3.1 First experiences

At the age of 40 Muhammad had his first prophet­ic experiences. The details differ according to the differ­ent traditional accounts. Ibn-Ishâq cites az-Zuhrî who says that Muhammad “did not see visions in his sleep, but they came to him like the brightness of daybreak” (1:234), and this presumably at his home in Mecca. Most other traditions, however, have the event take place on Mount Hirâ’ outside Mecca. Muhammad went there for a customary Arab religious devotion called taannuth. His experience with Christian monks may also have taught him to love prayer and solitude. He had the habit of going annually for a month in the mountains where he could think about God and also about his personal life and the social and religious condition of his people. The time was during the month of Ramadân (Q 2:185), and that “on the night of destiny” (Q 97; 44:1-4). This is thought to be on the 27th or anytime within the last 10 days of Ramadân, although some say the “night of destiny” is 17 Ramadân, when another revelation was made, some years later, at the Battle of Badr (Q 4:41; I.I. 1:236, 239-40).

Whatever the exact day, while Muhammad was alone on the mountain he had an overpowering experi­ence. Some accounts say it was while he was sleeping; others say he was awake. As for the content of this experi­ence, there are three main versions, each with its own variations.

In the first version Muhammad hears a voice [an inner voice seems to be meant] telling him, “You are the Messenger of God”. In one variation Muhammad heard this repeatedly while walking through the valleys and hills and did not see anyone. Another variation, given by az-Zuhrî, says that “the Truth [al-Haqq, a name for God] came to him unexpectedly” and told him this. Still another variation has the message come from Gabriel. The traditions mentioning Gabriel at this time are suspect, because his name does not come up in the Qur’ân until the later, Medinan sűras.

In the second version Gabriel commands Muhammad to recite a part of the Qur’ân. The connection of this incident with Gabriel shows that the story is influenced by later ideas. Of several variations the following account of Ibn-Ishâq is the most widely known:

Gabriel came to me while I was asleep holding an embroidered cloth with some writing, and said, “Recite.” I said, “What shall I recite?” He pushed it against me until I thought I would die, then let me go and said, “Recite.” I said, “What shall I recite?”  He pushed it against me again until I thought I would die, then let me go and said, “Recite.” I said, “What shall I recite?” He pushed it against me a third time until I thought I would die, then let me go and said, “Recite.” I said, “What then shall I recite?” I said that only to get free from him, so that he would not do the same thing again. He said:

Recite in the name of your Lord who created,
who created man from coagulated blood.
Recite: Your Lord is most generous.
He taught by the pen,
taught men what they did not know (Q 96:1-5). (1:236-7)

Note that the phrase “What shall I recite (mâ aqra’u) can also be translated “I do not (cannot) read”, an interpretation favoured by some Muslim scholars who want to prove that Muhammad was illiterate. The present passage is unlikely support for that view, but this question will be discussed later.

The passage just given presents sűra 96:1-5 as the first Qur’ânic passage revealed, but another tradi­tion related by Jâbir makes sűra 74:1-4 the first:

You who are wrapt in a dathâr, rise and give warning.
Glorify your Lord, and purify your garments.

In a third version Muhammad did not hear anything, but saw two visions, such as are described in Qur’ân 53:1-18:

By the star when it goes down,
your companion has not gone astray nor erred;
nor does he speak what he feels like saying.
He only utters a suggestion made to him,
taught to him by one who is strong and mighty,
a powerful one who stood very tall
over the high horizon,
and then came near and lower,
two bow shots away or less,
and made suggestions to his servant.
What he saw did not come from his imagination.
Do you dispute what he saw?
Then he saw him descend another time
near the sidra tree at the boundary
of the garden of al-Ma’wâ,
when the sidra tree was overshadowed.
His eyes did not turn away;
he really saw one of the Lord’s greatest signs.

3.2 Interpretation

In the above passage, whom did Muhammad see?  It seems he was not sure at first. The reference in verse 10 to “his servant” implies that the vision was of God. But in Qur’ân 82:15-25 the event is reinterpreted as a vision of a “noble messenger” or some angel (see also Q 97). Later this messenger was taken to be Gabriel (cf. Q 2:97). This passage makes no mention of voices, but uses the verb awhâ. The noun wahy means revelation, but in the special sense of a quick inner suggestion of an idea, with or without words. Muhammad’s later experiences of Qur’ânic inspiration were not as over­whelming as at the beginning or accompanied by visions.

Some authors have put together the three versions of Muhammad’s first prophetic experience with great ingenuity, fitting every detail into a single coherent story. This is the method of harmonization, and it assumes that every different detail in each account is a factual report of a separate event. But if we admit that the story was altered or transformed by different reporters, it is more likely that they were all describing the same event in different ways. Some of the elements can be harmonized, but not all. The differences arose largely from projecting backwards later ideas of what Muhammad’s first prophetic experi­ence ought to have been, from the theological viewpoint of later writers.

All that seems sure is that Muhammad did have a deep religious experience while on Mount Hirâ’, that he saw some kind of vision and was prompted to recite certain Qur’ânic verses that began ringing in his mind. This is a historical judgement which neither affirms nor denies whether Muhammad received revelations from God. That is a theological question which the reader will have to answer for him or herself.

3.3 Khadîja’s support

How did Muhammad react to this first experience, and what of others who came to know of it? All the accounts show that Muhammad’s experience caused him great dread and anxiety. Az-Zuhrî even places here the temptation to commit suicide by jumping off a mountain cliff ( 2:298 = 1147). In any case, Muhammad returned home and told Khadîja of his experience and fears, and she asked advice from her cousin Waraqa, “who had become a Christian, read books and heard from the masters of the Torah and the Gospel”. Waraqa, it is said, exclaimed that Muhammad was “the Prophet of this people”, having been visited by the great Nâműs that came to Moses (1:238). “Nâműs is taken to be Gabriel, but the word is from the Greek νόμος, meaning “law”, in this case the Mosaic Law or Torah.

Waraqa remained a Christian, but Khadîja became the first to believe in Muhammad, remaining his staunch supporter and comforter as long as she lived.

3.4 An interruption of experiences

Muhammad no doubt had further religious experi­ences that we do not know about. But at one point “the suggestions stopped for a time, so that the Mes­senger of God was distressed and grieved” (1:241). Other accounts more reasonably place the temptation to suicide at this time ( 2:305 = 1155).

Muhammad must have realized that his religious experiences were impelling him to the role of a public religious leader, and his nature could have shrunk back in fear, contributing to the feeling of abandonment by God. Muhammad’s despondency ended with another reassuring experience in which he received sűra 93, beginning with the lines:

By the morning and the night when it is still,
your Lord has not abandoned or hated you.

3.5 First preaching among friends

Muhammad then began to spread his message among some of his friends and relatives. Among them were his cousin `Alî, son of Abű-Tâlib, who was 10 years old at the time, and the older man Abű-Bakr, each of whom was important in the early development of Islam and eventually succeeded him as head of the Muslim community. Another important man, who really may have been Muhammad’s first male convert, was Zayd ibn-al-Hâritha, who had been a slave and was then adopted into Muhammad’s family. These and other converts joined Muhammad in the prayer of salât, such as it had developed at that stage, with two rak`as before dawn and two before sunset, with additional prayer during the night (cf. Q 20:130; 50:39; 11:114; 17:78-9), during which they recited passages of the Qur’ân which they had memorized. Another account anachronistically has Gabriel teach Muhammad all five prayers at this time.

Muhammad’s followers increased to about 40 men, most of them young and generally from influential families of Mecca. They carried on their religious activities discretely, but not like a secret society which could not be observed. “At this time”, says Ibn-Sa`d, “the unbelieving Quraysh did not criticize what he said. When he passed by them as they sat in groups, they would point to him and say, ‘There is the youth of the clan of `Abdalmuttalib who speaks of things from heaven’” (IS i, I, 133)[1]

If we want to know what Muhammad was preaching at this time we must look at passages of the Qur’ân which are recognized as old and which do not refer to the opposition which developed later. These passages show five main themes:[2]

  1. God’s power and goodness, shown particularly in the creation of man, but also in creating and provid­ing for the rest of nature (Q 96:1-5; 90:4,8-10; 80:17-22;. 87:1-3; 55; 88:17-20). These passages assume the existence of God, since the Arabs always believed in a supreme deity, and this belief was reinforced by Jewish and Christian influence. Yet, since the Arabs tended to think of Allâh as limited in power, the first among a pantheon of other deities, Muhammad’s preaching emphasized the greatness of God. At this stage there is no mention of the unity of God. That is a point which claimed special attention later in the context of controversy with the Meccans.

  2. Man’s return to God for judgement (Q 96:8; 74; 80:22; 84:1-12). These passages teach that man will rise on the last day and face judgment, and then proceed to his reward or punishment. At this stage, however, fear of condemnation is not prominent, and there are none of the vivid descriptions of hell that come in later Qur’ânic passages.

  3. Man’s responses to God in gratitude and worship (Q 80:16ff; 106; 87:14ff; 96:6ff). These passages describe gratitude through its opposite, ingratitude. The word used for an ungrateful person is kâfir, a term which later came to mean an unbeliever. Condemned also are presumption, meaning total self-confidence with no regard for God’s restrictions, and pride in wealth, with no sense of dependence on God’s power. Positively, gratitude is expressed in worship, particularly in the performance of salât with all its bodily demonstrations of subservience to God.

  4. Man’s response to God in generosity to men (Q 93:9-11; 104:1-3; 92:5-11; 68:17-33; 53:34ff; 100:6-11; 89:18-21; 69:33-35; 51:17-19; 70:17ff). Only the first reference given here is definitely from the period before opposition arose to Muhammad; yet the others are from the early Meccan period and reflect what the earliest message must have been. These texts sharply attack hoarding wealth and having no concern for those in need. They do not mention property rights, inheritance or other rules for social living, which are the concern of later sűras, but they do constitute an attack on the life style of the Meccan elite, and show that Muhammad had a concern for social problems right from the beginning.

  5. Muhammad’s role in Islam (Q 74:2; 87:9). These texts tell Muhammad to “warn” and to “remind” people particularly about the greatness of God and of the certainty of his judgement on the last day. At this time the message was confined to simple and obvious statements about religion which anyone could recognize as true. Muhammad’s task was simply to convey this message, nothing more.

Muhammad naturally was the leader of the group of those who accepted his message. In the amorphous political scene of the newly urbanized tribal Mecca, any association not based on blood relationship inevitably had competitive political overtones. As opposition emphasized the separatist nature of his community, Muhammad inevitably became a full fledged political leader and eventually a head of state.

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Early Islam

Chapter 4 —»

[1]W.M. Watt, Muammad at Mecca, p. 87.

[2]On the chronology of the Qur’ân sűras see Régis Blachčre, Le Coran (Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 1966), pp. 11-23; W.M. Watt, Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’ân (Edinburgh U.P., 1970), chapter 7.