The study of a prophet’s life is necessarily concerned not only with the physical but also with the moral and the spiritual; indeed, primarily with the moral and the spiritual as illustrated in the physical and the material.
Muhammad was a human being like the rest of us. He was commanded in the Holy Quran (18:111):
Tell them: I am but a man like unto you; it is revealed to me that your God is One God. So let him who hopes to meet his Lord work righteousness and let him associate no one in the worship of his Lord.
An exemplar must be a man in all respects like his fellow men. A superhuman being cannot be an exemplar for human beings. His faculties, capacities, sentiments, reactions, reflexes, and all his values would be different from those of men. Even if he could understand men in every respect, men would not be able to understand, appraise and assess him completely. Thus, being a man like unto other men, Muhammad fulfilled the first and most essential condition of being an exemplar for other men. He was no different from them; he had similar faculties and capacities and he could understand them perfectly. So would they, if they tried being able to understand him.
It may be said that a prophet is different from other men. This is true in a certain sense, but the difference is only one of degree, and not of kind. Every human being has a distinct personality and thus differs from his fellows in certain respects. His physical and mental characteristics and equipment may differ from those of the men with whom he associates and among whom he moves about. The only specialty of a prophet in respect of which he is distinguished from other men is that he enjoys an intense degree of communion with God. But even in that respect, those who believe in him and associate with him can share with him, to a greater or lesser degree, in such communion. They can understand him perfectly.
Did the Holy Prophet appear at a time when the world was in need of a universal and comprehensive spiritual guidance? It should be recalled that he was born in AD 570 and received the divine call in 610. He died in 632. History bears out that this was the darkest period of the Dark Ages. There was a faint glimmer of light, here and there, but on the whole, mankind was bereft almost entirely of spiritual light. The light and the guidance needed were supplied through Muhammad.
Pringle Kennedy has observed (Arabian Society at the Time of Muhammad pp. 8-10, 18-21):
Muhammad was, to use a striking expression, the man of the hour. In order to understand his wonderful success, one must study the conditions of his times. Five and half centuries and more had elapsed when he was born since Jesus had come into the world. At that time, the old religions of Greece and Rome, and of the hundred and one states along the Mediterranean, had lost their vitality. In their place, Caesarism had come as a living cult. The worship of the state as personified by the reigning Caesar, such was the religion of the Roman Empire. Other religions might exist, it was true; but they had to permit this new cult by the side of them and predominant over them. But Caesarism failed to satisfy. The Eastern religions and superstitions (Egyptian, Syrian, and Persian) appealed to many, in the Roman world and found numerous votaries. The fatal fault of many of these creeds was that in many respects they were so ignoble…. When Christianity conquered Caesarism at the commencement of the fourth century, it, in its turn, became caesarised. No longer was it the pure creed, which had been taught some three centuries before. It had become largely de-spiritualized, ritualized, materialized….
How, in a few years, all this was changed, how, by 650 AD a great part of this world became a different world from what it had been before, is one of the most remarkable chapters in human history. This wonderful change followed, if it was not mainly caused by, the life of one man, the Prophet of Mecca. Whatever the opinion one may have of this extraordinary man, whether it be that of the devout Muslim who considers him the last and greatest herald of God’s word, or of the fanatical Christian of former days, who considered him an emissary of the Evil One, or of certain modern Orientalists, who look on him rather as a politician than a saint, as an organizer of Asia in general and Arabia in particular, against Europe, rather than as a religious reformer; there can be no difference as to the immensity of the effect which his life has had on the history of the world. To those of us, to whom the man is everything, the milieu but little, he is the supreme instance of what can be done by one man. Even others, who hold that the conditions of time and place, the surroundings of every sort, the capacity of receptivity of the human mind, have, more than an individual effort, brought about the great steps in the world’s history, cannot well deny, that even if this step were to come, without Muhammad, it would have been indefinitely delayed.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, the civilized world stood on the verge of chaos. The old emotional cultures that had made civilization possible, since they had given to man a sense of unity and of reverence for their rulers, had broken down and nothing had been found adequate to take their place…. It seemed then that the great civilization which had taken four thousand years to construct was on the verge of disintegration, and that mankind was likely to return to that condition of barbarism where every tribe and sect was against the next, and law and order were unknown…. The new sanctions created by Christianity were creating divisions and destruction instead of unity and order. Civilization like a gigantic tree whose foliage had over-reached the world stood tottering, rotted to the core. Was there any emotional culture that could be brought in to gather mankind once more to unity and to save civilization? It was among the Arabs that the man was born who were to unite the whole known world of the east and south (J. H. Denison, Emotions as the Basis of Civilization, pp. 265-9).
Muhammad appeared on the scene at one of the darkest periods in all history, when all the civilizations, from Merovingian Gaul to India, were falling to ruin or were in a state of troubled gestation (L. Dermenghem, The Life of Muhammad, p. 171).
If the object of religion be the inculcation of morals, the diminution of evil, the promotion of human happiness, the expansion of the human intellect, if the performance of good works will avail in the great day when mankind shall be summoned to its final reckoning, it is neither irreverent nor unreasonable to admit that Muhammad was indeed an Apostle of God (S. P. Scott, History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, p. 126).
Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of rational dogmas, the founder of twenty terrestrial empires and of one spiritual empire that is Muhammad. As regards all standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may ask, is there any man greater than he? (Lamartine, History of Turkey, p. 276).
The more one reflects on the history of Muhammad and of early Islam, the more one is amazed at the vastness of his achievement. Circumstances presented him with an opportunity such as few men have had, but the man was fully matched with the hour. Had it not been for his gifts as seer, statesman, and administrator and, behind these his trust in God and firm belief that God had sent him, a notable chapter in the history of mankind would have remained unwritten (W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p. 336).
The condition of the world at the time of the advent of Muhammad has been summed up in the Holy Quran as: ‘Corruption has appeared on land and sea in consequence of people’s misdeeds’ (30:42). This is amply borne out by the testimony that we have cited above. Thus, it is clear that the state of the world, at the time of the advent of the Holy Prophet, called loudly for universal and comprehensive divine guidance, to be set forth in God’s words, and to be illustrated by a messenger whose life would be multi-faceted and who would serve as an exemplar for mankind. Such was Muhammad. Another very striking factor in his support is that no one else even remotely approaching his stature and his qualities appeared to guide mankind at the time of its greatest need. The conclusion is irresistible that he was beyond doubt the predetermined instrument of God for the revival of mankind.
What of his origins and his background? Tradition, supported in a large measure by the Bible, has established that Muhammad was a descendant of Abraham, the great Patriarch, who is designated as the Friend of God in the Holy Quran (4:126), through his eldest son, Ishmael.
About a century and a half before the birth of Muhammad, Qusai, a descendant of Fihr, chief of Quraish, married the daughter of the Khuzaa chief of his time, as had done his ancestor Fihr before him. Khuzaa had been the wardens of the Ka’aba. Qusai was an active and intelligent youth who made himself useful to his father-in-law and was often employed by him as his deputy in the performance of the rites of the Ka’aba. When the Khuzaa chief died, Qusai attempted to assume the guardianship of the Temple. Khuzaa objected, claiming for their tribe the hereditary right to the post, and took up arms. Qusai called on his relatives for support and defeated Khuzaa in battle and drove them out. As a result of this successful operation, Quraish became the owners of the valley of Mecca and Khuzaa sank to a subordinate position.
Qusai was a man of remarkable character and intelligence. He persuaded Quraish to build houses in place of tents, grouped around the Ka’aba and in the narrow tributary valleys. The tribe consisted of thirty-six clans and had been in existence for several centuries. It appears, however, that only the more important clans or those closely related to Qusai, built houses round the Ka’aba. The others lived farther away, probably in tents, while some may have remained nomadic in the desert.
As a settled community, Mecca attracted various types of individuals, not themselves of Quraish. When, in the sixth century, Quraish began to play a leading role in the oriental trade, some families grew rich and acquired retainers. They gathered around them slaves and domestic servants, guards to accompany the caravans, artisans, carpenters, sword-makers, weavers and workers in leather. A growing community also attracted fugitives, tribesmen who had fled from their tribes owing to blood feuds and were glad to marry and to settle down in Mecca. An urban society began to grow, no longer confined to one tribe.
Qusai organized the pilgrimage to the Ka’aba. He divided his descendants into categories, to each of which he allotted specific duties. The custodianship of the Ka’aba he entrusted to his eldest son, Abdud Dar, and to that son’s children. The annual pilgrimage lasted three days, during which large numbers of Arabs, from all over the peninsula came to Mecca. Qusai decided that Quraish should provide the poor pilgrims with food and water during this period, for which purpose he collected a tax known as rifada. Though the religious rites of the pilgrimage lasted only three days, a series of fairs were held at various sites in the neighbourhood during the preceding weeks. As Quraish gradually changed from stockbreeders to merchants, these fairs offered them an opportunity to sell the articles brought by their caravans.
A remarkable reform introduced by Qusai was connected with the calendar. The Arab tribes had hitherto employed the lunar calendar, an easy system for the illiterate people in a country where the phases of the moon are rarely concealed by clouds. But the lunar year of twelve months is approximately eleven days shorter than the solar year. The pilgrimage was held in the twelfth month of the lunar year and moved back eleven days each year in respect of the solar year. Thus, in the course of thirty-three years, the pilgrimage moved completely round the calendar. Qusai decided that the best time to have the pilgrimage take place would be in the autumn. He accordingly persuaded the Arabs to accept an intercalary month every third year, in order to make the lunar year match with the solar year. The system was not quite accurate but was nevertheless a remarkable effort on the part of a primitive tribal chief in the deserts of Arabia.
Arab nomadic tribal chiefs have never exercised autocratic powers and tribal policy has always been discussed in public. Qusai gave these discussions a formal aspect by erecting a building immediately opposite the Ka’aba, called Dar-en-Nadwa, or House of Consultation.
Qusai died sometime between 450 and 460, bequeathing his position to his eldest son, Abdud Dar. In the second generation, the descendants of his second son, Abd Manaf, disputed the leadership with the descendants of Abdud Dar. A compromise was reached whereby the clan of Abdud Dar retained the guardianship of the Ka’aba and of the House of Consultation and the right to carry the tribal banner in war. The clan of Abd Manaf was given the duties of collecting the rifada tax, and of providing food and water for the pilgrims. A number of public duties were also distributed to branches of the family.
Quraish only became the capitalists of the oriental trade in the second half of the sixth century. During this period, certain clans, such as the descendants of Abd Manaf and of Makhzoom, became wealthy, while other families remained poor. The majority, however, acquired something of the commercial spirit and even the humblest inhabitants of Mecca would invest in trade whatever modest savings they could collect. Some would club together and would send one of their numbers with a caravan to trade with their money and share the profits on his return.
Thus the leading men of Mecca were not mere camel caravaners but capitalists. They went down in person to meet the Indian ships in Aden, purchased the articles and transported them first to Mecca, and then to Syria, Gaza or Egypt. In Damascus or in Egypt they bought goods of local manufacture and brought them back to Mecca, where they sold them to the Arab tribes at the fairs held in connection with the annual pilgrimage. A branch caravan route led from Mecca to the Lower Euphrates, passing south of the Nefood sand desert and gave the Meccans an additional commercial advantage. But the main trade route was that which bore the commerce of the east from Aden to Syria and to Egypt.
Of the sons of Abd Manaf, the eldest, Abd Shams, was extremely active in business and made a considerable fortune. Constantly preoccupied with his moneymaking ventures, he did not undertake any public duties in Mecca, owing to his frequent long absences on business journeys. As a result of his unwillingness to assume local responsibility, Hashim, the second son of Abd Manaf, undertook the family duties. He also had made a good deal of money and was well off. Installed in the office of entertaining the pilgrims, Hashim fulfilled it with princely munificence. He appealed to Quraish as his grandfather Qusai had done: ‘Ye are the neighbours of God, and the keepers of His House. Pilgrims to the Temple are His guests; and it is meet that ye entertain them above all other guests. Ye are especially chosen unto this high dignity; wherefore honour His guests and refresh them. For, from distant cities, on their lean and jaded camels, they come unto you fatigued and harassed, with hair dishevelled and bodies covered with the dust and squalor of the way. Then invite them hospitably and furnish them with water in abundance.’ Hashim set the example by a munificent provision, and Quraish were forward to contribute, every man according to his ability. Water, sufficient for the great assemblage, was collected in cisterns close by the Ka’aba and at the stations on the route to Arafat. The distribution of food commenced upon the day on which the pilgrims set out for Mina and Arafat, and continued until they dispersed. During this period of five or six days, they were entertained with meat and bread, butter and barley, and with the favourite national repast of dates.
Thus Hashim supported the credit of Mecca. But his name is even more renowned for the splendid charity by which, in a time of famine, he relieved the necessities of his fellow citizens. Journeying to Syria, he purchased an immense stock of flour, and conveyed it upon camels to Mecca. The provisions were cooked, the camels slaughtered and roasted, and the whole divided among the citizens. Thus destitution and mourning were turned into mirth and plenty; and it was, as it were, the beginning of new life after the year of scarcity.
The foreign relations of Quraish were conducted by the sons of Abd Manaf. With the Roman authorities, and the Ghassanid prince, Hashim himself concluded a treaty; and he received from the Emperor a prescript authorizing Quraish to travel through Syria in security. Abd Shams made a treaty with the Negus in pursuance of which Quraish traded with Abyssinia; Naufal and Muttalib entered into an alliance with the King of Persia, who allowed the merchants of Mecca to traffic in Iraq and Fars, and with the Kings of Himyar, who encouraged their commercial operations in the Yemen. Thus the affairs of Quraish prospered in every direction. Hashim established upon a uniform footing the mercantile expeditions of his people, so that every winter a caravan set out for the Yemen and Abyssinia, while in the summer a second caravan visited Gaza, Ancyra and other Syrian markets.
The success and glory of Hashim exposed him to the envy of Umayya, the second son of his brother, Abd Shams. Umayya was rich, and he expended his wealth in a vain attempt to rival the splendour of Hashim’s munificence. Quraish perceived the endeavour, and turned it into ridicule. Umayya was enraged and defied Hashim to a trial of superiority. Hashim was reluctant to enter into a contest, but consented at the urging of Quraish, with the stipulation that the vanquished party should lose fifty black-eyed camels, and be exiled from Mecca for ten years. A Khuza’ite soothsayer was appointed umpire; and, having heard the pretensions of both, pronounced Hashim to be the victor. Hashim took the fifty camels, slaughtered them in the vale of Mecca, and fed with them all the people present. Umayya set out for Syria, and remained there for the period of his exile.
Hashim was advanced in years when, on a mercantile journey to the north, he visited Yathrab with a party of Quraish. As he traded there, he was attracted by the graceful figure of a female, who from an elevated position was directing her people beneath to buy and sell for her. Hashim inquired of the citizens whether she was single, and they answered that she had been married but was now divorced. They added that her dignity was so great amongst her people that she would not marry, unless it were stipulated that she should remain mistress of her own concerns, and have at pleasure the power of divorce. She was Selma, daughter of Amr of Banu Najjar, and a clan of Khazraj. Hashim demanded her in marriage and she consented, for she was well aware of his renown and noble birth. She accompanied him to Mecca, but returned to Yathrab where she gave birth to a son, who remained with his mother at Yathrab.
Hashim died a few years after on a mercantile expedition to Gaza, and left his dignities to his brother, Muttalib. When Hashim’s son had grown into boyhood, Muttalib set out for Yathrab to fetch him thence. On his return, as the inhabitants of Mecca saw him pass with a lad by his side they assumed that he had purchased a slave and exclaimed, ‘Abdul Muttalib’ (‘Slave of Muttalib’). He explained that it was his nephew, the son of Hashim, but the name stuck and the boy, whose name was Shaiba, was thereafter known as Abdul Muttalib.
In due time Abdul Muttalib was installed by his uncle in possession of his father’s property; but Naufal, another uncle, interposed, and violently deprived him of it. Abdul Muttalib, on reaching the age of discretion, appealed to his tribe for aid to resist this usurpation of his rights; but they declined to interfere. He then wrote to his maternal relatives at Yathrab, of whom, on receiving the intelligence, eighty mounted men started for Mecca. Abdul Muttalib went forth to meet them and invited them to his house; but their chief refused to alight until he had called Naufal to account. Proceeding straight away to the Holy House, he found him seated there among the chiefs of Quraish. Naufal arose to offer welcome but the stranger refused his welcome and, drawing his sword, declared that he would plunge it into him unless he forthwith reinstated the orphan in his rights. Naufal was daunted and agreed to the concession, which was then ratified by oath before the assembled Quraish.
Some years later, on the death of Muttalib, Abdul Muttalib succeeded to the office of entertaining the pilgrims. But for a long time he was destitute of power and influence, and, having at the time but one son to assist him in the assertion of his claims, he found it difficult to cope with the opposing factions of Quraish. It was during this period that he discovered the ancient well Zam zam. Finding it laborious to collect water for the pilgrims from the scattered wells of Mecca and to store it in cisterns by the Ka’aba, and perhaps aware by tradition of the existence of a well in the vicinity, he made a diligent search, and at last chanced upon the venerable masonry. It was a remnant of the palmy days when a rich and incessant stream of commerce flowed through Mecca. Centuries had elapsed since the trade had ceased, and with it had followed the decline of Mecca, and neglect of the well. In course of time, choked up, the remembrance of it had become so indistinct that even the site was now unknown.
As Abdul Muttalib, aided by his son Harith, continued digging deeper, he came upon the two golden gazelles, with the swords and suits of armour, buried there by the Jurhumite King more than three centuries before. Quraish, envying him these treasures, demanded a share and even asserted their right to the well itself, as the possession of their common ancestor Ishmael. Abdul Muttalib was not powerful enough to resist the claim; but he agreed to refer it to the decision of the arrows of Hubal, the god whose image was set up within the Ka’aba. Lots were cast, one for the Ka’aba and two for the respective claimants. The gazelles fell to the share of the Ka’aba, and the swords and suits of armour to that of Abdul Muttalib, while the arrows of Quraish drew blank. Acquiescing in the divine decree, they relinquished their pretensions to the well. Abdul Muttalib beat out the gazelles into plates of gold, and fixed them by way of ornament to the door of the Ka’aba. He hung up the swords before the door as a protection to the treasures within; but at the same time added a more effectual guard in the shape of a golden lock and key.
The plentiful flow of fresh water, soon apparent in the newly discovered well, was a great triumph for Abdul Muttalib. All other wells in Mecca were deserted, and this alone was resorted to. From it Abdul Muttalib supplied the pilgrims, and the water itself soon shared the sanctity of the Ka’aba and its rites. The fame and influence of Abdul Muttalib now waxed greater and greater, a large family of powerful sons added to his dignity; he became, and continued to his death, the virtual chief of Mecca.
During his early troubles, while supported by an only son, Abdul Muttalib had felt his weakness so bitterly in contending with the large and influential families of his opponents, that he vowed that if Providence should grant him ten sons he would devote one of them to His service. Years rolled on, and the father at last found himself surrounded by the longed-for number, the sight of whom daily reminded him of his vow. He bade his sons accompany him to the Ka’aba, each was made to write his name upon a lot, and the lots were made over to the attendant of the Ka’aba, who cast them in the usual mode. The fatal arrow fell upon Abdullah, the youngest and best beloved. The vow must be fulfilled by the sacrifice of Abdullah. His daughters wept and clung around him and he was willingly persuaded to cast lots between Abdullah and ten camels, which was the current amount of blood money for one person. If the ransom was accepted, the father could spare his son without scruple. But the lot a second time fell upon Abdullah. Again, and with equal fortune, it was cast between him and twenty camels. At each successive trial, the anxious father added ten camels to the stake, but the lot still indicated that the blood of his youngest son was demanded. It was now the tenth throw, and the ransom had reached a hundred camels, when the lot at last fell upon them, and the father joyfully released Abdullah from his impending fate, and slaughtered the hundred camels between Safa and Marwa. The inhabitants of Mecca feasted upon them, and, Abdul Muttalib’s family refusing to partake; the residue was left to the beasts and to the birds.
The prosperity and fame of Abdul Muttalib excited the envy of the house of Umayya, whose son, Harb, challenged his rival to a trial of their respective merits. The Abyssinian king declined to be the umpire, and the judgment was committed to one of Quraish, who declared that Abdul Muttalib was in every respect superior. Harb was deeply mortified, and abandoned the society of his opponent, whose companion he had previously been.
Abdul Muttalib gained an important accession of stability to his party by concluding a defensive league with Khuzaa, who were still inhabitants of Mecca. They came to him and represented that, as their quarters adjoined, such a treaty would be advantageous for both. Abdul Muttalib was not slow in perceiving this. With ten of his adherents he met Bani Khuzaa at the Ka’aba, and there they mutually pledged their faith. The treaty was reduced to writing, and was hung up in the Ka’aba. No one from the family of Umayya was present, or indeed knew of the transaction until it was thus published.