The Origins of Islam
To understand the role of Mohammed in the birth of Islam, we must know some things about Arabia during the sixth and seventh centuries, A. D. The region was a province of the Persian Empire, but the people, divided into tribes and clans, were relatively independent. The religious center was Mecca (about 50 miles from the Red Sea), which was also a commercial center, between the fertile lands of Yemen to the south and Damascus to the north.
Mecca was a prosperous city and very developed culturally. Each year organized festivals lasted up to a month and included competitions of poetic recitations. The Arabs were highly appreciative of the eloquence of the participants. As in many other countries in the world, the oral transmission of traditions and culture was considerably developed. Thus the fact that Mohammed was unable to read or write in no way indicates his ignorance or lack of culture.
The region of Mecca had a relatively large Jewish population. The influence of rabbinic teaching of incidents in the Old Testament, the worship of the one true God, and the importance of regular prayer and almsgiving can be detected in the subsequent teachings of Mohammed. It has even been suggested that Mohammed was influenced in his monotheistic beliefs by a certain Abd Allah al-Abbas, also known as Abdiah ben Salem, an influential rabbi in Mecca. This, of course, is hotly denied by any Moslem. Pseudo-Christian cults were present but their doctrines and practices were far removed from those of the Christ that they professed to follow.
But Mecca was renowned as a religious center with its sanctuary, the Ka’ba, sheltering the famous Black Stone. This court was also the sanctuary for over three hundred different divinities with their statues and idolatrous objects. Idolatry, inter-tribal rivalry, and cruelty characterized the population. Into this environment, Mohammed was born in 570 A. D.
Orphaned very young, he was brought up by his uncle. He was employed by a rich widow whom he married. After her death, Mohammed had a number of wives and concubines. At the age of forty he claimed to have the first of his “revelations.” These experiences continued until his death just over twenty years later. He was essentially a man of the desert and his life is punctuated by times of solitude in the sandy wastes of Arabia, by periods of travel and, like so many of his contemporaries, by tribal wars, raiding and plundering caravans, and by the patient but implacable construction of Islam with its ramifications touching every aspect of life.
He never performed any miracles and he demanded a blind and total acceptance of his teaching; any resistance was crushed without mercy.
His enigmatic utterances, at times disarmingly wise and at other times fearfully evil, are the subject of the study of Moslem theologians who, for obvious reasons, cannot compare his with the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. These same theologians seem to make much of Christ as a great prophet but in reality relegate him to an inferior role of being the precursor of Mohammed.
He advocated the worship of one god, Allah, that his ancestors and particularly his grandfather venerated, He identified Allah with the God of Abraham. In addition, Mohammed and his followers perpetuated some of the pre-Islamic practices, such as the veneration of the Black Stone and associated pilgrimages. Historians recount that he returned to Mecca with a victorious army following his exile in Medina. At that time, he purged the Ka’ba, the sanctuary, of all its idols and gods except the Black Stone. He declared that there was no other god but Allah and that Mohammed was his prophet.
According to Moslem tradition, Mohammed received what is known as the Koran through a series of revelations given by Gabriel. Mohammed memorized these revelations and repeated them to his followers. They recorded them on various supports such as skins, bark of trees, parchments, and even animal bones. How many revelations Mohammed purportedly received is not clear, nor is the number of suras (chapters) comprising the Koran. These different recitations were collected under the heading of the Koran. Opinions varied greatly about which recitations were authentic. Within a few years after the death of Mohammed in 632 A. D., a number of different versions of the Koran existed. About twenty years after his death, his third successor, Uthman, imposed one version on all Moslems. It contained the initial invocation of Allah followed by 114 suras. It ordered the destruction of all other versions.
Moslem theologians have identified two periods in the composition of the Koran. The first period was when Mohammed was at Mecca and the second at Medina, some 250 miles to the north of Mecca. In the first period, when Mohammed seems to have enjoyed the sympathy, if not the approval of the Jewish community, much is said about peace, tolerance, and entente with the Jews and the Christians. But when Mohammed was in Medina, he had been rejected by the Jews and the language of those parts of the Koran written from that time is extremely violent and filled with hatred for the Jews. Thus the moderate Moslem and the extreme fundamentalist are able to justify totally opposed theologies from the same book.
The arrangement of the suras in the Koran is based on their length, not their chronological order. The initial chapters contain over 200 verses. Those at the end, in general, are very short, containing less than ten verses in some cases. This, of course, complicates the understanding of the texts. Over the centuries, Moslem scholars who devoted their lives to interpreting the Koran have reached varied and conflicting conclusions.