About four or five years after the death of Justinian the Great a little boy was born in Mecca, and was given the name of Mohammed, or the Praised. This Arab belonged to a princely tribe who traced their descent to Ishmael. They had in their keeping the Kaabah or sacred temple of the Arabs. Kaabah means a cube, and the name was given to the temple because of its shape, which was square. It had only one window and one door, and until the time of Mohammed it was roofed only by a great black carpet which hung down on all sides.
This temple was said to have been first built by Adam from a plan sent down from heaven. But it had been restored several times, by Seth, by Abraham, and last by Ishmael. Since that time the tribe to which Mohammed belonged had had it in their keeping. It enshrined a great treasure, for in the north-west corner of the wall there was set a black stone which was said to have been brought from paradise. Then it was white, but it had since turned black through the many kisses bestowed upon it by sinful although devout lips.
In spite of this legend, which seems to connect them with the Jews, the Arabs were idolaters, and within the Kaabah there were gathered three hundred and sixty idols in the shapes of men and beasts. Every year vast numbers of pilgrims came from all parts of Arabia to do homage to them and, above all, to the sacred black stone. The possession of this stone made the Kaabah the most venerated temple in all Arabia, indeed, because of it the whole district round Mecca was considered holy, and it was forbidden to kill anything there save animals for sacrifice.
It was therefore in a city already held sacred that Mohammed was born. He caused it to be held still more sacred, and made the name of Mecca famous throughout the whole world.
Mohammed's father died before he was born, and his mother and grandfather not many years later. He had many uncles, and as they claimed much of his father's fortune there was little left for Mohammed. So he began life with no more wealth than five camels and a slave girl. But he was fortunate and prospered well. He was a splendid-looking man, broad of shoulder, lithe of limb, with great black eyes shining in his clear brown face. He seemed born to lead and bend others to his will. Yet he was forty years old before he began the career which made him famous.
At this time many people in Arabia were dissatisfied with the worship of idols, and were seeking after a better religion. Some of Mohammed's friends were among these. He used to talk much with them, and also with the many Jews and Christians who had settled in the land, and from them he learned something both of the Jewish and of the Christian faiths.
Mohammed pondered over these things, and at length he announced that he had seen a vision, and received a revelation from heaven. One day, he said, when he was in a lonely spot an angel appeared to him with a written scroll in his hand, and said to him, "Read."
Now Mohammed could neither read nor write, and in great fear he replied, "I cannot read." Thereupon the angel shook him wrathfully, and again commanded him to read. Again Mohammed, in great fear and trembling, replied, "I cannot read."
Three times this was repeated. Then the angel himself took the scroll and read it to Mohammed, and the words which he heard were so graven upon his heart that he remembered them ever after, and later, when his holy book was made, they became part of it.
Other visions and revelations followed this first one, and at length Mohammed announced his message to the world. It was very simple. It was merely, "There is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet."
Thus a new religion was founded which was, in time, to enslave half the world. But at first few listened to Mohammed. Indeed, for some years he made scarcely any converts save the women of his own household. But by degrees, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, his followers increased.
And as Mohammed's followers increased, visions and revelations increased also. For when anything required to be added to the creed, or when any action of the Prophet seemed to need supernatural support, Mohammed had a revelation. What he learned in these Mohammed dictated to his scribes, who wrote it down on palm leaves, blade bones of animals, bits of parchment, or anything which came to hand. It was not until after the Prophet's death, however, that they were all gathered together into the Koran, or Book of God of the Mohammedans.
In time Mohammed had adherents all over Arabia. Only the men of his own tribe were filled with wrath against him. For, said they, if this pestilent fellow preached that there was only one God what was to become of the Kaabah and its many idols. If the idols fell into disrepute the keepers of the temple would be ruined. The thousands of pilgrims who flocked every year to the Kaabah would come no more. All the trade which came in their train, which made not only the keepers of the temple but Mecca rich and powerful, would be lost. They decided, therefore, that his mouth must be stopped, and a persecution began which ended in Mohammed fleeing with his followers to Medina. This is called the Hegira, or Flight, and from it the beginning of the Mohammedan era dates.
It was soon after the Hegira that Mohammed began to preach his holy war. He had taken a great deal of his new religion from Judaism and from Christianity. But unlike these religions, which either did not try to make converts, or tried to make them peacefully, Mohammed now determined to convert the world with the sword if need be.
So Mohammed unsheathed his sword, and in less than eight years' time he who had fled from Mecca in secrecy and darkness returned in triumph. He entered the Kaabah, and ordered it to be cleared of idols. And as one by one they fell beneath the blows of his followers, he cried in exultation, "Truth hath come. Falsehood hath gone; for falsehood vanisheth away."
But although cleared of idols the Kaabah still remained the holy of holies to the followers of Mohammed, and Mecca is still the holy city towards which every Mohammedan turns when he prays. For Mohammed quickly saw that unless he preserved the sacred character of Mecca he could never win his fellow-countrymen to his creed. During countless ages they had worshipped at Mecca, and reverence for it was bred in them. So Mohammed kept Mecca as his holy city. And when the Arabs found that they might confess the new creed, and still worship in the Kaabah, thousands became easy converts.
Thus he who had begun life with no fortune save five camels and a slave girl made himself master of an empire. Mohammed found Arabia a mass of hostile tribes, each with its own laws, and perpetually at war with every other tribe round. He found it given over to idolatry. In twenty years he united the warring tribes and made them monotheistic. In twenty years he created a nation with a national religion and national laws.
But Mohammed's ambition was not bounded by Arabia. He determined to force his religion on people beyond its borders and, even before Mecca had submitted to him, he had caused letters to be written to the greatest potentates of the world, to the Byzantine emperor, to the king of Persia, and to the rulers of many lesser states. These letters he sealed with a great seal, engraven with the words, "Mohammed, the Apostle of God." In haughty words he bade these proud potentates put away their old idolatrous religions, and do homage to the one true God.
But as yet the name of Mohammed was hardly known beyond the borders of Arabia, and his haughty missives awoke no thrill of fear in the breasts of the august princes to whom they were addressed. Some of the lesser rulers answered courteously enough, but the greatest among them, the Emperor Heraclius, flung the letter contemptuously by, while Chosroes, the king of Persia, tore his to atoms in fury, and commanded that the insolent Arab be brought to him in chains. When Mohammed heard what reception his letter had received he, too, was wrathful. He cursed the arrogant king. "Even as he has rent Thy message, O Lord," he cried, "wilt Thou rend his kingdom from him."
Indeed, the time was not far distant when both king and emperor were to tremble at the name of the upstart Arab. But Mohammed himself did not live to see that time, for two years after his triumphant return to Mecca he died. It seemed for a time as if his work had died with him. But it was not so, for he had breathed the spirit of his enthusiasm into others, and he was succeeded by his faithful friend and father-in-law Abu Bekr. He was the first caliph, caliph meaning merely successor.