Ibn-Ishâq says that three years elapsed after Muhammad’s first prophetic experience before he began to preach publicly. Certain Qur’ânic commands are associated with the beginning of Muhammad’s public preaching: “Proclaim what you have been ordered, and turn away from the polytheists” (15:94). “Warn those of your clan who are near to you, and shelter with your wings the believers who follow you” (26:214-15). And “Say, ‘I am the one who warns plainly’” (15:89).

4.1 The conflict begins

Muhammad never was altogether secret about his preaching, or he would not have won so many followers. For Ibn-Ishâq the beginning of public preaching coincides with the beginning of opposition to Muhammad. Ibn-Sa`d gives the following reason for the Meccans’ change of attitude:

This (peace) lasted until God (in the Qur’ân) spoke shamefully of the idols they worshiped other than himself and mentioned the perdition of their fathers who died in unbelief. At that they came to hate the Messenger of God and to be hostile to him (i, I, 133).[1]

The first opposition to Muhammad, however, seems to have had little to do with worship of traditional divini­ties. Ibn-Ishâq gives no Qur’ânic verses to illustrate condemnation of such worship at this time. Those most hostile to Muhammad were, like Abű-Jahl, young men with political ambitions. They saw Muhammad growing in popularity and were fully aware of the revolutionary social implications of his teachings and movement; if his movement was not nipped in the bud it might one day sweep all contenders away and leave Muhammad master of Mecca. We must realize that the development of Mecca as the hub of international trade, from Syria in the Byzantine empire through Yemen to the far East, called for a new political leader who could unify Arabia and secure the trade route.

Ibn-Ishâq relates the following incident when Muhammad and his companions were outside praying:

A band of polytheists came upon them as they were doing alât and criticized them, attacking what they were doing, and even fought them. Sa`d ibn-abî-Waqqâ then struck one of the polytheists with a camel’s jawbone and wounded him. That was the first blood shed in Islam. (1:263)

Although Muhammad had made no direct attack on the traditional religion, his preaching about the power of God and his demands upon men we clearly divergent, at least in emphasis, from traditional beliefs and practices. It is true that the traditional religion, inseparable from clan life and social structure, was shaken once people settled in cities, mixing with people of other tribes and participating in international trade and cultural exchange. Nevertheless it could still command a nostalgic loyalty. With some reason, then, the Meccans could complain to Abű-Tâlib:

“Abű-Tâlib, your brother’s son has insulted our gods, insulted our religion, called our way of life stupid, and said our ancestors were in error. Either you must stop him yourself or let us at him, since you are opposed to him just as we are, and we will rid you of him.” Abű-Tâlib gave them a polite diplomatic answer, and they went away.

4.2 Muhammad’s supporters resist persecution

Pressure mounted on Abű-Tâlib to surrender Muhammad, but he steadfastly refused, even though he himself never accepted Muhammad as a prophet. The Meccans increased their threats, and twice mobbed Muhammad at the Ka`ba. The persecution abated with the conversion of the Muhammad’s paternal uncle, the strong man Hamza. He heard how Abű-Jahl abused Muhammad, and reacted:

Hamza was full of anger and went out to take an action for which God would honour him. He ran and did not stop to greet anyone, intending to punish Abű-Jahl when he met him. When he entered the mosque he saw him sitting among the people; so he went up to him and when he stood over his head he lifted up his bow and hit him with it, giving him a heavy bash, and said, “Will you insult him, while I follow his religion and say what he says? Hit me back if you can.” Some of the Banű-Makhzűm got up to defend Abű-Jahl, but Abű-Jahl said, “Let him alone, for I insulted his nephew very much. Hamza’s Islam was perfect and he was obedient to the Mes­senger of God. When he became a Muslim, Quraysh knew that the Messenger of God had become strong and that Hamza would protect him; so they aban­doned some of their ways of harassing him. (1:292)

4.3 Muhammad refuses Meccan offers of compromise

Since Muhammad could not be silenced by threats, the Meccans resorted to promises; so they sent `Utba to him:

`Utba went and sat by the Messenger of God and said, “My nephew, you are one of us, as you know, and hold a noble position in our tribe. You came to your people with a preposterous claim, dividing them, making light of their traditions, insulting their gods and religion and calling their ancestors unbe­lievers. Listen to my proposals and you may accept some of them.” Muhammad said, “Go ahead; I am listening”. He said, “If you want money from your enterprise, we will collect enough to make you richer than any of us. If you want honour, we will make you our chief, so that nothing will be decided without you. If you want sovereignty, we will make you our king. And if you cannot get rid of the spirit which comes to you, we will call a doctor and pay him anything to get you cured, for a spirit often takes possession of a man until he can be cured of it.” (1:293)

Muhammad replied simply by reciting Qur’ân 41:1-5, which refers to the people’s hearts being blocked against hearing God’s message. `Utba went away, the story goes, shaken and impressed. In a variation of the same story (1:313), Muhammad is said to have replied with Qur’ân 34:47: “Say, ‘I ask no reward from you; you can keep it. My reward is with God, who witnesses everything.’”

4.4 The Satanic verses

This sharp reply, however, must not have been given on that occasion, because there is other evidence that Muhammad was ready to consider the Meccans’ offer of some share in their economic and political power in exchange for some recognition of the traditional deities. Muhammad could see in such a deal not only personal advantage but also a means to promote Islam. At this time Muhammad had not yet formulated any firm attitude towards the traditional deities. From a theoretical viewpoint, could they not be compared with the angels which the Jews and Christians and later on Muslims accepted? For the Meccans such a bargain would neutralize the threat of Muhammad’s influence by absorbing him into the establishment. They were even prepared to accept him as a prophet, but on a level with the priests of the traditional religion. So there followed the episode of the Satanic verses, as at-Tabarî relates:

The Messenger of God was looking for a way to win a truce and rapprochement with his people.. When he saw that his people had turned away from him and had nothing to do with what he brought them from God, he was pained and desired a message from God that would reconcile himself with his people. Because of his love and desire for them he would be glad if the bone of their contention could be softened a little. He thought much about it and desired it very much. Then God revealed, “By the star when it goes down, your companion has not gone astray nor erred; nor does he speak what he feels like saying” (Q 53:1-3), until the words, “Have you seen al-Lât, al-`Uzzâ and the third one, Manât?” (Q 53:19-20). At this point Satan put on his lips what he was thinking in himself and his people wanted to hear from him: “Those are the high flying ghurnűqs [Numidian cranes] whose inter­cession can be counted on”.

When the Quraysh people heard that they were delighted and greatly pleased with the way he spoke of their gods and listened to him. The believers also accepted what their prophet brought them from their Lord and did not in the least suspect a mis­take or slip. When he came to the prostration at the end of the sűra he prostrated. The Muslims joined him affirming their belief in what he said and obeying his command. The Quraysh and other polytheists who were in the mosque also prostrated because they heard their gods mentioned, so that everyone in the mosque, believer and unbeliever alike, prostrated, except for al-Walîd ibn-al-Mughîra because he was an old man and could not do so. He took a handful of dirt from the floor and bent his head over that. Then everyone went out, and the Quraysh people were delighted at what they heard about their gods and said, “Muhammad has spoken excellently of our god, saying, ‘They are the high flying ghurnűqs whose intercession is approved’”.

Then Gabriel came to the Messenger of God and said, “Muhammad, what have you done? You have dictated to the people something I did not bring you from God and said what he did not say to you.” This made the Messenger of God very sad and very afraid of God. So God in his mercy made another revelation, making light of the affair and told him that every prophet or messenger before him had similar desires and hopes and Satan interfered with their desires, just as he put words on Muhammad’s tongue. But God abrogated what Satan had him say and established his verses. In other words, you are just like other prophets and messengers. So God revealed: “When ever any messenger or prophet whom we sent before you desired something, Satan interfered with his desire, But God abrogates what Satan put there. Then God establishes his vers­es, since he is knowing and wise” (Q 22:52).

So God took away his prophet’s sadness and what he was fearing, and abrogated the verse that Satan had put on his lips mentioning their gods, namely “They are the high flying ghurnűqs whose intercession is approved” and, after the words “al-Lât, al-`Uzzâ and the third, Manât”, said, “Should you have male children and he females. That would be an unfair division. They are only names which you and your ancestors have given them..” (Q 53:21-23), in other words, what good is the intercession of your gods with him?

When God abrogated what Satan had put on the lips of his prophet, the Quraysh people said, “Muhammad has repented of what he said about the dignity of your gods with God. He changed what he said and published something different. The words that Satan put on the lips of the Messenger of God were in the mouth of every polytheist, and they became more hostile to him and to any of them who became a Muslim and followed the Messenger of God. ( 2:337-40)

Referring to this incident, Qur’ân 17:73-75 has these words of God to Muhammad:

They almost seduced you from what we revealed to you, making you forge against us a different message. Then they surely would have taken you as a friend. Had we not strengthened you, you would have given into them a little, and we would have let you taste the double of life and the double of death, and you would find no one to protect you against us. (See also 39:64-66.)

4.5 Break with the traditionalists

The abrogating verses came when Muhammad realized that an ecumenical compromise with the tradi­tional religion would blunt the spread of Islam and that a recognition of the traditional deities would, in prac­tice, be taken as putting them on a level with God. The phrase “sons/daughters of God” originally did not mean “God’s offspring”, but “lesser deities”. Yet Muhammad found the wording a convenient way to misinterpret the traditional religion: “They assign to God daughters - Glory be to him — while they have the sons they desire. If one of them is given news that he has a girl, his face darkens and he chokes, hiding the news from the people until he decides whether to keep the child in humiliation or trample it into the dust” (Q 16:57-9; see also 37:149; 43:16-19; 52:39; 53:21). Muhammad formalized his repudiation of compromise with Qur’ân 109:

O unbelievers,
I worship not what you worship,
you are not worshiping what I worship;
I am not worshiping what you worship;
you are not worshiping what I worship.
To you your religion,
to me my religion.

The Meccans were disappointed at Muhammad’s repudiation of the compromise. Particularly angry were some who owned property at nearby at-Tâ’if, where the shrine of al-Lât was located. And attack on the cult of al-Lât would hurt the trade that the shrine attracted and diminish their profits. (Cf. 2:328 = 1180-1)

Renewed opposition sharpened the identity of the Muslim community, which was based strictly on loyalty to Muhammad as a prophet, and had no basis in the clan rivalries that typified Meccan politics until then. Muhammad continued trying to attract influential people to Islam, but the following incident shows a balance that accommodated others as well:

Al-Walîd ibn-al-Mughîra was having a long con­versa­tion with the Messenger of God, who was trying hard to convert him to Islam. While they were talking, Ibn-Umm-Maktűm, a blind man, passed by and talked to the Messenger of God and asked him to recite from the Qur’ân. The Messenger of God was much annoyed at that because it distracted him from attending to al-Walîd and converting him. When the blind man kept on asking, Muhammad went off in a huff. So God revealed concerning Muhammad, “He frowned and turned away when the blind man came to him..” (Q 80:1-2), that is, “I sent you as a proclaimer and a warner. I did not specify one person rather than another. So do not deny anyone who desires the message and do not waste time over it with someone who is not interested.” (I:363-4)

4.6 The intellectual battle

While ordinary people continued to enter Islam, the Meccan leaders tried various ways to stop the movement. One was a war of words. Various charges against Muhammad were circulating among his critics in Mecca. We have already seen the charge (1) that Muhammad was destroying the customs and traditional religion of his people. The Qur’ân gives us a clue of other charges:

The evildoers whisper to one another,
“Isn’t this man just a mortal like yourselves?
Will you take to sorcery with your eyes open?”...
They say, “a jumble of dreams”, or “He has forged it”, or “He is a poet’”. (Q 21:3,5)

The second charge, then, is (2) that Muhammad was a diviner (kâhin) or poet (shâ`ir). Qur’ân 52:29-30 has God address Muhammad: “You are not a diviner or possessed by jinn. Or do they say, ‘He is a poet’?” In a discussion reported by Ibn-Isâq, this charge is answered by the statement, “No, for we know poetry in all its forms and meters” (1:270).

It is true that the Qur’ânic sűras, except for isolated verses, do not fit into any of the Arabic poetic meters. But they are close to poetry by having a loose meter and at least assonated final syllables, like:

Bi-smi llâhi r-rahmân ar-rahîm,
al-hamdu li-l-lâhi rabbi l-`âlamîn.

This style is called saj`, a kind of free verse, and falls between poetry and prose. Saj` style was typically used by Arabian traditional diviners or soothsayers (kâhin), especially in the form of a string of obscure oaths leading up to a statement about the future or some other mystery. Several passages of the Qur’ân in the Meccan period resemble the oaths of diviners (37:1-4; 51:1-6; 77:1-7; 79:1-14; 100:1-6) and others contain oaths of a slightly different style (e.g. 52:1-8; 75:26-30; 81:1-14; 84:1-6; 89:1-5; 91:1-10),[2] but most of the Qur’ân, especially in the Medinan period, steers away from oaths and has an even looser free verse style all its own.

But the point of Muhammad’s critics in calling him a diviner or a poet was not the verbal style of the Qur’ân. The phrase “possessed poet” in Qur’ân 37:36 is an indication that the people thought that a poet, just like a diviner or sorcerer (sâhir) was possessed or even mad. Because Muhammad often went into a trance or some other altered state of consciousness when he was reciting a new sűra, people believed he was receiving some kind of inspira­tion. Since the Meccans would not agree that it was from God, they proposed that it came from the jinn (cf. Q 7:184; 15:6; 69:42), and therefore the Qur’ân need not be taken seriously.

Another argument used by the Meccans was (3) that the Qur’ân was a compilation of borrowed stories. “The unbelievers say, ‘This is just a forgery which he invented with the help of others’.. They say, ‘stories from olden times which he wrote down as they were dictated to him morning and evening’” (Q 25:4-5; cf. 68:15). “We know that they are saying, ‘A human being teaches him.’” (16:103).

Muhammad certainly had the opportunity of discussing religion with Jews and Christians. Ibn-Ishâq says:

According to my information, the Messenger of God often used to sit at the shop of a Christian young man named Jabr, at al-Marwa; he was a slave of the Banű-l-Hadramî. They used to say, “By God, Jabr the Christian slave of the Banű-l-Hadramî teaches Muhammad most of what he preaches.” So God revealed the verse: “We know that they say that a human person teaches him but the one whom they refer to speaks a foreign language, whereas this is clear Arabic” (Q 16:103; I.I. 1:393. At-Tabarî’s commentary on this verse gives names of other Christian informants.)

Besides slaves, Muhammad talked with Waraqa, Khadîja’s Christian cousin, and could meet with Christians coming from the Eastern nomadic Arab tribes, the settled Arabs of Yemen and visitors from Ethiopia, especially during the annual trade fair. Muhammad also could meet Jews from Medina and other nearby places. His earlier business trips to Syria exposed him, as seen above, to contact with Christian hermits and other knowledgeable people. Muhammad would have to be extremely unsocial, as he was not, to remain insulated from the Jewish and Christian religious ideas that were circulating in Arabia.

The Qur’ân, however, states that Muhammad did not read or copy from the Bible (29:48), and the con­tents of the Qur’ân show this to be true. At that time the Bible was not translated into Arabic, and was studied only by people who knew Hebrew or Greek or read the Syriac translation. The common people learned about the Bible orally, by listening to Bible stories, in the same way as they spent the evenings telling or listening to Arabic poetry and traditional stories. The stories naturally changed and were adapted as they were told, so as to be more interesting for the listeners or to teach a special point. That can explain how parallel stories in the Bible and the Qur’ân have many differences.

On the other hand, many Qur’ânic stories do not reflect the Bible at all, but apocryphal gospels and ideas that were not held by the Orthodox, Monophysite or Nestorian Christians, but by fringe groups such as the Judaeo-Christians, as we have seen in Chapter One.

Answering the criticism that Muhammad copied from others, the Qur’ân says in the story of Mary, “This is information about the unknown which we reveal to you. You were not there when they cast lots..” (3:44). The same assertion is made about the stories of Noah (11:49), Joseph (12:102) and Moses (28:44-46). Many of Muhammad’s listeners certainly would have been familiar with these stories as told by Jews and Christians and repeated by Arab storytell­ers. Muhammad’s claim of originality for the Qur’ânic version of these stories can only refer to the teachings they emphasize and their Arabic language and style. Never before had they been presented in such a form.

To the charge (4) that he invented the Qur’ânic narratives himself, Muhammad replied by challenging his critics “to produce a story (hadîth) like it” (Q 52:34). Later he challenged them to produce “ten sűras” (11:13) or even “one sűra” (10:38) like it, or “any better guided book” (28:49).

The demand for a miracle was another front in the war of words, and the Qur’ân itself, as a literary miracle, was presented as the major or even only proof that Muhammad was a real prophet of God:

If men and jinn joined together to produce the like of this Qur’ân they could not do so, even if they pooled their efforts. We have presented people with every sort of illustration in this Qur’ân, but most people prefer not to believe. They say, “We will not believe you unless you make a spring gush from the earth for us, or unless you get a garden of palms and vines and make full rivers flow through it, or unless you make the sky fall in pieces on us as you threat­en, or unless you bring God and the angels to back you up, or unless you get a beautifully deco­rated house, or ascend to heaven. Even so, we will not believe in your ascension unless you bring down to us a book that we may read.” Answer, “Glory to my Lord. Am I not only a human being and a messenger?” Tell them, “If angels were walking at home on the earth we would have sent them an angel from heaven as a messenger...” (Q 17:88-95).

(5) The war of words took another twist when the Meccans went to some Jewish rabbis for advice on how to test Muhammad’s wisdom and knowledge of hidden matters. The rabbis gave them three questions to ask. Then, as Ibn-Ishâq relates it,

they came to the Messenger of God and said, “Muhammad, tell us about the young men who disappeared in olden times - there is a wonderful story about them, and about the man who traveled the length of the earth from east to west, and tell us about the Spirit - what is it?” The Messenger of God answered them, “I will answer your ques­tions tomor­row”, but he did not say “God willing”. They went away, and the Messenger of God waited 15 nights without receiving any revelation from God on the matter, and Gabriel did not come; so the people of Mecca began to gossip and said, “Muhammad prom­ised us for tomorrow, and now it is the 15th night since he has not answered us anything about what we asked him. The Messen­ger of God was sad about the delay in revelation and was pained at what the people of Mecca were saying about him. Then Gabriel came from God bringing the sűra of the Cave (18), where he reproached him for his sadness over them, and told him what they asked about, the young men, the traveler, and the Spirit. (1:301-2)

The story of the men of the cave (Q 18:9-26) echoes a Christian devotion to the “Seven Sleepers” who were martyred at Ephesus in the time of the emperor Nero or thereabouts. Their tomb was opened in the year 449 during the “Robber Council of Ephesus”, and the seven martyrs were said to have come back to life for a while. The story became legendary throughout the Middle East, and many shrines were erected in their honour. The story was known in Arabia, and even Ibn-Isâq refers to “Ephesus, the city of the young men of the cave” (2:608). For many centuries Muslims continued to seek the intercession of the Men of the Cave in former Christian shrines and in original Islamic ones.[3]

The story of the mighty traveler, or Dhű-l-Qarnayn, “the man of two horns” (Q 18:83-98), refers to Alexander the Great (Ibn-Hishâm 1:307).

The final question, concerning the Spirit, was not given an adequate answer: “They ask you about the Spirit. Tell them, ‘The spirit is a matter for (or “by the command of”) my Lord, and you have only little knowledge about it’” (17:85). Later Muslim interpreta­tion identifies the Spirit with the angel Gabriel.

4.7 Renewed persecution

When the Meccans saw they were not stopping the spread of Islam by their war of words, they resorted to open persecution. Slaves and unprotected people were tortured, and some even died as a result. Others gave into the pressure and denied their faith.

`Abdallâh ibn-`Abbâs was asked, “Did the polytheists persecute the companions of the Messenger of God so severely that they would be excused for abandoning their religion?” He answered, “Yes, by God, they used to beat one of them and deny him food and drink until he could not stand up, but only sit, because of the torture he received. In the end he would give them anything contrary to his faith that they asked for. If they asked him, ‘Is al-Lât and al-`Uzzâ your god instead of Allâh?” he would answer ‘Yes’. Even if a beetle passed by them and they asked him, ‘Is this beetle your god apart from Allâh?’ he would answer ‘Yes’, just to escape the torture they were inflicting on him.” (1:320)

The Qur’ân itself excuses Muslims who deny their faith outwardly under persecution while retaining their belief in their hearts:

A heavy punishment awaits anyone who becomes an unbeliever after having believed, that is, anyone whose heart has gone to unbelief, not someone who was forced while his heart is still unshaken in belief. (16:106)

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Early Islam

Chapter 5 —»

[1]Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, p. 87.

[2]Cf. W.M. Watt, Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’ân, pp. 77ff.

[3]Cf. Louis Massignon, “Les sept dormants d’Ephčse (ahl al-kahf) en Islam et en Chrétienté”, Revue des études islamiques, 1954, pp. 59-112; 1956, pp. 93-106; 1957, pp. 1-11; 1958, pp. 1-10; 1959, pp. 1-8; 1960, pp. 107-113; 1961, pp. 1-18; 1963, pp. 1-5.