Archive for June 22nd, 2008

Muhammad and Arabia

This is part 4 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first three parts of the series at the end of this post.

As Rome fell and Europe went into the dark ages, guided by a new, spiritual form of Christianity which eschewed progress in favor of stability and tradition, Arabia was a violent, volatile place. Politics involved clans and tribes vying for power, governed by one fundamental principle: the law of retribution. If you or your tribe were treated unfairly you would retaliate, violently. Custom dictated that when one tribe defeated another the men would be killed, and the women and children enslaved. Harsh stuff, but reasonably effective; if the price of trying to take advantage of another is large, people tend to play it safe.

Within this environment, Mecca emerged as a cosmopolitan city, focused on commerce and tolerance of a vast variety of religious beliefs. The tribe ruling Mecca, the Quraysh, had turned a rather out of the way city into a trading hub and a place for religious pilgrimage. They had essentially bought up many of the idols worshipped across Arabia and put them in the Kaaba, turning Mecca into not only a place to go worship ones’ particular deity (they collected about 350 of them) but also a place where trade and commerce could take place peacefully. In many ways the Quraysh were rather enlightened: trade replaced warfare, religious tolerance was absolutely necessary, and thus traders and travelers from all over converged on Mecca. This also included Christians, Jews (mostly Arab Jews), Zoroastrians, and Hanifs.

Yet the Quraysh were also guided by traditional Arab customs which, as noted, were often brutal. The customs had been developed when tribes were smaller; applied to a large prosperous city like Mecca they produced a striking maldistribution of wealth and privilege between the haves and have nots. Throughout Arabia this was causing dissent, the traditional set of customs governing Arab life were becoming obsolete; one reason Islam would spread so quickly is that Arabs were ready for a message of change.

There were some things you didn’t want to be in pre-Islamic Arabia. First, you didn’t want to be a woman. Women were considered no better than property, men could divorce at will, and women had no rights. Rare was the successful woman in the business world, sexism was endemic and severe. You also didn’t want to be an orphan. So much was based on family that orphans usually became slaves, unless some other family member of status took the orphan under his wing (emphasis on his).

So when a young boy named Muhammad (570-632) lost his parents at a very young age (his father died before his birth, his mother when he was six), the future looked bleak. Luckily for him his very influential uncle Abu Talib, head of the Banu Hashim clan, took responsibility for him. Muhammad was by all accounts an impressive individual, gaining the trust of family and associates. He also was very introspective, listening to the various religious teachings that came through Mecca, learning about Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and the teachings of the Hanifs. He would often treat to the desert to meditate and think about these ideas, and the state of Arabian society.

Muhammad was clearly well aware that he was lucky not to have become a slave, and his later teachings will make clear that he was outraged by the differences between the wealthy few and the poor masses. No doubt as he meditated he thought about the various religious perspectives he had heard, and the material injustices all around him. His wife Khadija was a rarity in Arabia: a successful business woman. Her wealth brought her many suitors. Of course, if she had married she’d become property to the man who she chose, and he could essentially take her fortune. So at age 40 she was an unmarried woman, another rarity for that time.

The young Muhammad must have impressed her. By all accounts he had a reputation for honesty, and perhaps he was open about his disgust at the way the Quraysh ran Mecca, and Arab customs in general. Perhaps she was intrigued by this introspective, intelligent caravan leader. She hired him and then later married him. They would have a monogamous relationship until her death in 619, at the age of 64. Khadija also had a Christian cousin, and no doubt Muhammad learned a lot about Christianity from her. The orphan who escaped slavery thanks to his uncle was married to a woman who showed an independence and success that defied Arab custom.

For 14 years Muhammad continued being a business success, respected in Mecca, and gaining renown even outside Mecca as an impressive, honest, and thoughtful man. Although some traditions have him illiterate, that is unlikely given his position. One can only imagine his meditations as he reflected on all he was learning about different people and different religious traditions. He certainly had to view existing Arab customs as backwards and unjust; by all accounts he should be a slave and his wife someone’s property.

In 610 at age 40 Muhammad went to meditate at a mountain near Mecca, as he often did, sometimes for weeks at a time. Non-Muslims will speculate that he either hallucinated or made a conscious choice to try to construct a religion to radically reform Arabia, borrowing heavily from Christianity and Judaism. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel appeared and commanded Muhammad to recite. Whatever the case, Muhammad came back and shared his story with Khadija, who became his first convert. Those first recitations marked the first passages of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and by all accounts some of the most beautiful poetry in the Arabic language. For Muslims the beauty of the prose is proof it came from God, for non-Muslims, it shows that among his other talents, Muhammad was a brilliant poet. In any event, as Muhammad came back to Mecca from his meditation, he was about to start a new civilization. It would not be easy. The Quraysh would be determine to eliminate Muhammad and his followers, and the Ummah — the community of believers, Muslims, would have to fight to prevent their faith from being eliminated before it could grow.

The first three parts of the Islam and the West series:
Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30)