Gateway to the Classics: Famous Men of the Middle Ages by John H. Haaren
Famous Men of the Middle Ages by  John H. Haaren


Lived from 570‑632 A.D.


A great number of people in Asia and Africa and much of those in Turkey in Europe profess the Mohammedan religion. They are called Mohammedans, Mussulmans or Moslems; and the proper name for their religion is "Islam," which means obedience, or submission.

The founder of this religion was a man named Mohammed, or Mahomet. He was born in the year 570, in Mecca, a city of Arabia. His parents were poor people, though, it is said, they were descended from Arabian princes. They died when Mohammed was a child, and his uncle, a kind-hearted man named AbuTalib, took him home and brought him up.

When the boy grew old enough he took care of his uncle's sheep and camels. Sometimes he went on journeys with his uncle to different parts of Arabia, to help him in his business as a trader. On these journeys Mohammed used to ride on a camel, and he soon became a skilful camel-driver.

Mohammed was very faithful and honest in all his work. He always spoke the truth and never broke a promise. "I have given my promise," he would say, "and I must keep it." He became so well known in Mecca for being truthful and trustworthy that people gave him the name of El Amin, which means "the truthful."

At this time he was only sixteen years of age; but the rich traders had so much confidence in him that they gave him important business to attend to, and trusted him with large sums of money. He often went with caravans to a port on the shore of the Red Sea, sixty-five miles from Mecca, and sold there the goods carried by the camels. Then he guided the long line of camels back to Mecca, and faithfully paid over to the owners of the goods the money he had received.

Mohammed had no school education. He could neither read nor write. But he was not ignorant. He knew well how to do the work intrusted to him, and was a first-rate man of business.


O NE day, when Mohammed was about twenty-five years old, he was walking through the bazaar or market-place, of Mecca when he met the chief camel-driver of a wealthy woman named Khadijah. This woman was a widow, who was carrying on the business left her by her husband. As soon as the camel-driver saw Mohammed he stopped him and said:

"My mistress wishes to see you before noon. I think she intends to engage you to take charge of her caravans."

Mohammed waited to hear no more. As quickly as possible he went to the house of Khadijah; for he was well pleased at the thought of being employed in so important a service. The widow received him in a very friendly way. She said:

"I have heard much of you among the traders. They say that though you are so young you are a good caravan manager and can be trusted. Are you willing to take charge of my caravans and give your whole time and service to me?"

Mohammed was delighted.

"I accept your offer," said he, "and I shall do all I can to serve and please you."

Khadijah then engaged him as the manager of her business; and he served her well and faithfully. She thought a great deal of him, and he was much attracted to her, and soon they came to love one another and were married.

As he was now the husband of a rich woman he did not need to work very hard. He still continued to attend to his wife's business; but he did not make so many journeys as before. He spent much of his time in thinking about religion. He learned all that he could about Judaism and Christianity; but he was not satisfied with either of them.

At that time most of the people of Arabia worshiped idols. Very few of them were Christians.

Mohammed was very earnest and serious. In a cave on Mount Hira, near Mecca, he spent several weeks every year in prayer and religious meditation. He declared that, while praying in his cave, he often had visions of God and heaven. He said that many times the angel Gabriel appeared to him and revealed to him the religion which he afterwards taught his followers. As he himself could not write, he committed to memory all that the angel told him, and had it written in a book. This book is called the "Koran," which means, like our own word Bible, the "Book." The Koran is the Bible of Mohammedans.


W HEN Mohammed returned home after the angel had first spoken to him, he told his wife of what he had seen and heard. She at once believed and so became a convert to the new religion. She fell upon her knees at the feet of her husband and cried out:

"There is but one God. Mohammed is God's prophet."

Mohammed then told the story to other members of his family. Some of them believed and became his first followers. Soon afterwards he began to preach to the people. He spoke in the market and other public places. Most of those who heard him laughed at what he told them; but some poor people and a few slaves believed him and adopted the new religion. Others said he was a dreamer and a fool.

Mohammed, however, paid no heed to the insults he received. He went on telling about the appearance of Gabriel and preaching the doctrines which he said the angel had ordered him to teach the people.


Mohammed preaching to his followers in the desert

Often while speaking in public Mohammed had what he called a "vision of heavenly things." At such times his face grew pale as death, his eyes became red and staring, he spoke in a loud voice, and his body trembled violently. Then he would tell what he had seen in his vision.

After a time the number of his followers began to increase. People came from distant parts of Arabia and from neighboring countries to hear him. One day six of the chief men of Medina, one of the largest cities of Arabia, listened earnestly to his preaching and were converted. When they returned home they talked of the new religion to their fellow-citizens, and a great many of them became believers.

But the people of Mecca, Mohammed's own home, were nearly all opposed to him. They would not believe what he preached, and they called him an impostor. The people of the tribe to which he himself belonged were the most bitter against him. They even threatened to put him to death as an enemy of the gods.

About this time Mohammed's uncle and wife died, and he had then hardly any friends in Mecca. He therefore resolved to leave that city and go to Medina. Numbers of the people there believed his doctrines and wished him to come and live among them. So he secretly left his native town and fled from his enemies. With a few faithful companions he made his escape to Medina.

It was in the year of our Lord 622 that Mohammed fled from Mecca. This event is very important in Mohammedan history. It is called "the flight of the prophet," or "the Hejira," a word which means flight.  The Hejira is the beginning of the Mohammedan era; and so in all countries where the rulers and people are Mohammedans, the years are counted from the Hejira instead of from the birth of Christ.

On his arrival in Medina the people received Mohammed with great rejoicing. He lived there the remainder of his life. A splendid church was built for him in Medina. It was called a mosque, and all Mohammedan churches, or places of worship, are called by this name. It means a place for prostration or prayer.


The mosque of Ahmedieh and the obelisk at Constantinople


M OHAMMED thought that it was right to spread his religion by force, and to make war on "unbelievers," as he called all people who did not accept his teaching. He therefore got together an army and fought battles with unbelievers. He gained many victories. He marched against Mecca with an army of ten thousand men, and the city surrendered with little resistance. The people then joined his religion and destroyed their idols. Before very long all the inhabitants of Arabia and many of the people of the neighboring countries became Mohammedans.


Mohammed entering Mecca, preaching the unity of God

Mohammed died in Medina in the year of our Lord 632, or year 11 of the Hejira. He was buried in the mosque in which he had held religious services for so many years; and Medina has ever since been honored, because it contains the tomb of the Prophet. It is believed by his followers that the body still lies in the coffin in the same state as when it was first buried. There is also a story that the coffin of Mohammed rests somewhere between heaven and earth, suspended in the air. But this fable was invented by enemies to bring ridicule on the prophet and his religion.

The tomb of Mohammed is visited every year by people from all Mohammedan countries. Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet, is also visited by vast numbers of pilgrims. Every Mussulman is bound by his religion to make a visit or pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his life. Whenever a Mussulman prays, no matter in what part of the world he may be, he turns his face towards Mecca, as if he were always thinking of going there.


Pilgrims marching through the desert to Mecca

Good Mohammedans pray five times every day, and there is a church officer called a muezzin, who gives them notice of the hour for prayer. This he does by going on the platform, or balcony, of the minaret, or tower, of the mosque and chanting in a loud voice such words as these:

"Come to prayer, come to prayer. There is no god but God. He giveth life, and he dieth not. I praise his perfection. God is great."


A Muezzin calling to prayer

In Mecca there is a mosque called the Great Mosque. It is a large enclosure in the form of a quadrangle, or square, which can hold 35,000 persons. It is enclosed by arcades with pillars of marble and granite, and has nineteen gates, each with a minaret or pointed tower above it.

Within this enclosure is a famous building called the "Kaaba," or cube. It is nearly a cube in shape. In its wall, at one corner, is the celebrated "Black Stone." Moslems regard this stone with the greatest reverence. They say that it came down from heaven. It is said to have been once white, but has become dark from being wept upon and touched by so many millions of pilgrims. It really is reddish-brown in color.

Before the time of Mohammed the Kaaba was a pagan temple; but when he took possession of Mecca he made the old temple the centre of worship for his own religion.

After Mohammed died a person was appointed to be his successor as head of the Moslem church. He was called the caliph, a word which means successor; and this title has been borne ever since by the religious chief of the Mohammedans. In modern times the sultans or rulers of Turkey have been commonly regarded as the caliphs. Arab scholars, however, say that really the sherif, i.e.,  the governor of Mecca, is entitled by the Koran to hold this position.

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