Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter One

The Prologue:
Arabia Before Islam



Very little is known about the land of Arabia before the rise of Islam. Historians took little notice of it and nothing came out of it to draw the attention of the known world to the Arab peoples. Its principle town was known as Makkah (Mecca), a settlement in the desert region near the Red Sea in the middle of the Arabian peninsula. It was primarily a commercial centre and numerous caravans went back and forth from the town to trade with other regions to the north.

The Arabs were split up into various tribes often in conflict with one another. At Mecca the Quraysh tribe was dominant, being divided into smaller groups such as the Banu Hashim (into which Muhammad was born) and the Banu Umayya (from which many of his fiercest enemies arose). There was no central rule in Arabia and, if one tribe was attacked by another, a custom prevailed that the injured tribe could accept a ransom for the loss of any member or attempt to take the life of a member of the offending tribe in retaliation. Daughters were regarded as a misfortune and many infant females were buried alive. If a son was born to a family there would be great celebrations but if the child was a girl its parents would conceal its birth as much as they could.

For four months of the year hostilities were traditionally suspended as pilgrims visited Mecca for the various fairs held annually to commemorate different idols worshipped by the Arabs and to give local poets (shu`ara) an opportunity to compete with one another. Poetry was a very popular art and many examples of pre-Islamic poetry have survived. A number of poets, however, were regarded as mentally imbalanced (majnun) and it was an insult to call a poet a kahin (soothsayer).

The Arabs were steeped in pagan idolatry and the adoration of stones, whether shapen into the form of idols or merely set up as they were, was common. Many were brought by tribesmen visiting the fairs to Mecca and occasionally were left in the Ka`aba, a cube-like structure in the centre of the town and the principal shrine of pagan Arab idolatry. Long before the advent of Islam Diodorus Siculus, a Roman historian, commented that there was in Arabia a temple greatly revered by the Arabs and it is probable that he had the Ka`aba in mind. Very few other records of Arabian religion exist, however, and it is from later Islamic sources that most of our knowledge today derives.


Our limited knowledge of Arabia perhaps is indicative of a prevailing Arab ignorance about the outside world at the time. Christian and Jewish influences were found in many areas but on the whole pagan superstition and all the typical practices associated with idolatry were prevalent. Islam found a fertile soil into which it could establish its message of monotheism and its own unique character and it is not surprising to find Muslim historians speaking of those days as Jahiliyya, the "Times of Ignorance".

The Ka`aba was the great focal point and shrine of Arab paganism. Islamic tradition holds that it was originally built by Adam although the Qur'an states that its foundations were raised by Abraham and his son Ishmael (Surah 2:127). In the generations before Muhammad's prophetic career, however, it was the focal point of all Arabian idolatry. Of particular prominence was a black stone (al-hajarul-aswad) built into its north-east corner. Whether it was worshipped as an idol is not certain but its fame as the most significant part of the shrine has survived in the Islamic era and to this day Muslim pilgrims attempt to kiss it while walking around the Ka`aba.

Very near the Ka`aba were two small hills known as as-Safa and al-Marwa. On the first was a small idol known as Isaf and on the second was a similar deity known as Na'ila. Pagan Arabs used to touch these images during their pilgrimage rites and the legend behind them was that they were originally a man and woman from Jurhum who had cohabited in the Ka`aba and were turned into stones for their impudence. The ceremony of running between these two hills has prevailed in the Islamic pilgrimage despite its apparent pagan origin. The Qur'an justifies this practice, saying the two hills are among the "symbols of Allah" and that there is no sin in encompassing them (Surah 2:158). Today they are incorporated into the huge complex of the Great Mosque of Mecca which is built around the Ka`aba, the shrine now standing in an open courtyard.


The Qur'an mentions a number of the idols revered by the Arabs but interestingly makes no mention of Hubal, said to have been the chief deity in the Ka`aba. The Quraysh attributed victory to Hubal when overcoming Muhammad's warriors at the Battle of Uhud of which more will be said later. His identity probably derives from Baal, the pagan deity to whom the Israelites were so often distracted and whose existence was challenged by Elijah on Mount Carmel. Hubal's image stood over a well in the hollow of the Ka`aba and was destroyed by Muhammad when he conquered Mecca towards the end of his life. A Nabatean inscription predating Islam still exists on which his name is inscribed and it is said that an image of the idol existed in carnelian with a golden hand attached after the original had broken off. The pagan Arabs are said to have consulted Hubal by divination with arrows.

Three feminine deities mentioned by name in the Qur'an were al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat (Surah 53:19). Al-Lat belonged principally to the Thaqif tribe at at-Ta'if, a settlement to the east of Mecca, and a massive statue of the goddess was venerated in the town. When Muhammad set about destroying all the idols around Mecca the demise of this one alone brought cries of grief from her worshippers.

A certain `Amr b. Lu`ayy was said to have set up the image of al-Uzza at Nakhla, a village nearby, and her devotees did not consider themselves discharged from their pilgrimage to Mecca until they had made a circuit of her shrine as well. Manat was worshipped by the Aus and Khazraj tribes to the north of Mecca at a town called Yathrib, later to be known as al-Madina (Medina) when Muhammad became the leader of the peoples there and converted these two tribes to Islam. The same `Amr set up an image of Manat at Qudayd on the shore of the Red Sea and pilgrims to Mecca who revered her would not shave their heads until they had paid their respects to her shrine as well. `Amr b. Lu`ayy is also said to have erected an image of Hubal in the Ka`aba, having obtained it during one of his journeys to Syria.

These three feminine deities were apparently believed to be the "daughters of Allah", the Supreme Being to whom the Ka`aba is today dedicated (being known as baitullah, the "House of Allah"). The Qur'an ridicules the idea that Allah should have daughters while the pagan Arabs preferred to have sons as offspring (Surahs 16:57, 52:39). They were also believed to be intercessors with Allah.

The Qur'an recognises Allah alone as the Supreme Deity, the one and only Lord of all the worlds. The worship of Allah was known before the advent of Islam as the Qur'an itself shows. It speaks of the pagans as calling on Allah exclusively to protect them when they set sail in a boat but as being ungrateful to him when he delivers them safely to dry land, giving a share of their worship to other gods as well (Surah 29:65). On another occasion it states that they swear their strongest oaths by him (Surah 6:109). No record of an image of Allah exists and, although some writers have tried to identify Allah with other Arabian gods, no real evidence exists to support the theory.

It appears that the acknowledgement of one Supreme Being, the unseen ruler of the universe, arose out of contact with Jews and Christians who settled in or passed through Arabia. It is known that the Christian Syriac name for God was Alaha and it is thought that it may have been derived from the Hebrew Elohim. It is quite possible that the name Allah came from this Syriac title, especially as Christian Arabs have also always used the name Allah for God and still do to this day.

Others have suggested that the name derives from al-ilah meaning "the god". There is nothing in pre-Islamic history to give credence to this idea, however. Whatever the origin of the Arabic word it is used in the Qur'an as an actual name for God and not as a neutral title for a single deity. It is thus the equivalent of Yahweh in Old Testament times. The absolute unity of Allah is the central theme of the Qur'an and is summed up in the fundamental declaration of Islamic faith, La ilaha illallah – "there is no god but Allah" (cf. Surah 9:31).

Arabia was a land of warring tribes who nevertheless had certain unwritten laws determining their interactions with one another. One's prime loyalty was to one's family or tribe and the honour of each had to be preserved at all costs. Islam was destined to shatter many of the traditions held dear for generations before it and the loyalty of a Muslim to Allah and the Islamic faith over and above family loyalties became one of these changes to the consternation of the pagan Arabs. Nonetheless the major characteristic of pre-Islamic Arabia that Muhammad's course was destined to challenge most severely was the veneration of countless idols and images representing the gods of the common people.





[ Image to be supplied ]



While in solitary meditation on Mount Hira outside Mecca a celestial being appears to Muhammad whichever way he looks. The composition of the Qur'an is said to have begun through this sudden vision.




Although idolatry was prevalent in Arabia the two major monotheistic religions Judaism and Christianity had penetrated the peninsula and their influence was destined to have a considerable effect on the development of Islam.

The Qur'an pays more attention to Judaism than to Christianity. There were a number of Jewish tribes scattered in the regions north of Mecca. Around Yathrib three Jewish communities were settled in their own quarters, namely the Banu Qaynuqa, Banu Nadhir and the Banu Quraydhah. Muhammad was destined to confront each of these in turn once he had become the leader of the Muslims in the city. Although the Arabs at Mecca had probably had some contact with Jews there are no reliable records of any Jews settled there. Most of them appear to have been resident in the northern regions and, as many trading caravans from Mecca passed through their territories, it is probable that a familiarity with Judaism arose through such contacts.

It is not known whether these Jews were direct descendants of communities scattered throughout the region at the time of the diaspora or whether they were predominantly Arab converts to Judaism but it is generally presumed that the latter was the case. In southern Arabia, however, historical records indicate that a remarkable assertion of Judaism over Christianity took place not long before the time of Muhammad.

A Yemenite ruler had adopted the Jewish faith and set about severely persecuting the Christians in the region. Known as Dhu Nuwas ("the one with the curly hair"), he attacked the Christian community at Najran and, finding no way to subdue the settlement forcefully, he promised its inhabitants that they would be spared and would be free to profess their faith if they surrendered peacefully. On gaining control, however, his army plundered the area and large pits were dug and filled with burning fuel. All who refused to convert to Judaism were condemned to be consumed by the flames and Arab historians confirm that many thousands perished. Not long after this, however, he was overthrown by an expeditionary force led by a certain Aryat from Christian Abyssinia. The incident is a unique example of Jewish aggression and supremacy in the Arabian peninsula.


For many centuries Christianity had been established in Egypt and Syria and, although it had never really had the same success in Arabia except for the community of Christians at Najran in the south, its presence was also destined to influence the development of Islam. It was not traditional Christianity that prevailed in the region, however, but two sectarian forms that for many generations had bitterly opposed each other.

A Christian leader known as Nestorius had some centuries earlier taught that Christ had had two distinct natures, one human and the other divine. The human Christ was an ordinary human being upon whom the divine Christ had been imposed at the time of his baptism. It was only the human Christ who had died at Calvary, the divine Christ having left his person and returned to heaven. At the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD Nestorius was denounced as a heretic but his teachings took root among the Christians settled in the regions dominated by the Persians and the Nestorian Church was established there during Muhammad's time.

A certain Famiyun, a Nestorian Christian from Syria, is credited with establishing the Christian community at Najran. He converted the people of the region during a sojourn in which he is said to have effectively cursed a palm-tree which had previously been worshipped by the people. They had an annual festival in which a whole day was devoted to veneration of the tree with jewels and fine garments being placed on it. At Famiyun's command in the name of the Christian God the tree was suddenly torn from its roots and the onlookers, amazed at the sight, adopted Christianity. (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.16).

Another oriental Christian named Eutyches is credited with asserting the other sectarian conviction in the region. In 488 AD he boldly attacked Nestorian beliefs, declaring that there was only one nature in the person of Christ, namely the divine. Christ was God bearing a human form on earth but not made of flesh and blood as other humans are. The Monophysite sect was established on this doctrine and it gradually became the dominant form of Arabian Christianity. It was prevalent in Egypt and, by the time of Muhammad, it was entrenched at Hira and in the Syrian regions immediately to the north of the Arabian peninsula. Despite the Nestorian origin of the Christian community at Najran it was decidedly Monophysite in conviction by the time Muhammad began to preach in Mecca. Abyssinia was by this time also one of the strongholds of the Christian faith in the region and here too we find the Monophysite faith predominant.

The Christianity Muhammad was destined to encounter was not to be the established catholic faith but a somewhat confused sectarian group of differing beliefs whose adherents were often strongly opposed to one another. Numerous other sects were scattered throughout the region, all holding a succession of differing beliefs about the nature of God and the composition of the divine Trinity. All these were destined to affect the development of Islam and it is interesting to find that the Christianity assessed in the Qur'an is not the pristine faith of the New Testament rather the distorted versions of it found in the churches around Arabia.


Muhammad claimed that the Qur'an was a revelation given to him from heaven but many of its teachings show a somewhat obvious dependence on the Christianity of pre-Islamic Arabia. In fact there is nothing in the Qur'an which is genuinely original or which cannot be shown to have parallels in the varying religious convictions found throughout the region. He was exposed on an annual basis to the hordes of pilgrims who came to the fairs at Mecca which made the town a receptacle for all kinds of floating knowledge. Muhammad appears to have absorbed and retained within his memory as much of this as he could.  A study of the teaching of the Qur'an shows the Prophet of Islam to have been more familiar with Jewish rabbinical works and apocryphal Christian writings than the contents of the Old and New Testaments.

A little-known book titled The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy (because the only manuscripts of the book are in Arabic) makes Jesus speak from the cradle, a phenomenon repeated in the Qur'an (Surah 19:29-30), while The Gospel of Thomas, another apocryphal composition of which a Syriac version was known to exist prior to Muhammad's time, records other miraculous works of Jesus repeated in the Qur'an, such as the creation of clay birds which came to life at his command (Surah 3:49).

Although the common Christian Arabic name for Jesus has always been Yasu`, derived from the original Hebrew Yashua, the Qur'an uses the name `Isa, obtained most probably from the Nestorian Isho. There are no other records anywhere in Christian history to possibly suggest the strange name for Jesus in the Qur'an. As Arabic is a Semitic language closely allied to Hebrew one would have expected his name to have been the same Yasu` as the Christians used. In fact the full Nestorian Syriac title for Jesus was Isho Mshiha, "Jesus Messiah", and it is interesting to find that the most common Qur'anic title for him is very similar, namely al-Masihu `Isa (Surah 3:45).

Muhammad was well acquainted with the Christians of Najran. A delegation is said to have come on one occasion from the settlement to meet him and question him on certain points of his teaching about the Christian faith which perplexed them. Even before his prophetic mission, however, we find that he joined the Christians who visited `Okadh, a meeting-point between Mecca and at-Ta`if, and listened to the Bishop of Najran, Al-Qass ibn Sa`ida, whose eloquent preaching against wealth is recorded in poetic forms very similar to Qur'anic passages on the same subject. In later years Muhammad remembered Qass preaching from his brown camel and used to ask Abu Bakr, his close companion, to recite some of his lyrics.

Some centuries before Muhammad's time a certain Mani had proclaimed himself to be divinely inspired and claimed that he was the Comforter foretold by Jesus (John 14:16), a claim paralleled in the Qur'an for Muhammad (Surah 7:157, 61:6) and by his followers to this day. Mani also claimed that Jesus himself was not crucified but only a semblance of him being in fact the Antichrist, another teaching which has parallels in the Qur'an (Surah 4:157).

One of Muhammad's early contacts was a man named Waraqa, a relative of his first wife Khadija and a Christian. He is said to have translated a portion of one of the Gospels into Syriac and it must be presumed that he too would have introduced Muhammad to much of the local Christian heritage.

Although pre-Islamic Arabia was mainly pagan with only a limited Christian influence, there is much evidence that this influence grew as Muhammad's mission developed. It is probable that there was very little Christian influence upon Muhammad in the earlier years of his mission as the initial chapters of the Qur'an make no specific mention of the Christian faith, yet a study of the later surahs shows that, as his contacts with Christians increased, in particular with those in southern Syria, so the Qur'an's dependence on local Christian characteristics grew as well.





[ Image to be supplied ]



Muhammad receives the revelation of a portion of the Qur'an at the great Battle of Badr. Only a small hill separated the Muslim army from the warriors of Mecca before hostilities commenced in earnest.




An event that took place near Mecca not long before the rise of Islam has to be included in any assessment of the environment in which Muhammad founded the new faith. After the demise of Dhu Nuwas the king of Abyssinia, Abraha, decided to make the Christian faith dominant in southern Arabia and he had a fine cathedral built at San`a to which he hoped to draw all the Arabs as pilgrims. The city survives to this day in what is now Yemen, though the church he built has long since vanished.

Abraha, although a determined warrior, had a good reputation in the region. He was known to be a Christian of sincere conviction, indeed a very zealous one, and he was renowned for his keen sense of justice, his charitable nature and the manner in which he championed the cause of the poor and the unfortunate.

Nonetheless he was determined to make San`a the commercial centre of the Arabian peninsula and soon after the completion of his cathedral he issued a proclamation obliging all Arabs to visit it annually. He was well aware of the popularity of the Ka'aba in Mecca and he was fixed in his purpose to displace it as the commercial and religious centre of Arabia. His decree generally went unheeded, however, and the Christian King of Himyar watched with grief as the hordes of pilgrims set out each year for Mecca instead.

An independent record of his contests with the resident tribes in the area of the Yemen is introduced with an inscription introducing the name of the Triune God of the Christians in terms that show that the exact essence of the Trinity was well-known to the Christians of Arabia, notwithstanding a misrepresentation of it in the Qur'an. A record of his management of the repairs to the dam of Marib in southern Arabia begins with these words: "By the power of the Merciful One (Rhmnn), and His Messiah (w-Mshhw), and of the Holy Spirit (rh quds)". The Qur'an acknowledges Allah as ar-Rahman (Surah 17:110) and recognises Jesus as al-Masih (Surah 4:171), but it regards the Trinity as representing Allah, Jesus and his mother Mary (Surah 5:78, 5:119)  while the holy spirit (ruhul- quddus) is identified as the medium of revelation (Surah 16:102), elsewhere said to be Jibril, the Angel Gabriel (Surah 2:97). The use of the correct trinitarian formula in an Arabian inscription not long before the rise of Islam, however, shows that the Qur'an is not treating an error among the local Christians and its own misconception does tend to give the impression that the founder of Islam himself was in some confusion at this point.


News came to the Christian king one day that a member of the tribe of Kenanah had entered his cathedral and had desecrated it by strewing animal dung all over its interior. Abraha was infuriated, more particularly when he heard that the tribes in the vicinity had revolted against his rule and had assassinated his ally Muhammad ibn Khuza`a, the king of Modar. So he decided to lead an expedition to Mecca with the sole purpose of destroying the Ka`aba.

A large contingent set out with numerous soldiers and horsemen. A unique feature of the army was the inclusion of an elephant among the other animals taken along, a circumstance which was later to give the year in which the march took place its name, the Year of the Elephant. (The actual year was 570 AD). When it reached Mughammis near Mecca, Abraha sent a contingent to the outskirts of the city and the soldiers plundered what they could including two hundred camels belonging to `Abd al-Muttalib who was to become Muhammad's grandfather.

The Quraysh meanwhile decided it was useless to try to resist the large army and Abraha, sensing their unwillingness to engage him, sent a messenger to Mecca telling them he did not wish to fight anyone but sought only to destroy the Ka`aba. He summoned a representative to come out and meet him and `Abd al-Muttalib duly went forth. When he arrived he demanded that his camels be returned to him. Abraha was surprised that he should only be concerned about his animals when the centre of his religious faith was about to be eliminated but the Arab retorted that, while the camels were his concern, the Lord of the Ka`aba would look after his own house and would defend it against him.

Abraha returned the camels and set out for the Ka`aba. The Quraysh decided to withdraw to the hills around the town after 'Abd al-Muttalib had first taken hold of the metal ring in the door of the shrine and had prayed to Allah to protect it. Meanwhile the elephant was brought to the front of the army and was decked in festive apparel. The guide of the procession marching on Mecca, one Nufayl, was very reluctant

to proceed with the journey and in a whispered but emphatic voice he commanded the elephant to kneel. He had learnt the words of command which the beast had been trained to understand and caused it to go down on its knees and refuse to march any further. Abraha was annoyed but no matter how hard he tried to persuade it to rise and press on with his army the elephant would not march on the city.


It is not known exactly how the army came to grief but something dramatic appears to have happened to it to cause it to be decimated and give up the march on Mecca. A logical explanation can be given in that, as the Quraysh were occupying the hills, they may have rained down stones and rocks on the exposed force and obliged it to withdraw. An outbreak of smallpox or some other plague could likewise have caused Abraha to pull back without accomplishing his goal. A legend soon grew, however, that the army had been beaten back miraculously by a flock of birds which hurled down rocks and stones upon the soldiers. A record of this is found in the Qur'an itself in the following chapter:

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant? Did he not make their guile go astray? And he sent against them flights of birds, hurling against them stones of baked clay, and he made them like green stalks that have been consumed. Surah 105:1-5

The traditional story of this event describes these unique birds as about the size of a swallow with green plumage and yellow beaks. Each one is said to have had three pebbles, one in its beak and one each in its claws, and as they pelted the army hundreds perished as the pebbles, hurled with an unbelievable ferocity, pierced the soldiers' coats of mail and found their mark. The rest of the army returned to Yemen and many others died on the way (giving the impression that it was most probably an outbreak of a disease such as small-pox that caused the catastrophe). Abraha himself died not long after returning to San`a and no further excursions from the city were undertaken.

The Qur'an, however, takes the legend at face value. The deliverance of the Ka`aba was obviously regarded by the Arabs as a miracle and a sign that the shrine had a divinely sanctioned significance. It is interesting to note that the Qur'an elsewhere describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in much the same way, saying that they too were assailed with "stones of baked clay" (hijaratam-min sijjil – Surah 15:74).

The sanctity of the Ka`aba, both prior to Islam and within its realm, is in no small measure the result of this incident. During his lifetime Muhammad always regarded it as a genuinely holy shrine despite the fact that it was surrounded by idols. The very sequel of an Arabian prophet may well have had some connection with this event, creating as it did a sense of divine protection upon the city of Mecca.

Two other factors may also assist in determining why that claimant to universal prophethood should have been Muhammad himself. Firstly it was his own grandfather who took the lead and initiative in opposing the Abyssinian ruler and in assuring him that the Lord of the Ka`aba would look after his own house just as the Arab chieftain had seen to his. Secondly it has always been believed by Muslim historians that Muhammad himself was born in 570 AD, the very Year of the Elephant, and it has been customary for Muslims throughout the history of Islam to regard the destruction of Abraha's army as a sign of the imminent rise of a final messenger who would withstand all the attempts of pagans and unbelievers to destroy the ultimate revelation of God which would be given to him through the mediation of a divinely-inspired scripture.

It is not known for certain when Muhammad was actually born but there can be no doubt of his lineage and the place of his birth. He was born in Mecca of two members of the Banu Hashim, `Abdallah and his wife Amina. His father died shortly before he was born though his grandfather 'Abd al-Muttalib lived on for some years and was the young boy's official protector. Amina died six years after his birth, leaving the young Muhammad an orphan but one who was destined to transform the religious and social characteristics of his people and to eventually become the founder of the only major world religion to succeed the Christian faith.





[ Image to be supplied ]



As some of the leading men of the Quraysh take up stones to throw at Muhammad his close friend and companion Abu Bakr pleads with them to desist. His influence with them persuaded them to back off.




As Muhammad's father `Abdullah had died before he was born his grandfather `Abd al-Muttalib became his guardian according to Arab custom. His mother Amina decided to send him away to be nursed by a woman from one of the local nomadic tribes of the Hawazin known as the Banu Sa`d. A number of possible maids turned down the opportunity as they did not expect a reasonable remuneration from the widow but one of them, Halima, eventually took the infant Muhammad over. The women arranged for the child to be weaned over a period of two years but, when Halima endeavoured to return him after this period, Amina remarked that she did not think the climate of Mecca would be good for him and she accordingly arranged for a further two-year period during which Halima was to remain responsible for him.

Shortly before the end of this period a strange experience took place which greatly disturbed Halima and her husband. Muhammad was playing with their children among the cattle close to their settlement. He suddenly had an unusual fit and for a time went into an apparent trance. They were greatly troubled as it was commonly believed that such behaviour was a sign of the influence of an evil spirit and they decided to return the child to his mother immediately. With some difficulty Amina managed to get a report of what had happened and, after persuading them that the experience was nothing to be concerned about, they took the child back and kept him for one more year.

Islamic legend has invested this story with marvellous details. It is said that two angels actually visited the young Muhammad and, after cutting open his chest, they took out his heart and removed a black clot which they promptly threw away. After washing his heart and the inside of his chest, they sealed them both up again and left, saying that if he was to be weighed against the whole of his people, he would most certainly outweigh them all.

Ignoring the legendary narrative that has embellished the incident it appears that the young boy indeed suffered from strange physical experiences that were later to manifest themselves again when he believed he was the recipient of a divine revelation. They may well have been epileptic fits though nothing certain can be said about them.

`Abd al-Muttalib died when Muhammad was only eight years old and his uncle Abu Talib thereafter became his official protector. While he was still a boy Abu Talib decided to take him on a trading expedition to Syria. Islamic tradition states that when the caravan reached Busra a certain Christian monk named Bahira came out to greet the party. It is said that he was well-versed in the Christian faith and that he had gained most of his knowledge from a book which he had in his cell. Noticing that Muhammad seemed to fit the description of a last prophet to come whom Bahira eagerly awaited, he questioned him at some length and looked at his back to see if he could find a certain mark which was believed to be a sign of the seal of prophethood between his shoulders. Discovering it he called for Abu Talib and instructed him to look very carefully after the lad when he returned to Mecca as he was destined to have a great future. The monk is said to have particularly warned him to beware of the Jews.

The full story of this incident is supplemented with much fanciful legendary material but the event as a whole is regarded by the Muslims as a salutary witness to the growing future Prophet of Islam by a learned Christian and the legend about the seal of prophethood between his shoulders is a basic tenet of Muslim belief to this day.


At the age of twenty-five Muhammad married for the first time. A widowed woman of substance and dignity named Khadija had heard of his trustworthiness (he was called Al-Amin – "the Faithful One" – by his associates) and employed him to look after her next trading expedition to Syria. He was accompanied by her son Maysara and when this young man gave a good report of Muhammad's conduct throughout the journey she sought his hand in marriage. It appears the proposal came from her side and, although she was already forty years of age, Muhammad accepted her offer of marriage and a lifelong relationship resulted.

Seven children were born of the marriage but their three sons unfortunately died in infancy. Khadija was destined to die some ten years later but their four daughters all outlived her and followed Muhammad to Medina when he left Mecca shortly after her death. His daughters' names were Zaynab, Ruqayya, Umm Kulthum and Fatima though only the last was to become prominent in Islam as the wife of `Ali, one of Muhammad's first converts and his fourth official successor.

The marriage was a happy one and, although Muhammad married often after Khadija's death and had a number of wives at any time, he maintained a monogamous marriage with her throughout the remaining years of her life. His betrothal to a wealthy merchant-woman proved to be an advantage to him when he began to reconsider the religious heritage of his people and his forefathers for he found ample leisure time to retreat to the hills around Mecca to quietly contemplate the meaning of life and to attempt to discover divine truths. An incident during this period, however, was destined to have a remarkable effect on him and probably contributed in no small measure to his eventual conviction that he was called to be a prophet of God in the line of the former prophets, firstly to his own people and ultimately to the whole world.


At the age of thirty-five Muhammad one day walked into the Ka`aba precincts and was suddenly apprehended by large numbers of the Quraysh who were busy rebuilding the structure. They had not been willing to demolish the former shrine completely for fear of some reaction from the Arabian gods and goddesses and were keen to put a roof on it to protect its interior. A Greek ship had been wrecked fortuitously off Jiddah, the town on the Red Sea coast just forty miles from Mecca, and the Quraysh promptly arranged for its timbers to be transported to Mecca to be used as construction material.

The old structure was decrepit but the people withdrew from it in awe. One of them, al-Walid ibn al-Mughira, plucked up enough courage for the task, however, and plucked up an axe with which he demolished a part of it pleading with Allah all the while to recognise that the act was not intended to be sacrilegious but was necessary to improve the shrine. When the bystanders saw no evil befall him they joined in the task and, after the demolition work was completed, they set about rebuilding its walls without further ado.

The central feature of the Ka'aba was the black stone built into its north-east corner. Legend has it that the stone was originally pure white and that it was brought down from heaven by angels upon a cloth to Adam (or, as other traditions have it, to Abraham) to be inserted in the shrine. By Muhammad's time it was pitch black and it is said it turned this colour through bearing the sins of those who had kissed it. (It was in all probability a meteorite and was held in sacred awe solely because it had fallen from the sky. A similar stone held to be sacred in Paul's time at Ephesus also gained its sanctity through having fallen out of the sky – Acts 19:35). The Quraysh got to the point where the stone had to be replaced in its original position in the shrine.

The sub-tribes soon began to argue about who was to have the privilege of actually taking the stone and sealing it again in the walls. The dissension became so serious that one of the sub-tribes, the Banu `Abdud- Dar, brought a bowl full of blood and washed their hands in it with one of the other groups present, pledging a battle to the death to resolve the matter. The rest saw the issue was getting out of hand and, to solve the conflict, persuaded them to let the next person who came into the precincts have the honour of replacing the stone. Muhammad unwittingly became the very next person to come on the scene.

The first person to enter through the gate of Banu Shaybah was the Apostle Of Allah, may Allah bless him. When they saw him they said "This is Al-Amin (the Trusted). We agree to what we have decided". Then they informed him of the affair. Thereupon the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, took his mantle and spread it on the earth, then he put the black stone on it. He then said, "Let a person from every quarter of the Quraysh come ... let every one of you hold a corner of the cloth". Then all of them raised it and the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, put it in its place with his own hand. (Ibn Sa`d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol.1, p.166).

This story is almost certainly true in its essential details. It goes a long way to explaining why, shortly after this, Muhammad began to retire to the hill outside Mecca known as Hira where he meditated for long periods about the religious beliefs of his countrymen, the place of the Ka'aba in divine history, and his own personal role and destiny as a possible leader of his people.

Within seven years the otherwise ordinary citizen of Mecca was to boldly proclaim that he had been commissioned as a divine messenger by Allah, the Lord of the Ka'aba, to call the Arab peoples of the regions about Mecca to forsake the worship of idols and to revere Allah alone. There can be little doubt that the incident where he was elected to be the arbiter between the sub-tribes of Mecca in the matter of replacing the most sacred object in the Ka'aba had much to do with his later conviction and may well have been the express cause of his belief that he had been singled out as the divinely appointed warner and messenger to the very same people between whom he had mediated only a few years earlier.





[ Image to be supplied ]



One of numerous works of art in Islam depicting Muhammad's nocturnal ascent to the presence of Allah shortly before his departure for Medina. The angels accompanying him prepare him for the journey to follow.