Here are my notes on the TV series, with thanks to Rageh Omaar ©BBC, July 2011. With a few clarificatory sentences lifted from Wikipedia and my copy of the Koran.
In Muhammad’s time there were a large number of independent Arab tribes were sandwiched between Christian Byzantium (the remains of the Roman Empire) and the remnants of the Persian Empire. There was no state or law, the tribes enforced their own harsh customary rules.
Mecca was the centre of Arabian polytheism. There being many gods was very important to Mecca’s economy which is why the ruling group, the Quraysh, were opposed to Muhammad’s monotheism so vehemently. The central shrine in Mecca, the Kaaba, is believed by Muslims to have been recognised by Adam under God’s instruction at the creation, and to later have been the site of Abraham’s shrine to God. Some western historians dispute the existence of Mecca as an important city prior to Islam.
Born into a particularly powerful tribe c.570, Muhammad’s immediate family, however, were poor. Poverty and hardship shaped his early life until he was adopted by his successful uncle who was a nomadic merchant. The first woman Muhammad married -Khadija, in 595- was older than him, which was more unconventional then than it is now. He did not prevent from carrying on her own business career and he didn’t take another wife in her lifetime. She lived with him for twenty-four years. Despite her wealth and having two daughters Muhammad was unhappy about social injustice. He took his family on spiritual retreats at regular intervals. He meditated in a mountain cave alone.
It was here that he received his first revelation, aged 40, c. 610, in the month of Ramadan. Upon being spoken to by an angel Muhammad was struck with terror and pain but Khadija reassured him that the revelation was not madness. There was, however, a gap of several months before his second revelation. According to religion scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong, late in his life he said “Never once did I have a revelation when I did not feel that my soul had been wrenched from my body.” They were constructed of images as well as words and were always physically exhausting.
Three years after this event Muhammad started preaching these revelations publicly, proclaiming the doctrine that ‘God is one’ and that there are no distinctions within God (Tawhid), and that complete ‘surrender’ of the self to God (Islam) is the only way acceptable to Him. Muslims consider Muhammad the restorer of the uncorrupted original monotheistic faith of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets. In Islam images of all prophets, including Jesus, are prohibited on the basis that they are idolatrous. Muhammad was also to become active as a social reformer, diplomat, philosopher, orator, legislator, military leader and humanitarian.
Tradition says that Muhammad could not read or write and was ignorant of religious ideas- his inspiration came completely from God. Given his dealing with other religions in a political context and the content of the Qur’an this is very unlikely to have been the case. Indeed, contemporaneous Christian writers recorded that he was greatly influenced by heretical forms of Christianity that saw Jesus as a prophet rather than the incarnation of God. While there is no evidence of this, it does fit with the heavy Judeo-Christian content of the Qur’an, particularly it’s usage of stories from the apocryphal gospels used by the heretics.
Early on Muhammad was extremely tolerant of non-Muslims, and indeed free choice in matters of religion is a fundamental moral principle in the Qur’an. His beloved uncle never converted. He was clearly not racist as he accepted Jews and Christians as part of the Muslim’s community as fellow ‘people of the book’. After increasing persecution by the Quraysh, in 615 half of the Muslims fled to Ethiopia.
In his purported ‘night journey’ to Jerusalem in 620 Muhammad met and led in prayer all the previous prophets, and then ascended to the highest heaven God to speak to him directly. This miracle is seen as proof to Muslims that Muhammad is the greatest and the final prophet, though there is debate about whether it was a vision or a physical journey. According to Karen Armstrong, the greatest significance of the night journey was the social and cultural opening out of Islam to all people.
The flight of Muhammad and the rest of his followers to Medina (then known as Yathrib) in the year 622 was blasphemy to the Arabs of the time to whom it was absolutely unheard of to leave your tribe and to form a community based upon ideology rather than blood relationship. This event is known as the Hijra, and was so significant a transition that it is the start date of the Muslim calendar (known as the Hijri calendar). The constitution of Medina, the drafting of which was initiated by Muhammad, organised the relationships of the diverse groups into a civil, non-religious state. It guaranteed that all groups -Jews, Christians, Pagans and Muslims- were equal under the law. While Muhammad’s Meccan revelations tended to be inwardly spiritual, or to do with cosmic justice (the day of judgement is the recurring theme), his revelations in Medina were more ethical and political.
Muhammad is the perfect moral example for Muslims as well as the prophet. Muhammad’s perfection is said to lie in that he is the only way to know God. ‘The way to know God’ is Sharia. Sharia is different from Islamic law often called the Sharia law. Sharia is the social and moral teaching divinely revealed to Muhammad in the Qur’an. Islam law by contrast was developed by jurists in the 8th-9th centuries and is seen by Muslims as fully human. It is also seen as fluid and developing along with secular academic disciplines- but fundamentalists take it as a revealed and unchanging part of Islam.
Under the Sharia there is corporal punishment- thieves are to have there hands or feet cut off, and the punishment for adultery, for both men and women- is 100 lashes on the backside- but this can only be done if there are as many as four witnesses to the act of penetration! Stoning to death was a punishment developed long after Muhammad’s time, under influence from non-Islamic Semitic tribes.
The treatment of women under Sharia was both liberal and progressive for its time. It effectively put an end to the practice of female infanticide in Arabia, and insured that women could own property, and got a share of their parents inheritance. He also ended unrestricted polygamy- a maximum of 4 wives was allowed. Many contemporary Muslims say that because the Qur’an requires that multiple wives must all be supported and treated equally and that this is impossible in practice, the Qur’an de facto teaches monogamy. Non-Muslims have criticised the authenticity of Muhammad’s revelations because the Qur’an says that he was allowed to keep all of his wives- perhaps as many as 13. The orthodox explanation for this is that Muhammad needed to maintain these marriages for diplomacy, and that it was better to build up his power by marrying into other tribes than by conquering them.
Muhammad’s young wife Aisha is not mentioned specifically in the Qur’an but some sources say she was his bride aged between 6 and 9. Other sources say 16-19. Either way there is a massive age gap because he was 53. Another controversy was that he married his daughter-in-law after the death of his adopted son. It is specifically to Muhammad’s wives and not to all Muslim women that the Qur’an stipulates covering up on top of the normal requirements of modesty. This was because they needed extra privacy considering that Muhammad led such a public life and had an open door policy in the mosque in which they lived. Veils for women were only introduced 100 years after Muhammad’s death.
While there is clear sexism in the Qur’an -for example Sura 78, verses 31-33 say that Allah will ‘reward’ male Muslims in heaven with big-breasted maidens- there is a massive gulf between Muhammad’s clear progressive attitude towards women and the systematic abuse of women that has occurs in many Muslim societies to this day, where genital mutilation, domestic violence and rape in marriage are accepted as normal.
In 624 the Quraysh attacked the Muslims in what became known as the skirmish at Badr. Considering their comparatively small numbers, the Muslim victory was seen as divine deliverance comparable to that of the Jewish Exodus story. That the Muslims survived the Quraysh’s revenge attack the following year at Uhud, however, was more remarkable, but was not regarded as a miracle because they did not win but only ended with a stalemate.
After turning the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca the Jewish tribes became suspicious of him. He had two smaller tribes of Jews banished for trading and talking with the Quraysh (under the constitution’s provision for loyalty to Medina) but when the third larger Jewish tribe allegedly planned to attack the Muslims while the Quraysh were (unsuccessfully) besieging the city (the 627 War of the Ditch), Muhammad agreed with his advisors that all their healthy men must be killed to stop them leaving and joining the Quraysh army. Only one of the 800 had his life spared by converting to Islam.
Jihad -striving in defence of Islam- is found in Sura 2 of the Qur’an (amusingly titled ‘The Cow’). Violent Jihad is specifically not pre-emptive, it is a just war of self-defence. There is, however, the so-called Sword Verse in the Qur’an: “fight and slay the pagan wherever you find them”. The problem with Jihadi terrorists is that they base their entire interpretation of the Qur’an on this verse considered in isolation, rather than interpreting the verse on the basis of the entire Qur’an. Against the terrorist position, there is no record of attacks on civilians in the early days of Islam.
In 628 Muhammad and a small group of followers unsuccessfully attempted to make the Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaaba, which remarkably entailed him going into the Quraysh territory unarmed. They were intercepted by the Quraysh at Hudaibiya where the Muslims were forced to sign a treaty before attempting the Hajj the following year. Muhammad humbly accepted humiliation in the pursuit of diplomacy. He had decided to spread his message via peace rather than through war. According to Karen Armstrong the Qur’an says that if the enemy asks for peace you must accept it on whatever terms. Muhammad’s 629 visit to Mecca was a great success for public relations between the Muslims and the people of Mecca.
In 630 the Quraysh attacked one of the tribes that had allied with Muhammad and this provocation led to him raising an army of 10,000 men with whom he marched to Mecca. Massively outnumbered, the city was taken without violence. In defiance of conventions of the time Muhammad prohibited slaughter or revenge in spite of the years of persecution he had endured there and instead preached reconciliation. More surprisingly a secular government was established and no one was forced to convert, though before Muhammad returned to Medina he did have the pagan idols in the Kaaba destroyed. So Muhammad is different from other important religious leaders in having set up his own state.
Western historians have always been suspicious of Muhammad’s motives, reading these events in a kind of Marxist sense- that he was a cunning tactician whose preaching was for purely political ends, his ultimate goal being economic domination of the Arab region. While I take a kind of Marxist position in historiography, I personally think that this attitude is more motivated either by Christian exclusivism or by reductionism in secular thinking about the spiritual than it is by the facts. Muhammad’s view of money will help us get to truth of the matter. Like the ancient Jews and Medieval Christians (and myself) he rejected forms of income not earned through your own labour as immoral, the main example being interest on loans. He made giving to charity a primary virtue of his new faith, to the point where he instituted the principle of Zakaat – a tax paid to help the needy in society as a central duty of Islam. This can be seen as a precursor to the modern welfare state. According to Karen Armstrong Muhammad was by all account an austere man who cared little for luxuries and was continually involved in philanthropic activity. So it seems very unlikely indeed that he simply invented his revelations for personal gain.
In early 632 he made his first and only successful Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaaba and delivered what became known as the final sermon. He warned against sectarianism, but unfortunately family squabbles after his death led to the split between Sunni and Shiite that we still have today. He also said “May the last [Muslims] understand me better than the ones who hear me directly.”- This implies that there can be progressive development in Islamic doctrine. He taught racial equality and the complete equality of the human race- Muslim and non-Muslim alike. And indeed, on religious inclusivism the Koran says:
“For each of you [the different religions], we have decreed different laws and different rites. Had God willed, He could have made you one congregation. But He thus puts you to the test through the revelations he has given each of you. You shall surpass yourselves in good works. To God is your final destiny, all of you, then He will inform you of everything you had disputed. … Surely, those who believe, those who are Jewish… and the Christians; any of them who believe in God and believe in the Final Judgement, and lead a righteous life, have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.” – Sura 5, verses 48 & 69.
A few months after returning to Medina from his Farewell pilgrimage, Muhammad fell ill and died on June 8. By the time of his death, all of Mecca and most of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam, and he had united the tribes of Arabia into a single political entity, putting an end to tribal ‘blood feuds’. Omaar concludes: Muhammad left the world with his faith in God, his actions, and the Qur’an. He left Arabia better than he found it, and he choose the path of peace whenever it was possible. I conclude that although I don’t agree with the content of many of his revelations -at least as they are presented in the Qur’an- Muhammad clearly had insight into spiritual reality, and was an honest seeker of truth and doer of good. Peace be upon him.