It was in the year 571 of the christian era that Prophet Muhammad was born, on the 12th of the lunar month Rabi' I. He came of the noblest family of Arabia, the Quraish, who were held in the highest esteem, being guardians of the Sacred House at Mecca, the Ka'ba, the spiritual centre of the whole of Arabia.
At the time of his birth Arabia was steeped deep in the worst form of idolatry that has ever prevailed in any country. The Ka'ba itself was full of idols, and every household had, in addition, its own idols. Unhewn stones, trees and heaps of sand were also worshipped. In spite this vast and deep-rooted idolatry, the Arabs were, as Bosworth Smith remarks, materialistic. " Eat and drink is," as he says, "the epicurean tone of the majority of the poems that have come down to us." There was practically no faith in the life after death, no feeling of responsibility for one's actions. The Arabs, however, believed in demons, and diseases were attributed to the influence of evil spirits.
Ignorance prevailed among the high as well as the low, so much so that the noblest of men could boast of his ignorance. There was no moral code, and vice was rampant. The sexual relations were loose obscene poems and songs were recited in public assemblies There was no punishment for adultery, nor any moral sanction against it. Prostitution had nothing dishonourable about it, so that leading men could keep brothels. Women were " in the most degraded position, worse even than that in which they were under the laws of Manu in Hindustan." Woman was looked upon as a mere chattel. Instead of having any right to inheritance of property, her own person formed part of the inheritance, and the heir could dispose of her as he liked, even if he did not care to take her as a wife. There was no settled government, no law in the land, and might was practically right.
The Arabs belonged to one race and spoke one language, yet they were the most disunited people. Tribe made war on tribe, and family on family, on the most trivial excuse. The strong among them trampled upon the rights of the weak, and the weak could not get their wrongs redressed. The widow and the orphan were quite helpless and slaves were treated most cruelly.
Amongst this people was born Muhammad, an orphan from his birth, who lost even his mother when six years old. He came of the noblest family of the Quraish, yet, like the rest of his countrymen, he was not taught reading and writing. He tended sheep for some time, and the noblest of the Arabs had no contempt for that occupation, but in his youth he was chiefly occupied in trade. It was, however, his high morals that distinguished him from the first from all his compatriots. The Holy Quran, which contains the most trustworthy account of the Prophet's life, says that he was the "possessor of sublime morals." [68:4]
Leading generally a reserved life, he had for friends only those men whose moral greatness was admitted by all. His truthfulness is testified in the clearest words [6:33]. His bitterest opponents were challenged to point out a single black spot on his character during the forty years that he had passed among them before he received the Divine call [10:16]. It was in his youth that, on account of his pure and unsoiled character and his love for truth and honesty, he won from his compatriots the tital of al-Amin, or the Faithful.
Living in a country in which idol-worship was the basis of the everyday life of the community, Muhammad hated idolatry from his childhood, and the Holy Quran is again our authority for the statement that he never bent his forehead before an idol [109:4]. Even Sir William Muir bears testimony to the purity of his character in his youth: " Our authorities all agree in ascribing to the youth of Muhammad a modesty of deportment and purity of manners rare among the Meccans." And again: "Endowed with a refined mind and delicate taste, reserved and meditative, he lived much within himself, and the pondering of his heart no doubt supplied occupation for leisure hours spent by others of a low stamp in rude sports and profligacy. The fair character and honourable bearings of the unobtrusive youth won the approbation of his fellow-citizens: and by common consent he received the title of al-Amin the Faithful"
Though he lived in a city in which drinking orgies were only too common, never did a drop of wine touch his lips. Even Abu Bakr, the most intimate friend of Muhammad's youth, never tasted wine. The society at Mecca found pleasure in gambling, yet never did Muhammad take part in any such pastime. He lived among a people who were addicted to war as they were addicted to wine, yet he had no liking for either.
To quote Muir again, " though now nearly twenty years of age he had not acquired the love of arms." Perforce, he had to take part on one occasion in the famous sacrilegious war that continued for four years between the Quraish and the Hawazin, yet he did no more than gather up arrows that came from the enemy and hand them over to his uncles. He did not even take to trading for love of wealth but simply out of regard for his uncle Abu Talib, whom he loved to help. Thus says Muir: " Muhammad was never covetous of wealth, or at any period of his career energetic in the pursuit of riches for their own sake. If left to himself, he would probably have preferred the quiet and repose of his present life to the bustle and cares of a mercantile journey. He would not spontaneously have contemplated such an expedition. But when the proposal was made, his generous soul at once felt the necessity of doing all that was possible to relieve his uncle and he cheerfully responded to the call"
Above all, his earlier life was marked by that rare characteristic, rarest of all in Arabia at the time, love of the poor, the orphan, the widow, the weak, the helpless and the slave. Before he had affluence of means, he was one of the members who took an oath to stand by the oppressed and formed themselves into a league as champions of the injured. When at twenty-five he married a wealthy widow, Khadlja, he spent freely for the help of the poor.
No slave came into the household but was set free by him. He had acquired such a fame for hoping the poor that when, after the Call, the Quraish demanded him of Aba Talib to put him to death, the old chief refused and praised him in a poem as the " Protector of the orphans and the widows." Earlier than this when Muhammad received the Call, and was diffident whether he would be able to achieve the grand object of reforming his countrymen, his wife, Khadlja, comforted him, saying that God would not disgrace him because he bore the burden of those who were weary and helped the poor and gave relief to those who were in distress and honoured the guest and loved his kinsmen [Bukhari, 1:1].
To these great qualities was added his anxiety for a fallen humanity. The Quran refers to it repeatedly [9:128, 18:6, 26:3, 35:8]. As years went on, the gross idolatry of the Arabs and their evil ways pressed the more heavily on his heart, and he spent hours in solitude in the neighbouring mountains.
Still later, he repaired for days to a cave at the foot of Mount Hira, and it was here that the Divine light shone on him in its full resplendence. At first, he was in doubt whether he would be able to perform the great task, but his anxiety soon gave place to absolute faith that truth would ultimately triumph, and he set to work with a strength of will and an inflexibility of purpose which could not be shaken by the severest opposition of the whole of Arabia. From the very first his message was for all, for the Arab as well as the non-Arab, for the idolaters as well as the Jews, the Christians and the Magi. Nor was it limited to the town of Mecca, for Mecca was the centre to which men and women flocked in thousands every year from all parts of Arabia, and through this assemblage the Prophet's message reached the most distant corners of Arabia. His wife, Khadlja, was the first to believe in him, and she was followed by others who were either his most intimate friends or closely related to him. As Muir remarks: It is strongly corroborative of Muhammad's sincerity that the earliest converts to Islam were not only of upright character, but his own bosom friends and people of his household, who, intimately acquainted with his Private life could not fail otherwise to have detected those discrepancies which ever more or less exist between the professions of the hypocritical deceiver abroad and his actions at home."
His first revelations laid stress on
the great power and majesty of the Divine Being
and on the inevitability of the judgment.
The Quraish mocked at first, treated him contemptuously and called him a madman. In spite of this he went on gaining adherents by twos and threes, until within four years - the number reached forty and persecution grew bitter. At first the slaves were tortured. Bilal, a Negro by birth, when made to lie on the burning sands under the Arabian midday sun continued to cry, "One, One," to the bewilderment of his persecutors. But the fire of persecution once kindled could not be confined. Converts of high birth were made to suffer along with the poorer followers. The Prophet himself did not escape the cruelties of the persecutors. The Muslims could not gather together or say their prayers in a public place. Still Muhammad went on gaining new adherents, and his opponents became severer in their persecution, so much so that some of the humbler converts were put to death in a most brutal manner.
The Prophet's tender heart melted at the sight of this brutal treatment of innocent men and women, and in spite of the fact that he would be left alone amongst exasperated opponents, he advised the small band of his followers to betake themselves to a place of safety. Eleven men and women left Mecca in the fifth year of the Hijra, and migrated to Abyssinia. Thither they were followed by a deputation of their opponents that petitioned the ruler of Abyssinia for their extradition. The Muslim case was put by their leader before the king as follows:
Released at last from this imprisonment, the Prophet, though facing disappointment on all sides, had still as much faith in the triumph of the truth as ever. If Mecca was now quite deaf to his preaching, he would turn elsewhere. He went to Ta'if, another great city of Arabia. Here, however, he found the ground even harder than at Mecca. He was not allowed to stay in Ta'if after ten days, and as he walked back he was pelted with stones. Dripping with blood and not even allowed by his persecutors to take rest, he at last returned to Mecca, a sadder man than when he had left it. But if men did not listen to him, yet would he open his heart to God who was always ready to listen, and he prayed to Him thus when coming back from Tatif:
O my God ! To Thee I complain of the feebleness of my strength
and of my lack of resourcefulness and of my insignificance in the eyes
of people. Thou art the most Merciful of the merciful, Thou art the
Lord of the weak. To whom wilt Thou entrust me, to an unsympathetic
foe who would sullenly frown at me, or to a close friend to whom
Thou hast given control over my affair? Not in the least do I care for
anything except that I may have Thy protection. In the light of Thy
face do I seek shelter, in the light which illumines the heaven and
dispels all sorts of darkness, and which controls all affairs in this world
as well as in the Hereafter. May it never be that I should incur Thy
wrath or that Thou shouldst be displeased with me. There is no strength,
nor power, but in Thee.
He feels that no man lends his ear to his message, yet his faith in the goodness of God and in the ultimate triumph of his cause is as unshaken as ever. To him God is all in all and the opposition of the whole world is as nothing. With marvellous calmness he undergoes the severest hardships which he has to suffer for working for the good of the very people who take pleasure in inflicting on him the cruellest tortures. All these, he says, are insignificant so long as he enjoys the pleasure of God. What a firm faith in God, what a cheerful resignation to His supreme will, what an unalloyed spiritual happiness !
Three years more passed away at Mecca amidst the most trying circumstances. In the meanwhile Islam took root in Medina and spread fast. As the thirteenth year of the Call drew to a close, seventy-five Muslims (including two women) from Medina came to perform a pilgrimage and swore allegiance to the Prophet, affirming that if he chose to go to Medina, they would defend him against his enemies just as they defended their own children and wives. Then it was that the Muslim exodus to Medina commenced.
The Prophet chose to remain alone amidst an enemy that was growing more and more exasperated, and to see his followers safe at the new centre. This shows the depth of his love and concern for his followers. He was anxious more for their safety than for his own. Within two months, about 150 Muslims left Mecca and there remained only the Prophet with two of his closest friends. The psychological moment had now arrived for his enemies to deal the final blow. Individual efforts had hitherto been made to do away with the Prophet, but they had failed. If the final blow was not struck immediately, the Prophet might escape to Medina and get beyond their reach. A big conference of all the tribes was held and a final decision taken. A youth from each clan was to be selected, and all these were to fall upon the Prophet at one and the same time, so that no particular clan should be held accountable for the murder.
The Prophet's house was besieged by these blood thirsty youths as soon as it was dark, but, undaunted and having his faith in Divine protection, the Prophet passed through them unnoticed. In the dark of the night, with only one companion, he made his way through the streets of Mecca to the bare and rugged hills outside, and a hiding-place was ultimately found in a cave known as Thaur. When morning appeared, the enemy saw the failure of their plan and the whole countryside was scoured. One party reached the very mouth of the cave. Through a crevice, Abu Bakr saw the enemy at the mouth and grieved. " Do not grieve, for Allah is with us," said the Prophet. The more helpless he became, the stronger grew his faith in God. And surely some invisible power saved him throughout his life every time that the enemy's hand was on him. After three days the Prophet and his companion started for Medina.
It was not the Prophet alone who bore all the hard trials so willingly at Mecca for thirteen years; those who accepted him bore persecutions with the same willing heart. The new life to which the Prophet had awakened them has drawn words of praise from Sir William Muir: