T HE HOUR WAS SUNDOWN. I stood on a hotel balcony in Rabat, Morocco. But it could have been Cairo or Karachi, Djakarta or Istanbul, any of a hundred cities about the globe where the spires of Islam rise. The muezzin’s call to prayer floated through the evening hush. Its summons—rolling, alliterative syllables chanted in Arabic, the tongue of the Prophet Mohammed and of Islam’s holy hook the Koran—is one and the same everywhere, just as Allah, God, is one. When that summons swells from minaret to minaret, the faithful stop whatever they are doing, face Mecca, and spread their prayer mats—worshipers united in reverent act and language.
THE COMMUNICATIVE MAGIC OF THE TONGUE was underscored for me that evening. Prayer time was over, the pious had risen from the last prostration. As the city resumed its business, the devotional mood vanished - or so it seemed. The hotel doorman and the driver of a taxi he had hailed for me got into a violent argument. With a string of oaths, the driver started the cab. Apprehensive of his driving in such a rage, I tried to calm him, first with English, then French. Neither language had any effect, though I’m sure he understood me. Finally I drew a phrase or two from the Arabic of my Syrian-Lebanese childhood. With a bounce that shook the vehicle, the driver whooped “A llahu Akbar!—God is most great!” His anger dissolved in enthusiasm at meeting in the unlikely guise of an American traveler a potential Companion of the Garden—comrade in paradise. A keynote of Islamic parlance, “Allahu Akbar” has many shades of meaning: in war a rallying cry, in peace a prayer, at any time a sign of fraternal goodwill. As a lifelong student of Islam, I felt—here in al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the “far west” of Arab chroniclers — the magnetic pull of that storied faith and ethos.
I would note it even more tangibly in mosque-studded Fez, Morocco’s time- washed cultural capital. There the faith shows on the faces of men in white jellahas who stream into mosques for Friday noon prayers: Almost every brow bears a pale round spot, an indelible souvenir of the countless times that forehead has pressed the ground as a sign of humble obedience to God.
“Islam” means surrender or submission to the will of Allah, in whose eyes all men are equal, in whose service all men are brothers. Newest of the world’s major religions and with claim as the fastest-growing, it centers on the simplest, most straightforward of creeds. Murmured in the ear of the newborn child and ideally the last whisper of the dying, that creed rings in a single sentence: There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet.
This latter clause emphasizes Islam’s division from other monotheistic faiths. Followers of Islam, or Moslems (the word in Arabic means “one who submits”), revere Mohammed as the greatest prophet who ever lived, the last of the messen- gers sent by God. But Moslems honor him and the prophets who preceded him —notably Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus—as human, not divine. Allah rules alone. Mohammed’s role was to bring to a perverse and materialistic society, through the express mandate of God, an absolute and final revelation: the Koran. The faith thus expounded molded a manifold human community. It galvanized man to action in the worship of God — and in turn shaped the far- flung empire conquered by the word as much as by the sword.
AT THE TIME OF MOHAMMED’S BIRTH the Arabian desert was a realm of wandering tribes and caravan centers dominated by patrician traders. Men valued manliness and eloquence, demanded fierce loyalty to the clan. They worshiped nature spirits, made pilgrimages to a cube-shaped shrine in Mecca housing scores of gods. In that prosperous crossroads city Mohammad was born about AD. 570. Left an orphan, he was reared first by a grandfather, then an uncle. At 12, Moslem writers say, he went with his uncle on a caravan journey to Syria. Not a few Christian hermits then lived on the borders of the Syrian desert; one whom the boy met predicted he would become a prophet. Young Mohammed, quiet and quite withdrawn, may have shown signs of the deep thought and insights that characterized his adult years. We don’t know. Legends of the Prophet eventually filled hundreds of volumes but give few facts on his childhood.
We do know that the massive-shouldered, dark-eyed youth worked hard as a shepherd and camel driver, winning the nickname al-Amin, “the trustworthy.” A marked change in his fortune came when, at 25, he received this message: “O son of my uncle, I like you because we are relations, and also for your good reputation among the people, your ..... good character and truthfulness.” The note, concluding with a proposal of marriage, came from Khadijah, a rich widow for whom he had managed trading caravans, lie accepted her offer, though she was 15 years older than he. The marriage brought him domestic contentment, four daughters, and the leisure to meditate on the destiny of man.
A favorite spot for his reflections was a cave on Mount Hlira, three miles from Mecca. Here in tlie month of Ramadan in the year 610 occurred the fateful “Night of Power” — when he saw the vision and heard the voice that were to alter his life and through him divert the course of history. Tradition identifies God’s agent as the angel Gabriel. “Mohammed, recite,” the voice commanded:
Recite: In the name of thy Lord who createth,
Createth man from a clot.
Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.
Thus was revealed the first fragment of the Koran, held to be God’s eternal and infallible word. Convinced of his mission to proclaim the message anew — man had corrupted the pure monotheism revealed by Abraham and other prophets— Mohammed memorized the words; later they were set down by a scribe. Similarly over a 22-year period came each of the Koran’s 78,000 words.
LONG BEFORE THE NIGHT OF THE FIRST REVELATION, monotheistic trends were astir in and about Arabia. Though many desert people venerated the moon and stars and at the Kaaba, Mecca’s ancient shrine, bowed to many idols — they also recognized a chief god called Allah, or “the God.” In Mohammed’s time, Biblical idcas were spreading from Jewish and Christian outposts. Too, Arabs and .Jews had in Abraham a common ancestor — the Arabs being descended through Ishimael, son of Hagar. In the Koran, Abraham exposes the error of moon worship, but both the e crescent moon and the star emblem of the ancient Semites survive as a symbol of Islam; it appears on flags of half a dozen nations.
Against a background of these religious traditions, fired by his own vision and Khadijab’s steadfast support, Mohammed eagerly awaited further visitations. He went often to Hira. He meditated. He waited. He hoped. And when more than two years had passed without new revelations, he despaired. A ninth-century biographer records that “he seriously considered ..... hurling himself down to the abyss from either Mount Hira or Mount Thabir.... .Just as he was about.... to jump off... . . he heard a heavenly voice...... and beheld Gabriel, seated upon a throne set between heaven and earth, who said: Mohammed! Thou art the Messenger of God and I am Gabriel.’ From that moment onward, the Prophet .. ... never again faltered Revelations thereafter steadily increased”
MOHAMMED WAS UNSCHOOLED, but he could preach with eloquence and passion. His first sermons reviled idolatry and all its supporters -- including his own tribe, the Quraysh. its aristocracy turned a handsome profit providing for the needs of pilgrims who came from all over Arabia to worship at the Kaaba. God’s wrath would surely overtake men who refused to yield to his undivided sovereignty Mohammed preached. He proclaimed not a new god but the all-powerful God of creation and judgment, revealing himself to man once more: “Therefore invoke not with Allah another gocl, lest thou be one of the doonied. And warn thy tribe of near kindred, and lower thy wing unto those believers who follow thee.”
The Prophet at first had little impact outside his intimate circle. Converts were few, the earliest being Khadijah, two young wards, and Abu Bakr, a Quraysh merchant. But with growing confidence and a message that gave new values to life, Mohammed drew larger audiences. Arab paganism counted death the cud of existence and made wealth a goal; the Koran taught that rich must share with poor, promised glorious afterlife for the righteous and hellfire fbr others.
In the pilgrimage season Mohamniecl went among the crowds at the Kaaba, declaring the idols unworthy of worship. Quraysh elders who held concessions to sell ritual robes, sacred food, and water saw their profits shrink. The democratic spirit of Mohammed’s preaching threatened the power of the upper classes. Thus town leaders turned in fury against the “driveller, star-gazer, and maniac- poet. They stoned and beat converts. Khadijah died, piling sorrow on adversity. In September 622, Mohammed, warned of a plot against his life, obeyed a vision telling him to leave Mecca for Yathrib, an oasis city 250 miles north. This momen- tous Hegira marks the start of the Moslem era, for with Mohammed’s migration Islam grew to political power. And Yathrib became Madinat al-Nabi, “the city of the Prophet,” or more simply, Meclina.
H ISTORY RECORDS MOHAMMED’S MEDINA VENTURE as one of the world’s greatest success stories. He began it a fugitive; he ended it ten years later the great spiritual and political leader of a new state, a state that in another decade had burst out of Arabia to shake the leading powers of the Western world, a state that in its four centuries of ascendancy wrought an amalgam of cultures vibrant, with contributions to the advance of civilization. The Koran, growing piecemeal as Mohammed received each new revelation, constitutes an enduring part of that success. Moslems worship God, but in a true sense they are also Koranists. Through the book God speaks. Verses, the basic unit, combine in suras, or chapters, arranged after the Prophet’s death in generally descending order of length.
The early Meccan suras, brief but volatile, brim with urgency “Nay, I swear by the Day of Resurrection ... on that clay man will cry: Whither to fleer Alas! No refuge! Unto thy Lord is the recourse that clay.” Vivid images color the passages. A trumpet blast signals the resurrection. The dead rise. Informed of their good and evil deeds as recorded in the book of life, they pass onto a bridge. The righteous cross safely into eternal bliss in lush “gardens underneath which rivers flow.” Evildoers are hurled into the abyss where “garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid ... poured down on their heads.”
For the fervor of religious exhortation, the suras revealed in Medina turn to the building of a community according to divinely orolained rules — some in lessons from lives of the prophets, some explicit on justice, property, personal behavior, the family. Suras grow longer, more didactic.
THROUGH REVELATION AND LIVING EXAMPLE, Mohammed tempered social evils and brought his followers a broader concept of humanity. His rules bettered lives of slaves, improved the condition of women. Polygamy was taken for granted in a land where men died young and women needed shelter; the Koran declared men are in charge of women” but limited the number of wives to four and decreed they should be treated equally and kindly. Divorce was permitted by repeating “thou art dismissed,” though a wife’s property rights were recognized. To God—fearing women went a promise of paradise on equal footing with men.
MOHAMMED, AFTER KHADIJAH DIED, TOOK TEN WIVES---wed before the Koran’s limiting edict. Some were widows of key followers who fell in battle; others, daughters of Arab leaders, he married for political reasons His favorite was Aisha, black-eyed offspring of his close companion Abu Bakr. A tradition attributed to Aisha say’ s that Mohammed’s greatest pleasures (prayers) were the sweet odors and the company of women. Desert Arabs prized manly vigor and legend came to endow Mohammed with this and all other virtues — the ideal man..
Traditions recounting his deeds and sayings eventually grew into a revered collection called the Hadith. It helped shape Islamic society, welding faith and law into an all-compassing system of beliefs and social practices.
Over the centuries power and theological struggles struggles spawned divisions of Islam. Among them: Sunni (from .sunnah, meaning “custom and law’’), orthodox in doctrine: and Shiah (from sunnah,, “partisans” of Mohamrneds son-in-law Ali), whose leaders are venerated as divinely guided. But reformers have sought to mold the varying beliefs. In the 12th century Abu Hamid al-Ghazzahi, greatest of the Islamic theologians, synthesized Sntini dogma and the mysticism of the ascetic Sub movement to profoundly shape religious thought. In the 18th century Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhah preached strict adherence to the Koran in forming the puritanical Wahbabi creed. Still, schisms remain, though Islam finds powerful unity in its holy book and in its Five Pillars - confession of faith, prayer, almsgiving. lasting, and pilgrimage.
In Medina, Mohammed had preached to followers gathered in the courtyard of his home; reputedly today’s mosque owes its plan to his modest dwelling. To call his followers to prayer, Mohammed chose not Christianity‘s bell nor Judaism’s ram’s horn but a muezzin’s cry from a housetop. The first muezzin was a melodious-voiced former slave; today’s call may be electronic.. Friday became the Moslem Sabbath, with congregational worship at noon. Mohammed’s sermons touched any topic: new revelations that had come to him. Plans for impending battles, civic projects. Today a khabit, or preacher, delivers short stylized sermons consisting of’ praise to God, a blessing on the Prophet, an admonition to piety, a blessing on believers, and a comment on or quotation from the Koran.
The sermon serves as a prelude to prayers, led by the imam. Though Islam has no fonnal priest hood — no clergy stands between a believer and God, and theoretically any layman may lead the worship — the imam scrves as senior officer of thc mosque aiicl spokesman of the faith. He also officiates at weddings and funerals, receives converts, and performs rituals during the lasting of Rarnaclan. In this ninth lunar month all Moslems except the ill, aged, and those on journeys are exhorted to abstain from food and drink between dawn and sunset.
AT ONE TIME MOHAMMED HAD FASTED ON THE JEWISH DAY OF ATONEMENT and followed the Jewish practice of facing Jerusalem while praying. Some scholars suggest that by such gestures he hoped to attract as allies certain Jewish clans. But they still remained aloof. Early in his Medina venture Mohammed broke with these practices, changing fast days and turning his direction of worship toward Mecca, and Jerusalem, with Medina, came to rank after Mecca among Islam’s holy cities.
Soon alter the Hegira, emboldened Moslems began raiding Meccan trade caravans to retaliate for the city’s opposition to the Prophet’s mission. In March 624,Mohammed himself led some 300 of the faithful against a larger force sent by Mecca to to punish the raiders. He won, and believers took this triumph as Divine espousal of their cause. By 628 Mohammed could lead I ,400 to Mecca and secure a treaty that called for a ten-year truce, with permission for Moslems to make a pilgrimage to Kaaba. But new converts soon tilted the balance of power further in his favor. In January 630, he seized upon an incident as a breach of the treat and marched on Mecca with a force of 10,000. Warned of the odds, the Meccans offered only taken resistance. Mohammed rode triumphantly into his native city.
On camelback he made seven ritual circuits of the Kabba, ordered all of its idol destroyed and rededicated the shrine to “Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.” Now the call to prayer sounded throughout holiest Mecca.
The take-over of Mecca set a model of leniency followed by Islamic conquerors ; vanquished pagans could embrace Islam. Christians and Jews con ld keep their own faiths--if they paid a tax. A magnanimous victor, Mohammed succeeded, as had no man before him, in uniting fending Arab tribes in a virile brotherhood, the ummah. His positive system, emphasizing rigid, performance of duties set out in the Koran, proved an antidote to social anti spiritual anarchy in Arabia.
NOW HIS MINISTRY NEARED ITS SUNSET. From a hill he faced a pilgrim multitude on the plains of Arafat near Mecca. He then preached a final revelation, saying “this day [God has] perfected your religion for you......and [has] chosen for you.......Islam.” Upon returning to Medina, he fell ill.
One sunrise in 632 Mohammed struggled from Aisha’s chambers to the assembly y’ where his followers had gathered for prayers. He smiled on them and reminded them that the faithful would follow him to paradise. Then he returned and laid his head to rest in his wife’s arms. Suddenly he was gone.
Mohammed’s companions chose Abu l3akr to succeed him. Thus a rose thesystem of caliphs — successors — who in time guided a theocratic state with widersway than even Rome’s. They ruled with an administrative code based on theKoran and Mohammad’ s example, adapted to meet changing places and times.
When Abu Bakr first learned of Mohammed’s death, he called the people together. “O men ,“ he said, ‘if anyone worships Mohammed, let him know now that Mohammed is dead. But if anyone worships God, let him know that God is alive and imortal forever.” Then Abu Bakr recited a verse from the Koran:”Mohammed is but a messenger, messengers ... have passed away before him. Will it be that, when he dieth or is slain, ye will turn back on your heels?”
History records the answers: a faith, potent today, that once fused Arab xs er: a Lit hi, potent today’, that once fused Arab nationalism and devotion toa single God into th most powerful empire on.
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