The Youth of Mohammed
Great had been the rejoicings at the marriage of Abdallah and Aminah, but the happiness of the bridal pair was not to last long. A year had scarcely passed before Abdallah died, while on a visit to Yathrib, leaving to his sorrowing wife the care of her infant son.
Abd al-Muttalib had from the first taken a great interest in his little grandson. When told the news of his birth he had gone to the house of Aminah, and, taking the child in his arms, had carried him to the Kaabah, there to give thanks to God. The boy was named Mohammed, which means "The Praised," or "Illustrious."
It was the custom in Meccah to give young children into the care of Bedouin women, thus sending them away from the hot and dusty city into the pure air of the desert. The little Mohammed was nursed by a woman named Halimah, of the tribe of Banu Saad, and the first five years of his life were spent in the tents of this wandering tribe. All through his life Mohammed remembered his Bedouin nurse and his foster-sister Al-Shaima, with tender affection. At the age of five he was brought back to Meccah by Halimah, who told his mother wonderful stories of the boy's early intelligence.
Aminah was very proud of her son, and anxious to show him to all his relations. When he was about six years old she took him to Yathrib, the place where Abdallah had died, and where his mother's relations lived. It was a long journey for so young a child, the distance being about the same as that between London and Edinburgh, but Arabs, with their wandering instincts, think very little of distance. Mounted on two camels, Aminah, her son, and a slave girl called Umm Ayman, accomplished the journey in safety. They spent a month in Yathrib, and Mohammed always looked back with pleasure to this time with his cousins. He amused himself with all sorts of childish games—years afterwards he remembered how he used to scare the pigeons from the roof of the house, screaming with delight as they circled away on flapping wings. He also learnt to swim in a pond.
MOHAMMED AND HIS NURSE HALIMAH.
A sad event was to follow this happy time. Aminah never returned to her home, for on the way back to Meccah she fell sick and died, and was buried at a place hall way between the two cities. Sorrowfully the orphan boy and Umm Ayman, the slave girl, continued their journey, and, having reached Meccah, they went to the house of Abd al-Muttalib to tell him the sad news. From this time Mohammed lived with his grandfather, of whom he grew very fond. Many a time would the boy run away from his nurse and take refuge with the old man, who never reproved him for these interruptions, for he had a tender affection for the orphan boy of his favourite son. No wonder that when, two years later, the Patriarch was carried to his grave the little Mohammed wept as he followed the procession through the streets of Meccah. When on his death-bed, Abd al-Muttalib had entrusted the care of his grandson to Abu Talib, one of his elder sons, who soon became as devoted to the boy as his grandfather had been. Indeed, all through his life Mohammed possessed the power of gaining the affections of those around him.
From an early age the son of Abdallah had to work for his living, all the fortune he inherited from his father being a flock of goats, five camels, and Umm Ayman the slave girl; while his uncle, who was not rich, had little to spare from the needs of his large family. In his young days Mohammed was often employed as a shepherd, and as he was of a thoughtful disposition the solitary life probably suited him. When he was twelve years old he had his first experience of a different world from that in which he had been brought up. Abu Talib, who was an enterprising merchant, was about to start on an expedition to Bostra, in Syria, when his nephew begged that he might be allowed to accompany him. Abu Talib, being very fond of the boy, consented, and Mohammed, in high glee, started on his first journey with a caravan.
The expectation of seeing new and strange sights must have been as exciting to Mohammed's imagination as it is to any boy's of the present day. But how different were the ways of travelling! To most of us a journey means a few hours in a comfortable railway carriage, or a pleasant time on board a luxurious liner. To a Meccan boy it meant many long and weary marches. Day after day, sitting on the back of a camel, he would travel at a slow pace through the same monotonous scenery. Sometimes the caravan would pass by a mud-built village, where barking watch-dogs would give warning of its approach; sometimes the route lay along the outskirts of the great desert, and here there would be few sights to break the monotony—perhaps a frightened gazelle scurrying across the track of the caravan, or an eagle soaring aloft in the burning blue.
Mohammed, who had a vivid imagination, found plenty to occupy his thoughts during the long journey to Bostra. Indeed, some of the impressions he received at this time remained with him all through his life. Many strange tales would be told round the camp fire when the caravan halted in some wild and lonely spot said to be haunted by spirits called genii or jinns. Sometimes the road passed the site of some ancient city of former splendour whose ruins were long since buried beneath the drifting sand. But of all he saw and heard, nothing so impressed the youthful mind of Mohammed as the stories about the Valley of Al-Hijr. Long ago this land had been inhabited by the tribe of Thamud, a people of a giant and powerful race. The Thamudites had grown rich and prosperous, until, being lifted up with pride, they had fallen into sin. Persisting in their wickedness, they refused to listen to the prophet who was sent to warn them, and, by an act of direct disobedience, called down on themselves the judgment of God. Loud claps of thunder were heard, announcing that the vengeance of Heaven was near, and when morning dawned every man lay dead, with his face turned downward. Thus was the tribe of Thamud swept from off the face of the earth, and upon the land it had occupied was pronounced an everlasting curse. This story impressed Mohammed with deep awe, and, as the caravan passed along the lonely valley, he was shown the rock dwellings which the giants of the tribe of Thamud had hewn out of the mountain side. When in after years Mohammed travelled to Syria by the same route he forbade his followers to encamp anywhere near the place where judgment had overtaken the Thamudites, or to use the water from the wells of the neighbourhood. Indeed, few could enter the accursed vale of Al-Hijr without a feeling of dread, and travellers would hurry along the wind-swept passes the quicker to escape from that land of evil fame.
At length Mohammed reached his journey's end and arrived at Bostra, where the caravan was encamped near a monastery of Christian monks. Some weeks passed while the merchandise from Meccah and the south was exchanged for the goods of Syria, Persia or Egypt, for Bostra was the meeting-place of merchants from many distant lands. When the camels had again been loaded, and provisions for the journey prepared, the caravan started on its way south, and in due time reached Meccah once more.
Thirteen years later, when Mohammed had reached the age of twenty-five, he was again on his way to Bostra. This time he was himself the leader of the caravan and entrusted with the buying and selling of the merchandise. The owner of this caravan was a rich widow named Khadijah, who lived in Meccah. When inquiring for an agent to manage her affairs and conduct her caravans, she heard such good accounts of the trustworthiness and fair dealing of young Mohammed that she engaged him as her steward.
Mohammed returned from Syria with such good value for the goods he had exchanged that Khadijah gave him double the wages she had promised him. She had every reason to be satisfied with her steward, whose honest and upright character r was so well known that his fellow-citizens had surnamed him Al-Amin, or the Faithful.
Indeed, this young man with his earnest expression and open, straightforward manner had made a great impression on Khadijah. We are told that Mohammed was attractive in appearance. He had the fine, rather thin, features of the true Arab, his eyes were very dark and piercing, and he had a way of gazing straight into the face of the person he was addressing. His hair and beard were jet black. Though usually inclined to be silent, Mohammed could be witty and amusing when conversing with his friends, and he knew how to laugh. His movements showed decision, and his footstep was said to be like that of a man rapidly descending a hill.
Khadijah seems to have early understood Mohammed's true and generous nature, and as time passed the widow's regard for her steward grew into affection. Once, when the return of the caravan was expected, Khadijah and her maidens were sitting on the house-top in the cool of the evening to watch for the first glimpse of the long string of camels winding down the rocky valley. As the caravan came in sight Khadijah's eye fell on a single rider, and she recognized Mohammed, who was hastening in advance of the rest to report the safe return and success of the expedition. After their interview Khadijah's thoughts dwelt constantly on the young man; she could not forget him, and at length resolved to make her affection known to him.
Khadijah was a wealthy lady of the tribe of Kuraysh; several of the leading chiefs of Meccah had sought to marry her, but she had rejected their offers. Her choice now fell on the young son of Abdallah; though she was considerably older than he was, they were married and lived happily together for many years. Six children were born to them, two sons, who both died at an early age, and four daughters, whose names were Zainab, Rukayyah, Umm Kulthum, and Fatimah. Fatimah, her father's favourite, and the only one who outlived him, is the one we shall hear most about.
The early years of Mohammed's married life were quiet and uneventful. The rebuilding of the Kaabah, which took place about ten years after his marriage, was the most important event of this time. A violent storm had flooded the valley of Meccah, causing great damage to the ancient temple. The walls were unsafe, and, after some discussion, it was decided to pull them down and rebuild them. For this purpose great blocks of granite were carried down from the neighbouring hills, but timber, which was required for the roof and the interior, was very scarce in that barren land. It was therefore a fortunate event for the builders of the Kaabah when a Greek ship was wrecked on the coast of the Red Sea within fairly easy distance of Meccah. All the timber from the wreck was bought by the Kuraysh, and the ship's captain, who had some knowledge of architecture, was engaged to help in the rebuilding of the Kaabah. When the walls of the temple had reached the height of four or five feet, an important matter had to be decided. The sacred and mysterious Black Stone was now to be fixed in its place, but so many of the families of the Kuraysh claimed the honour of doing this that a violent discussion arose and the building was stopped for several days. Who was to settle this difficult question? The dispute still continued, when one of the citizens suggested that the first man who entered the court of the Kaabah by the eastern gate should be asked to decide which of the many claimants deserved the honour of replacing the Black Stone. This proposal was agreed to, and all eyes were turned toward the gate in question. Presently a man was seen approaching. "Here is Al-Amin!" cried the citizens, as Mohammed passed through the gate, "let him judge between us!"
Mohammed, on being asked to settle the dispute, took off his cloak, spread it on the ground, and placed the Black Stone upon it. He then directed that four men (one from each of the chief clans of the Kuraysh) should together lift the cloak with its precious burden. When the Black Stone had been raised to the required height from the ground Mohammed himself set it in its place in the southeast corner of the temple.
After this incident the building of the Kaabah was continued without interruption. When all was complete the images of the gods were restored to their places, Hubal, the most honoured, being placed in a central position in the interior of the Kaabah. Little did the Kuraysh foresee the day when the gods of their fathers would be held up to scorn and denounced as vain idols! The quiet and retiring citizen, Al-Amin, had as yet shown no sign of the high destiny that awaited him.