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Muhammad

MUHAMMAD (Summarised from Mr. Gorham’s sketch in his Ethics of the Great Religions) “And the life of Muhammad is not the life of a God, but of a man; From first to last it is intensely human.” (Lane-Poole). From more than one point of view, the system established by the great Arabian reformer Muhammad is worthy of serious study. That one of the leading Christian Powers should also be the greatest Muslim Power of modern times is a striking fact, testifying to a degree of toleration which would have been impossible to the Christianity of the Middle Ages, and also showing that even for prudential considerations it is well for Englishmen to understand a religion with which they are brought into close relationship. Moreover, the religion of Muhammad is the only serious rival to Christianity; and, being from the simplicity of its main conception and the suitability of its ordinances well adapted to the needs of the races of the East, advanced with rapidity which Christian missionaries are unable either to check or emulate. A brief sketch of Muhammad’s life will form a suitable introduction to an account of his religious system. Most faiths centre in a great personality, and this is specially true of Islam. There are no “historic doubts” as to the actual existence of Muhammad; throughout his active career almost every detail of his life is known. That career is of extraordinary interest; that character was one of the most powerful influences in human history. Arabia, about the time of Muhammad’s birth, at Mecca, in A.D. 570, was in a state of religious unrest and political chaos. Its wandering inhabitants, who are believed to have been descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, and therefore closely akin to the Jewish people, were mainly idolaters, worshipping stars, stones, and fetishes. There were many Jewish colonies which had been established after the destruction of Jerusalem 500 years earlier, while a number of Christian sects made the influence of their faith in more or less debased forms perceptible among the native tribes. The chief of 46 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS these sects were the Nestorians, the Arians, the Sabellians, the Eutychians, the Marianites, and the Collyridians; but many other forms of religious eccentricity flourished in the freedom of the desert. There were also men known as Hanifs, who did not attach themselves to any religious community, but were anchorites of an individualist and ascetic character, who taught a monotheistic faith in which elements of Essenism and Christianity were mingled. This comparative purity of life and doctrine doubtless helped to prevent the utter decay of religion in the Arabian peninsular; but the urgent need of moral reform was perceived by many before the advent of Muhammad. Indeed, a widespread expectation was in the air that the time was approaching when an Arabian Messiah should appear and found a new religion. The ground was prepared for a great social revolution. The time was ripe, and the man appeared. The father of Muhammad died before his son’s birth, and the boy having at six years of age lost his mother also, was brought up by his uncle, Abu Talib, who, though not a believer in his mission, remained through life the Prophet’s best friend. Until manhood, Muhammad was in poor circumstances, tending flocks of sheep and assisting his uncle in his business as a merchant. At the age of twenty-five, Muhammad, through the offices of Abu Talib, obtained employment as a camel driver with a rich widow named Khadijah, and took charge of a caravan conveying merchandise to Syria. Pleased with his successful management, and attracted by his personal beauty, Khadijah, though by fifteen years his senior, sent her sister to offer the young man her hand in marriage. Matters were promptly arranged, and Muhammad became a man of wealth and position. No great success, however, attended his own business enterprises. Religion and commerce sometimes require a good deal of reconciling, and Muhammad was not then an adept in the art of making the best of both worlds. Naturally reserved, and with a mind disposed to a poetic and dreamy mysticism, his mundane affairs were somewhat neglected. His religion assumed an increasingly earnest tone; he spent a large part of his time in lonely meditation in the desert and among the hills, and many an unseen conflict left its trace upon his soul. Not until he was forty years old did Muhammad receive his first “divine revelation”, in the solitude of the mountains near,Mecca. Translated into modern language this means that he then first became convinced that he had a mission to fulfil, viz., to arouse men from their sins, their indifference, their superstition, to thunder into their ears a message from on high, and awaken them to living faith in one indivisable, all-powerful, and all-merciful God. Prolonged fasting, days of ecstatic contemplation, and vigils of the night in the silent valleys and gloomy mountain caves had made him a visionary, with a firm faith that God had inspired him to be His messenger to mankind. This revelation, generally believed to be referred to in the short 96th surah of the Kur’an, he communicated to none but his immediate relatives and a faithful MUHAMMAD 47 friend, Abu Bakr. Painful doubts as to the reality of the vision oppressed him, but were dispelled by the sympathy of his friends. Many of his friends called him a fool, a liar, a mad poet; and the city of Mecca for several years illustrated the proverb that a prophet hath no honour in his own country by a decisive rejection of his claims. When conviction, however, had once taken possession of his mind, it was unshakeable. When his uncle begged him to cease his attempts to convert the Meccans, and so put an end to constant trouble. Muhammad said “Though they gave me the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left to bring me back from my undertaking, yet will I not pause till the Lord carry His cause to victory, or till I die for it.” Turning away he burst into tears, and Abu Talib replied: “Go in peace, son of my brother, and say what thou wilt, for by God I will on no condition abandon thee.” The little body of believers grew slowly. In four years Muhammad had about forty proselytes, mostly of the lower ranks, and he then felt himself justified in coming forward as a public preacher, and denouncing the superstitions of the Meccans. To establish a new religion was no part of his intention. He desired simply to recall them to the purer and truer faith of their ancestor, Abraham. Zealous for the worship of the Kabah, and dreading lest the profitable pilgrimages to their city should fall into decay, the people of Mecca showed the bitterest hostility to Muhammad, opposing and ridiculing him at every turn. So violent was their hatred that Abu Talib thought it prudent to shelter him for a tune in a place of security in the country. About this time his wife died, then his uncle, and changes of fortune reduced him again to poverty. He went to another part of the country, but found himself in danger, and barely escaped with his life. But a turning-point in his career was at hand. In a party of pilgrims from the rival city of Yathrib, afterwards called Medinah, Muhammad made several converts. On their visit the following year, their numbers were so greatly increased that Muhammad entered into an alliance with them, and on a certain night, when a plot had been made to assassinate him he left the city of his birth and took refuge in the friejadly city. The Muslim era of Hegira (Hijrah) dates from this event. Muhammad was now among friends; his converts increased rapidly in number and the once despised Teacher was recognised as the ruler of a city and of two powerful tabes. Missionaries were sent to all parts of Arabia, and even to neighbouring countries, including Egypt and Persia. The final conquest of Mecca was followed by the submission of the tribes and the acknowledgement of Muhammad’s spiritual and temporal supremacy over the Arabian peninsular. The vanquished marvelled at the magnanimity of the victor. Only three or four persons, and those criminals, were put to death, and a general amnesty was then proclaimed. When he became aware that his end was approaching he addressed his followers in the mosque as often as he was able, exhorting them to righteousness and piety and peace among themselves. Each man, he 48 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS declared, must work out his own salvation. He read passages from the Kuran, asked forgiveness of any whom he had wronged, and prepared his weeping followers for his death. His head pillowed on the lap of his wife, his lips murmering of pardon and paradise, the dying agonies of a great soul came to an end, and the Preacher of Islam breathed his last. His people were moved to keen distress. Omar, half-frantic, drew his scimitar, rushed among the crowd, and declared he would strike off the head of anyone who dared to say the Prophet Of God was no more. Abu Bakr calmed him, and preached resignation to the will of God. Muhammad was a man of imposing presence, of medium height, broad- shouldered, and strongly built, with fine features, coal-black hair and eyes, and a long beard. His mental powers were of a high order, his manners reserved yet affable and courteous; his speech laconic and often humorous, a man of strong passions but noble impulses, capable of great love, great generosity, altogether a character of surprising force, capacity, shrewdness, and determination. Temperate and prudent in youth, he gained in manhood the name of “Al-Amin”, or “the faithful”, from his fair and upright dealing. Just and affectionate in private life, he lived in the humblest style in a poor hut, eating the plainest food, lighting his own fire, and mending his own clothes and shoes, having given his slaves their freedom. For months together he would seldom eat a hearty meal, always sharing it with those whose need was greater: a number of the poor lived entirely on his generosity.