Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

2. History of Islam |

History of Islam is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 40, 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

From Mecca, a dusty town jammed between flinty hills, emerges the single-minded prophet of a militant faith

History of Islam - Ishmael’s well becomes the birthplace of Islam

History of Islam - Ishmael’s well becomes the birthplace of Islam
Abraham is revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike as the father of monotheism. He left his native city of Ur in Mesopotamia after rejecting his people’s polytheistic practices, and eventually settled in Egypt. He is said to have banished a handmaid, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael (seen here in a painting by Giovanni Francesco Guercino), to a desolate valley in Arabia, trusting in God’s promise to care for them. The valley became the site of Mecca, and Ishmael the father of the Arabs.

In or about the year 570, the Christian ruler of Yemen launched an offensive against Mecca. His soldiers seized the camels pastured outside the town, and ordered the city to surrender. They meant no injury to anyone, said their commander–only to destroy the strange little box-like building called the Ka‘ba, which drew thousands of Arab pilgrims each year to sexual and other degenerate rites characteristic of some pagan worship. A dignified elderly man delivered Meccans’ response. They would pay a third of all their camels, he said, but they would not surrender the Ka‘ba. He was courteously received, but his terms were refused. He returned to the town to prepare for the attack, pausing before the Ka‘ba to pray: “Defend, O Lord, thy house, and suffer not the cross to triumph over the Ka‘ba.”

That night, so the story goes, sickness broke out among the Christian forces, probably smallpox, and they withdrew in disorder. Some died by the wayside, covered with sores, their commander among them. Others were swept away by an equally fortuitous flood. Their fate figures prominently in Islamic folklore, as having miraculously saved Mecca from Christianity. Moreover, in Muslim tradition, the old man who spoke for Mecca was to be blessed again, perhaps in that very year, with the birth of a grandson, a boy they named Muhammad.1

Whatever moved the Christians to attack Mecca, it could hardly have been the town’s beauty. It lies in one of the flinty valleys that crease the mountain range along Arabia’s Red Sea coast, the sunbaked rock of its flanking hills sharp with jagged granite and quartz. The windblown dust of spring, summer and fall is relieved only by December rains that can create torrential floods, leaving a residue of slime, animal corpses and disease.

In the sixth century, the crescent-shaped city itself, crowded between the hills, was as ugly as its environs, with buildings wedged so close together that from a distance they seemed one large mass. The poor lived in hovels or caves on the outskirts. Most Meccans were artisans (carpenters, veterinarians, butchers, blacksmiths) and most shared a common proclivity. From poorest to richest, they gambled: on the success of the caravans, on crops two years before they were planted, on camel prices, on exchange rates, on the outcome of tribal conflicts, on the weather.

If speculation was Mecca’s civic sport, commerce was its soul. Himyarite caravans brought goods from South Arabian ports for shipment north, making it a boomtown. Caravan profits soared, with leading families, all bankers, charging up to four-hundred-percent interest. The poor rushed to borrow, pledging even their freedom as collateral, while poets extolled the exhilarating joy of making money. Caravan investors could afford to hire dependable mercenary protection against the constantly marauding Bedouin, effectively reducing once fearsome tribesmen into hirelings. Thus Meccan grandees would make frequent and profitable excursions to the vast market outside the town, where a polyglot humanity of bawling hawkers clawed out a living by peddling weapons, clothing, camels, jewelry and secondhand goods–anything that would sell. They included refugees, tribal renegades, hooligans, hit men, thieves, prostitutes, Byzantine and Persian commercial agents, spies, slave traders and Christian missionary monks, all talking an Arabic diluted by a dozen other tongues.

The caravan industry remained elaborate, risky, but exceedingly lucrative. Guards and drivers had to be carefully selected, and skilled leaders to pilot them through the hordes of desert cutthroats, legal and otherwise. Any tribe along the way had to be paid a steep levy. At the Roman frontier there were heavy customs duties, with fines or whipping for smugglers. Successful caravan masters became civic heroes. At Palmyra, 125 miles northeast of Damascus in the Syrian Desert, archaeologists have found more statues of caravan leaders than of poets or generals. But women ran businesses too. Muhammad’s first wife financed and organized caravans; another dealt in slaves. The wife of a rival ran a big jewelry business. The pre-Islamic Arab woman could be, in short, very active in the world.

The Jesuit historian Henri Lammens surmises that Mecca was a “merchant republic” governed by an oligarchy of clan chiefs, the big financiers who sat as a senate or council. But the new wealth, he says, corrupted age-old desert values. Honor no longer mattered as much as advantage, or family as much as profit, which created a social disruption ignored by the “upwardly mobile.” Widows and orphans were left destitute. The proud tribesmen of the desert, who although they didn’t yet know it were among the world’s best soldiers, became enslaved by debt to their prosperous town cousins. The kindling, in other words, lay dry. All that was required was the spark–and that would be provided by the boy born in this seething commercial town about 570: Muhammad.

The Mecca in which Muhammad grew up was also in the business of religion. People worshiped sun, moon, stars and other gods, usually embodied in idols. They feared the jinn or genii, wild spirit-creatures considered evil. Allah, a kind of general-manager god whose name appears in inscriptions five centuries before Islam, was also widely recognized, although not the object of worship. And to Mecca’s Ka‘ba, Arabs traveled each year by the thousands.

In Muslim story, this curious little structure goes back to Abraham, patriarch of the Jews through his wife Sarah, and of the Arabs through the handmaiden Hagar. The exiled Hagar is said to have crossed the blazing sands, with her little son Ishmael, to an arid valley. Gasping for water, she set the child down and rushed frantically back and forth in search of a spring. Meanwhile Ishmael, thrashing in the sand, liberated a fountain of clear, sweet water. He had found Zam Zam, the spring that created the oasis around which Mecca would rise, and there Abraham built the Ka‘ba.

Thus the legend. The sacred “Black Stone,” probably a meteorite, was set into its wall. Around it were at least three female goddesses: al-Uzza, a sex goddess to whom human sacrifices were sometimes made; al-Lat, the sun goddess; and al-Manat, goddess of fate or doom. Associated with them was Hubal, an idol in the form of a human male. Some wall paintings reputedly depicted Mary and Joseph, suggesting that the place may once have been a church. Cleansed by Muhammad of its pagan past, this building would become Islam’s central shrine.

The Ka‘ba proved peculiarly vulnerable to the forces of nature however. For many centuries, a fifteen-minute downpour could flood the place; pilgrims sometimes had to swim for their lives. Hence it frequently had to be rebuilt, once during Muhammad’s lifetime; the present structure dates from the seventeenth century. And even before Muhammad’s day the well Zam Zam had either dried up or caved in. But still the pilgrims came, to enact a ritual so old that no one knew (or knows) its origins.

About the sixth day of the pilgrimage, the devout Arab donned the prescribed holy garment, then entered the Ka‘ba and kissed the sacred Black Stone. Next he made seven circuits around the Ka‘ba while other devotees clapped and sang, and then hastened back and forth seven times between two hills, Safa and Merwa, representing Hagar’s desperate search. As an act of purification, he shaved his head and pared his nails. Finally, he journeyed twelve miles to another hill, Arafat, and returned by the Mina Valley, where he collected pebbles. These he cast at various designated objects, in a symbolic “stoning of the devil.” The entire procedure was to be adopted as Islam’s most sacred rite.

Custodians of the Ka‘ba at that time were the Banu Quraysh–shepherds, robbers and caravanners from the north country. An adventurous Quraysh chief, a certain Kosai, came south and conquered Mecca around 400. He built a council house beside the Ka‘ba, and corrected certain defects in the old Arab calendar to stabilize the pilgrimage season. This made the food concessions, which he controlled, more manageable. Kosai was Muhammad’s great-great-great-grandfather.

Some Quraysh continued to live as Bedouin, ranging the desert and preserving their old ways and virtues. The town-dwelling Quraysh bankers and merchants became so prosperous, however, that hardworking farmers of the Medina district, north of Mecca, regarded them as kings. The word Quraysh meant “shark,” and from their arrival in Mecca, they had a well-deserved reputation for supple-minded decisiveness. Under Muhammad, they would emerge from this narrow background to conquer and govern much of the known world.

Kosai’s descendants did not always get along amicably, of course. A dispute between two of his sons over the food concession was settled only at the last minute, with both families lined up for battle. Another family quarrel would never be settled–and would have momentous consequences. A rich and philanthropic grandson, Hashem, made the pilgrimage into a grandiose event, lavishing food upon the pilgrims and building water cisterns on their route. This gained Hashem wide admiration, but angry resentment from his nephew Umayya. Enduring conflict between the Hashemite and Umayyad factions would divide the Islamic movement at a critical point, saving Europe and Christianity. It still divides Islam today.

Late in life, Hashem beheld at a Medina trade fair an elegant merchant woman named Selma, graceful, wealthy and divorced. Wholly smitten, he married her. The child of this union, Abbas ibn Abdul Muttalib, disinherited through another family wrangle, was left impoverished, until through diligence or good fortune he made an amazing discovery. He uncovered the old well Zam Zam, still flowing with abundant sweet water, and largely on this account became in time Mecca’s chieftain. It was he, Muhammad’s grandfather, who confronted the invading Christian army.

The Christian invasion was not the only crisis in Abbas ibn Abdul Muttalib’s life. In the despair of his early poverty, he had vowed that if the gods gave him ten sons he would offer one as a sacrifice. After his tenth son was born, he evaded the pledge for years until, stricken by conscience and full of grief, he led his ten sons into the Ka‘ba and drew lots to determine which should die. It fell upon the youngest, Abdallah.

His daughters pleaded with him to spare their brother, so he picked out ten camels, and again drew lots: the camels or the baby? Again the lot fell on little Abdallah. In vain, Abbas ibn Abdul Muttalib offered ten more. Not until the ante stood at one hundred camels did the lot finally fall upon them instead. Gratefully, the old man sacrificed the camels, and Abdallah was saved. He would one day father Muhammad, although he did not live to see his son’s birth. Illness claimed him at age twenty-four, and when his widow presented the baby to her father-in-law, the old man carried the infant into the Ka‘ba and named him Muhammad. Rarely heard then, the name has since been conferred upon hundreds of millions of baby boys.2

The infant Muhammad was placed in the care of a poor Bedouin wet nurse whose family fortunes, say the traditions, immediately and amazingly improved. Their sheep grew plump, and their barren camels burst with milk, as did the woman herself. “By God,” declared her husband, “you’ve taken on a blessed creature.” The blessed creature grew up active and robust, although twice he suffered alarming seizures (prompting skeptics to dismiss his future moments of visionary ecstasy as epileptic fits). At six he was returned to his mother, who soon after fell ill and died. Some fifty years later, her son, ruler of most of Arabia, would weep bitterly over her grave.

Now Muhammad was entrusted to his doting eighty-year-old grandfather, and after his death to the poorest but most beloved of his uncles, Abu Talib, working for a time as a shepherd. Later, as a youth in booming Mecca, he observed the decline of ancient Arab propriety, particularly in the shameless profiteering of the Quraysh who managed the Ka‘ba. They were forcing poor pilgrims to eat only expensive food supplied by them, and for the ceremonial circling either to purchase a pricey ritual garment or wear no clothes at all. Appalled at the spectacle of penniless women performing the ritual naked, Muhammad vowed that he would one day ban this practice. Another such was female infanticide.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the Hashemite branch of Muhammad’s family had steadily declined in favor of the rival Umayyads. He himself was too poor to marry, until he caught the eye of the twice-widowed Khadeja, forty years old, wellborn, dignified and rich. Owner of a flourishing caravan business, she hired him at double the usual pay. Then, after he eminently succeeded with his first caravan, she made a marriage offer through an intermediary, to which Muhammad enthusiastically assented.

Their marriage was blissful and fruitful. In Muslim tradition, Khadeja, despite her age, bore him two sons and four daughters. Though the sons did not survive, the daughters did; the fourth, Fatima, would provide the name and credentials for one of the great Muslim dynasties. Moreover, Khadeja became Muhammad’s confidant, counsel and devoted supporter.

Together they adopted Ali, son of Uncle Abu Talib, who was too poor to support him. Ali’s descendants would form another dynastic empire. And upon Muhammad Khadeja also conferred the slave Zayd, captured from Christian Arabs and eventually traced to Mecca by his grieving father. Muhammad, ever generous, freed Zayd, who chose to remain as his secretary. Zayd’s loyalty to his erstwhile owner would carry him eventually to a heroic death.

Muhammad always regarded his days with Khadeja as the happiest of his life, and during her lifetime married no other woman. Afterward, when he had ten wives, and according to some Muslim historians, several concubines, her memory would still haunt him. The fiery A’isha, favored of all his harem, once screamed at him: “Why do you always have to be remembering that toothless old Qurayshite with her red mouth?”

Meanwhile, his biographers write, Muhammad was earning distinction in the community. When he was about thirty-five, for instance, seasonal flooding had left the Ka‘ba an open ruin and a haunt of thieves. The Quraysh, having rebuilt it, began disputing which of their four clans should have the honor of reinstalling the sacred Black Stone. Deadlocked, they agreed it should go to the next man who entered the building.

This was Muhammad, who diplomatically decided to lay the stone on a blanket and have the chief of each clan take a corner and lift it, while he himself pushed it into position. Later on, the Ka‘ba was significantly improved. Its walls were raised, the idol Hubal presided in the center, and a sacred precinct was defined around it as a “place of prostration” (mosque in Arabic).

But in the following five years, Muhammad’s hitherto conventional life took a strange turn. He began making long sojourns in the hills, sometimes accompanied by Khadeja, but usually alone. Often he was gone for days, dwelling in particular at a cave on Mount Hira, a cone-shaped hill less than a mile from town.3 He became, like John the Baptist, possessed of the grim conviction that mankind was doomed because of its rejection of goodness and of God. Some of these reflections survive as the earliest sura (chapters) of the Qur’an. Man is “in the way of ruin” (Sura 103:2). The “wrath is kindled” against “those that walk in error” (Sura 92:14—16). “They that deny our signs . . . around them shall the fire come” (Sura 90:19—20).

During one such sojourn, there occurred an event of catastrophic impact. He suddenly became aware, say the biographers, of an alarming presence. The fifty-third sura describes “one terrible in power” that “drew near and suspended, two bows’ lengths away, or nearer.” Muhammad concluded that this must be Gabriel, God’s courier angel. Gabriel delivered to him again and again three Arabic words destined to change his life, and that of much of the world. English requires six words to translate them: “Thou art the Messenger of God.” From that time forth, Muhammad saw the Almighty as the source of his thoughts, and himself as uniquely entrusted to convey them to men:

Say: O men, I am the Messenger of Allah to you all, from him who rules over earth and sky. There is no God but he. He ordains life and death. Believe in Allah and in his Messenger, the unlettered Prophet (Sura 7:158).

The experience is said to have reduced Muhammad to trembling incoherence. Was it really Gabriel? he wondered. Or could it be one of the notorious jinn, the evil spirits who haunted the outskirts of heaven trying to pick up gossip with which to work mischief?

The Muslim historians Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari say this fear that his vision was diabolically inspired drove Muhammad to the brink of suicide, but when he resolved to hurl himself off a cliff, Gabriel reappeared to stop him. Thereafter, the visions became less onerous for Muhammad. Within ten or so years he would experience them almost routinely, full of directions on the day-to-day problems of municipal administration.

Whatever the explanation for his visions, their credibility within Muhammad’s immediate family was unquestioned. Khadeja became a believer from the start, and therefore the first Muslim. She was closely followed by their son, Ali, then about thirteen, and Muhammad’s secretary Zayd. His cherished uncle Abu Talib never did accept Islam, but he did extend to the fledgling cult the crucial protection of the Hashemite branch of the family.

Muhammad’s first approach beyond his family was to Abu Bakr, a merchant two years his junior, whose mild nature concealed an iron determination and unwavering fidelity, which in a dark hour many years later would save Islam. Abu Bakr, respected everywhere, brought the movement a new credibility, and his fortune of forty thousand silver pieces. He also attracted several distinguished converts, including Uthman, who was regarded in Mecca as a kind of seer.4 Soon the group consisted of thirteen men and twenty wives and children. The terms were elementary then as now. The convert must recognize that God is One and that Muhammad speaks for him. In accepting this, the convert surrenders himself to the Almighty. The word for such a surrender is “Islam.”

In the sixth year (615), there came two more key converts. One was another of Muhammad’s uncles, Hamza, who was poor, quick-tempered, and fond of strong drink, but well known and respected, chiefly for his huge size. His subsequent bravery in Islam’s early battles would earn him the title “Lion of God.”

More significant still was the other convert, whose contribution would be second only to that of Muhammad himself, and whose conversion story is part of Islamic lore. Umar ibn al-Khattab was, like Hamza, an enormous and impetuous man, but far more disciplined. A resolute opponent of the Muslims, he was appalled to learn that his own sister and brother-in-law had converted. Descending in fury upon their home, he overheard them reciting verses from the Qur’an. While the brother-in-law fled, Umar smacked his sister in the face. Although bleeding profusely, she defiantly confessed her new religion. The tradition continues: Angrily Umar took up the text. His eyes widened. His hands gripped it. He read intensely, utterly engrossed. His brother-in-law then cautiously emerged, stammering that only yesterday Muhammad had prayed for Umar’s conversion. (The problem with this account is, of course, that the Qur’an, as such, did not yet exist. The sura, however, were often memorized or recorded by the faithful before the book was compiled.)

Without a word, Umar strode out the door and marched, sword at his side, to the Prophet’s house. Muhammad greeted him kindly, put his hand on Umar’s sword hilt, and asked: “Wilt thou not refrain from persecuting until the Lord send some calamity upon thee?” “Truly I testify,” replied Umar, “that you are the Prophet of God.” He would become the second and greatest of all the caliphs.

The traditions abound in other conversion stories, many of them replete with marvels. There was the shepherd who joined after seeing a thirsty Muhammad get milk from an unbred ewe, and the pilgrim who stuffed his ears with wool yet heard Muhammad’s message anyway. Some Meccans viewed him as a harmless half-wit, however, and some parodied his name as “Mudhammam” (signifying a reprobate). Others were more tolerant. The Romans, after all, had a prophet in Jesus. The Jews had numerous prophets. Why shouldn’t the Arabs have a prophet?

Before long, all Mecca was taking sides, as Muhammad began to be seen as something more than merely quaint. It became clear that he was either a prophet or actively seditious. He was upsetting the whole familial structure of Meccan society; a father would become a mortal enemy of Islam while several of his sons and daughters joined it.

Moreover, Islam seemed to pose a challenge to the entire Arab status quo. Lavish generosity, unfailing courage and absolute fidelity to one’s word–this was what proper Arabs cared about. While Muhammad didn’t exactly repudiate these virtues, he seemed to consider this religious surrender of his far more crucial. And what would his interminable harangues against idolatry do to the pilgrimage? Would the thousands who swarmed annually to Mecca want to listen to a stream of abuse against its gods? Sentries were posted on the roads to warn pilgrims about the lunatic impostor.

A rich uncle of Muhammad, Abu Lahib, was foremost among his foes. At first he merely jeered; later his attacks became virulent. One of Umar’s uncles waged an even more sweeping campaign. He would charge a convert who was devoted to his Arabic heritage with betraying his ancestors, for example, and a merchant convert with imperiling business. More ominous yet, Muhammad’s cousin and foster brother, Abu Sufyan, became chief of the rival Umayyads. Once his closest friend, Abu Sufyan was now an implacable opponent, and this added tribal rivalry to the religious controversy. Moreover, Abu Sufyan’s wife was a fierce and vicious woman named Hind, destined to play a bloody role in future events.

The most vulnerable converts were the slaves, completely in their masters’ power. The traditions tell of Abu Bakr’s pity for them. One slave’s master had tied him prostrate and naked in the sun, where he lay stammering, “One God! One God!”–determined not to recant. Abu Bakr bought and freed him, as he did five or six others. This particular slave, a black man named Bilal, would be renowned as Muhammad’s muezzin (crier) who called the faithful to prayer from atop the mosque.

Muhammad himself did not altogether escape persecution. We are told that his neighbors and Uncle Abu Lahib not only subjected him to invective, but repeatedly threw “unclean things” at his house. When some goat entrails landed in front of him as he cooked dinner, for instance, he is said to have picked them up with a stick and thrown them into the street, wondering aloud “what sort of good neighborhood this is.”

The Quraysh reportedly tried bribery, too, offering to make Muhammad Mecca’s richest and most-honored citizen if only he would give up his mission. He contemptuously refused, and the emissary who delivered the offer was so mesmerized by hearing the Qur’an that his colleagues concluded he had been “bewitched.”

When the Quraysh further demanded that the Prophet authenticate himself by working a few miracles, Muhammad replied that he had not been sent to work miracles. However, say the traditions, he once relented, and for the benefit of the doubtful caused the moon to briefly split in two. Again, we are told that when a skeptic held a bone before his face, challenging him to bring it to life, Muhammad smiled disdainfully, crumbled it in his hand, and replied that God would one day bring it back to life. He would bring the skeptic back to life as well, the Prophet added, preparatory to consigning him to hellfire. Such an attitude was not conducive to universal popularity. Mecca sneered and raged, while Muhammad remained resolutely censorious.

He himself still had some protection from the Hashemites, however reluctant, but this was not true for his followers. He therefore urged them to take refuge across the Red Sea in Christian Ethiopia. They departed, most accounts agree, in two expeditions, in total ninety-four men and twenty-two women, and were cordially received by the negus (king), Ethiopia’s Christian ruler.

The Quraysh followed them there. Possibly fearing another Ethiopian invasion of Arabia, they were laden with diplomatic gifts, and they demanded that the fugitives be sent home. The Negus summoned both groups before a council of his bishops. A cousin of Muhammad, acting as spokesman for the refugees, described the moral reform Muhammad was working, and how he had condemned idolatry, and done away with cannibalism and lewd living.

Maybe so, countered the Quraysh, but the bishops should know that Muslims reject Jesus as Son of God, dismissing him as a mere slave. A slave of God, replied Muhammad’s cousin, and also the son of Mary in whose virgin womb the Spirit had placed the Word of God. Thereupon, report al-Tabari and Hisham, the Christian bishops burst into tears. Arabia, they joyfully concluded, had at last come into the Christian fold! Thus the Quraysh returned home in failure. Muslim historians also speculate that the Negus himself embraced Islam–but Ethiopia, far from becoming Muslim, would remain an African bulwark against Islam from that day to this.

Most of the refugees eventually returned to Mecca, although the reasons remain controversial among Muslims. The story told by the historians Wakidi and al-Tabari, but rejected by others, is that the Prophet, weary of the whole conflict, met the Quraysh leaders and compromised on the question of idolatry. He agreed to let the goddesses al-Lat, al-Uzza and al-Manat remain in the Ka‘ba, though in an inferior status to Allah. Gabriel, he said, had told him: “These are exalted females whose intercession verily is to be sought after.” The Quraysh, ecstatic that the strife was over, all bowed in reverence to Allah. But Muhammad, becoming unhappy with this whole development, again consulted Gabriel, and he disowned the fateful verses. They had been whispered by Satan, he said, not by him. (They would become known as the “satanic verses.”)

Muhammad thereupon repudiated the concession, and the conflict grew worse. So the Quraysh next approached Muhammad’s patient uncle Abu Talib, demanding that he withdraw tribal protection. This would virtually assure Muhammad’s assassination. When Abu Talib refused, the exasperated Quraysh formed a league of Mecca’s other families against the Hashemites. No business was to be done with them, no daughters betrothed to them, and no supplies provided to them. This became known as the “Boycott,” and because of it, the Hashemites were forced to withdraw into an isolated quarter on the city’s eastern outskirts, where famine tightened upon them.

The Boycott presented Muhammad with a crucial question. He could end it by renouncing the protection of his family, delivering himself unresisting to his adversaries, and face almost certain death. Or he could somehow mobilize his followers to resist, to survive and to prevail, which would involve first politics and then war. During the Boycott, he appears to have made his choice, thereby defining one of the fundamental differences between the founder of Christianity and the founder of Islam.

As their ministries gained support, both Jesus and Muhammad faced dangerous hostility from their respective governments, but their response was profoundly different. Jesus surrendered himself and was crucified. This is foreshadowed in the third of three temptations he undergoes at the outset of his ministry, as portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew.5 He is shown the kingdoms of the earth spread before him. Evil beckons him. All this can be his, if only he will submit to the prince of this world–that is, adopt the world’s ways, head up a political movement, and conquer by the power of the sword.

Jesus rejects the offer. Satan, he says, is an impostor–the world is not his to give. It belongs to Jesus’ Father. He thus becomes the suffering servant envisioned in the fifty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah. But in so doing, Christians affirm, he rises triumphant over this world and its satanic prince, thus ensuring the salvation of mankind.

As events in Muhammad’s life unfold, however, he will take the other path, in effect yielding to the third temptation. The idea of a theocratic state, with all that this implies, becomes increasingly attractive to him, until he unreservedly embraces it. As though to underline this distinction, Muslims accept Jesus as both a prophet and as the Jewish Messiah–but indignantly deny that he was crucified. To Muhammad himself the cross became a hated symbol, whose very sight he could not endure. The eighth-century Arabian historian al-Wakidi describes how he would search his house for every instance where two boards crossed one another, and smash them.6

An even more crucial difference between the two, however, lies in their theology. Muhammad’s claim is essentially that of a prophet. God, he says, has revealed the truth to him through Gabriel. Jesus, by contrast, on occasion speaks as God himself, the Creator of the world, who now has actually come into it as one of his own creatures, to effect an entirely new creation. “Behold, I make all things new,” says God in the Book of the Revelation (21:5).

The Meccan Boycott, which increasingly offended the town’s tribal allegiances, failed. After two years, Abu Talib, discovering that the Boycott document had been largely consumed by termites in the Ka‘ba, challenged Muhammad’s adversaries to produce it. Unable to do so, they became so unnerved that his sympathizers were able to get the edict revoked. The Hashemites, all fully armed, were escorted triumphantly home. Far from being the end of the conflict, however, this was no more than the beginning.

Two sharp reversals now struck Muhammad. In the year 619 Khadeja died at age sixty-five. Not only did he lose thereby his wife and first supporter, speculates the nineteenth-century German historian Aloys Sprenger, he may also have lost the inspiration for the deeply spiritual early chapters of the Qur’an, which hereafter becomes increasingly administrative, in fact dull. Soon afterward Abu Talib also died, striving to the end to reconcile his nephew’s strange convictions with his people’s ancient traditions. At the end, Muhammad pressed him to affirm that there was no God but Allah, and the old man’s mouth seemed to move. “I heard him say it,” declared his brother Abbas. “I heard him not,” rejoined Muhammad.

Three months after Khadeja’s death, Muhammad married Sauda, widow of a Muslim refugee who had turned Christian. More housekeeper than wife, she was running to fat. Far more interesting to him was the child bride who followed Sauda as his second wife: six-year-old A’isha, daughter of Abu Bakr. Precocious and pert, A’isha grew up quickly and the marriage reportedly was consummated when she was nine.

Without Abu Talib’s protection, the Muslims were more than ever vulnerable to the assassin and the mob. Ibn Ishaq tells how Abu Bakr, his wealth largely gone, was set upon and left bound outside the city, but managed to free himself. Nor was the credibility of the movement much enhanced when Muhammad started talking of his “Night Journey,” a visionary episode much celebrated in Muslim tradition, in which he was taken by winged horse to Jerusalem and back, accompanied by Gabriel. When Muhammad told a cousin about this, she advised him to keep it to himself because it wouldn’t help the cause, and in the Qur’an it merits only a single verse (Sura 17:1).

But the traditions are lavish with detail. For example, they say that from the Temple, Muhammad climbed to the seventh heaven, where he encountered Jesus, Moses and Abraham, and led them in prayer. Jesus, he noted, was “a reddish man of medium height, with lank hair and many freckles on his face, as though he had just come from a bath.” Muhammad told them he had resolved to teach mankind to pray fifty times a day. Too many, said Moses, considering the frailty of man’s faith. The proposal was cut to forty, then thirty, and finally five. Moses was dubious even about this, but Muhammad said he was ashamed to ask for less. Therefore, Muslims pray five times daily.

Such talk did strain the credulity of many. Conversions virtually ceased, and defections increased. But a new note appeared in the Qur’an: No longer was Muhammad merely history’s latest prophet. He now became the Prophet, prophecy’s final fulfillment, the bearer of a message without which all men were doomed. “Whosoever disobeyeth God and his Prophet, for him is prepared the fire of hell” (Sura 72:23). Rules and order rapidly became essential to the new faith, including dietary laws. Animal flesh might be eaten only if “killed in the name of the Lord,” and pork not at all. The Ka‘ba monopoly was denounced; Islam would countenance no naked dancing around the sacred shrine.

And now for the first time, the world heard the cry that would echo through history: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet,” which was to become the creed of Islam. Beside the complex Christian formulary of Nicea, it did have a refreshing simplicity. But why, the puzzled Greeks would later protest, should we expect the nature of God, Creator of the whole bafflingly complex physical universe, to be simple?

To most Meccans, Muhammad’s cause must have seemed lost, but in fact, his fortunes were about to turn. During the next pilgrimage, he chatted about God and Islam with pilgrims from Medina, who proved to be reassuringly attentive. A thought struck him: Could he and his followers secure refuge at Medina? The implications of such a move were very dark, he knew. In view of the ancient antipathies between the tribes of the two centers, for one to harbor dissidents from the other was an open invitation to war. But six of his listeners seemed particularly enthralled by his message. Would they carry Islam to Medina? he asked. They would return with an answer, they replied, in one year.

Medina, earlier known to the Arabs as Yathrib, was as ancient as Mecca. Since Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Palestine in the sixth century b.c., Jewish refugees had been finding their way to its green and well-watered environs, and had named it Medina. It became a settlement of three tribes that had acquired Judaism either by descent or conversion. In the fourth century, two southern Arab tribes, the Khazraj and the Aus, conquered the city, invited the Jewish leaders to a banquet of reconciliation, and then gleefully butchered all their guests. But the Khazraj and the Aus were soon at war with each other, and the remaining Jews survived by alliances with one or the other. Thus Medina became a collection of isolated and heavily armed agricultural settlements, three of them Jewish.

Into this volatile uncertainty the Medina pilgrims returned, some of them enthusiastically talking of Islam and of its message of strength through Arab unity. Interest grew mightily in Medina, and at the next year’s pilgrimage, twelve prominent Medinians met the Prophet secretly outside Mecca, in a glen called Aqaba. “We will not worship any but the one God,” they promised. “We will not steal, neither will we commit adultery, nor kill our children; we will not slander in any wise; nor will we disobey the Prophet in anything that is right.”

Known in Muslim history as “the First Pledge of Aqaba,” this is sometimes called “the Pledge of Women,” because it notably omits any commitment to take up arms. The twelve agreed to meet at the same place next year, and returned more zealous than ever to Medina, where from house to Arab house the message spread. Tribal animosities vanished before it, and the Jews looked on amazed at the disappearance of the idolatry they had long deplored among the Gentiles.

It was in 622 that the event occurred that completed the rupture between the Prophet and his native city. As the annual festival ended, the Medinians traveled in small groups to the gully of Aqaba. To the amazement even of the Prophet, seventy-five people gathered there: sixty-two Khazraji, eleven Aus and two women. Perhaps to keep the meeting secret even from his followers, Muhammad was accompanied only by his Uncle Abbas, a non-Muslim whose presence has intrigued Muslim historians ever since.

“We have listened to your words,” said a Medina elder. “Our resolution is unshaken. Our lives are at the Prophet’s service.” The seventy-three men pledged to defend him as they would their own families; the women were not required to swear. “Whoever you war against, him I war against. Whoever you make peace with, him I make peace with,” the Prophet told them at this “Second Pledge of Aqaba.”

Secrecy notwithstanding, news of the meeting spread rapidly in Mecca. The die was now cast. Muhammad ordered his followers to leave for Medina on a date generally acknowledged as July 16, 622 (which now became year one on the Islamic calendar). He himself remained in Mecca, some say to protect the dwindling number that had stayed behind, others to make sure that all was ready at Medina for his reception. The Quraysh, perhaps perceiving only one chance to prevent a war engendered by this treasonous activity, took council to consider assassinating him. If one representative of each Qurayshite tribe plunged one fatal wound into his body, one chief argued, no single tribe would bear the responsibility. “May God reward this man!” shouted an old sheikh from Nejd. “This is the right advice and none other.” This man was Satan attending in disguise, the historian Ibn Hisham assures us.7

But Muhammad, forewarned, sent word to Abu Bakr, the only other senior Muslim left in Mecca, who had kept two swift camels in readiness. Their escape is one of the thrillers of Islamic lore. Exchanging cloaks with his willing foster son Ali, the Prophet crept out a rear window into the darkness. He and Abu Bakr then stole through the town to Mount Thawr, about ninety minutes south on the Yemen road. The sentries were deceived by Ali’s cloak (and by the fact, adds the pious Hisham, that the Prophet had thrown magical dust in their eyes to temporarily blind them.)

Up the rocky and thorny slope of Thawr the pair struggled, to a cave that both tradition and archaeology can still identify, known to Islam as the “Glorious Cave.” The Quraysh, discovering the deception next morning, offered a hundred-camel reward for the Prophet’s discovery, and launched a massive three-day search. (Curiously, they did not hold Ali hostage.) A servant of Abu Bakr carried daily food to the cave. On the third day, his daughter Asama brought news that the search had been abandoned, and also supplies for a journey.8 Swiftly, the two fugitives moved from Mecca west to the Red Sea coast, then north, then east again, guided by a non-Muslim hired by Abu Bakr. Ali meanwhile tidied up the Prophet’s affairs and also left for Medina.

When they reached the encampment of expatriate Muslims at Quba, outside Medina, there was great rejoicing. The Prophet remained there four days, helping to begin construction of the “Mosque of Godly Fear,” which would become a beloved Islamic shrine. On the fifth, a Friday, he mounted his camel with Abu Bakr behind him, and began a solemn procession into the city, escorted by more than a hundred Medinians in full fighting array, a triumphal entry that would thereafter make Friday the holy day of the new faith.

Thus ended the hijra, a word popularly mistranslated as “flight.” It actually means, Muslims explain, “the migration,” and refers not to the Prophet’s journey, but to that of all the faithful.

All the faithful pitched in to raise a rude but enormous building, with stone foundations, walls of unburned brick, palm trunk rafters and palm leaf roof, roughly 150 feet to a side. Its eastern flank provided rooms for the Prophet’s wives, Sauda and A’isha. More were added later as needed for new wives. The eastern side of a mosque is known to this day as the “Women’s Porch.” On the north side a niche, or qibla, indicated the direction of Jerusalem, towards which all faithful monotheists faced in prayer.

The workmen burst into poetry as they raised the building, Muhammad joining in discordantly–demonstrating, say his biographers, that he had no great gift for verse, and hence that the eloquence of the Qur’an came, not from him, but from God through Gabriel. The Qur’an’s eloquence, however, lay in the verses already written. The sura still to be revealed lack eloquence–demonstrating, say some skeptics, that the eloquence came from neither Muhammad nor from God, but from Khadeja. Elements in the design of that first Medina mosque would survive in every building of Islam, whether a makeshift stucco structure in Hoboken or the Taj Mahal.

During the seven-month construction period, believers Abu and Um Ayyub delightedly gave up the ground floor of their house to the Prophet, moving themselves upstairs, and preparing his meals as well. Ishaq records the Ayyubs’ reminiscence of their honored guest. Once they sent him a dinner of garlic vegetables. It came back untouched with a delicate explanation: “He had perceived the smell of the vegetables,” Ishaq quotes the Prophet’s host, “and as he was a man who had to speak confidentially to people, his host and hostess should eat them themselves.” They did, and sent him no more garlic. Abu Ayyub was to die carrying the sword of Islam against Constantinople, capital of the Roman world.

The building complete, Muhammad decided to move in, along with A’isha, now nine. This marriage to a child is explained by some historians as intended merely to cement relations with Abu Bakr, and was not unusual among sixth-century Arabs. Although the union was childless, A’isha became and remained queen of the harem, and later played a role in the bloody politics of the caliphate period that was, says the Cambridge Medieval History, “by no means honorable.”

Medina’s climate is unhealthy–cold in winter, very hot in summer, rain intermittent, highly conducive to disease. Fever struck the Muslims hard, disabling almost all but the Prophet himself; many died. The Prophet prayed that his flock should come to love Medina as much as Mecca, and that God should take away the fever and visit it instead upon rival al-Juhfa, through which caravans often bypassed Medina. God apparently obliged. The survivors regained their strength.

Within a year, Muhammad may have gained sufficient control over Medina to begin legislating for the whole town. A municipal “constitution” has been preserved, though of dubious origin. In this period also, the Qur’an seems to have set out many principles of Muslim morality, ritual and law. Drinking wine is formally condemned. Restrictions are placed on blood feuding. Female infanticide is banned. A woman can no longer be bequeathed as part of her husband’s estate. Usury is prohibited. Theft is discouraged by the proviso that the hands of thieves will be amputated. Fighting among Medinians is condemned; all wars are to be undertaken by the city as a whole. Giving aid to or communicating with the Quraysh at Mecca is forbidden. An alms tax is established, payable to the Prophet, to be used for relief to the poor. Disputes are to be referred to the Prophet for final arbitration. Current scholarship, however, prefers to date the origins of definitive Islamic law at least a century later.

Upon equally uncertain grounds, tradition ascribes to the early years in Medina the development of Islamic religious ritual as well. The five daily prayers, it says, were set for dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset and nightfall. Friday was established as the day of a more complete service, with a sermon preached by the Prophet. He would begin with the Tekbir, “God is most great!” then ritualistically prostrate himself. All these customs survive today.

Much thought was eventually given to the summons to prayer. The Jewish trumpet was considered, and the Christian bell, until someone proposed simply using the human voice. So Muhammad directed his big servant Bilal to stand on a high roof at the five appointed hours, beginning with the first light of dawn, and cry: “Great is the Lord! Great is the Lord! I bear witness that there is no God but the Lord: I bear witness that Muhammad is the Prophet of God. Come unto prayer. Come unto salvation. God is great! God is great! There is no God but the Lord!” For emphasis, Bilal is said to have added to his morning call: “Prayer is better than sleep! Prayer is better than sleep!”

Thus began the office of muezzin; for the next fourteen hundred years at mosques all over the Muslim world, the cry has first been heard at daybreak from the minaret tower. Bilal himself would become as well a great warrior in the Muslim cause, and be rewarded with an estate at Damascus where his tomb has been preserved.

In these days also, Muhammad instituted the fast of Ramadan, apparently adopted from the Jewish Atonement, but having more in common with Christian Lent. The fast continues for a lunar month, and the faithful at first tried to deny themselves all food and drink, but the Prophet restricted it to daylight hours only (also exempting travelers and the sick). Consequently, in Ramadan nothing is consumed in daylight, but big meals tend to occur after dark and before dawn. It can still be very onerous, however, when the calendrical flaw carries it out of winter and into the heat of summer–especially in the higher latitudes where days are inordinately long.9 Finally, Islam adopted the peculiar rite of circumcision common to other Semitic cultures, although the Qur’an does not mention it and there is no evidence that the Prophet himself was circumcised.

Since religious and secular authority were inseparable, it was universally recognized that whoever led the prayers led the state. Hence, as Muhammad aged, he sometimes absented himself and named Abu Bakr as his substitute. Once, when Abu Bakr was also absent, Umar automatically took over. Hisham records the Prophet’s alarm over this precedent, calling from his apartment: “No! No! No! None but Abu Bakr. Let no one lead the prayers but he!” Perhaps he foresaw the problems of succession that would divide Islam just as fiercely as the problems of doctrine divide Christianity.

Much of Medina society accepted Muhammad as preferable to the interminable civil war that had preceded him, while quietly scoffing at all this talk of God and moral duty. These people go down in Muslim history as the “Hypocrites,” carefully distinguished from the Ansar or “Helpers,” who actively aided the Muslim cause. However, far more serious resistance developed among the Medina Jews, who saw clearly that accepting the Prophet’s message meant rejecting Judaism. Islam contended not only that the Jewish Messiah had already arrived in the person of Jesus, but that one greater than Jesus was now on the scene–and he was not even Jewish, but Arab.

The Jews’ rejection of his message came as a bitter blow to Muhammad. He had counted on their help and had made an early treaty with them, guaranteeing them continued use of their synagogues and mutual support of Muslim for Jew and Jew for Muslim in event of war. Their growing opposition carried a dangerous implication. Since he himself had recognized them as the original people of God, must their opposition not mean that God was against, not for, the Prophet? Moreover, they knew their Scriptures as well or better than he, and increasingly heckled him with tough questions during his sermons. Why, they wondered, could he not cure As’ad, one of the original six from Aqaba, now stricken with a sore throat and dying? The Prophet’s reply, even echoed through his own biographers, sounds a curiously frantic note: “I have no power of the Lord over even my own life, or over that of my followers. Let the Lord destroy the Jews that speak thus.”

Another question, designed by the Jews to test the Prophet’s allegiance to the Law of Moses, again reveals the startling gulf between his teachings and those of Jesus. The Jews had caught a couple in the act of adultery. What, they asked the Prophet, should be done with them? To demonstrate his devotion to Mosaic Law, the Prophet declared that they must be stoned to death. The record preserves a piteous scene, the man vainly trying to protect the woman as the rocks cascade upon them. This tale, cited to reassure Muslims of the Prophet’s determined fidelity to Scripture, stands in sharp contrast to Christ’s response in an almost identical situation. “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone” (John 8:7) Jesus replied, thus convicting the accusers with their own consciences, so that none could throw a stone.

That New Testament incident demonstrates more than Christ’s mercy, however. Its underlying point is that few if any people truly keep the Mosaic Law, or meet even the minimum rules imposed by their own consciences. Hence, if a man’s salvation depends upon his unaided performance of the moral code, he is lost. How then can he be saved? Only by God himself, reply the Christians–by God the Son, assuming the nature of a man and meeting the demands of the Law on behalf of every human being.

These examples of adultery illustrate, in short, both the pitiful futility of unaided human moral effort, and the compelling appeal of Christ’s doctrine of salvation. Christians contend that they represent a problem, and a solution, which neither Muhammad nor the Qur’an ever satisfactorily addresses. Some also theorize that this is the principal reason why Islam prohibits, on pain of death, the preaching of the Christian gospel in some Muslim countries, and the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity.

Muhammad’s taxes, imposed in the name of God, provoked further trouble. If Allah required their tax money, jeered the Jews, then they must be richer than Allah. God is aware of such Jewish blasphemy, the Prophet later told Abu Bakr. “They shall taste the punishment of burning,” promises the Qur’an (Sura 3:116). Later, following the Muslim victory at Badr, the language of the Qur’an would become even more specific: “You will be defeated and gathered into hell, a wretched resting place” (Sura 3:12).

At last, one final symbolic and historic gesture completed the rupture with Judaism. About seventeen months after his arrival in Medina, the Prophet paused in the midst of the Friday service. Following his prostrations towards Jerusalem, he abruptly turned and finished the service facing instead towards Mecca and the Ka‘ba. Said the Qur’an: “Turn . . . thy face toward the Holy Temple of Mecca. Wheresoever ye be, when ye pray, turn towards the same” (Sura 2:144).

This gesture and promulgation destroyed any hope of reconciliation with the Jews. Mortified and estranged, they charged that with this decision, Muhammad had returned the Arabs to idolatry. His response in the days immediately ahead would entail bloodshed and mass slaughter.

This is the end of the History of Islam category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 40, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about History of Islam 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