Understanding the ecology of MECCA !!
Mecca was the place where Muhammad was born in 571 AD. Well water there supported a small community. Otherwise people of the region were nomads. The importance of Mecca grew when a new caravan trade route to Syria developed from Yemen via Mecca because wars disrupted travel through Iraq. Trade brought contact with cultures of new people.
- Even before Muhammad, Mecca was known to be not only a trade center but also a religious center.
- There was one nearly cubical shrine called Ka’ba which contained a black stone which is believed to have divine properties.
- There were hundreds of gods in and around Ka’ba, but with Allah as a high god. Arabian tribes across the region used to come to Mecca to worship these gods.
The societies around were so primitive that tribal feuds were common. If a member of a clan murders a member of another clan, the entire clan of the murderer is held responsible for the murder. Such a pursuit of revenge – life for life – can sometimes lead to endless blood feuds.
These people do not come under any state; so there is no judiciary where the accused is given an opportunity to give his account and given punishment by a common authority.
- However the place around Ka’ba was considered sacred and agreed to be revenge-free. Also tribes were supposed not to resort to violence during some months during which Mecca could be a market place.
These details are important for they tell us the culture into which Muhammad was born. He was not born in an advanced empire – like Jesus was born in Roman Empire. Nor Muhammad was born into a culture that had gone through centuries of philosophical speculation – just as Buddha was born after Vedas and some Upanishads.
The Prophet !!
- Muhammad belonged to Quraysh, the leading tribe of Mecca.
- This tribe maintained Ka’ba and benefited monetarily from it.
- But Muhammad was born in a poor family.
- His father, Abd-Allah, died even before Muhammad was born and his mother, Amina, died when he was only six years.
- He was looked after for two years by his grandfather after whose death Muhammad came under the protection of his uncle, Abu-Talib.
Muhammad did not receive any formal education. He was illiterate. Accompanying his uncle to distant places like Syria for the purpose of trade, Muhammad received his learning from fellow travelers, new places, new customs and new ideas.
- To his uncle, Muhammad was just an orphan. His uncle refused to give Muhammad his daughter in marriage. But a rich widow, Khadija, who was impressed by Muhammad’ handling of her business chose to marry Muhammad. Khadija was then 40 years; Muhammad was 15 years younger to her.
Soon Muhammad became a successful businessman. He had wealth, an admiring wife and children through her. Settled and successful, he should be a happy man.
But he was not. Like many religious seekers before him, he was confronted by bigger issues of life. With his wife and children he used to go to Mount Hira for relaxation. Later he used to go alone, stay in a cave for hours reflecting on life.
On one such occasion, in 610, Muhammad underwent a great spiritual experience. It was frightening at first: he felt life was being squeezed out of him.
A voice said, ‘recite’ (It said ‘iqra’ which means read or recite.)Muhammad said, ‘I can’t’. (He is illiterate)It said again, ‘recite.’He said ‘I can’t. I don’t know how’.It said again, ‘recite.’Then he said, ‘What shall I recite?’Then the voice said‘Recite, in the name of Lord who created – created man from a blood-clot.Recite, for the Lord is bountiful, who taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not.’
Muhammad at first didn’t know what to make of this experience. Khadija, after consulting her kinsman Waraqa, told him that God talked to Muhammad the same way God had talked to Moses centuries ago.
That first recitation became the first poem of Qur’an (the recitation). Khadiji is considered the first Muslim for she is the first one to believe that it was the message of God.
In today’s world Islam is regarded as one of the major religions along with others like Judaism and Christianity. It is being debated what should Muslims attitude be towards other religions and whether Muhammad respected other religions.
- Context of evolution of Islam sheds light on such questions. Islam is one of the latest religions. Christianity happened seven centuries before Islam. Judaism happened much before Christianity. The society of Muhammad was very primitive and context of Muhammad makes it clear that he was only trying to give to his people what advanced societies already got.
Muhammad was comparing the primitive religion of Arabs and was trying to bring to his people the elements of an advanced religion like Judaism and Christianity. He regarded himself not a challenger to Moses or Jesus but their equal – and as yet another messenger of God.
What do we mean by an advanced religion? Are there advanced gods also?
- Yes, very much. Take local village goddesses in India who are not a part of Hindu tradition. Some prayers and rituals are associated with them. But they do not have any elaborate ethical or moral code associated with them. Primitive gods and religions are like that. Advanced gods have higher philosophies and more inclusive moral codes. World religions are like that.
- Muhammad proposed a higher moral code. Probably there was nothing like kindness towards a person outside a clan. Muhammad talked about being kind towards the weak and held it as man’s responsibility towards others regardless of their clans.
- What is a commonplace idea to a member of advanced religion is revolutionary to a member of a primitive religion. For example that God is merciful is an idea of the advanced religion. Primitive religions have brutish gods who may take revenge on people for the silliest of reasons.
Day of Judgment – where one is judged after death on how well he lived and thereby disposed to heaven or hell – is again idea of advanced societies. Anthropologists tell us the concept of heaven and hell is absent before the evolution of stratification.
- Muhammad started preaching among his close people first. Muhammad made one of the central tenets of Islam ‘There is no god, but Allah’.
How does one get to know what Allah expects from people? There Muhammad said only he is the messenger. And what is the message? That consists of series of revelations that occurred to Muhammad, which were finally codified in Qur’an.
- What if people refuse to believe this?
- What if they violate Allah’s code?
- What if they don’t live up to what Allah asks them?
They will be judged after the death and sentence will be awarded then.
One God; One messenger, that is Muhammad; Hell, if he is not followed. This he taught. To this one should submit to. This is Islam, which means submission.
But why should people listen to him? Why should others believe him at all?
- The reason was his message – its power, its relevance. His followers in Mecca used to secretly assemble to listen to him. It was a moral code far superior to what they were familiar with. A code if followed would lead to better societies, better relationships. It was a new way of living and thinking that was proposed.
- Muhammad was no different in this from the previous prophets. Moses and Jesus won their followers through the power of their messages. Muhammad was only doing what the previous prophets did.
Are we saying that Muhammad borrowed from others just the way we borrow ideas of science from advanced countries?
- No. Muhammad didn’t see himself as the one spreading ideas of other prophets. He saw himself equal to them. He didn’t see himself either superior to them or inferior to them. God gave messages to Jesus, just the way God gave to himself. He saw himself being in the long line of messengers. He respected other messengers as much as he respected himself. His point was he was equal to others.
- When Muhammad was insisting that only he was the messenger he meant that only he was the messenger for the people he was talking to. It was not to say that Jesus was not a messenger. When he insisted that ‘there is no god, but Allah’, he was rejecting only pagan gods of Mecca. He was not rejecting the God that Jesus had referred to. In Muhammad’s opinion, Moses and Jesus and many others – 124000, it is said – were sent only by Allah. Allah is God for all, not just to followers of Muhammad. When Muhammad criticized non-believers he did not mean Christians or Jews, who were called ‘people of the Book’ for they already have revealed scriptures.
Do we know how Jerusalem became important to Muslims?
- According to Islamic tradition, in what would be known as Night Journey Muhammad was taken by Angel Gabriel from Mecca to Dome of Rock in Jerusalem in few seconds where he met all other prophets – Abraham, Moses and Jesus included.
- After meeting them, Muhammad ascended to heaven where he came very close to Allah.
- It was during this time that Muhammad was instructed to tell his followers pray five times a day. ‘Salat’ (the prayer) involved kneeling on the ground touching the face to the ground acknowledging man’s smallness before God. For many years, Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem.
This Dome of Rock, also called Golden Mosque now, is the place towards which Jews turn during the prayer. Jerusalem became third holiest place to Muslims after Mecca and Medina. This reflects the importance Muhammad gave to the early religions and the previous messengers.
- Muhammad’s criticism of the gods of Ka’ba brought him into direct confrontation with the Quraysh. Meccan authorities were hurt that all other gods of Ka’ba were made irrelevant.
- If Muhammad is accepted, there would be no pilgrims and no income from running Ka’ba.
- First they tried to convince Muhammad through his uncle and guardian Abu-Bakr, who was also the chief of the clan, Hashim. But Muhammad was not convinced.
- Then they even resorted to violence particularly against those followers like slaves who did not have clan protection.
Sensing this Muhammad thought it best to send some Muslims to Abyssinia (which was in the present day Ethiopia) which was then ruled by a kind Christian king, Negus. Meccan authorities tried to convince the king to send back Muslims. But the king did not oblige. It is said the king was moved by a reference to Jesus that Muslims quoted from Muhammad’s teachings.
Meccan authorities also applied boycott of Muslims. Non-Muslims were not expected to sell anything to Muslims or buy anything from them. Social interactions were not permitted. But within two years of this boycott, there was resistance from Non-Muslims. So the boycott had been lifted.
- Meanwhile Muhammad’s reputation as a preacher was spreading outside Mecca. Some pilgrims from Yathrib (to be known later as Medina) first met Muhammad and were impressed by him. As more and more people from Medina took interest in Muhammad’s teachings, he was finally invited to settle in Medina.
What made people from Medina want to know about Allah? Why did they want to listen to Muhammad and his prophecies on Day of Judgment? Was it that they were afraid of going to hell otherwise?
- It is not that. Tribes at Medina were quarreling among themselves. They fought a big battle of Bu’ath in 618.
- When people from Medina heard about Muhammad, the message was so different. .
- It proposed new ideas, formulated new ideals, talked about new gods. And they easily saw Muhammad was a man of honesty and integrity – a man to be trusted and respected.
- The people there felt – not all of them but some – Muhammad would settle their disputes forever and bring peace to the town.
After Abu-Talib died in 619 – Khadija too died the same year – leadership of the clan passed on to a fierce critic of Muhammad, Abu-Lahab. Life of Muslims was becoming miserable. Muhammad decided to send his followers in small groups to Medina secretly without his opponents noticing it.
- Muhammad, Abu-Bakr (who is close to Muhammad and only two years younger to him) and Ali (Abu-Talib’s son, a boy of 9 or 10 years then) were the last to leave. When Meccan leaders got to know of this emigration, they wanted to kill Muhammad.
To avoid blood feud with Muhammad’s clan, they thought of taking one strong man from each clan and simultaneously stab Muhammad so that Muhammad’s clan wouldn’t know the clan of the assassin. But in the event, Muhammad got to know this plot and escaped unhurt. This migration of Muslims to Medina is called Hijra (Emigration), which took place in 622. Islamic calendar begins with this year, unlike the Christian that begins with the birth of Jesus.
- Jesus knew that his own disciples would deny knowledge of him. He knew one of the disciples would sell him to the Romans for few pieces of silver. He just witnessed all their ignorance. He was prepared to forgive them. In fact he said he was dying to wash the sins of the people around him..
- Muhammad’s approach was completely different. If he only wanted to witness the violence that could be done to him without fighting back, all his followers would have been wiped out. The society he lived was primitive and brutal.
Out of such a society of quarreling tribes, Muhammad tried to create a state as much civilized as possible. At Medina, he tried that. There were mostly pagans along with some Jews. Muhammad undertook the task of arriving at a common set of principles that would make peaceful living across various tribes and faiths possible. That set of principles is also called ‘constitution of Medina’. This constitutes rules against the practice of private justice based on vengeance.
The constitution did not aim to convert all to Islam.
- Non-Muslims were allowed to practice their own faith. Plurality was respected.
- In fact Ummah, meaning community, included non-Muslims as well.
- Mosque then was a place meant not only for worship but for all community activities of Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Muhammad lived around. He was the guide and the judge, not of his followers only but for others as well.
In modern times, a nation is not supposed to invade another nation. But in ancient and medieval times, a state can invade another state if it is powerful enough. In Muhammad’ Arabia, rides on caravans was a common practice. Raids were conducted for booty.
- In 624, Muhammad first organized one such raid on Meccan caravan coming from Syria.
- Meccans got to know his plan, changed the route of the caravan and sent an army of 1000 men to intercept Muhammad’s army at Badr.
- Though Meccan army was around 3 times larger than that of Muhammad, it was defeated. This was Muhammad’s first battle in the name of God and the success enhanced his prestige.
But Meccans were deeply hurt. They were not the ones to accept the defeat easily. In 625, they organized an army of 3000 to take on Muhammad. This time too, Muhammad’s army was outnumbered by around 3 times. But this war resulted in a stalemate. Meccans failed to eliminate Muhammad.
- In 627, around 10,000 soldiers were mobilized to take on Muhammad. There appeared no way of defeating them in a battle. Then Muhammad thought of a novel way of defending his town.
- Medina was covered by hills on all sides except one. On that side, he decided to dig a trench so that Meccan army could not enter Medina. Such a strategy was never known in the entire Arabia. Meccans were shocked. They tried to breach the trench but failed. They waited outside for a fortnight and then left.
Muhammad’s reputation increased as a result of these wars. More people came to believe that God must be on the side of Muslims and Muhammad must be the messenger of God.
What is of importance to modern reader is that at a very early stage of evolution of Islam, religion and politics got mixed up and conducting war was a part of politics.
- But though his military success contributed to his reputation, he had faced very serious internal problems in Medina. These problems came from the Jews. The pagans who didn’t have any strong religion of their own didn’t find it difficult to accept Muhammad’s leadership. But this is not the case with Jews who had their own prophets, sacred texts and gods.
Change in direction of prayer !
- Muslims in the beginning were praying in the direction of Jerusalem like Jews and Christians before them.
- But in 624, soon after the success in the first battle, Muhammad changed qibla (the direction of prayer).
- He asked the Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca. This is an assertion of new identity, which may have contributed to uneasy relationship of Jews with Muhammad.
Muhammad heard that some Jews were having secret meetings with Meccans. He feared that their support to Meccans would greatly weaken the defense of Medina. One clan of Jews was banished in 624; another one in 625. But worse was to happen to Jews after the Trench war. Muhammad feared during the seize of Medina, Jews might attack his army from inside and help Meccans cross the Trench.
- The feared attack from the Jews didn’t take place. But he thought banishing them would only contribute to the strength of his enemies. So he asked other leaders to decide what should be done to Jews. And it was decided that all the able-bodied Jews should be killed and women and children should be enslaved. 800 Jews were beheaded – an event that would have permanent impact on relations between Jews and Muslims.
That the Jews had to be killed must have pained Muhammad. He was there at Medina to bring peace among the warring clans. Instead he brought wars and became responsible for banishment of some of its people and killings of others.
- Of course, it would be wrong to say Jews were killed because they were Jews. But it remains a fact Muhammad failed to make Jews feel secure under his leadership. His religion at very early stage failed to integrate people of another religion that he himself respected.
But why do we take them as Jews at all and why not take them just as individuals who betrayed the people of their own town? They were accused collectively and punished collectively. So their identity as Jews is important. In fact one can understand that it is their religious identity that prevented them from accepting Muhammad as their leader – unlike the pagans of Medina who had no strong religion.
Was beheading too cruel?
- Not by the existing cultural standards: treason was punished that way then. Muhammad tried banishment before but it had not worked. So he didn’t want to add some more people to his list of enemies. That 10,000-strong army mobilized by the Meccans consisted of many tribes in Arabia.
- But Jesus wouldn’t have done that. Buddha wouldn’t have done that. Even Moses invoked the power of God to free the slaves from Egypt and not to conduct raids!
Yes, that is precisely how Muhammad is different from others. Jesus and Buddha were specialists in religion. They had the luxury of such specialization because they were born in advanced civilizations. Muhammad was not a specialist in religion. He had to defend himself, had to defend his followers. He had to found a state out of warring tribes. He had to write a constitution, frame laws for running of a state, raise army and plan war. Tasks such as this Buddha and Jesus were not doing.
God got probably sick of specialists in religion. So he sent Muhammad – a complete man, who can kill when needed with the same spirit of righteousness that he prays God.
- From the security point of view, Muhammad might be right in having betraying Jews banished, killed or enslaved. But such actions make him more of a king and less of a messenger of God. Muhammad must have felt after the last war that he should put all his efforts in winning over the Meccans and not in defeating them in a war.
In 628, with 1500 men Muhammad marched towards Mecca to make a pilgrimage. But Meccans barred his way. He signed a peace treaty with them. According to the treaty of al-Hudaybiya, Muhammad can make the pilgrimage but not in that year but from the following year and every year for 10 more years. The draft of the treaty mentions Muhammad as ‘messenger of God.’ To this Meccans objected; over this Muslims didn’t want to yield. But Muhammad struck down the words ‘messenger of God’ and had him mentioned simply as son of Abd-ullah — a compromise he considered worth making in the interest of peace.
- In 629, Muhammad and his followers actually made the pilgrimage.
- But after the pilgrimage, there was some breach of treaty and Muhammad felt it was time to settle the issue with the Quraysh once for all.
- By this time, many in Mecca became Muslims. He marched towards Mecca with an army of 10,000. Quraysh saw no point in resisting Muslim army. Muhammad offered general amnesty to one and all. Ka’ba was cleared of pagan gods.
In 631, Muhammad made his last Hajj (Pilgrimage) when he gave his ‘farewell sermon’, in which he attempted to give the essence of his teaching. He asked Muslims not to go astray from the path of righteousness after he was gone. He reminded them that each one would be answerable to God for one’s deeds. He asked them to pay zakat, which is a portion of one’s wealth given to the poor.
On women he said,
- “Remember you have taken them as wives only under God’s trust and with his permission. Just as you have rights over them, they have rights over you.”
- He also said, “Be mindful of the people who work under you. Feed and clothe them as you feed and clothe yourselves.”
On relations with other religions, he said,
- “Your Lord is one, and your father is one, all of you are from Adam. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, except by piety and good action.
- Treat others justly so that no one would be unjust to you. I leave behind two things, the Qur’an and my example and if you follow these, you will not fail.”
Muhammad was ill for some time before he died in Medina on June 8th, 632.
Muhammad asked his followers to follow his book as well as
his life. But this can be interpreted in variety of ways.
- The existing laws in the society he lived were very primitive. Flogging, stoning, amputation and beheading were all considered a part of administering justice in that stateless society which had no jails. Muhammad always tried to make the laws more just and humane.
- Some female infants used to be left alone in a desert to die; this practice Muhammad banned outright.
- As per the old law, women were not allowed to have share in property. Muhammad recommended share to woman though only half of man’s.
- Slavery was the norm then. Muhammad didn’t abolish slavery, but made freeing a slave a pious act.
- The old law said adulterous woman should be stoned. Muhammad replaced stoning with lashing that too only when four people actually witness the intercourse, which is impossible!
- The spirit of the changes he introduced is towards creation of more just society.
- Missing the spirit of Muhammad, on some matters situation was made even worse. Muhammad was living with his wives close to Mosque, a public place. Many charges were being made against his wives to insult Muhammad. In a context such as that, he asked his wives to cover themselves. That harmless instruction in Qur’an gave ground to veiling, which is not covering but hiding themselves.
Defending terrorism in the name of Islam is even worse. Muhammad was not only a kind man but a military strategist. Terrorism is an offence to his military intelligence, to his Trench warfare. Terrorism harms one’s own group, kills the unconnected and does not defeat the enemy. Particularly unintelligent when there are many other ways of making a political point. And Muhammad never planned death for his followers, only war where death was a possibility! Muhammad finally won Mecca not through war but through peace.
- Modern societies are far advanced. To follow Muhammad now should mean more progressive legislation. It is certainly not in going back to those old systems of punishment in the name of Shari’a (The way to know God) – that Islamic law which was formulated during 8th and 9th centuries on the basis of some instructions of Qur’an, then existing laws of the primitive societies, and the Hadiths (actions and sayings of Muhammad as reported by others).
Peace, justice, human dignity and tolerance are not in opposition to Muhammad’s teachings but in confirmation of his life and his teachings.
- It is not true that thought systems always degenerate in every way. Some innovations can take place. Sufism is one such innovation. This took place when Islam spread to distant areas and was taking some of the best of the cultures it spread to.
- Sufism is an innovation in the spiritual aspects of Islam. Probably Muhammad would have been shocked by this innovation.
In the world view of Muhammad, there is a huge gulf between the Creator and the creatures. Qur’an mentions that in many indirect ways – through an angel, or from behind a veil, for example – Allah communicated to Muhammad. There was not supposed to be a direct communication between mortals and Allah. Even a messenger is a mortal.
- Buddha proposed that in ‘nirvana’ there is communion with the whole world when the individual self is absent. Bhakti tradition of Hinduism proposed merger of devotee with God. Islam is inspired by these ideas. The result is Sufism.
Through different ways, Sufis try to seek communion with Allah. And interestingly they hold Muhammad is Sufi himself: it appeared to them that revelations were a result of beyond-ego processes.
- When Islam spread, it did not spread simply as one moral code given in the Qur’an. It absorbed different philosophies and gave itself philosophical depth. Through such processes, it could win the respect even in advanced societies. Islam, like other religions, adopted, absorbed and grew.
Secularism aspect ?
- Adaptation to secularism is more successful when one’s religion is confined to only one aspect of life – for example spiritual aspect.
- Buddhism and Christianity confine to spiritual aspects. Jesus emphasized that his kingdom was not that of the earth. Buddha was born prince, but renounced wealth as well as power.
- On the other hand, Muhammad was not a specialist. And Islamic life is not specialization. Muhammad gave principles on many aspects of life. Muhammad was the political leader advocating those principles. All this meant whole life is involved in Islam.
- So there is more difficulty for the conservative Muslims to reduce religion to private sphere, which Christians and Buddhists can do with greater ease.
- To the orthodox ‘There is no god but Allah’ implied ‘There is no law, but Shari’a.
- Also the sacred details of Islam make it difficult for the conservative to be flexible towards the changing times.
Innnovative Prophet !
- Muhammad asked his followers to follow his life as well as his teachings. But what is his life? His life provided an immense contrast with that of an orthodox Muslim. Muhammad was completely unorthodox, innovative and constantly experimenting.
- It appears Muhammad held nothing as sacred till he was personally convinced or, in other words, till Allah revealed it so. His attitude towards marriage is a good example of this. His first wife, Khadija, was 15 years older than him. Till she was there, he didn’t marry any one. After her death he started marrying more.
- One of his wives was divorced wife of his adopted son – this marriage raised protests then. At 53, he married his friend’s daughter, a girl named A’isha – some say she was only 9 years at the time of marriage, others place her at 16. This girl went on to become his favorite wife (years later her differences with Ali would cause the sectarian division).
- As a part of his efforts to build alliances with different tribes, Muhammad married many women – some say 9, some even 13. Then he thought probably it was not right to marry so many, so asked others not to marry more than four.
Some now want to judge him whether each marriage of his was proper or not. What they miss is that Muhammad was constantly experimenting and trying to find out what was right and what was wrong.
He was not founding only a religion but a culture! No messenger ever dared try this.
No existing thing was sacred to him, for the sacred had to be revealed to him afresh.
Why was Muhammad against getting himself visually
depicted? Why was Muhammad against Muslims making idols
- He wanted Muslims to pray only Allah and take only Allah’s message. Messengers are only mediators. He was only the messenger.
To avoid himself taking the center stage, he didn’t want to be depicted. There was no other reason for his opposition. He was for the propagation of Islam, for the propagation of Qur’an.
- In this age of new types of media, would not a film depicting Muhammad in person spread his message to more number of people? It will surely not lead to worshipping of Muhammad. But this simple thing no one in the world dare. This is for the fear of offending those claiming to the followers of Muhammad.
How a rebel like Muhammad gave rise to such an ultra conservative following is something that future messengers should ponder.