Lecture 13: The Prophet Muhammad and the Politics of Revelation

In the West we are not accustomed to seeing Islam as part of a larger Mediterranean world. The religious and political conflicts of the last 1400 years have encouraged westerners to see Islam as something strange, different, and dangerous. The west has cultivated a long tradition of enmity and mistrust, or as The Song of Roland puts it, “Christians are right; Muslims are wrong.” Of course, the misunderstanding and mistrust between the West and Islam has been mutual, as Muslims have long cultivated their own silly ideas about the relative merits of Jews, Christians, and those peoples without the good sense to believe in the one true God. In this lecture and the next we will try to look past this history of enmity and mutual incomprehension and will consider both Islam and the states that accompanied its rise in terms of empire building. We have seen many peoples rise up and build empires in the Mediterranean. This time a new people enter the world stage, the Arabs, and although their empire was slightly different from the others that came before, it was an empire, nonetheless.
In order to understand how and why Islam rose to the heights that it did, we must consider the Near East’s historical situation in the sixth century. The Byzantine and Sasanian empires had been locked in a long struggle throughout the century, and it was not until the great victories of Heraclius in the seventh century that Byzantium could claim victory. This battle was merely the last in a long conflict between Rome and Persia, but with Byzantium’s final victory both powers lay exhausted. The course of this conflict suggests some themes for understanding the wars that would follow. Both powers represented dramatically different cultural traditions. The Byzantines spoke Greek and cultivated Hellenistic culture, whereas the Sasanians spoke Persian and cultivated ancient Persian traditions. To these basic cultural differences we must add a strong religious rivalry, as Byzantium was the great Christian power and the Sasanians were Zoroastrians. Thus, before Islam arrived religious belief had already become a political issue in what we call the Middle East.
The politico-religious conflict between these two empires was rooted, in addition, in trade rivalry. The Byzantines and Sasanians competed fiercely for strategic areas such as Armenia and Mesopotamia in the North. However, growing trade with China and India also pulled both powers south, as a desire to tax the lucrative trade in Chinese silk, Indian spices, and Arabian incense increased competition. Arabia occupied a strategic position with respect to this oriental trade, and both great powers enter into alliances with various local powers in order to gain control. The Byzantines allied with a Christian kingdom on the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula called Axum, while the Sasanians set up protectorates over tribes located around Oman. In 525, the Byzantines induced the kingdom of Axum to attack another kingdom in Yemen called Himyar, in order to control access to the Red Sea. In 575, however, the Sasanians ousted the Axumites from Yemen at the Himyari’s invitation and set up a Sasanian province. Later, between 611 and 620, the Sasanians launched the last of their great wars against Byzantium and enjoyed early success, taking much of Anatolia, and all of Syria and Egypt. In 628, however, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeated the Sasanians and put a friendly king on the throne.
My discussion of the Byzantine-Sasanian conflict is meant to show that although Arabia was on the Mediterranean World’s margins, it was not isolated from political and cultural currents of the time. Economic and political developments in the north affected life on the peninsula, as trade was an important factor in the local economy. Moreover, religious influences from both empires extended deeply into Arabia. Christianity extended its reach around Yemen and Oman up Arabia’s eastern coast and enjoyed significant influence among northern Arabian tribes that moved along the borders of Syria and Mesopotamia. Judaism also extended deeply into Arabia, as Jewish communities appeared on the Red Sea coast, including the important towns of Khaybar and Yathrib; the latter is today known as Medina. Zoroastrianism did not reach as deeply into Arabia as Judaism and Christianity, but the religion did have followers in eastern Arabia and Oman. Thus, by the seventh century, significant monotheistic communities existed in Arabia that had strong contacts to the north’s religious and political traditions.
Having connected Arabia to both the Byzantine and Sasanian traditions, we now need to turn our attention to Arabia. Here, two issues are important. First, in addition to the monotheistic traditions I have just discussed, Arabia also hosted a variety of animist traditions, many of which dated back to the ancient Babylonians. Significantly for the history of Islam animism’s strongholds were in central and western Arabia, particularly in towns such as Taif and Mecca. These towns were holy places, boasting harams, or sanctuaries, in which all fighting was forbidden. In Mecca, for example, the haram was based around the Kaaba, a giant cube-shaped structure, inside which was a meteoric rock that the locals worshipped to gain divine favor. Taif and Mecca’s religious roles made them important religious and economic centers: since fighting was forbidden, merchants could safely engage in trade there. Thus, pilgrimage routes also became highways for trade and religion. The second issue is geographic: Arabia is full of marginal agricultural lands, which meant there were few large cities and most people were nomads, living in tribes and moving about the countryside in search of food. These tribal bands were usually outside any effective political control and engaged in periodic raiding to augment the meager incomes they derived from herding and trading. Thus, when theses people were finally organized under Islam, Arabia had a ready supply of people who could live off the land and knew how to fight.
Thus far I have been fleshing out the contours of the world into which the Prophet Muhammad was born. Now we will turn to the Prophet himself and his surroundings. Unfortunately, not much is known about Muhammad’s early life. He was born Muhammad ibn Abd Allah around A.D. 570 in the western Arabian town of Mecca. The Arabs were organized tribally at the time and Muhammad stemmed from a minor clan, the Hashim, in a moderately important tribe, the Quraysh, which controlled the area around Mecca. The Hashim were essentially a middling group of traders, not too wealthy, but not too far down the social scale either. The same is true of Muhammad’s maternal background. His mother stemmed from the Zuhra, which was another middling group. Muhammad’s position within the Arabian tribal structure will be crucial for Islam’s early years. Orphaned at a young age, he entered the household of his paternal uncle Abu Talib, who was also the head of the Hashim clan. A close relationship seems to have developed between Muhammad and his uncle, since no fundamental break occurred between them, even though Abu Talib refused to convert to Islam. Mecca was, of course, both a religious and mercantile center. The Quraysh were guardians of the Kaaba shrine and engaged in trading operations. Taken together, these things indicate that Mecca had much contact with other parts of Arabia and that many ideas floated around the region at the time.
Muhammad was, apparently, a promising youth who played an active role in Mecca’s religious and economic life. When he reached adulthood he became a local merchant. In this he was helped by a marriage to a wealthy widow, who was named Khadijah bin Huwaylid. Khadijah was quite a bit older than Muhammad and had her own merchant business, trading with places as far away as Syria. Her strong character and independent wealth would be important later. Although Muhammad started out as any young man of his generation, he was also more inward looking than the average contemporary, as is evidenced by his repeated withdrawals for long periods of meditation. In 610, during one such period of isolation, Muhammad began to have visions that he interpreted as revelations from God. Initially, he was so terrified by the messages that he rejected them and sought assurance from his first wife, Khadijah. The messages continued, however, and Muhammad slowly came not only to accept them but also to see himself as God’s messenger. Muhammad repeated these revelations to his early followers, and they were eventually collected in the Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam. Thus, for all Muslims the Koran does not merely represent the word of God; it is the word of God.
God’s message to Muhammad was consistent with a long tradition of holy revelations in the Middle East. Much like early Hebrew prophecy it was based on the belief that only through wholesale devotion to the one God could salvation and eternal life be gained. The Koran is, therefore a vision of God’s essential being and prescribes the proper practices for worshiping him. Some Koranic revelations described the unitary nature of God and his omnipotence as creator of the universe and everything in it. Other revelations warned of the Last Judgment, promising that the righteous would go to Heaven and those who had done evil would go to Hell. Still other revelations laid out a plan for how to follow a righteous path. The right path began with worshipping only the one God and rejecting all false idols. Those on the path prayed regularly, gave alms, and cared especially for the poor, widows, and orphans. To be on the path one also had to observe strict modesty between the sexes and practice humility in all one’s daily affairs. Other revelations also retold stories of the earlier prophets, including Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, all of whom brought the one God’s message to their peoples.
In trying to understand Muhammad’s early success, we need to recognize that his message was couched in language that was immediately comprehensible to many of his fellow Arabs. The emphases on monotheism, final judgment, Heaven and Hell were already flowing through Arabia thanks to the influence of other monotheistic religions. Thus, in this sense, Muhammad continued and perhaps refined the basic messages of his religious predecessors. Within his tribal community of the Quraysh, however, Muhammad’s message was a disaster, as they saw it as an attack on the very foundations of their lives. Muhammad told them that their animism and polytheism was wrong, that they were all going to Hell, that they were less modest and charitable than they ought to have been, and that they were impious at best. Muhammad even went so far as to criticize his own pagan ancestors, claiming that they were going to Hell, too. The Quraysh could not stand for this.
Muhammad’s tribe did not doubt that he was some kind of seer. There was a long tradition in the region of people being overcome by natural forces. But Muhammad’s talk of being the sole God’s messenger was greeted mostly with disbelief. Muhammad began preaching his ideas in 613, and there was even some interest in his ideas among the younger generation. Initially the tribe was willing to tolerate Muhammad’s peculiarity. Nor was there much that they could do against Muhammad, since the Hashim clan was required to protect one of its own. Nonetheless, Muhammad soon became a political liability. Each tribe in Arabia had its own special ideas or practices that distinguished it from all other tribes. Thus, for Muhammad to attack the Gods the tribe worshipped was an attack on the tribe’s identity, on that which made the tribe a tribe. It was only a matter of time before the tribe defended itself forcefully. Slowly Muhammad’s situation within Mecca worsened, and Abu Talib, who had been protecting his nephew as a member of the Hashim clan, eventually could no longer do so.
Around 620 Muhammad gained some followers in the city of Yathrib, which is about 250 miles north of Mecca. Yathrib had the advantage for Muhammad that it was religiously divided. There were many pagans and a number of Jewish tribes in the city, and they had never been able to get along. In 622, a delegation of Muslims invited the Prophet to their city to help arbitrate local disputes. Muhammad sent his followers to safety in the city and finally settled there later the same year. Yathrib, thus, came to be known as Medina, or the Prophet’s city. This move from Mecca to Medina is called the hijra among Muslims, and it is a moment significant enough in the history of Islam to mark the beginning of the Islamic calendar. For our purposes, the hijra is important because it marks the beginning of Islam as a political movement. Now Muhammad and his followers were no longer a beleaguered band of outcasts, but had become an autonomous politico-religious community.
Muhammad spent the next ten years in Medina consolidating his power both within the town and around it. Muhammad quelled the rivalries between tribal groups within the town, and also brought the town’s Jewish community under his control. Some Jews supported Muhammad, but others opposed him. Those who opposed him suffered harsh punishments, suffering exile, loss of property, or even slavery and execution. Muhammad’s most determined opponents were, however, his tribal brethren in Mecca. For the next decade, Mecca and Medina fought to gain influence over the surrounding towns and nomadic tribes in Arabia. Mecca seemed to have the advantage at the start, as its merchant trade brought it greater wealth. Muhammad equaled the competition, however, by launching a series of devastating raids against Mecca’s merchant caravans, taking booty and hostages. The conflict’s initial phase was, therefore, indecisive, as Muhammad’s forces clashed with those of Mecca in 624, 625, and 627. Muhammad negotiated a truce with Mecca in 628, but this was no more than a breather.
The truce with Mecca was important, because it allowed the Prophet to defeat resistance in other areas, such as in Khaybar, where the city’s large Jewish population opposed Muhammad. Once Muhammad had pacified Khaybar he returned his attention to Mecca, which submitted to Muhammad’s forces relatively easily in 630. Muhammad was magnanimous in victory, sparing himself future unrest by giving the remaining Quraysh high positions in his new state. While Muhammad was doing this he also worked to bring other towns and nomadic tribes into his orbit. He convinced many of them to join through a combination of his religious message, promises of material rewards, and occasionally outright violence. With Mecca and these local tribes behind him Muhammad then turned on the major town of Taif and the remaining unconverted tribes. Taif’s defeat made the handwriting on the wall clear to all, and now the remaining independent tribes and towns sent delegations to Medina to negotiate their submission. When Muhammad died in 632, his politico-religious community extended over all of western Arabia, and important connections with communities in Hijaz, Nejd, Oman, and Yemen had already been made. For the most part, Muhammad expanded his empire through persuasion rather than force. After his death, however, that would change, as Arab armies poured out of the Arabian Peninsula and struck down the Mediterranean’s aging empires. We will discuss these developments next time.

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