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4. Early Islamic Empire |
With all Arabia subdued Islam is set to unleash the conquest of the world

Early Islamic Empire is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 100, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The democracy of tribal life vanishes with the idols, and Muhammad becomes the equal of any potentate, holds his final pilgrimage, and dies cradled by A’isha

Early Islamic Empire - With all Arabia subdued Islam is set to unleash the conquest of the world

Early Islamic Empire - With all Arabia subdued Islam is set to unleash the conquest of the world
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, from a nineteenth engraving which appeared in The Illustrated History Of The World. Vol. One, published by Ward. Lock and Co., of London.

Mecca might be conquered, but the conquest could not be secure until al-Taif, the neighboring city to the southeast, was taken as well. It was in al-Taif that Muhammad had attempted his first “foreign” mission, only to be sent home humiliated and rejected; but now, with most of Arabia supporting him, he understandably assumed that his second attempt would surely be less onerous. He was wrong. Al-Taif proved harder to subdue than Mecca.

As his army streamed out of Mecca on the al-Taif road–twelve thousand strong, proud, confident and seemingly invincible–Abu Bakr observed that they certainly wouldn’t be beaten that day for lack of numbers. Confidently, the advance squad of Bedouin cavalry, led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, pranced into the narrow defile known as the Valley of Honein–and found themselves in a hail of arrows from the archers of al-Taif’s twenty-thousand-man defense force.

They panicked, charging back on the ranks behind them, who also tried to turn and flee. Muhammad was left shouting, “Where are you going? Come here! The Prophet of the Lord is here!” just as he had at the Battle of Uhud. (See chapter 3.) This time, however, another figure stood beside him, trying to stem the tide of men, horses and camels hurtling past. “Who are you?” bellowed Muhammad, peering through the dust and confusion. “I am your grandmother’s grandson, O Apostle of the Lord,” the stranger shouted back, and Muhammad recognized his cousin Abu Sufyan, so long his enemy and now his comrade again.

It was his Uncle Abbas who halted the rout, however. Said to have the loudest voice in Arabia, Abbas hollered loud enough to persuade about one hundred men to stand and fight, then led them back upon the enemy. Soon the whole Muslim host turned around and came screaming into the attack. Breaking through to the al-Taif camp, they gathered a vast harvest of spoils, including women, and then laid siege to the town.

This brought unexpected results. Al-Taif’s initial defenders had been the Hawazin who lived round about. One captive, an elderly woman, warned the Muslim troops, “Keep your hands off me, for I am your Prophet’s foster sister.” Alarmed, they took her before Muhammad, and he saw it was indeed Sheima, who had cared for him in his childhood among the Bedouin. As a little boy he once bit her, and she still bore on her neck the tooth marks. He presented Sheima with a handsome gift.

She was not the only one, for these were his own people, and they now not only accepted, but adulated him. His generosity became boundless. The man who led the attack on Khalid in the Valley of Honein, captive and still uncommitted to Islam, was rewarded with a huge tract of land. The recent and reluctant convert Abu Sufyan received a hundred camels, as did both his sons.

Muhammad’s veterans not unnaturally grumbled at this rewarding of enemies, while men loyal since Badr got nothing. So bitter did the animosity become that some historians suspect open rebellion broke out, during which a mob actually manhandled the Prophet. “Return my mantle,” he is recorded as shouting, “for I swear by the Lord that if the sheep and camels [taken at Honein] were as many in number as the trees of the forest, I would divide them all among you. You have not heretofore found me niggardly.” He plucked a hair from a camel: “Even to a hair like this I would keep back nothing but the fifth, and even that will I divide among you.”

This was the kind of talk they wanted to hear, and the malcontents subsided, but still al-Taif proved painfully resistant. Days passed with no indication of surrender, as flights of arrows and cascades of red-hot iron balls cut down warriors trying to breach its walls, and when Muhammad began destroying the orchards and date palms, as he had at Medina, his own commanders insisted he desist.

Finally they had to lift the siege, but al-Taif, seeing the odds it ultimately faced, began to parley. Could they keep their goddess al-Lat for three years, they petitioned, while they accustomed themselves to the new religion? The answer: No. Two years, then? No. One year? No. Six months? No–al-Lat must go forthwith. All right, but surely they need not pray five times a day? They were frightfully busy people and not very religious. Certainly they must pray, was the implacable answer–five times.

But must they really stop loaning money at interest? Yes. And refrain from intercourse with women who were not their wives or concubines? Yes. Surely the Prophet realized, they argued, that they traveled a lot, making this rule very hard. Too bad, was the reply, but they must just put up with it. Well, all right, but could the Muslims at least protect their famous forest of Wajj as a game preserve? Yes, said the Prophet, it would be preserved, and thus did al-Taif embrace Islam.

By 631, Muhammad restricted the annual Mecca pilgrimage to Muslims, and warned idolatrous Arab tribes to embrace Islam or face the Muslim sword, which meant submitting not only to a new religious system, but also to a new political order. Legal disputes must be settled according to the Qur’an, as interpreted by a resident Muslim jurist,1 and a system was established to collect the annual tax payable to Medina. This was bitterly unpopular, but the Qur’an’s ninth sura (verse 5) prescribed a bloody fate for any tribe that resisted: “Kill the polytheists wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every ambush.”2

Dread of Muslim military potential set off an avalanche of capitulation throughout the peninsula, with tribe after tribe sending envoys to Medina to submit. Even some Christians were tempted. As Nestorians, they were Persian in sympathy, but Persia was distracted by its death struggle with Byzantium. The Arab Christians feared Byzantium far more than they feared the Muslims, who for the moment let them retain their faith in return for protection money.

Muhammad, too, seemed worried chiefly about Byzantium. As early as 627, say various Muslim traditions, he dispatched emissaries to the Roman emperor Heraclius, the Persian emperor Chosroes, all their governors, and adjacent countries as well, demanding recognition as the Prophet of God. Islamic lore has much to say about the reception of such ultimatums, not all of it demonstrably accurate. Muslim legend claims, for example, that the Negus of Ethiopia embraced Islam forthwith. But Ethiopian raids against Muslim coastal tribes are known to have begun soon afterward, and Ethiopian Christians would raise an impregnable and lasting barrier against Islam.

The Byzantine governor of Egypt equivocated, remarking that he thought such a prophet was predicted as arising in Syria, not Arabia. But he sent a special gift of two slave girls, one of whom would later set off a horrendous row in the Prophet’s household. (See sidebar, page 96.) Chosroes of Persia, now facing the approach of a Roman invasion force, is said to have torn up the Prophet’s demand. “Just as his kingdom shall be torn up,” Muhammad correctly prophesied.

Accounts of the reaction of Heraclius vary. One has him telling his generals: “By God, he (Muhammad) is truly the Prophet whom we expect,” and saying, when the generals vehemently disagree, that he was only testing their Christian convictions. In another version, Heraclius immediately accepts Muhammad, and recommends that Syria and Egypt be given to Islam forthwith to avoid their inevitable conquest, but the inhabitants erupt in fury because they consider Arabs “an inferior people from an inferior country.”

A. A. Bevan, in The Cambridge Medieval History doubts the veracity of all these stories. Indeed, many later historians think the Muslim vision of world conquest emerged only after Muhammad’s death, when the Arab tribes, eager for loot and women, pushed north and were astonished to find themselves so amazingly successful. Such theories understandably appall many Muslims, because they suggest that avarice and lust, rather than zeal for Allah, account for the success of Islam.

However, at the first mention of the Muslims in Western history–a brief notice in the Greek ecclesiastical chronicler Theophanes–they do not appear as victors. Four months before the taking of Mecca, when a semi-Christian border tribe attacked Muslim emissaries, Muhammad sent a three-thousand-man punitive expedition north towards Mu‘ta, southeast of the Dead Sea. There his horrified warriors encountered something entirely new to them: a Roman legion drawn up rank upon rank, its implacable foot soldiers arrayed shield to shield, their officer cadre blazing in colorful pageantry, and with wildly plunging Arab cavalry on their flanks. Two hundred thousand men in all, says the Muslim account.

This last was certainly a vast exaggeration, but Muhammad lost two men dear to him in the next few minutes. One was Zayd, the slave given to him by Khadeja, who had served as his secretary. The other was Ja‘far, brother of his foster son Ali. It was Zayd who died first. He hamstrung his horse, making escape impossible, then with the Bedouin hurled himself at the approaching legionaries and was hacked to pieces by their short swords. Ja‘far followed him to the same fate.3 But one Muslim soldier grabbed the endangered Islamic standard and handed it to a cavalry officer he knew could command instant respect.

This was none other than Khalid ibn al-Walid, who swiftly assembled the Bedouin in defensive formation and engineered a strategic retreat to the Arabian border. Thence the survivors of Mu‘ta crept back to Medina, where crowds hurled dust at them and jeered them as “runaways” from God’s battle. They would fight again, said Muhammad, but popular contempt was not mitigated. One man is said to have skulked for months in his home, unable to face his neighbors. Islam had small room for military failure.

Within the peninsula, however, pagan tribes rapidly capitulated. The Banu Jofi were beaten into submission, but still retained an idolatrous horror of animal hearts as something accursed. Forced at sword point to eat them, they trembled, gagged them down, and became Muslim. The chief of the Banu Amr demanded to be named successor to the Prophet, and contemptuously rejected the counteroffer of a cavalry command. Striding indignantly off, he mysteriously fell dead. Gabriel got him, said the faithful.

Many tribes yielded unresisting, though some fought until they had few weapons left but clubs and rocks, and finally saw their women, children and cattle rounded up and herded back to Medina. Yemen, a center of idolatry, fell in 632, to a trick the Muslim army would use time and again. After a monthlong siege, they feigned retreat. When the defenders streamed out in pursuit, the retiring troops suddenly turned, cut them to pieces, and seized the town.

Christian tribes proved the most resistant, and not even the nearest of them, the Banu Kalb, hastened to embrace the Prophet’s message. One Banu Kalb chief accepted Islam. Another refused, but his daughter was claimed for the teeming harem of Abd al-Rahman (by then numbering sixteen wives plus concubines), and became the mother of Selama, a founding Muslim jurist. The Islamization of Christian Arabia would eventually be accomplished more by raising the offspring of Christian slave women as Muslims than by direct apostasy.

Significantly, at least two Christian tribes were allowed to retain their faith, but not to baptize their children. In the north, where the extensive Banu Bakr tribe had many Christian branches, most of them rejected Muhammad’s claims. Not all, however, and conversions were thorough. When the Banu Hanifa went over to Islam, it was instructed to destroy its church, purify the ground with special water furnished by Muhammad, and build a mosque.

From the big Christian community at Najran in the south, a bishop of the Banu Hanifa led a fourteen-man delegation to Medina. From his youth Muhammad had respected the Najran Christians for their determined refusal, a half-century before his birth, to yield to a Jewish despot. (See chapter 1.) He met the delegation in the mosque, and after ceremonial posturing on both sides, awarded them a generous treaty. On payment of a tax (a certain quantity of garments and livestock in peacetime, a certain quantity of armor and horses in wartime), their buildings, land and priests would remain unmolested.

The thought, no doubt, was that the Najran Christians and others would gradually yield to Islam. In regard to the Najrans, however, the Muslims were to be disappointed; they remained resolutely Christian. By contrast, Muslims like to tell of Adi, chief of the partly Christian Banu Tayy, near the Iraqi border, whose sister was captured in a Muslim raid. Her Christian brother, she informed Muhammad, always released women prisoners. So the Prophet did likewise. He sent her back to Adi, whom she persuaded in turn to visit the kindly prince of Medina. Adi did so, and was so impressed that he joined his faith.4

With the Banu Ghassan, the large Christian tribe in Syria and stout allies of Byzantium, the Muslims failed in their mission; in all but a few instances the tribe remained defiantly Christian.5 One exception was a chief called Farwa. To lure him back, the imperial authorities are said to have promised him a higher office if he would abjure his new faith. When Farwa refused, the Banu Ghassan crucified him–an Islamic martyr.

In another instance, the Banu Ghassan are said to have sent three delegates to Medina to discuss an alliance against Persia. All three converted, although on their return only one would admit it, and he not until several years after Muhammad’s death, with Muslim armies already moving north. One border chief embraced Islam in return for a written deed to his lands. When he told his wife, she burned the deed.

Also recorded is the case of Okeidir, a Christian ruler captured while hunting wild cows. Brought to Medina wearing a golden cross and regal gold-embroidered brocade, Okeidir renounced the gospel, accepted the Qur’an, and surrendered his town. He was to prove a dubious convert, however. Later, on pilgrimage, he reputedly refused point blank to wear the common pilgrim garb and to treat all men as brothers. No royal personage could carry on like that, Okeidir protested, and returned to imperial territory where, he said, a king was a king.

Yet another story, probably pure legend, tells of a Christian bishop in the imperial capital itself, supposedly so impressed by Muhammad’s summons to the emperor that he changed his black robes for white and loudly proclaimed that the prophet Ahmed had at last arrived. He seems to have confused Muhammad’s rise with the promised coming of Ahmed (the Holy Spirit). The bishop’s unappreciative flock beat him up. In general, however, at Muhammad’s death Islam’s great rival seemingly remained in about the same tenuous state in Arabia as it had been at his birth.

Meanwhile, by the spring of 630, rumors abounded of a massive Byzantine army poised to attack Medina. Muhammad issued a call to arms; the Bedouin, comfortable in their newfound wealth, largely ignored him. Even Medina’s response was so feeble, says one account, that the furious Muhammad resolved to lead the army himself, and deal with backsliders on his return. He assembled a force of thirty thousand troops, marched to Tebuk near the Gulf of Aqaba at the head of the Red Sea–and found there was no Byzantine army. The rumors were false.

It was during this march that the Prophet’s foster son Ali, left in charge at Medina, arrived breathless and pleading to join the campaign. People in Medina were describing him as undependable in battle, he explained. The Prophet’s response was to gain great significance in Islam’s interminable dynastic wars: “O Ali, are you not content that you should be to me as Aaron was to Moses, save that after me there is no prophet?” This was taken by some as a clear directive for the succession.

When Muhammad returned to Medina after two months, rising dissidence became evident. A schismatic mosque had been built there, which Ali burned down. The Prophet severely censured any followers found to be selling their weapons. Abdallah ibn Ubay, the old chieftain he had supplanted at Medina who was chronically seditious, denied he was plotting a major insurrection, but Umar, deeply suspicious, repeatedly recommended his execution. Abdallah’s own son, a fervent adherent of the new faith, offered to present Muhammad with his father’s head. The Prophet refused.

Nevertheless the “Murmurers,” as the disenchanted came to be called, were vigorously denounced by Gabriel. Pacifism, Gabriel said, was not merely questionable, but an incontrovertible evil. “Do ye prefer the present life before that which is to come?” demands the Qur’an’s Sura 9:38. “If ye go not forth to war, he will punish you with a grievous punishment, and he will substitute another people for you.” Sura 9:47 adds: “If they [i.e., those who had refused Muhammad’s call] had gone forth with thee, they had only added weakness to you, and had run to and fro amongst you, stirring up sedition.”

One malingerer, the poet Ka‘b ibn al-Ashraf of the Prophet’s inner circle, was subjected to what some strict Christian groups would one day call “shunning,” which proved a terrible punishment. He had the freedom of the city, but all were commanded to ignore him. When he walked to the mosque, no one would even look at him. He threw himself before Muhammad, and the Prophet turned away. He begged his closest friend to intervene, and was ignored. So he stayed home, but had even been ordered not to speak or make love to his wife. She reported that she feared he would go blind from weeping. Yet when the chief of a nearby Christian tribe offered to take him in, Ka‘b burned the letter.

But on the fiftieth night he heard, from across the hills, a voice shouting his name. He ran towards the sound, and a man told him his punishment was over. As he walked toward the mosque, tears streaming down his face, everyone greeted him warmly, and Muhammad declared him forgiven. “This is good news,” said the Prophet. “From you or from God?” asked Ka‘b. “From God, of course,” said Muhammad. Ka‘b, his face shining, offered to give away all his property. “Keep some,” Muhammad advised. “You might need it.”

When Muhammad returned from Tebuk, he had about three years left to live, during which his wives posed a continuing problem, and his children recurring tragedy. His first wife, Khadeja, bore him six children: two sons, who died in infancy, and four daughters–Zaynab, Rokeiya, Um Kulthum and Fatima–of whom only Fatima outlived Muhammad. Sadder still, each died at some hour of his worldly triumph, so that exultation over the victory was dampened by grief over his loss.

Of the four daughters, by far the most noted for loyalty, faith, determination and intelligence was the eldest, Zaynab, who also seems the one most influenced by her mother, Khadeja.6 Khadeja urged that Zaynab be given in marriage to her favorite nephew, al-As ibn al-Rabeah, a trader widely reputed for honesty and astuteness. But he did not embrace Islam, and at the hijra he and Zaynab consequently remained in Mecca. He was equally resolute, however, in resisting the demands of the Meccans that he divorce her and marry one of their women instead. Zaynab, he said, was his wife, and he loved her dearly.

This love apparently was mutual. Al-Rabeah was captured at Badr, and to ransom him Zaynab sent the Prophet something she knew would touch his heart: a necklace given to her by her mother. Muhammad burst into tears at the sight of it, and returned al-Rabeah to Mecca, on condition that he send Zaynab to Medina. So Zaynab, now pregnant, departed for Medina in the care of her husband’s brother, but they were overtaken by a party of Meccan fanatics, led by one Hamsar, determined to bring her back. The resulting melee so terrified her that she miscarried.

Back in Mecca, however, she was secretly released by Abu Sufyan, who said Mecca had no interest in separating father and daughter.7 Later still, al-Rabeah was again captured, and again brought captive to Medina. This time, Zaynab defiantly and publicly shouted out in the mosque that she had put him under her protection. The startled Muhammad stopped the service. “Did you hear what I heard?” he asked the congregation. There was a murmur of assent. This, he declared, was his daughter’s doing, not his; however, he had no choice but to acquiesce.

So his son-in-law was freed, although Muhammad warned Zaynab not to sleep with him, because he was not a Muslim. Al-Rabeah thereupon returned to Mecca, settled his affairs, and came back to Medina as a convert. He and Zaynab lived happily ever after, though ever after was not very long; she died a year later. It was the year of the Prophet’s greatest triumph, the conquest of Mecca, and grief once more attended victory.

Similarly, after the Byzantine threat at Tebuk proved groundless, Muhammad had returned to news of the death of his fourth daughter, Um Kulthum. If he had another unwed daughter, he assured her grieving husband, Uthman, now bereaved of a wife for the second time, he would gladly give her to him. Meanwhile, only Fatima presented him with grandsons, Hassan and Hussein, and a granddaughter, Zaynab.

Muhammad’s style of living gradually rose with the fortunes of Islam, although it never approached the luxury in which his Muslims would later indulge. In the early days at Medina, said his wife A’isha, she could remember not a single meal when she had enough to eat. The family would go for months without cooked food, she said, the Prophet himself eating almost nothing for days on end because they had so little. “The food of one is enough for two,” he would say, “the food of two enough for four, and the food of four enough for eight.” Often they ate in the dark, because there was no oil for the lamps.

His wives’ apartments were little more than twelve-by-fourteen-foot huts of unburned brick, thatched with palm branches. A screen of goatskin or camel hair hung over the doorway; a simple leather mattress and pillow, stuffed with palm coir, lay on the floor; waterskins hung on the walls. Some huts had a kind of veranda. A’isha’s had a closet where the Prophet prayed, and contained his bed of teak and palm cords. Once, as he lay on it with an injured hand, the pitying Umar contrasted his crude furnishings with those of Heraclius or Chosroes. “They have their portion [reward] in this world,” Muhammad replied. When the cords left marks on his skin, a servant offered to cover them with a soft blanket. Muhammad objected that such comforts were of the world, and the world was like a tree by the wayside. It provided only brief comfort for the passerby, and would soon be left behind. When his wife Um Salema made an addition to her hut during his absence on campaign, he deplored it. “Nothing will eat up the wealth of a believer more than buildings,” he told her.8

The living conditions of his other relatives were no better. Ali, hero of so many battles, earned a living by carrying water, and his wife Fatima by grinding corn. Often exhausted, they once hesitantly approached Muhammad and asked for a captive to help with their chores. He refused. He had to think first, he said, of the poor, the “People of the Bench,” so called because they crowded the mosque, sleeping on its benches. All captives must be sold, he said, to support the poor.

He himself mended his own sandals and clothes, tended his own goats, and helped his wives with the household chores. Also, he usually dressed in plain white cotton, although on festive occasions he wore linen striped with red, gold, and yellow, and on entering Mecca at the pinnacle of his ministry, is said to have worn a black turban.

Nevertheless, as the prophet in him yielded to the warrior prince, so too did frugality yield to luxury, and equality to ostentation. Gradually but noticeably, his lifestyle changed. People must rise when he entered a room. They must address him only in low tones. They must not crowd him. They must not visit him unasked, nor stay longer than necessary, nor attempt to make light conversation with him, nor leave until dismissed. His wives must be shielded from public view, and he was exempt from the rule that there be no more than four of them. Such noise as a raucous demonstration by some Banu Tamim women seeking the release of their husbands (although entirely traditional among Arabs to this day) was irksome to him because no voice must be raised in his presence.

In later life, he paid as much as nineteen camels for a single cloak, eight gold pieces for a mantle. He drank from a crystal goblet inlaid with silver, bathed in a copper basin, and burned camphor for its sweet smell. He had, said A’isha, three delights: women, scents and food. He had become a connoisseur of fine Arab foods, with a particular passion for goat shoulder. (He once, in fact, devoured two shoulders and demanded a third. A rattled servant reminded him that a goat only had two shoulders.) In the end, he was painting his eyes with antimony, stored in a collyrium box. It made them piercing, he explained, and caused his hair to grow. A servant, Abdallah ibn Mas’ud9 was valet and butler to him–tending to his sandals and clothing, doing his wash, setting out his indispensable toothpicks, holding a screen over him when he bathed, and carrying his staff before him on ceremonial occasions.

As for actual power, as distinct from mere pomp, Muhammad by the end of his life was the equal of almost any potentate. His word commanded instant obedience. All disputes were referred to him. The armies marched only at his command, under commanders appointed solely by him. The democracy of desert tribal life had vanished with the idols.

He did not achieve such stature, of course, without firm qualities of human leadership. Aside from his gift of prophecy, he was preeminently the politician, courteous to all comers and reluctant to say no. He grabbed state visitors delightedly by the hand, and would laugh so uproariously at jokes that he had to hold his sides. Yet he possessed such a commanding mien as to inspire in strangers an awe that frequently became reverent love. And while he remorselessly hunted down his enemies, upon their capitulation he often totally forgave them.

Vengeance, so dear to the Arabs, he employed as a device–sometimes using it, more often not. In battle he was never in the forefront; rather, he was inclined to lead from behind with the maximum of personal protection. Nevertheless, he inspired his men to such unimaginable feats that the sheer momentum was to carry them across much of the known world.

His dealings with individuals inspired scores of stories, some obviously fictional, but many convincing in their simplicity. One such concerns a young girl whom he carried to Khaybar on his saddle. At one halt, she suddenly fled from him and hid her face. She had begun to menstruate for the first time, he discovered, and her blood lay on the leather. Patiently, he explained what was happening, told her to wash herself and the saddle with salt water, and gave her a necklace to assure her that she had in no way lost his respect. She lived to be an old woman, and throughout her life washed herself and nearly everything else with salt water, and was buried wearing the necklace.

There is also the story of Jabir, a poor soldier returning from Second Badr on a camel so wretched that it lagged far behind. Muhammad struck up a conversation with him. Jabir said his father had been killed at Badr, leaving him, the only son, and seven daughters. He must therefore now marry a woman of experience to raise his sisters, rather than a young damsel of his preference. Muhammad said he wanted to buy the camel. Jabir offered to give it to him. No, said Muhammad, he would buy it, and would take delivery of it in Medina, where Jabir’s wife could lay out the cushions and they could have dinner together.

“O Prophet,” responded the distraught Jabir, “I have no cushions.”

Muhammad said he would provide them, which he did. He also paid Jabir for the camel, but then returned the beast to the young man. Jabir, we are told, later became very wealthy. This story made the rounds of the admiring troops, as it does to this day.

Only once is Muhammad recorded as losing his temper with his men, in the fevered aftermath of the Battle of Honein. When the angry faithful were bitterly upbraiding him for giving lavish gifts to his Meccan relatives who had so long opposed him, he hit a man’s foot with his whip. Immediately repentant, he gave the fellow eighty she-camels in compensation.

Muhammad was not without quirks, however. One such was an irrational loathing of silk. Another was an intense concern about offensive breath, which he said would be an intolerable handicap in his conversations with Gabriel. Convinced that bad breath was chiefly caused by food remaining in the mouth, he used an elaborate assortment of toothpicks, and washed out his mouth after every meal. This of course inspired devout Muslims to do likewise. (For fear of bad breath he also refused to eat garlic or onions.)

Among many other things, he had strong opinions about the ancient remedy of blood letting, insisting that it must take place an odd (not even) number of times, and on the seventeenth day of any month when it fell on a Tuesday. And he had an extraordinary fear of wind. In windy weather, he would run back and forth, in and out of the house, or to and fro outside, praying for deliverance. During rainstorms, however, he would sometimes go outside and bare his head and chest to the torrent.

There has been considerable argument as to whether and how he dyed his hair. Some sources say that apart from a few white strands his hair remained jet black all his life. On his physical appearance, there is wide concurrence that he was slightly above middle size, with a large head, big bones and broad chest. He walked abruptly as though descending a steep hill, and so quickly that people almost had to run to keep up. When he looked around, he turned his whole body, not just his head.

Much attention has been paid to Muhammad’s face, particularly his eyes. Beneath long lashes, they reportedly were large, intensely black and piercing, and so restless as to seldom dwell more than a moment on any one object. His expression was often pensive. When he became angry, he would avert his gaze, a vein on his forehead would swell, and his brow would furrow into a scowl that often foreshadowed someone’s execution. When joyful, he would bend his head down, it was said, and normally his face beamed with intelligence. His features were somewhat sensuous, his skin soft and clear, his countenance ruddy, his brow wide, his eyebrows arched and joined, his nose large and hooked.

His bushy beard reportedly reached his chest. The famous “seal” that allegedly lay between his shoulders is so mystically referred to that accurate description is impossible. Most sources agree that it was about the size of a pigeon egg, though one describes it as almost the size of a man’s fist. It may possibly have been a very large mole.

There is also disagreement over how the Prophet spoke, some describing his delivery as slow and deliberate, others as rapid. When he preached, his eyes would redden, his voice rise high and loud, and his whole frame become agitated. He is said to have stood so long at prayers sometimes that his legs would swell, and he is reputed never to have yawned in the mosque. Sensitive always to the hazards of bad breath, he covered his face when he sneezed, and his followers naturally did the same.

The twentieth century saw much effort to “explain” Muhammad in terms of psychology. For example, he has been viewed by some as shame ridden because he had no male heir, a condition despised by the Arabs as abtar or “mutilated.” The 108th sura is cited in support of this contention: “Yes, we have given you abundance. So pray your Lord and sacrifice; it is your enemy who is the abtar.”

Some others regard him as a highly spiritual man who nevertheless stopped short of the mystical experience of total union with God, and thereby exposed himself to the temptations of self-love, pride and covetousness. “The great heterodox Muslim mystics,” says his atheist biographer Maxime Rodinson, “have tended to look down on the Prophet as being simply a robot, a kind of primitive recording machine or gramophone, a loudspeaker for transmitting God’s messages.” This whole process of “psychoanalyzing” Muhammad is as offensive to Muslims, of course, as the same process when applied to Christ is offensive to Christians.

But whatever his psychology, Muhammad in the tenth year after the hijra could regard his work as nearly complete. Worship at the Ka‘ba had been cleansed of all idolatry, and the time had come to adapt its ancient pilgrimage as a ritual of the new religion. He therefore announced plans to lead the event himself, taking with him all nine wives still alive.10 The response was stupendous. Some forty thousand believers decided to join him. Since it was the Prophet’s last, it has subsequently been known to Islam as the “Farewell Pilgrimage.” It has furthermore been precisely and dutifully emulated by Muslims ever since, each of Muhammad’s movements and words becoming a sacred precedent to be repeated with all possible fidelity.

Every stop along his route is now the site of one of the historic mosques of Islam. Wearing the pilgrim garb, with Bilal carrying a screen to shield him from the sun, he proceeded down Mecca’s main street and pronounced God’s blessing on the Ka‘ba. His first stop was atop the hill known as Mount Arafat (not to be confused with Mount Ararat near the Armenian-Turkish border, traditional beaching site of Noah’s Ark). Here he said certain prayers and pronounced certain blessings. In bright moonlight, he reached Muzdalifa in the valley of that name, which became the second station of the pilgrimage. Here he said the sunset and evening prayers together.

The day following, he proceeded in a torrential downpour to Mina on the road to al-Taif, stopping to “stone the devil,” a pre-Islamic custom in which the pilgrims throw pebbles at the Devil’s Corner, three stone pillars with diabolical associations. At this third station of the pilgrimage, Muhammad’s hair was shaved; he ordered it burned to prevent it being superstitiously preserved as relics.11 Here, too, the sacrificial camels were slain, the meat being dedicated to feed the poor, and Muhammad rode his camel seven times between the two hills of Safa and Merwa without dismounting. After pilgrim garb was exchanged for ordinary clothing, a great feast was held, where a ritual dialogue took place between Prophet and believers:

Question: “What day is this?” Answer: “The day of sacrifice.”

Q: “What place is this?” A: “The holy place.”

Q: “What month is this?” A: “The holy month.”

Q: “This is the day of the great pilgrimage. Your lifeblood, property and

honor are sacred, as is this place on this day of the month. Have I made my

message clear?” A: “Yes. O God, be my witness.”

Muhammad then summed up certain teachings. Muslims must abandon the old vendettas for murder of a relative. They must give up adultery; males must be stoned if convicted of it, and women thrashed (though not severely) and kept alone until they repent. Muslims must not loan money at interest, and must treat their slaves well, clothing them as well as they do themselves.

One version of this speech quotes him as proclaiming all Muslims equal under God: “O people, your Lord is one, and your ancestor is one. You are all descended from Adam, and Adam is of the earth.” Though some historians view this as a later addition, defenders of its authenticity point out that it is consistent with a passage in the Qur’an (Sura 49:13). To the Christian it suggests St. Paul’s assertion that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Then, say his biographers, Muhammad declared his mission to mankind accomplished, and prayed: “O Lord, I have delivered my message and discharged my ministry. O Lord, I beseech thee, bear thou witness unto it.” After three more days in Mecca, he paused at the Ka‘ba, again made the seven circuits, entered the building for final prayers, paused at Zam Zam to drink and rinse his mouth, refreshed himself with sweet date water from a cup that many others had drunk from, and returned to Medina.

As he was clearly aware, he had established the ritual for the sacred pilgrimage, and regretted only one aspect of it. He should not, he later said, have entered the Ka‘ba, because the tiny building was far too small to accommodate the thousands who would wish to follow his example precisely. Those unable to enter might feel, he feared, that their pilgrimage was thereby incomplete.12

Two months after this, he decided that another expedition north was necessary to more fully avenge the defeat at Mu‘ta. The Tebuk foray, while technically successful, had not actually confronted the strength of the tribes allied to Rome, which therefore remained a threat, and must be taught a lesson. To head the campaign he appointed Osama, son of his foster son, Zayd, by an Ethiopian slave woman. This was a controversial decision, for the young man was not yet twenty.

Next day, Muhammad was stricken with a violent headache and fever, symptoms of pleurisy, a diagnosis that deeply offended him. Apostles of God, he insistently proclaimed, do not get pleurisy–it must be the lingering effects of the poisoning at Khaybar. The symptoms rapidly grew worse, his complexion turning so gray that Abu Bakr burst into tears at the sight of him. A’isha tried to cheer him, but he was beyond humoring. He lay in her room, rising only for prayers. At length, resolved to make a final address to his people, he had his wives draw water from seven wells around Medina and pour it over him. Then, supported by Ali and Abbas, he made his way to the pulpit, stood beside it, and voiced a faltering appeal for an end to the controversy over his appointment of Osama.

As people wept at the sight of him, he returned to his bed. He was soon unable to rise even for prayers, all public access to him was cut off, and the busy babble in the courtyard of the mosque gave way to hushed whispers. He directed that Abu Bakr lead the prayers in the mosque. A’isha objected. She wanted her father to be spared this task because she feared people would never like a man who occupied the Apostle’s place, and would blame him for every misfortune that occurred. Finally Muhammad became exasperated, “Give command forthwith as I desire,” he ordered, and Abu Bakr began leading the prayers.

By the fourteenth day of his illness, Muhammad was racked with pain. “If a man’s faith be strong,” he told the alarmed Umar, “so are his sufferings.” At Abbas’s suggestion, Um Salema prepared an Ethiopian medicine used on pleurisy, a concoction of Indian wood, certain seeds and olive oil. Opening his mouth, his wives forced it down his throat. “What’s this that you’ve done to me?” he spluttered. “Out upon you. This is a remedy for pleurisy.” He became furious with them. “Now shall all of you within this chamber partake of the same. Let not one remain without taking it, except only my uncle, Abbas.” An astonishing scene followed, in which all his wives had to pour the concoction down each other’s throats while their scowling husband looked on. One objected that she couldn’t take it because she was fasting. She was ordered to take it anyway.

Another angry scene followed when he overheard two wives describing the beautiful murals in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ethiopia. “Silence!” he commanded, and deplored the Christian habit of making pictures of their saints. In another tirade, he ordered all religions but Islam banished from Arabia. Since this was not done until years later, however, it was either never said or was dismissed at the time as delirium.

He demanded writing materials, to dictate “a command that shall hinder you from going astray forever,” but by the time they were produced, he had forgotten all about it. Next, he ordered A’isha to find a few gold coins she had put away, and to give them to the poor immediately. She did so. He was now pulling the bedclothes over his face, then tearing them off again. Finally, he seemed to accept the fact that death was near upon him, and to yield to it. “O my soul,” he said, “Why do you not seek refuge in God alone?” With this, a great calm came upon him.

The next day, he seemed amazingly recovered. At prayers, some in the congregation noticed that the curtain over A’isha’s doorway was moving. Then Muhammad appeared, pale and haggard, but beatifically smiling. Slowly he moved among them to the front of the mosque. Abu Bakr as prayer leader was standing with his back to the congregation, but he knew by the murmurs behind him that the Prophet was there. Muhammad told him to finish the prayers, and sat down on the floor beside him. When the service ended, people pressed in upon him, although from this scene there survives no quotation from the Prophet.

On his return to A’isha’s chamber, however, his strength fast deserted him. A servant brought him a toothpick, and A’isha chewed it to soften it for him. He took it and rubbed his teeth vigorously, then lay with his head cushioned on her lap as she bathed his head with water. “O Lord,” he said, “assist me in the agonies of death. Gabriel come close to me.”13

Faint words now escaped his lips. “Take your hand from off me. It cannot help me now.” A’isha removed her hand. “Lord grant me pardon and join me in the companionship on high,” Muhammad prayed. He stretched himself, seemed to gaze fixedly upward, and died. A’isha moved his head from her lap and rested it on a pillow, then joined her sister wives in wailing lamentation, beating her breast and hitting her head. It was early in the afternoon of Monday June 8, 632.

This is the end of the Early Islamic Empire category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 100, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Early Islamic Empire from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at