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Arabia at the Time of Muhammad

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Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    Arabia at the Time of Muhammad

    OUR KNOWLEDGE of the life of the prophet Muhammad is based primarily on Islamic sources written at least a century after his death, mainly eighth- and ninth-century texts such as the Sirah (the biography of the Prophet) and Quranic commentaries. Muhammad (‘the praised one’) was born around 570 CE into the Hashim clan of the wealthy Quraysh tribe at Mecca. His father ‘Abd Allah died before he was born and his mother Aminah died during his infancy. As an orphan, he was only able to be a part of the tribal society thanks to the tutelage of his grandfather and later the protection of his well-respected uncle Abu Talib .

    According to tradition, he worked in the caravan trade and, aged twenty-five, married his employer Khadijah, a rich widow a few years his senior. They had several children but only four daughters survived their infancy. At the age of forty, during one of his periods of meditation and retreat in a cave near Mecca, Muhammad had a vision about his call to prophethood: ‘Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clot of blood’ (Qur. 96.1-2). At first frightened, he found comfort and encouragement in his wife Khadijah who, according to tradition, became the first Muslim ‘convert’. The revelations continued, mostly in the form of a voice dictating verses which Muhammad memorized. The message, at first powerful and apocalyptic, insisted on a return to morality and on accountability for one's own actions, as well as on the belief in one creator and just god, Allah (‘the God’).

    The response of Meccan society and, in particular, of the Quraysh tribe to such a message was hostile. Twelve years after his first revelation, Muhammad had only about seventy devoted supporters coming mostly (like Muhammad himself) from the less powerful clans of the Quraysh tribe, but also from the poor, the slaves, the tribeless and the younger members of rich families.

    The Hijra and the Later Life of Muhammad

    Muhammad and his supporters were constantly persecuted in Mecca, and the situation worsened when the backing and protection of the Hashim clan was withdrawn in 619 with the death of its leader, Abu Talib. Muhammad's wife Khadijah also died around this time; their marriage had been monogamous but, after her death, Muhammad married several times, mostly for political reasons. After searching for possible places to live and spread the message, Muhammad opted for Yathrib, an oasis cultivated mainly with date palms, 200 km north of Mecca. Because of its agricultural basis, Yathrib did not exclusively depend on Meccan-related trade and, because of the presence of Jewish tribes there, might have proven a fertile ground for Muhammad's monotheistic message.

    Arabia at the Time of Muhammad

    1. Arabia during the Life of Muhammad

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    In 622 , Muhammad sent his companions ahead, and left Mecca at night from the south, reaching Yathrib along a tortuous route. The Hijra or ‘emigration’ to Yathrib, later renamed Medina (‘the city [of the prophet]’), marks the beginning of a more active phase of preaching. An unsuccessful preacher in his own city, Muhammad now became a respected military commander, as well as being a recognized political and religious leader among several tribes. Medina did indeed prove a more receptive ground for the Prophet's message, although it was not accepted by the Jewish tribes. As the Muslim community began to define its identity, the direction of prayer (qiblah) was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca and the obligatory pilgrimage (hajj) was to be performed in Mecca. This points to Muhammad's final aim of returning to Mecca, the place where Allah had first revealed his message to him. After a series of battles and raids on Meccan caravans, the treaty of Hudaybiyah ( 628 ) allowed Muhammad and his supporters to enter Mecca and perform the hajj there.

    Arabia at the Time of Muhammad

    2. The Hajj

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    His involvement in warfare has been criticized by Christian commentators, but there are several militant Biblical antecedents, such as Moses. In Muhammad's social and historical context, raids were commonly used as a source of revenue and a strategic tool to undermine Meccan trade.

    At Mecca in 630 , Muhammad ‘purified from the idols’ the Ka‘bah, devoted it to the worship of Allah and excluded non-Muslims from entering the city. On the last year of his life, the prophet performed the so-called ‘Farewell pilgrimage’ delivering a touching address to all Muslims which emphasized the unity of their community based on the concept of brotherhood in faith. Following a brief illness, Muhammad died, attended by his favourite wife ‘Aishah, in his home at Medina in 632 .

    The Ummah and the Hajj

    The new community of faith (ummah) that Muhammad had built was gradually defined, shaped and organized. Its constituent elements, however, were already present during the Medinan period of revelation: a form of welfare system for the needy (zakat), dietary laws, norms of family law emphasizing the nuclear rather than tribal unit and, above all, a set of religious duties enjoined by Allah. One of these duties, the hajj had been inherited from the ‘pagan’ past and then re-interpreted in an Islamic manner: the association of the Ka‘bah and the Meccan shrine with Abraham (Ibrahim) and Ishmael epitomizes the place of Islam within the monotheistic tradition. Moreover, the ritual actions during the hajj, seen as the exact re-enactment of Muhammad's last pilgrimage, constantly reaffirm – to this day – the status and prophetic authority of the Seal of all monotheistic prophets.To perform the hajj, for today's Muslims, is a religious duty, but also a way to reinforce faith through the affirmation and display of the unity, the identity and the sacred history of the Muslim community.

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