20 Nov, 2005
Part 1 <<<
Muhammad in the Household of his Uncle
transfer to his uncle’s house did not bring him any relief from what
he had been suffering in his grandfather’s house. Abu Talib was not
rich either, but he, too, had a large family. Even though he, in
addition to his sacerdotal duties of the Ka’aba, had taken to
trading to supplement his income, yet he did not earn enough to
provide for all the needs of his family. Scarcity was a rule, rather
than an exception for his dependents. As his family members often
passed their days in hardship, Muhammad’s addition to the family
became a burden not only for Abu Talib, but also for other members
of his family. Consequently, they made him feel unwelcome in their
midst, and used, in his presence, languages and gestures, which were
good enough to act as salt for the wounds he had already acquired
from his grandfather’s house.
Abu Talib, on his part, was aware of the situation that his nephew was enduring in his house. He wanted to help, but he, too, was handicapped; for had he been able to meet the needs of his immediate family members, he could have justified Muhammad’s presence in his house, but that was not the case and, consequently, he could do nothing for him, but to play the role of a silent spectator. When he could live no more with his nephew’s agonizing sufferings, he found him the job of a shepherd.
Child Muhammad’s job required him to take his employers’ camels, sheep and goats into the plains for grazing. He thus had to spend, all by himself, the major portion of his day in the grim desert outside of Mecca. Letting the animals roam about in search of a thorn or a blade of grass among the pile of stones, we can visualize how a young, sensitive and intelligent boy of Muhammad’s age must have spent his time.
It is a rule of nature that misfortune and sufferings create bitterness in a person and these make him conscious of his situation, especially when he finds himself with nothing to distract him from his thoughts. Such a person grieves over his misfortune and tries to find out its causes. While doing so, he develops a strange internal feeling, which can be described only by a person who had undergone such an experience in his own life.
Since the above observation amply applied to young Muhammad, we may safely conjecture that in the midst of his frustrating loneliness, he must have asked himself why he had come into the world as a fatherless orphan, and why he had to work as a shepherd at such a lonely place at such a young age, while other children of his age were spending their time in the company of their parents. He must also have asked himself why his mother had left him at the mercy of the people he hardly knew, and why their treatment of him was different from that of their own children.
Despite the fact that he brought in some income to his uncle’s family, yet still its members continued to treat him in the manner of the past. That they continued to mistreat him hurt him deeply; its resultant pains being the major cause for deepening his hatred towards them and his mother. He believed that if he had been living with her, nobody would have subjected him to the degrading insults as the ones he suffered from at his purported grandfather’s house, and which continued to be heaped on him at his uncle’s house. In his mind, his mother was responsible for all of his sufferings. He constantly asked himself, but without letting anyone know: why was he there in their midst of a people who had no love or respect for him?
His ego, sensitivity and feelings greatly hurt, Muhammad stopped playing with other children in his spare time. Instead, he felt more at home when conversing with those people who came to Mecca on pilgrimage or on trade. He enjoyed their conversations on religious matters. He also derived immense pleasure from their story-telling sessions. Very often, he prompted them into narrating the tantalizing and fascinating Arabian tales of the past. Most of the tales and fables he heard from them acted like balm for his painful wounds. When he got his opportunity, he narrated them eloquently to his listeners. The tales he had heard of in his childhood became later an important and integral part of the Quran.
When he had no story-telling session to attend to, he took pleasure in watching the arrival and departure of the caravans, which traded in Syria and the Yemen, and thronged at Mecca before their dispersal. The thought of being in foreign lands filled young Muhammad’s mind with excitement and carried his imagination to things he himself hoped to see one day in those distant lands.
Once, Muhammad saw Abu Talib mount his camel to depart with a caravan bound for Syria. Unable to suppress his ardent desire, he begged his uncle to take him along on his journey. Abu Talib could not deny his forceful request and gave him permission to accompany the caravan.
The route to Syria, in those days, lay through regions fertile in fables and traditions, which it was the delight of the traveling Arabs to recount during the evening respites of their caravans. The vastness and solitude of the desert in which the wandering Arabs passed so much of their lives was the fertile ground that also gave birth to numerous superstitious fancies. Accordingly, they had the deserts peopled with good and evil Jinns, and clothed them with tales of enchantment, mingled with wonderful but dubious events, which, they believed, had taken place in the distant past.
While traveling, the youthful Muhammad doubtless imbibed many of those superstitions of the desert. Remaining ingrained in his retentive memory, they later played a powerful role over his thoughts and imagination.
We may note here two ancient traditions, out of the many of the Arabian legends, which Muhammad must have heard at this time, and which we find recounted by him afterwards in the Quran. One of these related to the mountainous district of Hadjar.
As caravans crossed the silent and deserted valleys, caravanners gazed at the caves at the sides of the mountains. Those caves were said to have been once inhabited by the Bani Thamud or the Children of Thamud. Those people, Arabs believed, belonged to one of the lost tribes of Arabia.
Bani Thamud were a proud and gigantic race, supposedly existing at the time of patriarch Abraham. When they lapsed into idolatry, Allah sent them a prophet from among themselves whose name was Salih. His task was to restore them to His righteous path. People refused to listen to him unless he proved the divinity of his mission through a miracle. Salih prayed, and Allah caused a rock to open up from which came out a gigantic she-camel, producing a foal and abundant milk soon after.
Some of the Thamudites were convinced by the sight of the miracle and gave up idolatry. The greater majority of them, however, remained unimpressed and continued in their disbelief.
Disappointed, Salih left the camel among the people as a sign from Allah, but warned them that a catastrophe would befall them should they do her any harm. For a time, the camel was left to feed quietly in their pastures, but when she drank from a brook or a well, she never raised her head until she had drained the last drop of water.
In return, it was believed, she produced milk to supply the whole tribe. As she, however, frightened other camels out of pastures by her huge size, she became an object of offense to the Thamudites who, to get rid of the beast, hamstrung and then slew her.
Allah, the all-mighty, had to retaliate against those who had killed the she-camel. He caused a fearful cry, accompanied by great claps of thunder, to descend from heaven upon the Thamudite people at night; in the morning all the offenders were found dead, lying prostrated on their faces. Thus for avenging the death of a she-camel, Allah obliterated a whole race from the face of the earth. The land of the Thamudites still remains barren, caused, the Arabs still believe, by a constant curse from heaven.
This story had a powerful impact on Muhammad’s mind, who, in later years, refused to let his people encamp in the neighborhood, hurrying them away from this accursed region of the Arabian Peninsula.
Another tradition gathered by Muhammad during one of his journeys related to the city of Eyla, situated near the Red Sea. This place, he was told, had been inhabited in ancient times by a tribe of the Jews. Like the Thamudites, they had lapsed into idolatry. Also, because the tribe had profaned the Sabbath by fishing on that sacred day, Allah transformed their old men into swine, and the young ones into monkeys. What had happened to their womenfolk was not told, so Muhammad necessarily remained vague while narrating this story in the Quran.
The aforesaid traditions, among others, are found eloquently described in the Quran, thus indicating the extent of bias to which Muhammad’s youthful mind had been subjected during his journeys.
Muslim writers have eulogized many wonderful circumstances, which are stated to have attended Muhammad throughout all the journeys of his life. He was, they assert, hovered over by unseen angels with their wings spun to protect him from the burning sands of the desert and the scorching rays of the sun.
On another occasion, a cloud protected him from the noontime heat by hanging over his head. On yet another occasion, a withered tree suddenly came to life; put forth its leaves and blossomed in order to provide shade to the distressed Muhammad.
All those miracles did not rest on the evidence of eyewitness; rather those were Muhammad’s own statements, or were invented, after his death, by his zealot followers. Muslims believe in those miracles without raising their eyebrows.
During his journeys, Muhammad is said to have met a number of Christian hermits. Monk Bahira was prominent among them. On conversing with Muhammad, Bahira was struck by the precocity of his intellect and became entranced by his eager desire for varied information. His inquisitiveness centered, principally, on maters of religion. The two were believed to have held frequent conversations on the subject, in course of which, the discourse of the monk was mainly directed against idolatry, the practice in which the youthful Muhammad had hitherto been raised. The Nestorian Christians, for whom Bahira was a faithful patron, were strenuous in forbidding the worship of images. They prohibited even their casual exhibition. Indeed, they had taken their scruples on this matter so far that even the cross, a common emblem of Christianity, was included in this prohibition.
Muslim writers also stress the point that Bahira had become interested in the youthful Muhammad because he had seen the seal of prophecy on his shoulders. This vision, they swear, gave the monk the conviction that this was the same prophet whose arrival had been foretold in the Christian Scriptures. The monk is further reported to have told Abu Talib to ensure that his nephew did not fall into the hands of the Jews, thereby forecasting with the eye of prophecy the trouble and opposition that Muhammad was destined to encounter in future from that religious group of people.
We doubt if the above-mentioned encounter had ever taken place. Supposing that it had actually taken place, in that event, the purpose of Bahira’s encounter must have revolved around one of his own agendas. Since the monk was engaged in a mission and predisposed toward proselytizing, he, being a sectarian preacher, needed no miraculous sign to develop an interest in an intelligent and intense Muhammad, and to attempt to convert him to the beliefs he was then propagating. He knew that his subject was a receptive listener; and he was also the nephew of the guardian of Ka’aba. He also knew that if he succeeded in implanting the seeds of his teachings into Muhammad’s tender mind, he would be spreading, through him, the doctrines of his sect among the people of Mecca, thus advancing his mission by a great leap. This was a good motivation for Bahira to develop an interest in Muhammad. He did not have to see the putative seal of prophecy in order to convince himself with the potentials and usefulness of his subject.
What the monk is reported to have told Abu Talib about Muhammad must have been a precautionary suggestion. In the unsettled state of religious opinions then obtaining in the Arabian Peninsula, the monk wanted to prevent his would-be convert from being engulfed by the Jewish faith, which was then influencing the Pagans. Had it had happened; the monk would have lost a good candidate for his faith, and this would have been a setback for the cause he was then duty-bound to promote.
With Abu Talib, Muhammad returned to Mecca, his mind teeming with wild tales and traditions he picked up during his journey through the desert. He remained deeply impressed by the doctrines imparted to him by Monk Bahira in the Nestorian monastery, which, as we will note shortly, had helped him tremendously later in his life in shaping the doctrines of his own faith.
Muhammad had also developed a mysterious reverence for Syria, believing it to have given refuge to the patriarch Abraham when he had fled from Chaldea, taking with him the doctrine of worshipping one true Allah. His veneration of this country was so deep that he is said to have initially faced Syria, while saying his three daily prayers.
While not traveling with the caravan, Muhammad worked as a shepherd. But when he reached his manhood, different persons employed him as their commercial agent, to be with their trade caravans, which traveled to Syria, the Yemen and other destinations on commercial pursuits. The fact that he was given charge of trade by his employers negates the Muslim claim that Muhammad was an illiterate person and, therefore, he could not have said or written what the Quran contains. A person unable to read or write could not have been given the important post of a commercial agent, especially, when other Meccans are claimed to have been able to do so. Like the rest of his contemporaries, he must have had a limited ability of reading and writing, otherwise, his employer would not have hired him for a job that required him to keep record of the trade activities that he engaged in, and to a produce them to his employer on returning to Mecca after a long sojourn in distant lands.
During his journey through Jerusalem, Muhammad had the opportunity of seeing the Temple of Solomon, located on the hill of Moriah. King Solomon had built it for Yahweh, who was one among many gods of the ancient people. In the Quran, this Temple is erroneously alluded to as the Farthest Mosque (Masjid-ul-Aqsa). His familiarity with this temple helped him later to describe it vividly, when questioned about his alleged ascension to Seventh Heaven in the darkness of a night. Our comment on it will appear in this presentation shortly.
Muslims firmly believe that Muhammad had landed here on his wonder horse, known as Burraq, and walked across the plaza - built by Herod to expand the area of the Second Temple - and then ascended to heaven during a night to hold talks with Allah. When asked to describe the temple in order to prove his claim of the mysterious ascension, Allah, it is said, presented its replica in his vision to enable him to satisfy the incredulity of his Meccan tormentors. During their rule over Jerusalem, Muslims built, near the Temple of Solomon, a mosque known as the Dome of Rock, to commemorate his ascension. It is also called the Mosque of Hadhrat Umar. This has become, for the Muslims, the third holiest place of worship after the Ka’aba in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.
King Solomon was the person who had first used the oft-repeated Muslim invocation of Allah’s glory in a letter that he is said to have written to Queen Bilquis of Sheba, some seventeen hundred centuries before the advent of Islam. The invocation, reading as follows, is now used by all Muslims every day before doing anything in their lives:
“Bismillah hir Rahman nur Rahim,” meaning: In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
The Pagans used the same invocation before their idol Allah. Muhammad lifted it from the pagan practice and made it an essential component of his religion.
Before we proceed further with our narrative, we may pause here and discuss briefly a psychological theory or observation that is relevant to Muhammad. It is known that belief can blunt human reasoning and common sense. It has been established that ideas, which have been inculcated into a person’s mind in childhood remain forever in the background of his thinking. Consequently, such a person will want to make facts conform to his indoctrinated ideas, which may have no rational validity. Many learned scholars are known to have remained handicapped by this burden, and inhibited from using their common sense. It is not that they never used their common sense in religious enterprises; they used it only when it corroborated with their inculcated ideas.
Mankind’s faculties of perception and rationalization have enabled them to find solution of scientific problems, but in matters of religious and political beliefs, the same species is, unfortunately, willing to trample on the evidence of reason and senses.
Evaluating Muhammad from the above perspectives, one would find that he was one of the few exceptional and brutal persons to have ever inhabited our earth. Though he grew up in a particular religious environment, yet when situations demanded, he was not only able to throw off his childhood indoctrination that evolved around idolatry; he was also able to introduce and adapt himself to a new religion that suited his interests. The stated metamorphosis in Muhammad was possible because he was an exceptionally capable person, having together with it, tremendous amount of patience and perseverance.
We know Muhammad as a tyrant and a pedophile; we detest him for what he had done to the exceptionally tolerant Pagans and the Jews; we are rightly critical of his utterances; we justifiably castigate him for wanting his followers to treat their wives inhumanely and we also know, with an amount of certainty, that he was a sadist, who inflicted emotional and psychological pains on his wives, but to the people of his land, he was truly a reformer. Through a movement, which he had essentially begun against the sedentary Quraish of Mecca, Muhammad ended up bringing, by force or otherwise, nearly all the people of the Arabian Peninsula under a religion he called Islam, which enabled them to conquer, in a short period of time, almost one third of the earth. Had he not united them in a single religious bond, perhaps the nomads of Saudi Arabia would still be squabbling and fighting among themselves on the lines of their tribal and clannish divide. They, therefore, owed him a great debt, which they have been paying him by not only holding fast to his detestable doctrines, but also by spreading them among the people living in every nook and corner of the globe.
Through its acceptance by people from all parts of the world, Islam has become a world religion, even though its founding father had harbored no such ambition for his religion. We will say more on this issue in our commentary to the Quran.
Contrary to the Muslim conviction that Muhammad was originally created by Allah as a believer in his Oneness, he is known to have worshipped and offered sacrifices to al-Uzza, an idol the Pagans believed to be one of the three daughters of Allah. The Quraish venerated al-Uzza highly, believing that her intercession on their behalf would be acceptable to Allah, her father. One of his uncles was named after this idol; he was called Abd al Uzza, the slave of Uzza, before he was nicknamed Abu Lahab, the Father of Flame, by his Muslim foes.
On Muhammad’s Pagan backgrounds, F. E. Peters writes:
According to a famous, though much edited, tradition, it was young Muhammad who was the Pagan and Zayd ibn Amr a monotheist. Peters also quotes Zayd ibn Haritha, who is said to have narrated the following story to his son:
The Prophet slaughtered a ewe for one of the idols (nusub min al-ansab); then he roasted it and carried it with him. …
While preaching the Oneness of Allah, Muhammad continued, in one form or another, to venerate the idols—up to the time he conquered Mecca—when all the idols, housed inside and outside the Ka’aba, were finally destroyed at his order.
In his early life, Muhammad was no
different than other youths of his time. He used to “spend his
nights in Mecca as young men did”—in
quarters where whores offered sex to youths whom they expected to
protect them in times of perils. His marriage with Khudeija might
have altered his lifestyle to a certain degree, but it was not good
enough a reason for him to abandon his earlier habit in its
Muhammad was also a frequent attainder of fairs, which, in Arabia, were not always the mere venues of business activities, but also occasionally scenes of poetic contests between different individuals, where prizes were adjudged to the victors. Such especially was the case with the fair of Oqadh; poems adjudged best adorned the walls of the Ka’aba. At those fairs, also, contestants recited the popular traditions of the Arabs. They also propagated various religious practices that were then common in the Peninsula. From oral sources of this kind, Muhammad gradually accumulated varied information about creeds and doctrines, which he afterwards prescribed for his own followers.
As was the wont of his tribe, Muhammad also used to retire to a cave in Mount Hira to practice penance on the 10th of Muharram, a day also sacred to the Jews. Following the Jewish custom, he also fasted on this day.
Use of Alcohol in Islam
Muslims venerate Muhammad for being abstemious in his physical life. This point of view contradicts a natural phenomenon. He was part of a society that must have made him susceptible to all of its practices. If he wanted to have protection of his tribe, without which, none could have survived in the hostile and ever feuding Arabian societies, he must have participated in his society’s indulgences, which included drinking of a highly stinking liquor called maghafir, as well as wine. The native Arabs made maghafir by extracting juice of the palm-trees and then fermenting it before consumption.
Because the Arabs were generally addicted to drinking, Muhammad did not actually describe drinking of alcohol as “Haram” or forbidden in the strict sense of the word; what he required of Muslims was not to offer their prayer in a state of drunkenness, and that they should try to “avoid or refrain” from drinking, thus corroborating in part, the condition, which the Bible has imposed on Jews and the Christians.
Under the circumstances described, it is to be understood that since Muhammad himself drank maghafir and wine, he must have thought it to be a prudent decision to remain vague on the subject of drinking. At the same time, he must have considered it politic to ask his followers gently to moderate their intake of alcohol, he himself having experienced, and suffered from, in his own life, the adverse impact of excessive drinking.
When working for various Meccan merchants, Muhammad came to know the amount of profits they were making out of their business. He also realized how they spent their wealth on making their and their children’s lives better. The reflections of his own childhood plights and sufferings convinced him that the merchants of Mecca not only neglected the city’s poor and needy; they were also unkind to the orphans. This realization turned him against the merchants, and he vowed to force them one day to share their wealth with him and the poor people of the city.
>>> Part 3
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