The Story of Mohammed the Prophet
A poor shepherd people roaming unnoticed in the deserts of Arabia: a Hero-Prophet sent down to them with a word they could believe: See! the unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has grown world great.
CARLYLE: Hero as Prophet.
T HE two hundred years which cover, roughly speaking, the actual period of the Holy War, are crammed with an interest that never grows dim. Gallant figures, noble knights, generous foes, valiant women, eager children, follow one another through these centuries, and form a pageant the colour and romance of which can never fade, for the circumstances were in themselves unique. The two great religious forces of the world-Christianity and Islam, the Cross and the Crescent-were at grips with one another, and for the first time the stately East, with its suggestion of mystery, was face to face with the brilliant West, wherein the civilisation and organisation of Rome were at last prevailing over the chaos of the Dark Ages.
A very special kind of interest, moreover, belongs to the story of the Crusades in that the motive of the wars was the desire to rescue from the hands of unbelievers
But we shall see, as we read the story, that this was only a part of the real motive power which inspired and sustained the Holy War.
Even if the land of Palestine and the Holy City, Jerusalem, had never fallen into the hands of the Saracens, some such war was inevitable. The East was knocking at the doors of the West with no uncertain sound. An extraordinary force had come into existence during the four centuries that immediately preceded the First Crusade, which threatened to dominate the whole of the Western world. It was a religious force always stronger and more effective than any other; and it was only repelled with the greatest difficulty by Christendom, inspired, not so much by the motive of religion, as by that curious mixture of romance and adventurous design which we call chivalry.
Let us try, then, first of all, to get some idea of these Men of the East, the Mohammedans or Saracens, who managed to keep Europe in a state of constant turmoil for upwards of five centuries, and to do that we must go back to the latter years of the sixth century after Christ.
About fifty miles from the shores of the Red Sea stands the city of Mecca, one of the few important towns to be found on the fringe of the great sandy desert of Arabia. During hundreds of years Mecca had been the venerated bourne of pilgrims, for, embedded in the walls of the sacred building known as the Kaaba, was the "pure white stone," said to have fallen from heaven on the day that Adam and Eve took their sorrowful way from the gates of Paradise.
The Arabs, or Saracens, of these early days were closely connected with their neighbours, the Jews of Palestine, and claimed the same descent from Abraham through Ishmael, the outcast son. They believed in the existence of God, whom, to some extent, they worshipped, under the name of Allah. But they were deeply interested in nature-worship: the sun, moon, and stars were their deities. They bowed down before the "pure white stone" in the Kaaba, now from its frequent handling rather black than white. They peopled the whole realm of nature oceans, rivers, mountains, caves-with spirits good and evil, called "jinns" or genii, made, not of clay, like mortal men, but of pure flame of fire.
Once upon a time these jinns were said to have lived in heaven, and to have worshipped the Lord of Hosts; but having rebelled, under the leadership of Iblis, against Allah, they were cast forth, and descended to the earth, where they became sometimes a pest and annoyance to men, and sometimes their servants.
Many legends concerning these spirits are to be found in the Koran, the sacred book of the Mohammedans. One of these tells how the jinns were wont to roam round about the gates of heaven, peeping and listening and catching here and there a little of the converse of the angels. But these were only isolated words, or disjointed phrases; and the mischievous jinns, hoping that evil would come of these odds and ends of conversation separated from their context, whispered them industriously in the ears of the sons of men. These the latter, always eager to know more of the Unseen World, readily accepted, and invariably put a wrong interpretation upon them. Hence arose superstition, black magic, false prophecies, evil omens, and all such things as had in them the germ of truth, but had been misunderstood and misapplied.
From the midst of this imaginative and nature-worshipping people there arose the prophet who was to found one of the most powerful religious sects in the world.
In the year 570 A.D., in the city of Mecca, a boy child came to the young mother Amina, to comfort her in her widowhood for the husband who had died a few weeks before. Tradition has been active regarding the cradle of this child, the young Mohammed. He is said to have exclaimed at the moment of birth, "Allah is great! There is no God but Allah, and I am His prophet."
That same day an earthquake was reported to have overturned the gorgeous palace of Persia; a wild camel was seen in a vision to be overthrown by a slender Arab horse; and Iblis, the evil spirit, leader of the malignant jinns, was cast into the depths of ocean.
What is actually known about the matter is that the babe was presented to his tribe on the seventh day after his birth, and was named Mohammed, the "Praised One," in prophetic allusion to his future fame.
For the first five years of his life, according to Arabian custom, the child was sent to a foster-mother in the mountains that he might grow up sturdy and healthy. Soon after the end of that period, his mother died, and he was left to the care of his uncle, Abu Talib, a wealthy trader, who was so fond and proud of his nephew that he let the boy accompany him on many of his long caravan journeys to Yemen or Syria. Thus the young Mohammed became intimately acquainted with all sorts and conditions of men. He had no books, but he was an eager listener to the poems recited by the bards in the market-place of each great town. He quickly absorbed the legends and superstitions of his country, formed his own opinion about the idol-worship practised by many of the Arab tribes, and was present on a great historic occasion, when an oath was taken by his tribe in alliance with others, to be the champions of the weak and the avengers of the oppressed. Moreover, since his own home was at Mecca, the " Fair of all Arabia," the centre of trade for India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy, the boy had plenty of chances of acquiring that knowledge of the world which subsequently served him in good stead as a leader of men.
He grew up a silent, thoughtful youth, loved and respected by his companions, who named him El Amin, the " Faithful One." He was notable too for his good looks, for his bright dark eyes, clear brown skin, and for a curious black vein that swelled between his eyebrows when he was moved to anger. He had wide opportunities for thought and meditation, since, as was the case with most Arabs, his occupation was for years that of a shepherd on the hillsides of his native city. Eventually, at his uncle's wish, be became camel-driver and conductor of the caravan of a certain rich widow named Kadija. The long journey to Syria was undertaken with success, and on his return the widow Kadija looked upon the young man of twenty-five with eyes of favour. She imagined she saw two angels shielding him with their wings from the scorching sunshine, and, taking this for an indication that he was under the special protection of Allah, sent her sister to him, according to a common custom of Arabia, to intimate her willingness to be his bride.
So the poor camel-driver became the husband of the wealthy Kadija, and a very happy marriage it turned out to be. Six children came to gladden the peaceful home, of whom the youngest, Fatima, was to play a part in future history. To all appearances these were years of calm existence, almost of stagnation, for Mohammed; but all the time the inner life of the man was growing, expanding, throwing out fresh tentacles of thought and inquiry, as he brooded upon the condition, and especially upon the religious condition, of his fellow-countrymen. For the Arabs of his day were a degenerate race, much given to drinking and gaming and evil passions. They thought nothing of burying their girl-children alive after birth, as unworthy to be brought up. They had no heroic ideals, and their religion was becoming more and more vague and shadowy where it was not given over entirely to the worship of idols.
It was the Arab custom to keep the month Ramadan as a kind of Lent, in fasting, in seclusion and meditation; and Mohammed, during that period, was wont to retire to a cave in a mountain near Mecca, sometimes with Kadija, sometimes quite alone. There he was overtakes on one occasion by strange trances and visions in which he uttered weird prophetic sentences. He subsequently confided to Kadija, who was with him at that time, that he had made the Great Discovery; that all these idols, and sacred stones, and empty phrases of religion were nothing-nothing at all. "That God is great, and that there is nothing else great. He is Reality. Wooden idols are not real; but He is real-He made us and protects us; hence We must submit to Allah, and strive after righteousness." This was to be the keynote of the faith to be known as Islam.
After this revelation had come to him, Mohammed continued his life of thought and meditation for some time, until he was nearly forty years of age. He may have spoken of his conviction to his friends, but he does not seem to have gained much sympathy, and rather he appears to have earned the reputation of a dreamer. But about the year 610, as he was wandering over the wild hillsides, the clear call came, as it is bound to come to the humble, listening soul. He had lain down to sleep when, in a vision, he heard three times his name repeated, and the third time saw the angel Gabriel—in whose existence both Arabs and Jews believed—who spoke to him and bade him
At first Mohammed was much disturbed by this message, which he did not clearly understand. He feared he was under the influence of magic, and was filled with dread of falling into the hands of jinns. After a visit to his home, he again sought the mountain, intend- ing in his harassed state of mind to put an end to his life. Each time he attempted this, something restrained him, and as he sat at length in despair upon the ground wrapped in his cloak, the angel once more appeared, saying—
From that time the vocation of Mohammed was clear. He was to go forth and preach to a nation of idolaters that there was one God, and only one, who might claim their worship. Never again did he hesitate, nor, on the other hand, did he begin his work in haste. He still sojourned among the mountains, where he was visited by his uncle, Abu Talib, and by the little son of the latter, a boy called Ali.
"What calls you here, Mohammed?" asked the puzzled Abu, "and what religion do you now profess?" Said Mohammed: "I profess the religion of Allah, of His angels and His prophets, the religion of Abraham. Allah has commissioned me to preach this to men, and to urge them to embrace it. Nought would be more worthy of thee, O my uncle, than to adopt the true faith, and to help me to spread it."
But Abu Talib replied: "Son of my brother, I can never forsake the faith of my fathers; but if thou art attacked, I will defend thee." Then to his young son Ali he continued: "Hesitate not to follow any advice he giveth thee, for Mohammed will never lead thee into any wrong way."
The first attempts of Mohammed to begin his work of conversion met with small success. We have good authority for the proverb that " a prophet has no honour in his own country," and in Mohammed's case his task was made supremely difficult by the fact that Mecca would no longer be the goal of thousands of pilgrims every year if the Arabs were to give up the worship of the idols of the Kaaba, which numbered, exclusive of the "pure white stone" itself, some three hundred; and sixty-five images. Now the whole prosperity of the city depended upon the caravan trade brought by these pilgrims, as well as on the profits made out of providing food and shelter for such vast numbers. Realising this, Mohammed made no attempt at a public proclamation of the new faith for the first three years, but contented himself with training two or three converts to be his helpers in the future.
His faithful wife Kadija was with him heart and soul, and to her, first of all, he disclosed the details which the angel had revealed to him in a vision, as to the particular acts of ritual, forms of prayer, and actual doctrine which Islam, as their faith was called, demanded of its followers. The essential fact of this religion was a belief in Allah as the one true God, in a future life of happiness or misery after death, and in Mohammed himself as the Prophet of Allah, whom they were bound to obey. It was essentially a practical faith, however, and, in addition to prayer five times a day, the Islamite or Moslem must give alms to the poor, be perfectly honest in weighing and measuring, be absolutely truthful, and keep strictly to all agreements made. Many minor details were afterwards added to these, and the whole were gradually written down in the Koran, the sacred book of Islam. This, of course, was not done till many years later, when Mohammed had drawn up a moral and social code which he hoped would reform the whole world. In the meantime he had a hard struggle before him.
One of his first followers was the child Ali, who, though but eleven years old, became his constant companion in his lonely rambles, and eagerly received his instructions. A freed slave, and Abu Bekr, a man of official rank, enthusiastic for the new faith, were his next converts. In vain did Mohammed call together the members of his tribe, saying unto them—
"Never has an Arab offered to his people such precious things as I now present to you—happiness in this life, and joys for ever in the next. Allah has bidden me call men to Him—Who will join me in the sacred work and become my brother?"
Deep silence followed this appeal, broken only by the high, childish voice of little Ali, who cried out—
"I, Prophet of Allah, I will join you!"
Quite seriously Mohammed received the offer, saying to the assembled throng, "Behold my brother, my Kalif! Listen to him. Obey his commands."
Soon after this appeal to his own tribe, a spirit of active opposition arose among the men of Mecca, so much so that the chief men came to Abu Talib and warned him that if he did not prevail upon Mohammed to hold his peace and give up these new doctrines, they would take up arms against him and his supporters. Much alarmed at this protest, Abu Talib implored his nephew to keep his new-formed faith to himself. But Mohammed answered, "O my uncle, even if the sun should descend on my right hand and the moon on my left to fight against me, ordering me to hold my peace or perish, I would not waver from my purpose."
Then, thinking that the friend he loved so well was about to desert him, he turned away and wept. But the old Abu, touched to the heart, cried out, "Come back, O my nephew! Preach whatever doctrine thou wilt. I swear to thee that not for a moment will I desert thy side."
Opposition soon took the form of misrepresentation. The enemies of Mohammed would lie in wait for the pilgrims going up to the Kaaba and warn them to beware of a dangerous magician, whose charms sowed discord in the household, dividing husband and wife, parent and child. But this had the natural effect of making strangers much more curious about Mohammed than they would otherwise have been. They made their own inquiries, and though few converts were the result, the reputation of the Prophet, in a more or less misleading form, was gradually spread by them throughout the length and breadth of Arabia.
Meantime, Mohammed himself was the object of open insult in the streets of Mecca, as well as of actual violence. One effect of this, however, was to bring over to his side another uncle, Hamza by name who had been one of his fiercest opponents. Hearing of some new outrage, he hastened to the Kaaba and stood forth openly as the champion of the Prophet.
"I am of the new religion! Return that, if you dare!" he cried, dealing a vigorous blow at one of the angry and astonished assembly. They drew back in awe, and Hamza, the "Lion of Allah," became one of the most ardent followers of Islam.
The tide of persecution, however, was not stayed, and at length Mohammed, unable to protect his followers from the violence he was willing to endure himself, persuaded them to take refuge in Abyssinia, under the protection of the Christian king.
Furious at this, the men of Mecca placed Mohammed and his whole family under a ban for three long years, during which the Faithful nearly perished of hunger, for no man might buy of them or sell to them or have any kind of intercourse with them. This ban was removed at the end of three years, but then a worse blow fell upon the Prophet. Kadija, his faithful, loving wife, and Abu Talib, his friend and protector, both died. The death of Abu led to a renewal of persecution; very few fresh converts were made; failure met him on every side. The only ray of light in this period of gloom was the discovery that twelve pilgrims journeying from the distant city of Medina had already become followers of Islam from what they had heard of the new faith as taught by Mohammed. These men he gladly instructed more fully, and sent them back as missionaries to their own city.
In the midst of his depression and disheartened forebodings for the future, Mohammed was vouchsafed a marvellous vision or dream.
"Awake, thou that sleepest!" cried a voice like a silver trumpet, and there appeared to him an angel of wonderful brightness, who bade him mount the winged steed, Borak, the Lightning, and ascend to the Temple at Jerusalem. Thence by a ladder of light, Mohammed rose to the first heaven, made of pure silver, and lighted by stars suspended by chains of gold. There he was embraced as the chief of prophets by Adam, the first created man.
Thence he proceeded to the second heaven, which was of steel, and there he was greeted by Noah. The third heaven, where Joseph met him, was brilliant with precious stones. There too sat the Angel of Death, writing down the names of all who were to be born, and blotting out the names of those whose time had come to die. In the fourth heaven Aaron showed to him the Angel of Vengeance, in whose hands was a fiery spear. In the fifth Moses spoke with him and wept to see one who was going to lead to Paradise more of the Chosen People than he, their prophet. In the sixth, of marvellous brightness, Abraham occupied chief place; and Mohammed was even allowed to penetrate further to the seventh heaven, where Allah, His glory veiled, gave him instructions as to the doctrines of Islam, and bade him command his followers to utter fifty prayers a day.
When the Prophet returned to Moses, the latter pointed out that the number was too much to expect of Arabs, and bade him ask Allah to reduce it. In answer to his supplications, Allah said at first that forty prayers would be satisfactory, but Mohammed pleaded earnestly for further relief, and at last the number was fixed at five, at which it remains to this day. "Allahu akbar—Prayer is better than sleep! There is no God but Allah! He giveth life and He dieth not! O thou bountiful! Thy mercy ceaseth not! My sins are great, greater is Thy mercy! I praise His perfection! Allahu akbar!"
Still, five times a day, the peculiar cry of the "mullah" is heard from the tower of prayer, giving the signal for the follower of Islam to turn towards Mecca, throw himself on his face, and utter the prescribed words.
Much inspired by this wonderful dream, Mohammed was further encouraged by the news that seventy men of Medina had joined the ranks of Islam and were about to meet him on the hillside beyond Mecca, with intent to induce him, if possible, to take up his future abode in their city, leaving his birthplace to its fate. There, under the dark midnight sky, these men bound themselves to worship Allah only, to obey the Prophet, and to fight in defence of him and his followers.
"And what will be our reward?" asked one.
"Paradise!" replied Mohammed briefly.
And then the oath was sworn; while the Prophet, on his side, promised to live and die with his new converts when the time was ripe.
The meeting had, however, been watched by spies, who reported all to the men of Mecca; and a new persecution arose, so bitter that most of the " Faithful," as the followers of Mohammed came to be called, fled at once to Medina. Mohammed himself remained, hoping that thus he might turn the wrath of the idolaters upon himself and protect the flight of his children.
Presently, however, came information that forty men, one from each tribe, had sworn together to take his life; and forthwith Mohammed with Abu Bekr, his devoted friend, departed one dark night and shook off the dust of Mecca from his feet. Danger was so near that they dared not take the path to Medina, but made their way to a mountain, on whose rocky summit they found a small cave into which they crept at dawn of day.
Knowing what the end of the pursuit would mean, Abu began to lose nerve, and asked, "What if our pursuers should find our cave? We are but two."
"We are three," was the calm reply: "Allah is with us!"
Legend says that the pursuers actually approached the mouth of the cave and were about to investigate it. But in the early hours of the day Allah had caused a tree to grow up before it, a spider to weave its web across it, and a wild pigeon, most timid of birds, to lay eggs in a nest made in the branches; and the searchers, seeing these things, declared it impossible that any one could be within. A faithful friend provided them in secret with food and milk, and on the third night they began the journey to Medina.
"He is come! He is come!" cried the Faithful in Medina, flocking to meet the wayworn travellers as they entered the city.
And thus a new chapter was opened in the history of Islam.