Mohammed as a Prophet
For many years after his marriage Mohammed led a quiet and peaceful life with his devoted wife, Khadijah. He was now a rich man, and a respected citizen of his native town. Always of a thoughtful nature, he grew more inclined to solitude and retirement, and, as time went on, he began to reflect on the idolatry of his countrymen, searching in his mind for a purer religion. He was not the only one who realized the sinfulness of idolatry; there were other serious-minded men who practised the ancient religion of Abraham, which means that they worshipped one God, whom they called the Most High God (Allah ta' alah). During the month of Ramadan, which seems, even in those early days, to have been set apart as a time for fasting and religious observance, these holy men would retire to solitary places for prayer and meditation.
At the head of a sandy valley not far from Meccah stands a high cone-shaped mountain. In old days it was called Mount Hira, but its name was afterwards changed to Jebel Nur, or the Mountain of Light, for it was there that Mohammed first saw the light that was to lead his people into the way of truth. The view from this mountain is wild and desolate—peaks of grey and black rock, of curious and fantastic shapes, rise, one above the other, in solemn grandeur, while no speck of green relieves the barrenness of the outlook. The mountains of Arabia, like those of Northern Africa, have not the soft outlines of many of our hills at home, but are deeply furrowed and wrinkled, as though great age had left its mark upon them.
Some way up the steep side of Mount Hira is a cave to which Mohammed often retired for solitary meditation, and sometimes Khadijah, his wife, would accompany him to this quiet retreat. For Mohammed was passing through a time of doubt and perplexity; He longed for the Truth, which he felt was not to be found in the worship of idols, but, as yet, the way was not clear to his mind. We must remember that Mohammed was never in a position to learn all that our religion has taught us; he may, from time to time, have met with a few Christians, but the Christianity that found its way into Arabia in those days had lost much of its purity. Nevertheless, when he had firmly grasped the idea that "God is One, the Eternal," that "there is none like unto Him," Mohammed had got far on the way leading to Truth. The Unity of God is the one great outstanding doctrine of the Mohammedan faith. That he should have been chosen to preach this doctrine to mankind dawned by slow degrees on Mohammed's mind. This is how it came about.
It was the month of Ramadan, and Mohammed had gone to the cave on Mount Hira, to devote this time to prayer and fasting. Unusually excited by his thoughts, he fell into a trance and saw a vision. On the far horizon he beheld the form of the Archangel Gabriel—nearer and nearer he approached until he stood within two bows' lengths of Mohammed. Holding out a scroll, the Angel commanded him to "Read!" "But I cannot read," said Mohammed, trembling before the heavenly vision. Three times the Angel cried "Read!" and then he recited the words that were written on the scroll, proclaiming the greatness of God, the Creator of mankind.
Mohammed was much troubled by this vision or dream, doubting whether he had indeed received a divine revelation, or whether he might have been deceived and in the power of evil spirits. For days together he would wander alone among the rocks of Mount Hira, trying to solve the doubts that oppressed him; so distracted was his mind at this time that he was sometimes tempted to throw himself from one of the steep crags into the abyss below, and so end the struggle. But an invisible hand seemed to hold him back, and for nearly three years he endured the agony of uncertainty.
But at length Mohammed had another vision; Gabriel appeared to him a second time, and he heard a voice crying, "Arise and preach, and magnify thy Lord!" From this time all doubts and difficulties left him, and Mohammed felt assured that he was chosen to be the prophet of his people. What he actually saw, or thought he saw, matters little; the important thing is this: that to his own mind the visions were true ones, that he firmly believed he had a divine message to deliver to mankind, and this conviction deeply influenced his actions until his dying day.
So with all the strength and determination that was in him, Mohammed set himself to preach the worship of the True God. He did not pretend that the religion he taught was something new, but called it the faith of Abraham, and the particular name he gave it was Islam, which signifies "striving after righteousness." We usually call Mohammed's followers Mohammedans, after his own name, and they are also called Moslems. In the end Mohammed succeeded in banishing idolatry from Arabia, but many trials and difficulties were to be overcome before that time arrived.
When he began his public preaching Mohammed was about forty-four years old. Very little progress was made during the earlier years of his mission. The first to believe in him as a prophet was his beloved wife Khadijah, who had given her husband all the help and sympathy in her power during the years of doubt and trial. Another early believer was Zaid, who had been Mohammed's slave, and whom he had freed and adopted as a son. When Zaid was a young child he had fallen into the hands of some wandering Arabs, who had carried him off and sold him as a slave, and it so happened that he was given to Khadijah soon after her marriage with Mohammed. Zaid's father, overcome with grief for the loss of his son, searched for him far and wide, but it was many years before he heard of him from some men of his tribe who had been to Meccah for the pilgrimage. The delighted father set out at once and journeyed to Meccah with the intention of ransoming his son from slavery, but Zaid refused to leave his master, who, he said, had been as father and mother to him. Mohammed, touched by this devotion, took Zaid to the Kaabah, the ancient temple of Meccah, and publicly adopted him as a son. Zaid's father, satisfied with this arrangement, went home, leaving his son in Mohammed's care.
There was another inmate of the Prophet's house who was one of the early converts to Islam; this was Ali, the son of Abu Talib, Mohammed's kind protector. Abu Talib was a poor man, and had many children to provide for, so Mohammed, to help his uncle, adopted one of his sons. We shall hear a good deal about Ali; he was of a brave and noble nature, and remained loyal to his faith during many years of struggle and trial. There were a few other conversions during these early days, the most important being that of Abu Bakr.
Abu Bakr was a rich merchant about two years younger than Mohammed, of whom he was a devoted friend. He was a small, thin man, with a kindly and thoughtful expression, and was fairer than most Arabs. Most generous with his money, he gave away a great deal to the poor, and was always ready to help the weak and oppressed. On account of his faithful and honest nature Abu Bakr was surnamed "Al Siddick," or "The True"; his friendship for Mohammed remained unchanged to the end of the Prophet's life. It was a great advantage to the new faith that such a good and respected man as Abu Bakr should join the small band of believers, and several others soon followed his example.
But the greater number of the people of Meccah, and especially those of Mohammed's own tribe, the Kuraysh, would give no heed to his teaching; he threatened them with the vengeance of Heaven if they refused to give up their idols and lead better lives, but the men of the Kuraysh only scoffed at him and began to persecute the Believers. They were specially hard on the converted slaves and the strangers who were not under the protection of a chief.
These were cruelly ill-treated, being sometimes seized, bound hand and foot, and left, without a drop of water, in the scorching sun, until they would acknowledge the idols of Meccah. Many could not stand this severe trial of their faith, and were forced to give in, though they afterwards returned, repentant, to the Prophet.
Among these sufferers was a tall, powerful Abyssinian slave named Bilal; although nearly dying of thirst, he remained true to his faith, resolutely refusing to say a word against the Prophet. One day, when Bilal had been exposed for many hours in the burning sun, Abu Bakr happened to pass by; he bought the faithful slave, had him released from his fetters and gave him his freedom. Bilal afterwards became famous as the first muezzin; the muezzin is the crier who announces the hours of prayer from a mosque, and Bilal, having a very powerful voice, was chosen for this office.
Abu Bakr did all he could to relieve the sufferings of the oppressed Believers, and soon spent the greater part of his wealth in buying persecuted slaves in order to set them free. As yet, the Kuraysh did not dare to interfere with important persons and chiefs, or those who were under their protection. Thus Mohammed himself, being a member of the ruling tribe, and under the protection of his uncle, Abu Talib, an elder of the tribe, was, for a time, left unmolested. But the less favoured Believers suffered so much from the ill-treatment of the Kuraysh that Mohammed advised them to take refuge in a foreign country. About twenty Moslems emigrated to Abyssinia; among them was Mohammed's daughter, Rukayyah, and her husband, Othman, who was a merchant. The exiles were kindly received by the Christian king of Abyssinia, who realized that the new faith had much in common with Christianity. For Mohammed taught his followers kindness and compassion to their fellow-creatures and also to animals. He enjoined the merchants to be fair and honest in their dealings, and he insisted on the duties of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and giving alms to the poor.
BILAL CALLING THE MOSLEMS TO PRAYER.
The struggle between Mohammed and the Kuraysh became very bitter; the Prophet openly denounced the idols of Meccah, and exhorted the people to repentance, telling them that God would punish them if they did not forsake their sins. The elders of the Kuraysh, furious that the gods of their fathers should be thus insulted, now went to Abu Talib and complained that his nephew was disturbing the peace of Meccah. They demanded that the Chief should order Mohammed to give up preaching in public, and refuse any longer to give him his protection if he would not agree to their terms. Abu Talib, though not a believer, was very fond of his nephew, whom he had always regarded as a son, and was anxious that no harm should happen to him. So he sent for Mohammed and told him of the complaints of the Kuraysh; he might hold what opinions he pleased, said the Chief, who was now a very old man, but he must not declare them openly. Mohammed answered, "If they brought the sun on my right hand and the moon on my left, bidding me cease from my undertaking, I would give no heed, unless the Lord should command me." He was so grieved at the trouble he had caused his kind protector that he burst into tears and turned to depart. But Abu Talib called him back, assuring him that he would never desert him, and bade him do whatever he considered his duty. It was very noble of Abu Talib thus to stand by his nephew against the chief men of his tribe, for he was not himself a convert, and it is doubtful if he ever became one.
Two more sons had been born to Abd al-Muttalib in his old age; their names were Hamzah and Abbas. Hamzah, who was about the same age as the Prophet, was famous as a hunter, of great courage and strength; he was also remarkable for his good looks, and was a favourite with all who knew him. One day, as he was returning from a hunting expedition, with his bow slung across his shoulder, he heard that Mohammed had been openly insulted by Abu Jahl, one of his bitterest enemies. The Prophet had not answered a word, while Abu Jahl had reviled and jeered at him. Hamzah, enraged at this insult to his nephew, went straight to the Kaabah, where he found Abu Jahl sitting with the chiefs of Meccah. Burning with just anger, Hamzah struck Abu Jahl violently with his bow, and, on the impulse of the moment, declared himself a Moslem. He remained true to the Faith, and in after years fought so valiantly in the defence of Islam that he was surnamed the Lion of God.
Nearly all religions have their sacred books. The sacred book of the Mohammedans is called the Koran; it is the work of the Prophet Mohammed, and was written, or dictated, by him at different times during his prophetic career. The word Koran means, in Arabic, the Reading, as our word Bible means the Book. Mohammed believed that the words of the Koran were divinely revealed to him, and, indeed, every great work which comes from the deepest convictions of a man's soul may be said to be so inspired.
In his early days as a shepherd Mohammed had lived much with nature; he had seen the pale dawn touch the grim summits of Mount Hira and Mount Arafat, had heard the thunder roll through the sounding passes of the hills, had felt the icy breath of the desert wind when the rocks were aflame with the glow of sunset. In all the wonders of nature he felt the presence of a Mighty Creator. "The sun in his early splendour, the moon when she followeth him, the day when it showeth forth his glory"—these things filled the soul of Mohammed with awe and admiration. "Surely these are signs of the greatness of God, if ye would but read them!" he would say to the unbelievers.
The judgment day was, for Mohammed, not a dim prophecy, but a great reality, whose image was never absent from his mind: In one of the early chapters of the Koran we read:
"When the Heaven is rent asunder
And when the stars are scattered,
And when the seas are let loose,
And when the tombs are turned upside down,
The soul shall know what it hath done and left undone."
Mohammed attached great importance to prayer, calling it the gate of heaven. But he warned his followers that the prayers of those who only pray with their lips and not with their whole hearts would not be accepted by God. "Woe to those who pray and who are careless in their prayers." Outward observances count for nothing in themselves. "There is no piety," said the Prophet, "in turning your faces towards the East or West, but he is pious who believeth in God."
The opening chapter of the Koran is regarded with special reverence by Moslems, who use it as one of their daily prayers. It reads as follows:
"Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds!
The Compassionate, the Merciful!
King of the day of Judgment!
Thee we worship, and Thee we ask for help.
Guide us in the straight way,
The way of those to whom Thou art gracious;
Not of those upon whom is Thy wrath nor of the erring."