Chapter One: In the Name of the Lord
Sometime around the year 570 in the Western calendar, Muhammad ibn Abdullah was born in the oasis town of Mecca, just off the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The town was separated from the Red Sea by a narrow, steep mountain range, and it sat at the edge of the vast desert that defined most of the Arabian Peninsula. The oasis was dominated by the Quraysh tribe, who controlled the camel trade that passed through Mecca between Yemen, in the south, and the more settled agrarian regions hundreds of miles north, which were divided between the Byzantine emperor and the Sasanian monarch of Persia.
Though Muhammad was a member of the ruling tribe, his clan was not particularly prominent. His father died when Muhammad was a boy, and his uncle Abu Talib became his protector. For most of the next forty years, Muhammad lived an anonymous life like that of many others in Mecca; he established himself as a merchant and married an older widow named Khadija. Had he died before the age of forty, his would have been one of the countless lives invisible to history, and Mecca itself would have remained a small provincial town no more important than thousands of others throughout the world. But around the year 610, Muhammad began to hear the voice of God, and for the first time, God spoke in Arabic.
Muhammad did not share these revelations with anyone other than his wife. Prophets were rarely welcome, and Muhammad did not have sufficient standing in the community to defend himself against adversaries who might not welcome the message he was being given. While the experience of receiving the revelations was physically wrenching for Muhammad, the substance was socially wrenching for the Meccans. Rather than a system anchored by tribe, clan, and family, Muhammad announced a new order, anchored by God’s will and human submission to it—hence the words islam
, the Arabic word verb for “submit,” and muslim
, the Arabic word for one who does.
Muhammad began to share the content of what he was being told with a small circle of friends and family, and slowly the word spread. At first, the more powerful members of the Quraysh dismissed the sermons as irrelevant, but as more people started to turn to him for guidance, the Quraysh became concerned. From what they could glean, Muhammad’s message represented a challenge to the social order that they dominated.
They were right to be concerned. In their Mecca of tribe and clan, they were supreme. Obeisance was given to the various gods and spirits known as jinn (the kindred English word is “genie”), but one’s tribe was more consequential than any god. At the time, there was a nascent sense of monotheism, though not much more developed than a vague notion that there was one god more powerful than the others. But the Quraysh of Mecca were not prepared to embrace him alone, because that would have upended the status quo. In their world, the tribe, not any god, determined social standing and marriage, and it was up to the tribe and the clan to avenge wrongs committed by others. Tribal authority was absolute—until Muhammad announced that it was not.
The core message was simple: there is one God, one messenger, and a choice. The God is Allah, who is the same as the God of Abraham, the God of the Hebrew prophets, the God of Jesus, and the God of the Christians. The messenger is Muhammad, a man like any other until he was chosen to convey God’s word in Arabic. And the choice is to surrender to God’s will and to the truth of Muhammad’s recitations and thus be saved for eternity.
The initial revelations emphasized the extent of God’s power and the degree of human powerlessness in the face of it. Later assembled in the Quran, these verses paint a vivid picture of a world destined to end in a final judgment; only those who embrace the message conveyed by Muhammad will be blessed. Because the revelations unfolded over the course of many years, it took some time before they congealed into a coherent belief system. Within a decade, however, Muhammad began to challenge the system of the Quraysh directly.
The most prominent symbol of that confrontation involved the so-called Satanic Verses, which were an earlier version of a portion of the Quran that seemed to allow for the dual worship of Allah on the one hand and of three of the gods of the Quraysh: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. The Satanic Verses may have been an attempt to strike a compromise with the increasingly hostile Quraysh, but the Quraysh were not placated. Instructed by the archangel Gabriel, Muhammad recanted the verses. He claimed that they had been a trick of the devil and issued an unequivocal condemnation of al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. They were not gods, he declared, only mere names.
This assault on the prevailing religious system marked a dramatic turn away from conciliation with the rulers of Mecca. Initially, Muhammad had emphasized social justice, the mystery of life, and Allah’s supreme power, and had hoped that the Quraysh would accept him. When it became clear that they would not, he indicted not just the religion of the Meccans but the Quraysh who upheld it.
As long as his uncle Abu Talib was alive, Muhammad could be criticized and marginalized but he could not be silenced or physically harmed. When Abu Talib died, in 619, however, Muhammad was placed in a precarious position. Faced with an antagonistic tribe and few options, he was responsible for the security and well-being of a community of followers, most of whom occupied the fringes of Meccan society, and he was beginning to attract adherents beyond the city.
As the position of the Muslims in Mecca deteriorated, it was not simply a problem of discrimination and intimidation. Without the protection that his uncle provided, Muhammad and his followers were in physical danger, and he began looking for a new home. He could not, however, simply pick up and leave. He had to find a tribe in another town willing to offer him protection and acceptance. In a world where resources were scarce and water, date palms, and trade were tightly controlled, there was no such thing as moving to another town to start a new life, and certainly not with eighty followers in tow.
After several false starts, Muhammad through his intermediaries was able to negotiate an arrangement with several tribes in the oasis of Yathrib, later known as Medina, two hundred miles north of Mecca. They wanted Muhammad to become their chief. The tribes of Medina were at an impasse, and they were willing to turn to Muhammad because he could act as a neutral arbiter. Muhammad and his followers then began to leave Mecca, quietly, in small groups, so that the Quraysh would not notice.
The move from Mecca to Medina in 622, known as the Hijra, was one of the defining moments in Islamic history. It led to the establishment of an independent and increasingly powerful Muslim community. It also put this community in direct contact with three Jewish tribes. Muhammad expected that they would soon embrace him as the last in a long line of prophets. They did not. The People of the Book
The world of early-seventh-century Arabia was sparsely populated. Settlements centered on water sources, and these attracted traders and tribes. Some worshiped local deities; others not at all. But there were also a substantial number of Jews and some Christians. The Christians were from several different sects, and few followed the doctrines established by the patriarchs in Constantinople. The Monophysite Christians of Egypt, believing that Christ's human nature had been absorbed by his divine nature, were deeply disenchanted with the Byzantine emperor and the official interpretation of the Trinity; the Christians of Syria and Palestine were only slightly less disaffected; and the Assyrian (Nestorian) Christians of what is now Iraq, who had their own view of the nature of Christ, had long been seen as heretics by the church fathers further west. The Christians of Arabia were just as disparate, but Muhammad and the Meccans would have been familiar with the outlines of their faith, including the life of Christ and the basic precepts of the New Testament.
The Jews had been in Arabia for centuries. Before Muhammad’s birth, the Arabian king Dhu Nuwas had converted to Judaism and then launched what appears to have been a mini pogrom against the Christians. In many respects, Arabian Jews were indistinguishable from other tribes. The harsh realities of desert life and the way that people adapted and survived did not know from clan or creed. Jews dressed in similar fashion, ate similar food, and confronted the same challenges posed by nature. They also traded with the Quraysh and other leading Arab tribes, and spoke a dialect of Arabic. Because of their God and certain aspects of diet, marriage, and law, they were culturally distinct. On the whole, however, they were more familiar than alien to Muhammad, and that may explain his initial hope that they would welcome him and his message. The Quran is quite clear that there is a continuum from the Hebrew prophets through Jesus Christ leading ultimately to Muhammad, and when the Jews of Medina refused to acknowledge that, Muhammad and his increasingly powerful followers began to treat them as enemies.
Initially, when Muhammad arrived in Medina, an agreement was reached between the two non-Jewish tribes, the three Jewish tribes, and the new community of Muhammad and his followers. Whether this was a written document or a verbal understanding, it became known as the Constitution of Medina, and it was a model of ecumenism. It was also a necessity. Given the circumstances of Muhammad’s arrival in Medina, it was essential that the various parties agree on how this new confederation would be governed. Without that, there would be no way to settle the conflicts that would inevitably arise.
Many of the constitution’s clauses dealt with relations between the newly arrived Muslims and the major tribes of Medina. “The believers and their dependents constitute a single community [umma
]” was the first clause, and in terms of later Islamic history, one of the most important. In that simple statement, the unity of Muslims everywhere was established, and to this day, there is a deep sense in the Muslim world that all believers constitute one community. That means that state boundaries and doctrinal differences that separate Muslims are false and wrong.
Having established the principle of unity, the constitution laid out the responsibilities of the tribes: they would each handle policing and administering justice to their members, and murder was forbidden. No individual Muslim was to act in a manner contrary to the will or needs of other Muslims, and believers were enjoined to take care of their dependents. And as for the Jews, they “belong to the community and are to retain their own religion; they and the Muslims are to render help to one another when it is needed.” Intertribal alliances were hardly unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia, and tribes did not need to share a religious system in order to act in concert. In that sense, Muhammad and the other interested parties could draw on past precedent in drawing up the Constitution of Medina.
For a brief moment, Medina became a unified Jewish-Muslim community. In the words of the constitution, “The Jews have their religion, and the Muslims have their religion,” and yet the two lived side by side as equals and supported each other when and where support was needed. Muhammad saw himself as the last in a series of Jewish prophets, and he instructed his followers to face Jerusalem when they prayed. In this hybrid community, Muhammad had the role of first among equals and the arbiter of disputes. The Constitution of Medina created a precedent for peaceful and cordial coexistence. But it did not last long.
There were three powerful Jewish tribes, and the first that Muhammad confronted was the Banu Qaynuqa. The precise reason for the fissure isn’t clear. The ninth-century chronicler al-Baladhuri reported only that “the Jews of Qaynuqa were the first to violate the covenant and the Prophet expelled them from Medina.” Al-Bukhari, also writing in the ninth century, mentioned that as the Muslim community grew, the Muslim immigrants needed more land and more date groves, and the reluctance of the Jews to accede to Muhammad’s authority made them a legitimate target. Another aggravating factor was the refusal of the Jewish tribes to come to Muhammad’s aid during the battle of Badr, when the Muslims of Medina, to the astonishment of the Quraysh, defeated a small army sent from Mecca. Still others claim that hostilities erupted because an Arab woman was the victim of a practical joke that resulted in her skirt riding up too high, which led a Muslim man to kill the perpetrator, who happened to be Jewish. Whatever the proximate cause, the Jews of the Banu Qaynuqa refused to validate Muhammad’s claims to prophethood. Their expulsion coincided with a symbolic shift in how Muslims prayed. Instead of facing Jerusalem, they now turned toward Mecca. Jerusalem would remain a holy city for Muslims, but after the banishment of the Banu Qaynuqa, Mecca became the focal point.
Over the next three years, the Muslims of Medina gained converts, including some Jews. Events alternated between skirmishes with the Quraysh and confrontation with the remaining Jewish tribes. After Muhammad led his followers to a battlefield victory against the Meccans, he broke with the second Jewish tribe, the Banu Nadir. They were expelled after a two-week siege, but unlike their predecessors, they were not allowed to take their weapons.
The final tribe, the Banu Qurayza, having watched as Muhammad consolidated his power, made a fateful choice: they cast their lot with the Meccans, who were preparing a final assault on Medina. The Muslims had taken control of the trade caravans, and had cut Mecca off from the source of its wealth and strength. While the Banu Qurayza did not actually consummate an alliance with the Meccans, they did not support Muhammad, and may well have been in negotiations with his enemies. Either way, they were in a difficult position. A victory for the Meccans would reduce the autonomy and influence of Medina, and lessen the power of the remaining Jewish tribe even if it removed the threat of Muhammad. A victory for the Muslims was hardly much better, and indeed turned out to be much worse. After the Meccans failed to take Medina in 627 and were forced to retreat, Muhammad ordered an attack on the Qurayza, who succumbed after a siege that lasted nearly a month. This time, the penalty wasn’t expulsion; it was execution.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell. Copyright © 2007 by Zachary Karabell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.