History Muhammad, Islam


Map of the Roman-Persian frontier in 387 CE and 591 CE

For all their differences, the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires shared certain common features and faced similar challenges. Their rulers struggled to unify vast domains and fragmented populations by the use of force, when necessary, and by recourse to a religious ideology that they tried to impose on their subjects, which bolstered their claim to rule. Both, perhaps inadvertently, fostered movements with egalitarian tendencies that used religious ideas to blunt the harshness of existing social norms. Both faced the challenge of warding off external enemies on their frontiers … Above all the two empires faced the challenge of each other. … At stake was not merely Byzantine versus Sasanian political control and economic influence, but also Christianity as opposed to Zoroastrianism and Hellenic as opposed to Iranian cultural traditions.” (Muhammad and the Believers, Fred M. Donner.)
From their capital, Constantinople, the Byzantine emperors of the sixth century envisioned and attempted a Christianized form of the Roman world order. But this dream proved impossible as pagans, Jews, and Samaritans resisted Christianity. Within Christianity itself sharp divisions arose, particularly about the human and/or divine nature of Jesus that set one group against another. Ascetic movements: monasteries, convents, pilgrimages, saint worship, icons, relics and new forms of liturgy affected the religious mood of the Empire and a widespread appeal of apocalyptic ideas predicting the end of days ran rampant.
Zoroastrianism and its sectarian branches, such as Mithraism, was the major religion of the Sasanian Empire. But the population included large communities of Jews, some established in Babylon since the Babylonian Exile in 597 BCE and certainly from the time of the Great Revolt in AD 70, and Christian communities such as Nestorians who had been condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and forced to flee the Byzantine Empire (the Old Roman Empire). In the fourth and fifth centuries much of the western half of the Byzantine Empire was disintegrating, unable to maintain the strength and prosperity of so vast a territory. Though undermined by earthquakes and repeated bouts of plague, the eastern half of the empire remained intact. But by 570 CE, the year of Mohammad’s birth, these two Empires were locked in a series of debilitating wars with each other which would eventually weaken and cause the demise of both.

Pre-Islamic Arab Society

Most of the Arabian Peninsula remained outside the direct control of these two world powers. The predominance of vast barren desert, alleviated only by a few water sources where agricultural communities gathered, such as Ta’if and Yathrib, made complete colonization unattractive. Nevertheless, both empires competed to establish alliances with tribes via barter and bribery as they tried to control trade routes. Competitive efforts from both Empires focused particularly on Yemen in the South. There agriculture thrived due to an ancient irrigation system of large water tunnels in the mountains, and dams, the most impressive of which was known as the Ma’rib Dam, built ca. 700 BCE. The ancient states of  Saba, Ma’in, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Awsan, and Himyar evolved in this region, thanks to the cultivation and trade of spices and aromatics, including frankincense and myrrh, highly valued by the surrounding cultures. The Mar’rib Dam collapsed in AD 570. This is noted in the Qur’an and the consequent failure of the irrigation system provoked the migration of up to 50,000 people, who were forced to survive the harsh environment, taking refuge with other tribes as they were able.
Asia and The Sassanid Empire approximately 500 CE
The sixth century saw Bedouin tribes on well-saddled camels employed by foreign merchants to transport goods and guide caravans from one well to another by direct route across the steppes. Thus goods from India, East Africa, Yemen and Bahrain traveled on to both Byzantium and Syria.
Nomadic (badawah) life was harsh. Scarce resources meant that survival depended upon close-knit family and kinship groups or “tribes.” Too few resources led to endless battles with other tribes for water, pastureland and grazing rights. A tribe’s sheep, goats, horses, camels and slaves were under constant threat from an acquisition raid, or ghazu. The ghazu was a form of negative reciprocity and an accepted part of life necessitated by the fact that there was simply not enough to go around, particularly when water holes dried up and all food sources failed. These kinds of raids had become endemic during the century preceding Mohammad’s revelation, and often escalated from quarrels into decades of warfare between tribes. The Days of al-Fijar in which the Quraysh and the Kinanah opposed the Hawazin is an example of this, and the young Mohammad, who was a member of the Quraysh from the distinguished clan of Hashim, is said to have participated.
To be successful a tribe needed members who would not be defeated by the overwhelming harshness of life in the arid desert. As a consequence each tribe’s life and culture evolved around a chivalric code (muruwah) that was an attempt to overcome life’s severe conditions, give meaning to the Arab’s world and prevent people from giving in to despair. “Muruwah meant courage, patience, endurance; it consisted of a dedicated determination to avenge any wrong done to the group, to protect its weaker members, and defy its enemies. To preserve the honor of the tribe, each member had to be ready to leap to the defense of his kinsmen at a moment’s notice and to obey his chief without question. … Above all, a tribesman had to be generous and share his livestock and food. … A truly noble Bedouin would take no heed for the morrow, showing by his lavish gifts and hospitality that he valued his fellow tribesmen more than his possessions.... ” (Muhammad A Prophet of our Time, Karen Armstrong) Struggle was glorious, arrogance a sign of nobility and humility a sign of weakness.
Within the tribe the Law of Retribution was arbitrated and administered by the chief, or Sheykh: injured parties could claim retribution – an act of aggression would be avenged in equal terms – the killing of a neighbor’s son or camel meant the execution of one’s own son or camel. To facilitate retribution a “blood money” value was set for everything: individuals, goods and assets.
In an age where outside the tribe the individual was totally vulnerable, it was the idea of hospitality (diyafah) that enabled travel through tribal territories. “Arabian tribesmen view hospitality as a sacred duty; the pagan poets of the Jahiliya praised it as a cardinal virtue and archetyped it in the celebrated legend of Hatim al-Ta’I. Elaborate rules governed the granting and termination of hospitality to persons outside the lineage, doubtless in response to the functional significance of the traveller.” In his book “The Places Where Men Pray Together: Cities in Islamic Lands Seventh Through Tenth Centuries,” the scholar Paul Wheatley goes on to say that providing protection and safe conduct to strangers displayed the authority of the Sheykh and his tribe and confirmed their control over the territory.
By the end of the sixth century the weakness of muruwah was apparent: each tribe had its own inherited rules, many of which led to reckless and extreme behavior. By this time, too, Yemen had become a province of Persia. With no hope of anything better the Bedouin saw themselves in a life of struggle, relieved only by moments of pleasure, often taken in the oblivion of date wine, and constantly open to exploitation by the two Empires. There was thought to be nothing wrong with stealing, injuring or murdering people outside one’s own tribe, so peace depended on a fragile stability created through alliances and affiliations between tribes. This depended more on the threat of retaliation and the comparative strength of each than on anything else.  One can imagine that many tribes’ members, especially the weak, the old, women and children, lived in constant terror. Chaos was spreading all over the Arab Peninsula. Incessant ghazu raids now led to what seemed to be a constant state of warfare between tribes, a condition that was exacerbated by unprecedented drought and famine.
A state of mind prevailed that the Prophet Mohammad called jahiliyyah, which, according to Karen Armstrong, translates as: “violent and explosive irascibility, arrogance, tribal chauvinism.”  This same word would later be understood to mean the pre-Islamic historical period itself, translated as “The Time of Ignorance.”
The Quraysh had been in control of Mecca (Makkah) since the fourth century. In the middle of the Hijaz, a region in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia, it had become a major commercial center at the crossroads of trade caravans linking Arabia with India, Persia, China, and Byzantium, and had its own Red Sea port at Shu‘ayba. Unlike other tribal settlements developed around water sources, Mecca’s stony infertile ground made agriculture impossible, so survival centered around commerce. During the last years of the sixth century the Quraysh had become extremely successful at this, but by the mid-seventh century ruthless capitalism had eroded their traditional egalitarian way of life. Quraysh society was now stratified, with its wealth confined to a few ruling families; the weaker, poorer, marginalized clans and individuals were left, lost and disoriented on the outside


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Important tribes of the Arabian Peninsula around 600 CE
Approximate locations of some of the important tribes and Empire of the Arabian Peninsula
at the dawn of Islam (approximately 600 CE).

Pre-Islamic Religion on the Arabian Peninsula

The peoples of Arabia were predominately polytheistic, and Mecca was the place of their most important sanctuary, the Ka’ba (see below).  Its ancient origins are unknown but, since all accessible deities were represented there, it was a place of annual pilgrimage for all tribes. At one time there were said to have been as many as three hundred and sixty idols in and around the Ka’ba. This, too, was under the control of the Quraysh, who wisely established a non-violent zone that was Haram (sacred, forbidden), radiating for twenty miles around the sanctuary, and made Mecca a place where any tribe could enter without fear and where they were free to practice both religion and commerce.

The Kaba in 1910
The Ka’ba in 1910
The Ka’ba was the most important holy place in Arabia even in pre-Islamic times; it contained hundreds of idols representing Arabian tribal gods and other religious figures, including Abraham, Jesus and Mary. It is a massive cube believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham – the ancestor to the Arabs through his first son Ishmael – and dedicated to al-Lah (The God who is the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians); it stands in the centre of the Sanctuary in the heart of Mecca. Embedded in the Ka’ba’s granite matrix is the famous Black Stone, which tradition says was originally cast down from Heaven as a sign for Adam.
The Zam-Zam holy well is nearby and is believed to have quenched the thirst of Hagar and her child, Ishmael, in the wilderness. (Genesis 21:19). Arabs from all over the peninsula made an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, performing traditional rites over a period of several days. Mohammad eventually destroyed all the idols in and around the Ka’ba, and re-dedicated it to the One God, Allah, and the annual pilgrimage became the Hajj, the rite and duty of all Believers.
The usual form of worship is for pilgrims to circle the Ka’ba seven times at a trot and then to drink from the holy spring. This rite seems to have a straightforward interpretation, with the square Ka’ba symbolizing the four corners of the earth which is circled seven times, just like the seven planets (or spheres of heaven) which were believed to circle the earth. We still live today in a yearly calendar ordered by these ancient beliefs, from the names and numbers of our days of the week, to the four weeks that form our lunar months and the stellar signs of the zodiacs.” (The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography, Barnaby Rogerson.)
Muhammad at the Kaba
Mohammad at the Ka’ba from an Ottoman
(Turkish) epic about the life of Mohammad,
completed around 1388, Illustration
by Nakkaş Osman.
Like other pre-Axial societies, pre-Islamic Arab beliefs involved a pantheon of accessible deities with whom people could communicate. They also believed in darh or fate which probably helped them adapt to the high mortality rate. Above all of the lesser Gods was the one remote God, al-Lah the God who was the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians. He was beyond the reach of ordinary people. Lesser deities were represented in the Ka’ba and in shrines to their individual honor scattered throughout the peninsula. These gods would be prayed to for rain, children, health and the like and would intercede on their behalf to Allah – the God in times of dire need.
This pre-Islamic attitude towards religion provided a framework that was open to ideas and interpretations. The Sasanian presence in the Arabian Peninsula had brought with it the influence of Zoroastrianism, in which Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, the Gods of Light and Darkness, were in constant battle for the souls of humanity. Jewish presence in the area dates possibly from as early as the Babylonian Exile in 597 BCE and certainly from the time of the Great Revolt in AD 70, almost six centuries before Mohammad. Scholars note that a symbiotic relationship existed between the two peoples: Jews were Arabized and Arabic speaking and over the centuries Arabs had absorbed Jewish beliefs and practices. There were Jewish merchants and Jewish Bedouin, farmers, poets and warriors. What today is the center of Islam, the Ka’ba in Mecca, has ancient Semitic roots: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others were associated with it long before the rise of Islam.  Both Jews and Arabs were believed to be descendants of Abraham, an idol of whom could be viewed inside the pre-Islamic Ka’ba.
Since their earliest times Christian groups were established in Syria and Mesopotamia. In AD 313, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and it became accepted as the imperial religion by Rome. The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, declared Christ to be both fully God and fully man and established belief in the Trinity which represented God as three in one: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who disagreed with this new orthodox position, Nestorians, Gnostics, and Arians for example, were excommunicated and declared heretics. Many fled from persecution, beyond the reach of the Byzantine Empire into the Persian and Arab worlds. Theirs was a proselytizing faith and as they spread throughout the Peninsula a number of tribes were converted. The Ghassanids, who wintered on the border of Byzantium, became the largest early Christian tribal community, the Nabateans another, and by the sixth century the Yemenite city of Najran was a center of Arab Christianity.
The distance from both empires enabled beliefs in the Arab Peninsula to evolve and flourish independently, especially in Mecca. According to Fred M. Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, by the sixth century paganism was receding in the face of the gradual spread of monotheism. Hanifism arose in Mecca and spread throughout the Hijaz. Its members “turned away from” idolatry, seeking to follow the original, essential monotheism of Abraham, before the establishment of either Judaism or Christianity.
Prophets and spiritual Teachers are not born in a vacuum. The influences and practices of contemporary and historical thinkers and prophets fuel their reactions to the world around them. Jesus, for example, was likely influenced by the theological and ethical teachings of Jeremiah and Hillel, the latter died in his youth and both prophets’ views were at the time, well known in the area. In Hanifism we find a key to Mohammad’s prophetic inspiration. To quote Barnaby Rogerson again: “As Muhammad grew in wealth and wisdom he joined a select group of thinkers in Mecca known as the hanif, the seekers. The hanif searched for a coherent religious identity for the Arabs, a clear doctrine to replace the welter of deities and the shambles of blood sacrifices held around the temple at Mecca. They focused their attention on the all-encompassing father god Allah whom they freely equated with the Jewish Yahweh and the Christian Jehovah.
The Hanifs regularly spent some of their time away from the polytheist environment and made retreats to nearby hills to meditate, contemplate and pray, as did Mohammad. One such hill was Hira’ the location where Mohammad would receive what is known as his first revelation. Hanifs, in common with the directives given in the Qu’ran, worshipped only the one God, who required commitment to a moral code: believers had to strive to be morally upright, mindful of an afterlife when one’s choices would be judged.
The Qur’an has several entries that mention Hanif, for example: 22:31 Be hanif in religion towards Allah, and never assigning partners to Him: if anyone assigns partners to Allah, it is as if he had fallen from heaven and been snatched up by birds, or the wind had thrown him into a distant place.

The History of Mohammad

The name of Muhammad in calligraphy
The name Mohammad in traditional Thuluth calligraphy
by the hand of Hattat Aziz Efendi
Less than one hundred years after Mohammad’s death in 632 the first Muslim historians began to write about his life. These were Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767), Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi (d. c. 820); Muhammad ibn Sa’d (d. 845); and Abu Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923). These scholars reconstructed their narrative from oral traditions and early documents, and through their effort we know more about Mohammad than we do any other Prophet.
Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the stories of Mohammad’s life were written to satisfy contemporary norms and included miraculous and legendary stories that might be misinterpreted today. As we have noted with the stories surrounding the Axial Sages, the Old Testament and the Gospels, such accounts are not to be taken literally. According to Reza Aslan they “function as prophetic topos: a conventional literacy theme that can be found in most mythologies. Like the infancy narratives in the Gospels, these stories are not intended to relate historical events, but to elucidate the mystery of the prophetic experience. They answer the questions: What does it mean to be a prophet? … It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus or David are true. What is important is what these stories say about our prophets, our messiahs, our kings: that theirs is a holy and eternal vocation, established by God from the moment of creation.” (No god but God, The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan.)
Not much is known about his early childhood, but according to tradition Mohammad was born in Mecca in 570, the year known as the year of the Elephant, in which Mecca was miraculously saved (see below). He was a Quraysh from the clan of Hashim. Many stories surround his childhood and birth, which was announced in a tale similar to the Christian story of Mary: Mohammad’s mother, a widow named Amina, one day heard a voice say to her: “You carry in your womb the lord of this people, and when he is born, say: ‘I place him beneath the protection of the One, from the evil of every envious person’, then name him Muhammad.”

The Year of the Elephant

Tradition tells that Abraha, the Abyssinian Christian ruler of Yemen, attacked Mecca with a herd of elephants imported from Africa. Abraha’s goal was to destroy the Ka’ba and make the Christian church at Sana’ the new religious center of the Arab world. The terrified Quraysh had never seen an elephant, much less a whole herd, so they ran to the mountains to escape, leaving the Ka’ba with no defense. But just as it was about to be attacked, the sky went dark as a flock of birds, each carrying a stone in its beak, rained down on the invading army which was forced to retreat.
Mohammad was orphaned at the age of six when his mother died, and went to live with his grandfather Abd-Al-Muttalib, who was in charge of providing the water of the Zam-Zam to pilgrims.  But by the time he was eight years old, his grandfather, too, had died and Mohammad was taken in by his Uncle Abu Talib and employed in his successful caravan business, so he was saved from a life of slavery or indebtedness experienced by so many orphans at the time. In a story that resembles that of Samuel in the Old Testament and others of that genre, it was on a trading expedition to Syria, when Mohammad was only nine years old, that a Christian monk named Bahira recognized him as “the Messenger of the Lord of the Worlds.”
At twenty-five, when Mohammad was still unmarried and dependent on his uncle, he met a very distant cousin, Khadija, a beautiful widow, then probably in her late thirties. Khadija was unusual for a woman of her time, she was a respected member of Meccan society and a very successful businesswoman in her own right. In spite of his tenuous social circumstances, according to Ibn Hisham, Mohammad had a reputation for “truthfulness, reliability, and nobility of character,” and Khadija entrusted him to take a caravan of goods to Syria and sell it. When he returned home with more profits than she anticipated, she proposed marriage to him and he accepted, thus acquiring status and entry into Meccan society. Although polygamy was the norm at the time, Mohammad and Khadija were in a monogamous marriage for twenty-five years until her death. They had six children.
As an orphan himself, Mohammad would have been aware of just how easy it was to fall outside Mecca’s religio-economic system. With his marriage and his businesses doing well, he now had access to the prosperous life. He saw firsthand that although the leading families of the Quraysh believed in the one God, this belief was not relevant to their lives; they had forgotten that everything depended upon Him.  Now that they were rich, they adhered to the very worst aspects of murawah and had thrown away the best: they were arrogant, reckless, niggardly and egotistical; they had become self-centered, no longer believing in anything but riches and took no responsibility for people outside their immediate, elite circle.

The cave Hira in the mountain Jabal al-Nour where,
according to Muslim belief, Mohammad received his
first revelation.
Mohammad saw the decline in traditional values as a threat to the very existence of his tribe. He was sure that social reform had to be based on a new spiritual foundation for it to actually take effect. As a trader, Mohammad came in frequent contact with Jews and Christians. According to the scholar Ikbal Ali Shah, Mohammad made “an exhaustive study of other religions.”  He was aware that his own people, although they believed in al-Lah, lacked a sacred book of their own.  “The people of the Book” had codified Laws that were both religious and social, governing their behavior from dawn to dusk. His own people had no such thing and because of this their lives were in chaos, many were suffering and destitute, and the whole tribe was in danger of extinction.
Before the revelations, he had no idea that his destiny would be to implement these vital changes. He was from a minor clan, the Hashim, and scholars point out that, in common with other prophets before him, he initially wanted nothing to do with what was happening to him and was extremely upset, so much so that without Khadija’s intervention “Mohammad might have gone through with his plan to end it all, and history would have turned out quite differently.” (Reza Aslan

Mount Hira’

Tradition states that one day, when he was about forty years old, Mohammad was alone and asleep in the cave on Mount Hira’ when he saw before him like “like the brightness of the dawn” an angel who commanded that he recite … Mohammad said that he could not do so.
“Then he took me and squeezed me vehemently and then let me go and repeated the order ‘Recite.’ ‘I cannot recite' said I, and once again he squeezed me and let me go till I was exhausted. Then he said, ‘Recite.' I said, ‘I cannot recite.’ He squeezed me for a third time and then let me go and said:
‘Recite in the name of your lord who created –
From an embryo created the human.

Recite your lord is all-giving
Who taught by the pen
Taught the human what he did not know before

The human being is a tyrant
He thinks his possessions make him secure
To your lord is the return of everything’”
(Qur’an: 96:1-8)
Mohammad was terrified and unable to understand what had happened to him. Had he gone mad or become one of the Kahins, the ecstatic poets whom he despised? What had happened?  He staggered down the mountain and sought Khadija, crying “Wrap me up! Wrap me up!” Khadija covered him in a cloak and held him and when he was calmer, questioned him. He told her what he had experienced and that he feared he had gone mad, but Khadija had no doubt that his revelation was authentic, “This cannot be my dear, God would not treat you thus. You are known to be truthful and a bearer of the burdens of others. You give to the poor, you feed guests, you work against injustice.
(The Life of Muhammad, I. Ishaq, translated by A. Guillaume pg.106)

But Mohammad was inconsolable, so Khadija took him to the only person she could think might be able to verify the nature of what had happened, her cousin Waraqa. Waraqa, an Ebionite Christian, had been one of the founding four Hanifs. He recognized Mohammad’s experience for what it was: “If this be true, Khadija, there has come to him the great divinity who came to Moses aforetime, and lo, he is the Prophet of this people.” (Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, Karen Armstrong)
Some scholars doubt that Mohammad would have been the successful businessman he was, had he been unable to read and write the correspondence and documentation relating to his own business. He may have been able to read both Arabic and the Aramaic in common use by the Jewish community at the time. They suggest that the epithet the Qur’an uses for Mohammad: “an-nabi al-ummi” traditionally meaning “the unlettered Prophet,” might instead mean “The Prophet for the unlettered,” in other words, for the people without a holy book.  “We did not give [the Arabs] any previous books to study, nor sent them any previous Warners before you.”  (The Qur’an 34:44).
The revelations that Mohammad received were conveyed to others in words remote from his world: he was not known to have composed any poetry and had no special rhetorical gifts. From the first revelation, the Suras (chapters) of the Qur’an would deal with matters of belief, law, politics, ritual, spirituality and personal conduct, cosmology, and economics in what Karen Armstrong describes as an “entirely new literary form.” The Qur’an itself states, “If you are in doubt of what We have revealed to Our messenger, then produce one chapter like it. Call upon all your helpers, besides God, if you are truthful.” (The Qur’an 2.23) No one was able to do this.

The Revelations and the Qur’an

Medieval Islam considered the Qur’an to be a document that had existed throughout all eternity, graven like the tablets of Moses by the hand of God. They saw Muhammad as little more than God’s scribe and even considered the classical Arabic of the Qur’an to be created by God and the eternal language of heaven. This concept, although it might have been relevant in its own time, is no longer so useful. It is more enlightening to see the illiterate Prophet grappling in an attempt to place the sacred revelations within a human language, with all its limitations. It was a task into which he poured all his energy and abilities. It will be remembered that Muhammad testified, ‘Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking my soul had been torn away from me.’ It is also clear that he constantly strove towards ultimate perfection in this task of recitation. Perhaps he knew he had succeeded when the recitations no longer sounded within him as clear as a bell, but he could hear them as if they were dictated by an angel standing ‘at a distance of two bows – or even closer.’” (Rogerson.)
For the Sufis of the classical period, the Koran is the encoded document which contains Sufi teachings. Theologians tend to assume that it is capable of interpretation only in a conventionally religious way; historians are inclined to look for earlier literary or religious sources; others for evidence of contemporary events reflected in its pages. For the Sufi, the Koran is a document with numerous levels of transmission, each one of which has a meaning in accordance with the capacity for understanding of the reader. It is this attitude toward the book which made possible the understanding between people who were of nominally Christian, pagan or Jewish backgrounds—a feeling which the orthodox could not understand. The Koran in one sense is therefore a document of psychological importance. Chapter 112 of the Koran is an excellent example of this synthesizing capacity of the book. This is one of the shortest chapters, and it may be translated thus: Say, O messenger, to the people: ‘He, Allah, is Unity! Allah the Eternal. Fathering nobody, and not himself engendered—And absolutely nothing is like him!’” (The Sufis, Idries Shah.)
A more modern understanding of a revelation might be that at such times Mohammad and other Prophets experienced a higher state of consciousness that enabled them to intuitively understand aspects of an alternate Reality. This Reality is “beyond words”. “I cannot recite” might actually mean that the experience is impossible to put into words.
Thus in himself the Prophet developed a refined integrated understanding, an intuitive capacity to connect to what has been referred to throughout our religious history as God/Truth/Knowledge/Love. As a result of this, far from what we think of as a vocation or choice, Mohammad understood the duty and function of his life.  Jesus, Mohammad and other prophets – many of whom are referred to in the Qur’an – along with Islamic Sufi teachers who would come after Mohammad, are examples of human beings who reached a permanent stage where they we able to maintain existence in two worlds. They were “in the world but not of the world” (The Prophet).
“Speak to everyone in accordance with his degree of understanding” is a dictum of Mohammad. Traditionally it is understood that there are seven levels of understanding possible in the passages of the Qu’ran. Its major goal then was to provide contemporary guidance to those who wished to live an exemplary life not only on a societal level but more importantly on an interior level – for everything: thought, action and word needed to be in harmony if one were to follow in Mohammad’s footsteps. As Prof. Donner notes in his book Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, The Qur’an omits any talk of politics then or in the future: “The Qur’an certainly offers no clear guidance on who should exercise political power among the Believers after Muhammad – or even if anyone should; this simply does not seem to be of interest of concern to the Qur’an. Nor does it provide any indication of how power should be exercised; the only exceptions are moral injunctions so general and vague that they apply to all Believers alike, and so do not address the particular problems of political leadership and its rights or responsibilities in relation to its subjects in any meaningful way.” (p 44) It does, however, provide detailed rules of conduct for the individual in a multitude of quotidian activities.
For example, in Sura 4 An-Nisa’ (The Women), even read in translation, one gets the sense that this is God’s guide to life and in intimate detail because an awareness and connection with the Absolute is the only reason for the Believer’s life. God reckons all things. He is fully conscious of everything we do. He is forgiving and merciful – you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s behavior, worry about your own in the sight of God. God watches every action, every thought, behavior and intention. The text establishes the requisite mental and emotional attitude, the continuous exercise self-observation and awareness, that will take the Believer further into the consciousness of God. “You shall remember god while standing, sitting or lying down.” (Quran 4:103.) Through haunting repetition one is constantly reminded that:
God is omniscient. Most wise. 
God is forgiver. Most merciful.
God is fully aware of everything you do. 
God is Pardoner. Omnipotent. 
God is Almighty – most wise. 
God is in full control of all things.
He has taught you what you never knew.

As a Believer progressed in understanding so his responsibilities increase: Sura 3:7 “And none receive admonition except men of understanding.” (Tafsir At-Tabari).
From the traditional point of view, “God’s words” were “spoken” directly to Mohammad as they had been to the Old Testament Prophets before him. Because it is the language of sacred texts, Hebrew was often considered sacred. In post-biblical times, it was referred to as lashon ha-kodesh, the holy language. And like biblical Hebrew, the Arabic of the Qur’an (the Recitation) is also considered sacred because it is the language through which Mohammad received God’s revelations.
Both texts were addressed to a predominately oral society. They were to be repeatedly read aloud, recited, and their sounds are an essential part of the experience. Both Hebrew and Arabic have multiple resonances of words that have the same trilateral root which affect the listener on multiple levels. Although English has metaphor, allegory etc., as do all Arabic languages, English can only provide a sense of this trilateral root resonance on a far, far simpler level, in certain phrases such as: “looking through the pane” where the pane of glass also can bring up the idea of physical or emotional pain.
The tension between the levels of meaning within a text such as the Qu’ran produces insights in the reader according to his/her capacity to understand. When absorbed simultaneously the reader can see further ranges of significance until the stage could be reached when he/she also finds understanding beyond verbalization. Socratic dialogue, Zen stories and the tales of Nasrudin are examples of other instrumental texts.
The Qu’ran refers to Old Testament narratives and prophets such as Joseph, Jacob, Abraham, and Moses and New Testament figures such as Mary, Zachariah and Jesus. But, as Donner points out,  “They are told by the Qur’an not because they relate particular, unique episodes in the history of mankind or of a chosen people, but because they offer diverse examples illustrating the basic Qur’anic truths … The lesson of every prophet is that there is an eternal moral choice – the choice between good and evil, Belief and unbelief – faced by all people from Adam on in more or less the same form, and hence simply repeated generation after generation …The apostles and prophets are not, in the Quranic presentation, successive links in a chain of historical evolution, each with a unique role in the story of the community’s development, but merely repeated examples of an eternal truth, idealized models to be emulated.”  (Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, Prof. Fred Donner.)  Their historical significance is of no importance, their stories are crafted deliberately as examples of the ‘perfect’ man – to be understood as a mathematical formula might be, a model presented as both an example to emulate and proof that it can be done.
Illuminated manuscript: the first surah of the Koran
The seven verses of Al-Fatiha, the first sura
of the Qur'an.
The first audiences of the Qur’an were not unsophisticated linguists; these people were passionate about composing both poetry and prose; they excelled in oratory, diction and eloquence. The Arabic language was their pride and joy and they vied with each other in their ability to be fluent and eloquent speakers at competitive events for poetry and oration. Their stories told of their adventures and their valor in warfare, of their amorous exploits and extolled the virtues of their women. Like the ancient Greeks and other oral societies of old, they committed thousands of tales and poems to memory which were passed down by oral tradition from generation to generation. Their pride in their mastery of the Arabic language knew no bounds: they referred to all non-Arabs as “Ajums” (people suffering from a speech impediment.)
After the first revelation there was a gap of two years in which Mohammad received no revelations, and he quite naturally would have doubted the veracity of the first one. After all, he was not from a distinguished clan, not a miracle worker, and not an impressive figure in the eyes of the Quraysh; what was he doing receiving the word of God? Was his arrogance even worse than their own?
Then a second vision occurred, this time revealing that those who experience the care of God have a duty to others “… one who asks for help – do not turn him away;” (The Qur’an 93.10) and Mohammad was clearly instructed to proclaim God’s message to the Quraysh: “And the grace of your lord – proclaim!” (The Qur’an 93.11) Thus Mohammad became a Messenger whose duty it was to remind his people of what they had forgotten in both religious and social terms.  
The prophet received revelations for 23 years until his death in 632.

The Messenger

Mohammad never thought nor claimed to be inventing a new religion. He never sought power nor took advantage of his situation or status:
 “I am nothing but a warner and a herald of glad tidings unto people who will believe.” (The Qur’an 7:188)
 “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” (The Qur’an 2.256),
and again,
“But if they turn away from thee, O Prophet, remember that thy only duty is a clear delivery of the message entrusted to thee.” (The Qur’an 16.82)
From the second revelation until his death he maintained a singleness of purpose as a Messenger of God to convey and carry out His wishes. He was tasked to restore the original monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham and other prophets whose messages had become misinterpreted or corrupted over time. His revelations confirmed that the God of the “People of the Book” was the one and only Allah, God of all humanity, and that people should honor Him and only Him in life and deed. The Qur’an (42.13) says :  “[God] has established for you the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus.”
As Reza Aslan notes, it is not surprising that: “There are striking similarities between the Christian and Qur’anic description of the Apocalypse, the Last Judgment, and the paradise awaiting those who have been saved.” But he points out that “These similarities do not contradict the Muslim belief that the Qur’an was divinely revealed, but they do indicate that the Quaranic vision of the Last Days may have been revealed to the pagan Arabs through a set of symbols and metaphors with which they were already familiar, thanks in some part to the wide spread of Christianity in the region.” (No god but God, The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan.)
Koran manuscript from the 7th century
Qur’an manuscript from the 7th century CE, written
on vellum in the Hijazi script.
Just as the first followers of Jesus did not consider themselves members of a new religion, neither did the initial “believers” close to Mohammad.  The group included former pagans, Jews and Christians: monotheists who saw themselves as people trying to live in accordance with God’s rules and law. According to Fred Donner: “Mohammed built a movement of devout spiritualists from many faiths who shared a few core beliefs: God was one, the end of the world was near, and the truly religious had to live exemplary lives rather than merely pay lip service to God’s laws. It was almost a century after Mohammed founded his “community of believers” and launched the great Islamic conquest that his followers started to define their beliefs as a distinct religious faith.” (Muhammad and the Believers, Fred Donner.)
Mohammad was a gentle and contemplative man, he had no real status within the Quraysh and was not of the stature that the Arab world would expect for a Prophet. As Karen Armstrong and others have noted, he was not a violent man but faced a violent, barbaric, corrupt, greedy and contemptuous world that he understood would destroy itself unless it changed. “Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia. He realized that Arabia was at a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.”
Those close to Mohammad were the first to believe in his revelations. Ali, who was taken in by Mohammad when his father, Abu Talib, was in financial distress, was the first; then Zayd, who remained at his side, although he had been a Syrian slave until he was given his freedom by Mohammad; the merchant Abu Bakr was the third to join the believers. He had a reputation for kindness and honesty and once he joined Mohammad others who knew him did the same.
The Messenger’s immediate goal was to bring the message of Allah to his own tribe, and many of the revelations were extremely difficult for the Quraysh to adopt. Not only had they to reject all their idols but their conduct had to change entirely – they had to submit their own will to the will of Allah


The Night Journey

In many traditional teaching stories there comes a point at which the protagonist, having gone through numerous hardships, continues to be faced with so many obstacles, he or she feels that “all is lost” then a breakthrough – psychological or circumstantial – occurs. People working creatively on a challenging task of any kind have frequently reported experiencing despair prior to a breakthrough. It was so with Muhammed when in 619 the “year of sadness” he lost not only his wife of 25 years, Khadija, but also his uncle, and protector, the tribal chief Abu Talib. He was not only devastated but found himself in an extremely precarious situation. According to Reza Aslan “The results were immediate. Muhammad was openly abused on the streets of Mecca. He could no longer preach or pray in public. When he tried to do so, one person poured dirt over his head, and another threw a sheep’s uterus at him.
After his first revelation, Khadija’s elderly cousin Waraqa had warned Mohammad that his task would not be easy and that the Quraysh would eventually expel him from Mecca. Mohammad had been dismayed at hearing this then, but almost seven years later, it looked inevitable. His message was dividing the families of Mecca, appealing above all to the young. The Believers were in essence removing themselves from the traditions of the tribe. Because Mohammad and his followers were seen to be undermining the rituals and values upon which the Quraysh religious and economic foundation depended, a devastating boycott was put upon the whole tribe of Hashim to try to starve the Believers out of Mecca. It seemed inevitable that he and his followers would have to take steps unheard of in the Arab world: they would have to leave their city, their tribe, their clan, leave their family ties and possessions and go off into the desert to establish a new community.
Muhammad must have felt that he had come to the end of his resources. He was still grieving for Khadijah; his position in Mecca was desperately precarious; and after preaching for seven years, he had made no real headway. Yet at this low point of his career, he had the greatest personal mystical experience of his life.”  (Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, Karen Armstrong.) It appears then that at night he was awakened by the Angel Gabriel and conveyed miraculously to the holy city of the Jews and Christians – the Qur’an refers only obliquely to this vision:
“Limitless in His glory is He who transported His servant by night from the Inviolable House of Worship (al masjid al-haram) to the Remote House of Worship (al-masjid al-aqsa) – the environs of which We had blessed – so that We might show him some of Our symbols (ayat).” (Qu’ran 17:1) Jerusalem is not mentioned by name, but later tradition associated the “Remote House” with the holy city of the “People of the Book”.
Later Muslims, starting with Ibn Ishaq’s eighth-century biography of Mohammad, began to piece together all the fragmentary references to create a coherent narrative.  Influenced perhaps by the stories told by Jewish mystics of their ascent through the seven heavens to the throne of God, they imagined their prophet making a similar spiritual flight. According to the historian Tabari, Mohammad told his companions that he had once been taken by the angels Gabriel and Michael to meet his “fathers”: Adam (in the first heaven) and Abraham (in the seventh), and that he also saw his “brothers”: Jesus, Enoch, Aaron, Moses, and Joseph. (Social Origins Of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse, Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari, Ta’rikh ar Rasul wa’l Muluk, Muhammad A. Bamyeh)
Ibn Ishaq presents the event as a spiritual experience. He tells of Aisha, the prophet’s wife and daughter of Abu Baker as saying, “The Prophet’s body stayed where it was, but God transported his spirit by night.” Later historians like Al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir describe it as a physical journey, which many Muslims prefer to believe.
Whatever one’s interpretation, the Night Journey is important. From his youth, the Prophet had been a unifier. The historian Ibn Ishaq, in a memorable story, tells of a reconstruction of the Ka’ba when Mohammad was a boy. A quarrel broke out between the Meccan clans as to which clan should set the Black Stone in place. The solution was to ask the first person who entered the Sanctuary from outside to be the judge. The young Mohammad was the first to do so. He put the stone on to a heavy cloth and had all the clan elders take part of the cloth to raise it and thus share in the task equally.
Now, not only did this mystical experience prepare the Prophet for the Hijra but, more importantly, from then on it is undeniable that “[Mohammad] goes away from tribalism, and finishes not with the tribe but with an embrace of humanity, and an abandonment of the tribal spirit and a reaching out to others. That is the theological meaning of what’s happening.” (Karen Armstrong, PBS “Muhammad”.) 
Mohammad, the last of the Prophets, was tasked to unite not only the Arab tribes, but, as he proclaimed again and again, anyone who believes in the One True God. Anyone can enter into a new community of unity between themselves and a unity with Him. “[God] has established for you the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus.” And “Believers, Jews, Sabaeans or Christians— whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right—shall have nothing to fear or to regret” (Sura 2, 62 the Qur’an).
The record of this Night Journey experience inspired generations of mystics to seek a similar experience of divinity. “It kept the religion open to the mystics, the Sufis, who followed in the steps of Mohammad, men such as al-Ghazzali, Ibn Arabi, Sidi Belhassan and Rumi Mevlana, who for generations would explode the stuffy legalism that threated to constrict Islam and recharge the creed with light, love and a divine scent that came not from this world.” (The Prophet Muhammad, Barnaby Rogerson.)  These savants and saints would inspire the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and beyond.
The first 4 verses of Al-Alaq of the Koran
The first four verses (ayat) of Al-Alaq, the 96th chapter
(sura) of the Qur’an.

The Hijra

The Hijra, as the migration from Mecca to an area called Yathrib (later Medina) is known, took place at night and was a clandestine operation. Sons and daughters left their family homes for a week-long journey through the barren wilderness. The old man Waraqa’s warning had proved correct.
Upon arrival Mohammad allowed his camel to select a place for the first masjid (place for prostration in prayer to Allah, which would later become a mosque) so as not to give any preference to anyone’s choice. This small group of about 70 Believers became the first of a new kind of community (Ummah), one whose establishment was commemorated many years later by a uniquely Muslim calendar. That year, 622 AD, became known as the year 1 AH (After Hijra) and at that time the oasis of Yathrib then became celebrated as Medinat an-Nabi, “The City of the Prophet” – Medina.
“Unlike Jesus or the Buddha, who seem to have been purely spiritual leaders with no temporal responsibilities whatever, Mohammad found himself now head of state,” author Karen Armstrong points out. “Having transferred the Muslim families from Mecca to Medina, he now had to make sure they could survive there.” Establishing the community in Yadith was not going to be easy and Mohammad and his Believers were pushed into conflict with the Quraysh, when desperation forced some believers to send out a ghazu raid to disrupt and loot Quraysh caravans. Unfortunately, this occured during the sacred month, so it galvanized the Quraysh and resulted in the Battle of Badr in 624 CE. A thousand Quraysh, some on horseback, met the smaller Muslim group, but the latter although poorly equipped, were highly motivated and won.
The Prophet's Mosque in Medina
Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, at sunset.

Prisoners of War

The Prophet instructed that Prisoners of War should be treated as if they were family members.
He favored freedom after restitution.
Those who could not pay monetary restitution were asked to teach ten individuals to read and write. 
According to Cherif Bassiouni of DePaul University (Chicago, IL) this is the first time in recorded history that POWs were treated humanely as a policy.
The Quraysh attacked at the Battle of Uhud two years later. This resulted in approximately seventy of the 700 believers killed and those taken prisoner by the Quraysh were tortured and mutilated. In the fifth year after the Hijra a third major confrontation occurred, The Battle of Khandq (The Trench). This time the believers took the advice of a Persian and dug a trench along the side of the city most vulnerable to attack. The episode resulted in a victory for the Muslims without a battle actually being fought. The Quraysh, who had never encountered such a situation in battle, were unable to cross it and eventually turned back, defeated.
The community of Believers expanded rapidly since anyone from any culture, race or tribe could join the Ummah by simply declaring: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger.” As head of the Ummah, Mohammad undertook the protection of every member. Here there were no class distinctions; the value of one man was not higher than another’s. Mohammad urged against the traditional tribal Law of Retribution towards forgiveness: “The retribution for an injury is an equal injury, but those who forgive the injury and make reconciliation will be rewarded by God” (The Qur’an 42:40).
Usury was forbidden and taxes were replaced by a tithe called Zakat whereby everyone gave according to his means to provide care for the less fortunate: “True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the East or the West – but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance – however much he himself may cherish it - upon his kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [the truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God.” (The Qur’an 2:177)
Women’s rights and privileges were foremost in Mohammad’s struggle for social and economic egalitarianism. Here are some of the areas addressed:
  • The Qur’an (in 33.35) emphasizes the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God in all but physical strength, which men should use to provide for women.
  • Mohammad said: “Women are the twin-halves of men.”
  • He changed the laws of inheritance so that women could inherit and maintain their own wealth and their husband’s in the event of his death.
  • Women could now keep their marriage dowries as their own personal property, even if they became divorced.
  • For the first time he gave women the right to divorce their husbands if they feared cruelty or ill-treatment. (4:128).
  • For the first time he limited the number of wives a man could have. He accepted that men should be able to have up to four wives, with one proviso: “only if you can treat them all equally” (The Qur’an 4:3).
  • He did not allow women to have more than one husband. The scholar Reza Aslan describes this step as one that was necessary to ensure the survival of the community at Yathrib, which, after war with the Quraysh, resulted in hundreds of widows and orphans who needed to be provided for and protected.
  • The tradition of women wearing a veil was borrowed from the upper classes of Iranian and Syrian women and used by Mohammad’s wives as an identifier and for their protection. Though modesty was required of all believers, during the Prophet’s lifetime only his wives wore a veil (Hijab).
  • As Leila Ahmed and others have observed, nowhere in the Qur’an is the term Hijab applied to any other women.
Muslim population in the world by percentage of each countries population
By the year 630 AD Mohammad had become the powerful leader of an expanding community and was able to lead 10,000 Believers back to Mecca for the Hajj, a pilgrimage that remains a cornerstone of the spiritual life of Muslims. There the same people who had tried to murder him now offered him the keys to the Ka’ba unconditionally and without a fight. From that time on he was generally accepted by the faithful as the true, final Prophet of God and continued to lead his community both spiritually and in earthly matters until his death in 632

The Community of Believers

Just as the first followers of Jesus did not think of themselves as part of a new religion, the original community around Mohammad did not either, but rather one akin to the Hanifs – they sought the pure form of monotheism and called themselves the “Believers” (mu’minum). Allah was the God of the Jews and the Christians. According to Prof. Donner, the Qur’an uses mu’minum to describe the early community around Mohammad far more frequently than it does the term Muslim. “A number of Qur’anic passages make it clear that the word mu’min and muslim, although evidently related and sometimes applied to one and the same person, cannot be synonyms. For example, Q 49:14 states, ‘The Bedouins say: ‘We Believe’ (aman-na). Say [to them]: ‘You do not Believe; but rather say, ‘we submit’ (aslam-na), for Belief has not yet entered your hearts.’” (Muhammad and the Believers ) Here belief seems to mean something more advanced than “submission” (islam) which was perhaps a first step in the journey.
These Believers differentiated themselves from polytheism in all its forms. The one belief that there is only one God was crucial. Thus Christians who believed in the Trinity would be excluded: “Those who say that God is the third of three, disbelieve; there is no god but the one God …” (Q 5:73). Hence, for example, Christians from communities who had originally fled persecution in Byzantium for refusing to believe in the Trinity were certainly welcome, and we know that Jews were, too. Christians who followed the Gospels, Jews who obeyed the laws of the Torah and converts from paganism who obeyed the injunctions of the Qur’an would all be included. 
This ecumenical community was perhaps easier to achieve since the majority in the community would have been illiterate, and most likely only the most basic ideas were held between them. “It is fair to assume that most of the early Believers probably knew only the most basic and general religious ideas we today can find articulated in some detail in the Qur’an. That God was one, that the Last Day was a fearful reality to come (and perhaps to come soon), that one should live righteously and with much prayer, and that Muhammad was the man who, as God’s apostle or prophet, was guiding them in these beliefs.” (Muhammad and the Believers, Fred M. Donner).
Arabic calligraphy: There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.
The Islamic creed (Shahadah), written in Arabic. The
Shahadah is the Muslim declaration of belief in the
oneness of God and acceptance of Mohammad
as God’s prophet. The Sunni declaration reads: There
is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is his messenger.
Foremost the community strove to live a pious life. They saw this life as a preparation in a sense for the Last Day or Day of Judgment; it should be lived in obedience to God’s word as now laid out in the revelations of Mohammad. They believed that throughout man’s history God has from time to time revealed his intentions to a series of messengers or prophets of whom Mohammad was the last. Their steps towards inner purity included prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. Distractions from the path of piety could include even family: “wealth and sons are the ornaments of the nearer life; but enduring works of righteousness are better before your Lord…” (Q 18:46), a passage that is somewhat reminiscent of a saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas. In another passage the Qur’an appears to contradict it: “O you who Believe, do not forbid the good things that God has allowed you,” (Q 5:87) but the passage goes on to say: “nor go to extremes, for God does not love those who go to extremes.” Their piety was to be always with them as a source of balance and harmony, part of their everyday life. They were to be: “In the world, not of the world.”

After the Prophet’s Death

In the last years of his life Mohammad solidified his military and political situation.  Following the conquest of Mecca in 630 he no longer needed to make alliances with pagan communities in order for the community of Believers to survive and grow. Now tribes wanted to become allies, and could do so once they declared their belief in the one true and only God and contributed taxes as a token of their commitment. So the community grew in size and complexity, spreading from western Arabia as far as Yemen in the South, to the East and throughout much of northern Arabia as well.
The history of the collection and codification of the text of the Qur’an is confusing and contradictory. According to traditional scholars such as the late Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, Selections from the Koran, Mohammad related his revelations verbatim to Zayd or an available scribe. “The order in which the verses were to stand was arranged by the Prophet Mohamed himself, so that at the time of his demise the entire Koran was in complete written form.” The verses were memorized by the believers and collected into a single volume about six months after his death. Other sources suggest that the recitations were stored in the chest of the companions, and parts of it were written on the leathery sheets, white stones, palm’s sheets and ostrich bones.
Photo of an 11th century Koran
11th Century North African Qur’an in the British Museum.
Others disagree, and their researches indicate that Mohammad’s revelations were not gathered into the single source we know today as the Qur’an until after his death. One historical tradition holds that the prophet dictated some revelations to Zayd bin Thaabit and other scribes, while others were remembered and repeated by his closest followers who learned them by heart. Shortly after the Prophet died in 632, Arab tribes revolted against the State of Medina. After the bloody Battle of Yamamah in which a large number of those who had committed the Qur’an to memory perished, recording became a more urgent task. The Caliph Abu Bakr assigned the task to Zayd, who, it is said, collected the revelations “from pieces of papyrus, flat stones, palm leaves, shoulder blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather and wooden boards, as well as from the hearts of men.”
It is possible that the documentation of Mohammad’s revelations may not at the time have been seen as the most important activity, because for them, as for many early monotheistic communities, time was running out: the Day of Judgment was approaching, so spreading the crucial tenet of salvation, “there is no God but God,” may well have been seen as their primary concern and duty. Within ten years of their Prophet’s death the Believers had spread their idea of monotheism to Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, moving over the next three decades into parts of Europe, North Africa and Central Asia.
The still prevalent idea of Islam being a religion of violence dates from the Middle Ages when the conflict between the West and East and invasions such as the Crusades produced vicious polemics against Islam.
Archaeological evidence challenges the view that Islam’s expansion was primarily by the sword: many churches, some still standing today, were built in lands whose occupation by Islamic activists pre-date their construction. Scholars point out that if Islam’s goal was to eradicate all other existing faiths in favor of forced submission to their own, these places of worship would have been destroyed. On the contrary, the evidence shows that in assuming control of towns and villages a peaceful approach of integration was the preferred method by which the Believers’ message was spread. Communities were adjured to live sufficiently righteous lives and accept the “oneness of God” and to pay taxes to the Umma.  Known to the Believers as the “people of the book” adherents to other monotheisms were allowed to maintain their own faith without fear of persecution.
Arabic Koran with Persian translation
Arabic Qur’an with Persian translation from the Ilkhanid Era.
By the time of the third Caliph Uthman (644 - 656) differences in reading the Qur’an in the many dialects of the Arabic language became troublesome, and he was urged to “save the Muslim ummah before they differ about the Qur’an.” Uthman asked a team of companions led by Zayd to collect and compare all available copies and oral versions of the revelations and to prepare a single, unified text. Copies were sent to the main provinces and people were told to burn earlier versions in order to eliminate variations or differences, though many, including key people, refused to do so.
The new young Believers and people in these new communities had no memory of the Prophet himself, so piety became routine and less personal and guidelines needed to be standardized and written down. Eventually about seventy-five to one hundred years after the Prophet’s death the community members started to identify themselves as a different religion. They became Muslims.
During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication and the hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad.
To decide which of the sayings and deeds were authentic hundreds of thousands of sayings and stories ascribed to the Prophet were gathered together. Scholars such as Imam Bokari, Ibn Rustam and Asim Ibn Ali spent decades investigating and testing texts for accuracy. Bokari reviewed over 600,000 entries, of which he selected as incontestably correct only 5,000. Those that were deemed by these scholars as authentic were collected and called Hadiths or Traditions. Like The Gospel of Thomas, some of the sayings of the Prophet give us insight into the man and his teaching. Here are some examples from an authoritative collection by Baghawi of Herat in modern Afghanistan, from his Mishkat Al-Masabih:
“Speak to everyone in accordance with his degree of understanding.”
“I order you to assist any oppressed person, whether he is a Moslem or not.”
“Do you think you love your Creator? Love your fellow-creature first.”
“Those who are crooked, and those who are stingy, and those who like to recount their favors upon others cannot enter Paradise.”
"He is not a perfect believer, who goes to bed full and knows that his neighbor is hungry.”
“By the One who holds my soul in His hand, a man does not believe until he loves for his neighbor or brother what he loves for himself.”
“You ask me to curse unbelievers. But I was not sent to curse.”
“My back has been broken by ‘pious’ men.”
“Desire not the world, and God will love you. Desire not what others have, and they will love you.”
 “Do not ask for authority, for if you are given it as a result of asking you will be left to deal with it yourself; but if you are given it without asking, you will be helped in undertaking it.”
“Treat this world as I do, like a wayfarer; like a horseman who stops in the shade of a tree for a time, and then moves on.”
“Trust in God – but tie your camel first.”
“Die before your death.”
“The ink of the learned is holier than the blood of the martyr.”
“Unto every one of you have We appointed a different law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but He willed it otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ (Qur’an 5:48).”


The Prophet said: “There will be a time when knowledge is absent.”
Ziad son of Labid said: “How could knowledge become absent, when we repeat the Koran, and teach it to our children, and they will teach it to their children, until the day of requital?”
The Messenger answered: “You amaze me, Ziad, for I thought that you were the chief of the learned of Medina. Do the Jews and the Christians not read the Torah and the Gospels without understanding anything of their real meaning
(Caravan of Dreams by Sayed Idries Shah).

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