under the rule of the Christian Emperor. A small band under the leadership of a cousin of the Prophet departed for Ethiopia. A delegation of the Qureish followed them, demanding of the Emperor that the fugitives be delivered to them. The Emperor heard both sides and rejected the demand of the Meccans.
The Qureish delegation then adopted a clever stratagem. Seeking out the bishops and other dignitaries of the Christian Church, they charged that the followers of the Prophet were adherents of a new creed which did not hold Jesus in honor. They hoped that this would set the Emperor and his Court against the fugitives and that the Muslims would be expelled from the country in disgrace. When the Emperor summoned both sides to his presence again, the bishops and nobles urged that the Meccan fugitives deserved no sympathy on account of what the Qureish had alleged against them. The Emperor made inquiry concerning this from the Muslims, who replied that far from this allegation being true, they held both Jesus and his mother Mary in great honor and believed in Jesus as a righteous prophet of God. Their leader, the cousin of the Prophet, recited relevant verses from the Quran in support of their statement (19:17‑41) The Emperor, deeply affected by the recitation, affirmed the truth of these verses and stated flatly that he believed neither more nor less concerning Jesus than that which had been recited. He dismissed the Qureish and told the Muslims that they could dwell in the land without fear of molestation.
About this time, the persecuted and harassed Muslims in Mecca received some support and encouragement by the adherence of Umar to Islam. Umar was a leading Meccan whose courage and prowess were well known. Much troubled by the strife agitating Mecca as a result of the preaching of the new doctrine by Muhammad, he made up his mind to put an end to it all by putting an end to Muhammad. On the way to search out the Prophet, he was stopped by a friend who inquired whither he was bent. Umar explained his design; the friend retorted that he should look nearer home first, inasmuch as his sister and brother‑in‑law had already embraced Islam. In a rage, Umar stormed into his brother‑in‑law’s house and by his violent entry interrupted a recitation of the Quran to which his sister and her husband had been listening. Umar drew his sword to attack his brother‑in‑law, but his sister parried the blow, and received a slight injury which drew blood.
This served to check further violence on the part of Umar, and in the end he asked that he might also hear what was being recited to them,
Umar listened to the recitation (20: 15‑17) and marveled at it. “Surely this is the truth,” he exclaimed. Proceeding immediately to the Prophet, he made his submission to Islam.
Umar’s acceptance of Islam was fervently welcomed by the Muslims, who had hitherto always congregated in secret and had performed their worship five times a day behind closed doors. They now felt that with a man of Umar’s standing among them, they could worship God openly.
Umar’s conversion did not, however, bring about any change in the attitude of the Meccans. Umar was treated in the same manner as the rest of the Muslims. Persecution grew more bitter and intense. Aiming to starve them out, a complete boycott of the Muslims and those who sided with them was put into effect. The small band of Muslims, together with some members of the Prophet’s family who, though they did not believe in his mission nevertheless stood by him against Meccan persecution, were completely blockaded within a narrow enclosure belonging to Abu Talib. Contact with them for any purpose whatever was forbidden.
However, this measure also failed. The Prophet and his companions, refusing to entertain any thought of surrender or compromise on so transcendent a matter, steadfastly endured extremes of privation. At night some of them managed to slip out to procure meager provisions from people who were known to be sympathetic but dared not openly show their sympathy. Often, however, there was nothing but hunger and attempts to assuage its pangs with grass and leaves.
This state of affairs continued for nearly three years, until finally five leading Meccans reacted against the savagery and inhumanity of their fellow citizens, and let it be known that they would invite the Prophet and his companions to come out of their place of retreat and to go about their business as before. Thus was the blockade lifted. But the privations and hardships endured by the Muslims had gravely affected the health of both Khadeeja and Abu Talib. Khadeeja died within a few days, and Abu Talib’s end came a month thereafter.
Though the boycott was lifted, every obstruction was placed in the way of the Prophet to prevent him from establishing contact with his fellow townsmen. The death of his faithful and beloved wife left him bereft of his principal source of earthly comfort and consolation, and the death of his uncle exposed him to greater ill‑treatment and persecution. In dozens of ways his opponents made it almost impossible for him to leave his house to carry his message to any section of the people of Mecca or to those who might be on a visit there. Because of these circumstances Muhammad decided to go to Ta’if, a town about sixty miles southeast of Mecca, which was also a resort of pilgrimage and was more pleasantly situated than Mecca itself. The people of Ta’if had close trade relations with the people of Mecca. They carried on agriculture and fruit‑growing in addition to their trade activities. On his journey to Ta’if, the Prophet was accompanied by Zaid, his freedman.
In Ta’if the leading townsmen received Muhammad and freely let him have his say‑but paid little heed to his message. After a while they even showed signs of apprehension lest his welcome in Ta’if might embroil them with the Meccans. So they left him to be dealt with by street urchins and the riff raff of the town. The Prophet and his companion were finally turned out by mocking and jeering crowds who pelted them with stones. Both were wounded and bleeding as they left Ta’if behind them.
Weary and sore, they dragged themselves along a short distance, and when quite clear of the town, stopped in a vineyard belonging to two Meccans. The owners, who happened to be in the vineyard at the time, had been among Muhammad’s persecutors in Mecca, but on this occasion they felt some sympathy toward their fellow townsman and permitted him to rest there a while. Presently they sent him a tray of grapes by the hand of a Christian slave. This slave, Addas by name, belonged to Nineveh. The Prophet took up a grape, and before putting it into his mouth he recited what has become the Muslim grace: “In the name of God, Ever Gracious, Most Merciful.” This excited the curiosity of Addas who inquired the identity of the stranger. The Prophet told him, and the conversation that ensued led Addas to declare his acceptance of Islam, so that Muhammad’s journey to Ta’if did not prove entirely fruitless.
He had now a difficult problem to resolve. He had left Mecca and he had been rejected by Ta’if. Under Meccan custom, he could not go back there unless his re‑entry was sponsored by some leading Meccan. There was nowhere else to go. He prayed earnestly for light, guidance, and help, and then set out with Zaid on the return journey to Mecca. He stopped on the way at a place called Nakhla for a few daps and sent word to Mut’im bin ‘Adi, a leading Meccan, asking whether he could be permitted to return to Mecca. Mut’im replied that he was prepared to sponsor his re‑entry into Mecca, and when the Prophet approached Mecca Mut’im and his sons met him in the outskirts and escorted him back into the town.
But on the whole Mecca was as hostile as before, and the Meccans were determined that the doctrine preached by Muhammad should gain no footing among them. They resorted to every device to make life impossible for the Prophet and his followers in Mecca.
Muhammad’s prayers and the revelations that came to him steadily were his only sources of consolation and strength. The latest revelations began to hint at the necessity for him to leave Mecca. Mecca was the town of his birth, where he had spent the whole of his life, had married, where his children had been born, and where the Divine Call had come to him. Despite the bitter and cruel persecution that he and his followers continued to suffer, its people were very dear to his heart and he knew that the parting, whenever it came, would be hard for him to bear. But his life was completely dedicated to his mission and he was ready to carry out in good spirit whatever might be God’s pleasure concerning him. The painful prospect of having to leave Mecca was, however, softened by the Divine assurance that God would surely bring him back to it (28:86).
The determination of his next move came about as a result of a long‑followed custom of the Prophet, namely, to try to make contact with parties from other parts of the country who visited Mecca on the occasion of the annual pilgrimage, and to make an effort to interest them in his mission and message. On one such occasion he met a party of six or seven pilgrims from Medina, then known as Yathrib, who were encamped in a valley outside Mecca. At that time Medina was inhabited by two Arab and three Jewish tribes. The Arab tribes‑Aus and Khazraj‑were pagan idol worshippers, but had to some degree become familiar with Jewish traditions. They had heard from their Jewish fellow townsmen that the latter were expecting the advent of a Prophet which had been foretold in their Scriptures (Deut. 18: 18).
The men whom the Prophet encountered on this occasion belonged to the Khazraj tribe. When he told them that God had appointed him as Messenger and had charged him with a message for mankind, they gave him a ready and eager hearing. In the end they declared their faith in him and his message, agreeing to convey it to their fellow townsmen on their return to Medina.
The following year twelve men of Medina, representing both the Khazraj and Aus tribes, came to the pilgrimage and met the Prophet in secret. It was necessary to take precautions lest the Meccans learn of their adherence to Islam and try to create difficulties for the people of Medina performing the pilgrimage. When the Prophet explained his mission in greater detail to them, they announced their own acceptance of Islam, and also the readiness of many people in Medina to accept it. The Prophet asked them to ascertain from their fellow Muslims and their fellow tribesmen whether they would be willing to give shelter to the harassed and persecuted Muslims of Mecca. They promised to bring back a reply the following year. But before the year was up, the Prophet had to send someone to Medina to answer the many eager inquiries about Islam provoked by the tribesmen as they reported their meeting with the Prophet. Mus’ab, the Meccan Muslim sent to Medina, instructed the new converts in the teachings and commandments of the faith.
In the meantime, mounting persecution in Mecca made life increasingly unbearable for the Muslims. When the season of the pilgrimage came round again, a large and representative delegation from Medina, including two women, met the Prophet and assured him that not only were their people in Medina ready to receive and give shelter to their brethren in faith from Mecca, but that they were very eager and would be greatly honored to receive the Prophet himself if he decided to go to Medina.
On this occasion the Prophet was accompanied by his uncle, Abbas, who, though he had not yet accepted Islam, was fond of the Prophet and was anxious for his safety. He warned the Medina delegation that they were undertaking a heavy responsibility in inviting the Prophet to Medina. The Qureish would pursue him with their rancor and would rouse other tribes against him and his adherents in Medina. He asked them to pause and reflect before they incurred the risk involved in their offer. He pointed out to them that though Mecca was bitterly hostile to the Prophet, his own family stood by him and would give him their protection as far as they were able. In Medina, he would be exposed to every danger and hazard.
The leader of the Medina delegation replied that they and their people had carefully considered the hazards and believed any risk involved to be of little account. They would guard the Prophet with their lives, and no harm would come to him so long as any one of them was alive to prevent it.
Abbas also tried to dissuade the Prophet from accepting the invitation extended to him by the Medina delegation. The Prophet, however, decided that the Muslims of Mecca would migrate to Medina and that for himself he would await God’s command. The Prophet then admonished the members of the delegation to order their lives in full conformity with God’s command and His will, and to carry the message of Islam to all and sundry.
He then returned to Mecca.
The Muslims in Mecca were told that their brethren in Medina were ready to receive them and that those who were able to leave Mecca should proceed to Medina quietly and without creating a stir. Family after family made their preparations and departed in silence. The Meccans found that house after house occupied by the Muslims was being evacuated so that sometimes in the course of a week a whole row of houses would become empty. And so it came about that after a short period the only adult male Muslims left in Mecca were the Prophet, Abu Bakr, and Ali, and a handful of slaves, who had no choice in the matter. The Meccans took alarm that the Prophet might soon move beyond their reach, and they decided to put a violent end to him on a particular night. At this point, the Prophet received God’s command to leave Mecca, and it so happened that the night fixed for his departure was the one that his opponents had chosen for their murderous designs. Abu Bakr, having learned from the Prophet of the decision to leave Mecca, asked whether he would be permitted to come along, and the Prophet gave his assent.
The following evening the Prophet left his house as soon as it was dark while those who had designs upon his life were collecting round the house in ones and twos, and proceeded to the rendezvous with Abu Bakr. The two then made their way out of Mecca and went up one of the surrounding hills, there to take shelter in a cave called “Thaur,” which had an entrance so narrow that a person had to lie flat and crawl into it. It was not a very safe place to spend much time in, as there was considerable danger from poisonous snakes and vipers. But perhaps for that very reason it afforded a chance of security against pursuit and discovery.
During the course of the night the Prophet’s would‑be assailants discovered that he was no longer in the house. At daybreak they took counsel together and decided to follow his tracks, which, they found, were soon joined by those of Abu Bakr. The tracker led them up the hill to the mouth of the cave, and there the tracks disappeared.
“The fugitives have not gone any farther; they have either sunk into the earth or ascended into the sky!” exclaimed the tracker, puzzled. The others ridiculed him, as there was nowhere for anybody to go except inside the cave; and this possibility they ruled out. Who would take the risk of serious bodily harm, and possibly death, from the vipers that abounded inside and around the cave?
Inside, Abu Bakr heard the voices of the men, and through the narrow opening of the cave he could observe some of them moving about. He was much afraid, knowing that if their hiding place were discovered, serious harm would come to the Prophet. When he mentioned his fear, the Prophet replied: “Grieve not. We are not two only; there is a third with us, even God” (9:40).
The pursuers returned to Mecca foiled in their immediate objective, but still firm in their purpose. They announced that anybody who brought back the fugitives alive or dead would receive a reward of one hundred camels. This was widely proclaimed around Mecca.
The Prophet and Abu Bakr spent two nights and two days in the cave. Each night a shepherd in the employ of Abu Bakr, who had been instructed to graze his goats near the cave, brought a she‑goat to the entrance of the cave and milked it for the benefit of his master and his friend. Some provisions were also sent from Mecca by Abu Bakr’s daughter, Asma. On the second night, Abu Bakr sent a message to a servant in Mecca, asking him to bring to the cave the following evening the two camels which Abu Bakr had specially reserved for this occasion, along with a trusted guide who could lead them to Medina. The party of four then started on the journey to Medina.
They had not proceeded far from Mecca when a Bedouin chief, Suraqa, attempted to intercept them, hoping to turn them over to the Meccans and thus earn the proffered reward. He was dissuaded from his purpose, made his submission to the Prophet, and then the party proceeded on their journey.
Ten days after leaving Mecca, the small party arrived within sight of Medina, where they were joyfully welcomed by the Muslims from Medina and those from Mecca who had preceded them. The Prophet decided to stop for a few days in Quba, a suburb of Medina, and then proceed to Medina. On arrival in Medina his first act was to purchase the site where his camel had stopped, for the purpose of building a mosque thereon. He then accepted the offer of a Muslim whose house was nearest to the selected site to put him up temporarily, while the mosque and his own quarters next to it here being built.