by Wendy Murray
I heard a pundit say recently that “Jesus probably would have been okay with Muslims; he was around a lot of Muslims — it was the Middle East.” That was the moment I decided the time had come for a brief refresher on the beginnings of Islam and the paradigm forged by its founder, Muhammad. What was his intention for his new-found system of belief? How did he determine to advance it? Just as–in trying to understand Christians one must continually look to the person of Jesus– so too, to understand Islam one must look at its beginnings as forged by its leader Muhammad. This is especially needful today, in a wider culture that presumes much about Islam (such as the above-noted pundit, who got it all wrong) or wrestles with how to understand Islam’s advance and the violence associated with that.
To clarify the pundit’s mistake, Jesus lived 600 years before Islam came into being, so, for the record, he was not “around a lot of Muslims.” He lived and died between the approximate years of 3 B.C. and A.D. 30 whereas Muhammad did not come onto the scene, some 600 miles away, until 570. In fact, a little-known aspect of the propelling force behind his founding of Islam was Muhammad’s desire to be like the Christians (and the Jews) as “People of the Book.”
Here is a brief summary of Islam’s beginnings derived from research I did for a cover story I wrote for Christianity Today several years ago (April 2000).
Muhammad was born in A.D. 570 in Mecca (in what is today Saudi Arabia), where the heart of worship was the local Ka`bah (shrine), or the Black Stone, and its numerous idols. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother Hagar, after being banished by Sarah, ended up in the desert surrounding Mecca, where they were miraculously rescued. Abraham — or Ibraham, as he is known is Arabic — visited them there and he and Ishamel built the Ka`bah. Muslims believe they are the true heirs, through Ishmael, to the promise God made to Abraham.
Muhammad learned about the “People of the Book” — Jews and Christians — in his youth. He felt troubled that his own people, the Arabs, did not have a book of their own. As he reflected despondently on this one day in a cave on Mount Hira (in A.D. 609 or 610), Muhammad said the angel Gabriel appeared to him: “Recite: In the Name of thy Lord who created Man of a blood-clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught Man that he knew not” (Surah 96:1-4). The injunction to “recite” meant “make vocal what is already written,” writes author and Islamacist Kenneth Cragg. In other words, “recite” means it was the “sending down” of a preexistent book (Qur’an is Arabic for “recitation”).
At first Muhammad feared he had been overtaken by a jinn, a troubling spirit. But in time Muhammad’s fear gave way to acquiescence and the visions recurred with greater frequency.
His recitation denounced idol worship and proclaimed the total sovereignty of the One True God. Because the People of the Book also claimed allegiance to this God, his early recitations about Christianity and Judaism in the Qur’an were irenic: “O believers, be you God’s helpers, as Jesus Mary’s son, said to the Apostles. ‘Who will be my helpers unto God?’ The Apostles said, ‘We will be helpers of God’ ” (Surah 61:14).
His small circle of followers, composed mostly of family members and domestic help, became increasingly assertive in their belief that Muhammad was a prophet, and this aroused the consternation of the people of Mecca, many of whom felt their vested interests in idol worship and commerce were being threatened.
The deaths of his first wife Khadijah (15 years his senior) in 619, and his uncle Abu Talib, who was also his protector, precipitated a crisis for Muhammad. He and his followers could stay in Mecca in perpetual jeopardy as a despised minority, or he could move to a new location where the fledgling faith could gain a foothold and grow. Some of his disciples had succeeded in their missionary undertakings to the north, in a place called Yathrib, later called Medina. So in 622 Muhammad migrated to that city to form a new base of activity. The famous hijrah (emigration) occurred in September of that year and became the historical fulcrum of Islam.
Several things happened with this move that solidified and redefined Islam. First, despite the previous missionary successes in Medina, Muhammad’s new religion was generally rebuffed. Some resisted his presumption and others eschewed the notion of converting. Second, Muhammad had anticipated, at the very least, a warm reception from the People of the Book — primarily the Jews — in Medina, since they too were “Scripture people.” Instead they treated him with “amused disdain,” says Cragg, “and rejected his claims as pretentious.”
These difficulties triggered a shift in Muhammad’s message. The portions of the Qur’an “sent down” during this period took on a more aggressive political and legal tone, in contrast to the previous poetic and mystical reflections. During the Medinan years (622-630) Muhammad consolidated Islam into a functioning, overarching political and religious community — the umma — and built a mosque. He also fashioned his revelations into principles and administered the social, political, economic and religious affairs of the Medinans. Recitations regarding the People of the Book became more belligerent: “God fight them, what liars they are (Surah 9:30) and “O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; … God guides not the people of the evildoers” (Surah 5:56).
At the same time, hostilities with the Meccans in the south, continued as Muhammad raided their caravans traveling north. The Battle of Badr (624), the first major engagement between Muhammad’s forces and Mecca, proved decisive for establishing Islam as an aggressive force. “[T]he sword was unleashed and the scabbard cast away. The jihad, or appeal to battle, had been irrevocably invoked,” Cragg says.
In 630 Muhammad returned as victor to Mecca in geopolitical advancement of his new-found religion. He claimed the city for Islam and destroyed the idols being worshiped at the Ka`bah. The action introduced the notion of “manifest success” — geographical dominance — as a validating sign of Islam, which defines their identity to this day.
Muhammad died in 632, two years after the conquest of Mecca. The recitations were complete. The canon, so to speak, was closed. But a new religion, predicated on geographical advancement and conquest, was born.