The origins of Islam
Geographically speaking the Arabian peninsula may be foreign territory to most Westerners but the metaphysical territory of Islam, the religion nurtured in that region, will be familiar territory indeed to many of my readers. Everything we have come to understand about the religious experience of earlier prophets and preachers is displayed here again in Muhammad's life and work. The Prophet may have thought of himself as the last and greatest of the prophetic line but if we examine his life more closely we will find nothing unique. Like Moses, Zarathustra, Paul and all the others, Muhammad emerges from history as the self-appointed Chosen Vessel through whom is revealed the knowledge of a deity, in this case Allah.
We have here yet again, as with all the others, the revelation of a god, not to an assembled throng but to one individual, and in secret - the sine qua non of all religious 'revelation'. Surely, one is entitled to think, Allah might have found it within himself to reveal the truth to those crowds of dedicated pilgrims thronging Makkah (Mecca) and processing around the mystic Black Stone. In time these crowds would be moved by religious zeal to abandon the old gods worshipped there and do obeisance only to Allah, but they did this at the call of the Prophet, not at the behest of Allah himself.
Uncertainties abound regarding the life of Muhammad, although knowledge of the Prophet is at least more accessible than knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Muhammad was a real person, of that we may be reasonably certain (even if his name comes down to us at times in variant forms), and his life was lived out some six hundred years closer to our own time. The accounts that have been preserved to us are perhaps a trifle coloured as they are in the main from Arabian sources but no more so, and probably less, that those colourful accounts of Jesus' life I have examined elsewhere.
Muhammad was born about 570 CE in Makkah and although his
family was well-connected, he grew up in relative poverty.
apparently died before he was born. On his death, the
father left, we
are told, but five camels and one Ethiopian female slave.
fatherless boy reached the age of six his mother, too,
died. He was
then passed to the care of a grandfather. But the family
was not strong
in the longevity department for when Muhammad was only
grandfather, too, died! Thereafter the boy went to live
with an uncle,
His fortunes in these early years were certainly at a low ebb for he had no education, learning neither to read nor write. At least, that is what we are assured by his Arabian biographers, although the subsequent history of the Prophet suggests otherwise. Perhaps he was self-taught at a later period.
Having never known a father and losing both his mother and grandfather-guardian at an early age, it would not be surprising if the stability of the child's personality had not been affected permanently. Fertile soil, indeed, for the sowing of the seeds of mystical prophetic experience. We have little other definite knowledge of these early years, although it appears Muhammad was liable to nervous convulsions, some even think he was an epileptic, but this is not certain.
A powerful factor in the moulding of Muhammad's personality would surely have been the very atmosphere of Makkah itself. It was then, as later, a centre of religious mania, with its famous Black Stone, housed in a building known as al-Ka'bah (the Kaaba). Originally the site was probably the centre of worship of Zohal (Satan). In Muhammad's day a multitude of deities were worshipped at Makkah, among them being one high god, known as Allah. And there were pilgrimages and processions around the Black Stone, even as there are today.
The location of this famous Object was believed by the superstitious populace to be the place where Adam himself worshipped after being expelled from Paradise, doing so in a tent sent down specially from heaven for that purpose. The stone itself was dropped from heaven along with Adam! Fortunately Adam had managed to avoid being crushed by it as they both fell to earth. It was, we are told, originally white but the sins of mankind had caused it to shed so many silent tears that it had become quite black. Or so the story goes! This, then, was the atmosphere of credulous superstition in which Muhammad grew up and which must have played an important role in moulding the emergent Prophet's view of life.
At about the age of twelve Muhammad journeyed with his
to Syria, where he would certainly have been brought into
the Syriac Christian Church and its doctrines. The years
what Muhammad was doing in them are obscure. He appeared
to be employed
for quite some time as a sort of counter-hand in a trading
Muhammad next emerges more clearly at the age of twenty-five when he marries a wealthy widow, a trader in her own right, Khadijah, fifteen years his senior. Khadijah carried on her dead husband's trade and this included, again significantly, frequent travel to Syria. Fifteen more years passed, of which there is little knowledge. However, we may be quite certain that throughout this period, from when he was twelve to the time when, at about the age of forty, Muhammad began receiving his heavenly messages, much contact with Syria would have ensued, which is important to our understanding of what transpired. A good volume of trade took place between Arabia and Syria.
Khadijah was, as I have said, wealthy, so in between his trading activities Muhammad was able to live at ease and travel and, of greatest importance, to find time to sit in a little cave on a hillside outside Makkah, contemplating life, death, the universe and whatever it is that people contemplate in little caves. It was while Muhammad was thus engaged that the revelations came.
According to the Prophet himself, there was sometimes one voice, sometimes several, in the words of one Muslim commentator, 'sounding like bells.' The chief messenger was Jibral (Gabriel), who sometimes merely spoke to the Prophet, at other times appeared in visible form. It was this same Gabriel who came in visions to Daniel, as recorded in the Jewish Old Testament, and who appeared to Mary to announce Jesus' birth in the New (Luke 1:26-36). As there is, to say the least, some conflict between these religions, it is puzzling to find the same angel acting as messenger to all three. Gabriel certainly seems to have captured the imagination of religious people, for in 1951 Pope Pius 12 officially promoted this angel to the rank of Supreme Supervisor of the world's telephones, telephonists and television sets. (You know now where the blame lies when your telephone or television doesn't work!)
To return to Muhammad. At other times the Ghost - whether the Christian one or some other, we know not - was the messenger, bringing the message 'in the Prophet's breast.' Even Allah himself, 'veiled or unveiled, waking or in the dreams of night,' brought some of the missives from on high. Interestingly the Islamic deity, like the Jewish one, Yahweh, seemed to address people in the Royal Plural. Thus, in Koran 21:16 is written: 'We created not the heavens and that which is between them by way of sport.' In fact, this seems to be the only way in which Allah addressed the faithful. Is he, the one, really more than one?
The account of Muhammad's revelation-getting is every bit as colourful as that of St Paul's. We are told that the Koran, the sacred book compiled as a result of these revelations, was not actually compiled in the seventh century! It was, we are assured, like Allah himself, uncreated, eternal, written in heaven. Its first transcript was up there somewhere, from the beginning, inscribed in rays of light on a gigantic tablet resting by the throne of the Almighty. Waiting, presumably, through all those thousands of years, for Muhammad's birth.
Upon this tablet are also found the divine decrees relating to things past and future. A copy of the heavenly missive, in the form of a book bound in white silk, jewels and gold, was brought down from the upper heavens (there are seven, according to Koran 67:3) to the lowest by the angel Jibral, from whence it was conveyed in stages to the Prophet over the next twenty-three years. Why the book wasn't simply deposited by the angel in al-Ka'bah remains a mystery. After all, other items had been dropped from heaven onto this spot, i.e. Adam, Adam's tent, and the great Stone.
Incidentally, the idea of multiple heavens has a long history. In the Zoroastrian religion there were successive forecourts through which the saved one passed to the highest heaven. St Paul wrote that he knew a man once who had been 'caught up even to the third heaven' (2 Corinthians 12:2). Paul also knew someone who had travelled all the way up, even to Paradise itself, presumably coming all the way down again, else Paul would not have been able to tell us the man had indeed got himself into Paradise. Just recently I came across a book in which an American Christian says he has recently made the same journey. Perhaps this trip will get to be quite popular. Cheaper than booking passage on a space flight, too. The Gnostic, Basilides the Egyptian, taught a system that graded angels down to those of the 365th heaven, who made this world and its people. Well, I suppose if we can have seven heavens, we may as well have 365!
Now Muhammad may well have thought of himself as the Sacred Vessel through whom the pages of the heavenly book were being conveyed to earth but at least some portion of this interesting work must have been revealed to other people in earlier times. Not a little, in fact. Careful study of the Koran's texts shows the book to be heavily dependant upon the Jewish Old Testament but more especially - surprise, surprise - upon Syriac Christian doctrines.
As we have already seen, Arabia and nearby lands formed a melting-pot for a vast range of religious ideas. There were groups of Jewish worshippers scattered throughout the area and there were other Christian groups apart from the Syriac Church. Further, nearby Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was nominally Christian and much trade and social contact occurred between this country and Arabia.
But there are other important links between Muhammad and the religion both of the Jews and of the Christians. When the Prophet was in town he would mix with the many Jews there and discuss religion with them; he was especially fascinated by their expectation of the Messiah. And Muhammad had a servant (and friend), Zaid, who had been a slave among the Syriac Christians and who conveyed to Muhammad what he knew of their doctrines.
Great stress is laid by the faithful upon the Koran's heavenly inspiration, as Christians and Jews do with their sacred books. But, as we shall see, like the holy writings of Israel and the Christian Church, the Koran too is flawed in many respects. I take but one instance. The Prophet's name occurs in the histories in several forms. In the Koran itself, the editors (it was edited) failed to correct a variant version of Muhammad's name, Ahmad, in Koran 61:6. Now Muslims claim to be so certain of their holy book's divine inspiration that they count every single word (all 77,639 of them), indeed, every single letter (all 323,015 of them). So something is amiss here. This is perhaps a relatively minor matter but there are others of greater importance.
The first message was that of Koran 96:1-5: 'Read, in the name of the Lord ["rabbi"], who created all things; who created man of congealed blood....' Leaving aside medical criticisms of this statement, we note that this first utterance to the Prophet occurred not, where one would expect, at the beginning of the book but right near the end! The Koran was compiled some time after the Prophet's death (which occurred around CE 632). Some of the inspired utterances had been written down in his lifetime by followers, others were committed to memory. The original fragments of messages were at one stage thrown into a box and some were lost altogether - no way to treat copies of pages from an eternal heavenly book! About a year after Muhammad died the scattered portions were collected 'from date-leaves and tablets of white stone, bones, and parchment-leaves, and the breast of men (i.e. from memory),' and faithfully copied.
No attempt was made at first by Muhammad's followers to mould or shape the fragments, and the text included all the variants, gaps and repetitions that had occurred. Some years later, under Khalif Uthman, an authoritative text was compiled. Decisions were made on variant readings and all discarded matter destroyed so that henceforth only one received text would be used. This text, in spite of the way it had been originally discarded and re-collected and then edited extensively, was henceforth given out as being exactly as appeared in that great book in the sky!
This heavenly book was apparently organized according to a somewhat strange but nevertheless neat and tidy plan. To work in chronological order was apparently altogether too earthy a mode of arrangement. Instead, the longest sura (chapter), of 286 verses, was placed at the start of the book, then following this were subsequent suras, of decreasing length, with the shortest being placed right at the end. Incidentally, the third-last sura, number 112, comprising but twenty-two words, is held in particular veneration by Muslims, declared by tradition to be equal in value to a third part of the whole Koran, which surely makes inspiration a bit thin on the ground for the rest! This neat arrangement of the Koran had the effect of mixing the suras of the Makkan period with those uttered at al-Madinah (Medina), and these two groups were very different in character to one another.
Before examining in more detail some aspects of the faith of Islam, we must take a brief look at the interesting subject of the name of the Islamic deity. Allah is an Arabic word, actually a shortened form of al-ilah - 'the god', which is all very well but this begs the question, as discussed elsewhere. Now throughout the region, including Arabia, there were many deities with 'El' names and variant forms, ranging from Akkad in the north, with its deity Alla, through the Syrian 'allaha, the southern Arabian 'Allah, not to mention the various Hebrew 'el' deities. The study of such names is quite technical and is still being pursued by scholars. Suffice it to say that the name Allah is clearly but another variant form. In the longer al-ilah, the 'ilah' part of the name is, in fact, cognate with the Hebrew Eloah, one of the titles used in Israel, meaning 'the Mighty One.' Before Muhammad came on the scene numerous deities were worshipped at Makkah. Among them were three goddesses. One of the three was named Allat, a moon goddess, probably brought there from Syria and strongly linked to the Earth Mother worshipped in widespread areas of the ancient world. The obvious connection between the names Allat and Allah is apparent.
Carlyle said of the Koran: 'It is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite. Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.' The same could be said of large parts of the Bible, Mr Carlyle, especially the Old Testament! Editorial work may have been done on the Koran but it is still written in that same high-flown style of language so familar to us in the Jewish writings. Readers need a rather peculiar mental set to make much sense of some of it. Take this example: 'Doth he not know that God seeth? Assuredly. Verily, if he forbear not, we will drag him by the forelock, the lying sinful forelock. And let him call his council to his assistance: we will also call the infernal guards to cast him into hell. Assuredly.' This is from the first sura, number 96. I don't like the sound of those infernal guards. Assuredly!
The Koran is, quite simply, like all holy books, derived from previous writings and earlier ideas, dredged up from that mish-mash of religious nonsense that had, by the time Muhammad arrived on the scene, driven out clearer thought from the nations of the region. Scholarly research has shown conclusively that the Syriac Christian Church is the prime source for much of the Prophet's outpourings. Even specifically Christian vocabulary occurs in the Koranic verses. Further, there is an evident development in the style and content of the suras when considered in their correct context and period. One might have thought the heavenly author would have maintained the same style throughout. But I am reminded that the Jewish-Christian Bible is a similar mish-mash of materials and styles.
There are two further very interesting aspects of the giving of the Koran. The first is known as the doctrine of abrogation. Muhammad declared that his revelations could be countermanded by later ones! So in Koran 2:100 we read: 'Whatever verse we shall abrogate, or cause thee to forget, we shall bring a better one for it, or one like unto it.' A revealing statement indeed; and one that neatly explains away any disparities that may be detected by the reader. Or are we to believe that Allah changes his mind from time to time? A most peculiar situation this would be!
The other interesting aspect of Muhammad's revelation-getting is related to the above. Muhammad was compelled to withdraw some verses he had previously given forth. These are the so-called 'Satanic Verses'. I have mentioned that, among the deities worshipped at Makkah were three goddesses. Now Muhammad, although sternly monotheistic in his views, wavered for a time in his opposition to their worship. According to tradition, his original utterance, given forth before the assembled chiefs, ran along these lines: 'What think you of Allat and al-Ozza and Manat also [the female deities]? These exalted females, verily we may expect their intercession....' Later Muhammad became troubled over these words, for they implied recognition of the goddesses, and he managed to get a fresh revelation from his angel informant, changing the words to something less compromising.
The monotheistic message expounded by Muhammad was not altogether new to his hearers but many of his doctrines had at least elements of novelty. Initially, as is the lot of the prophet, he was treated derisively as he tried to expound his ideas. Progress was slow until first his wife, then his cousin, 'Ali, embraced the message, followed by a relation, abu-Bakr. Among the first believers were many of the poorer classes and the slave population. It has ever been thus with religion. Those whose lives are empty of hope are easily persuaded to follow a prophet of hope. The revivalist and fundamentalist sects of America have drawn a great part of their membership from among the poor, the defeated, the outcasts of society and from among African-Americans. Likewise the Pentecostal groups (including the rapidly-expanding Assemblies of God) draw their membership largely from people in the lower socio-economic levels of society. Such people have much to gain from a religion that promises them certainty and hope. And these same people also tend to be possessed of the necessary degree of naÔvety, enabling them to swallow the fantastic doctrines preached so glibly by the prophets.
In time Muhammad turned from his own people at Makkah to preach at al-Madinah, where his reception was warmer. Rivalries and questions of trade played their part in this episode. But Makkah itself finally succumbed. And before the Prophet had died he was to see the new faith firmly established among the Arab peoples of the immediate area and set to make greater conquests in the years to follow.
What, then, did Muhammad teach? He believed that there was only one true religion. This religion was taught by a succession of prophets through the ages, 224,000, or 124,000, depending on which account you accept. A huge number! And prominent among them were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and last, the 'Seal' of the prophets, Muhammad himself. He had been chosen as Allah's prophet to all mankind and one would follow him.
Muhammad believed the one true religion had changeable ceremonies and thus he could accommodate the older faiths into his system. According to Islamic teaching, every child in the world is born into Islam, i.e., the true faith, and would continue in it to the end were it not for the wickedness of its parents 'who misguide it early, and lead it astray to Magism (Zoroastrianism), Judaism or Christianity.' At first the Muslims tolerated these older faiths, although they acted with despatch against the pagan cults of Arabia, as did the Christians in the West. In time tolerance was to give place to some degree of persecution, as Jews and Christians here and there reacted against the new teachings. It was naughty of them, after all, to reject the revelation given to Muhammad.
Great stress is laid in the Koran on the condition of the people after death and on coming judgment. The Prophet taught that man's body is entirely consumed by the earth, except for one bone, Ajb, the rump-bone. First formed in the human body (at least according to Muhammad) it remains whole until the last day as a seed from which the rest will be renewed. There is little need to comment on such an absurd idea.
Upon their death people are visited in their graves by two examiners, terrible dark angels, Monker and Nakir, who sit either side of the corpse and ask questions as to the person's belief in Allah and Muhammad. For this reason graves (and often coffins) were made of sufficient depth for the corpse to sit upright! Such are the lengths to which superstition drives people. Correct answers meant comfort for the dead person, who would then wait in one of a variety of states, according to their spiritual condition and status in life, until the great Judgment Day and resurrection. Incorrect answers meant the application of unspeakable tortures.
In passing it is noteworthy that Muhammad's revelations were full of tortures and torments. The Prophet, in fact, seemed obsessed with the dark side of life, as are many Christians. Hellfire featured prominently, along with malefactors being doused with boiling water. Believers are exhorted to decapitate unbelievers and vivid descriptions occur in the Koran of broiled flesh and men in chains. (One curious verse, Koran 47:4, calls upon the faithful to strike off the heads of unbelievers then bind them in bonds, which does seem to be a rather strange order of activity.) Obviously the Prophet thought life was grim (although not too grim for him as Khadijah's hubby). Anyone foolish enough to resist Allah's truth (through the Prophet) is certainly worthy of the worst possible cruelties. Allah comes through here as an even more vicious god that Yahweh.
The doctrine of the Last Judgment is not Arabian at all but is derived wholly from Christian sources. The Christians, in turn, derived it from the Persian, especially Zoroastrian, religion. Likewise, belief in physical resurrection and future bliss in Paradise was a foreign import.
But the Islamic Paradise excels all others, at least for male believers. We are told that the faithful men will recline on silk and gold couches, eating delicious fruit and drinking from rivers of milk and wine (this banned drink apparently being allowed in Paradise). But better still, these faithful male followers are to be given beautiful virgin females (particular stress being laid on the virginity), with complexions like rubies and pearls, fine black eyes and 'swelling breasts' for their pleasure. Presumably for the faithful Muslim woman Paradise comes in the form of serving the men! I suppose this is at least a better fate than being cast into hellfire (this idea from the Christians, too) but perhaps some women don't think so. Islamic hell is said to be peopled mainly by women. Maybe these ladies preferred whatever hell might bring rather than being made the playthings of Islamic warrior and layabouts.
Alongside the Koran itself, a set of legal enactments was developed, known as the Shari'a. Administration of Islamic law varies from country to country and from one era to another. In many respects Islam's legal system reflects Judaism. Harsh laws apply, at least in theory, to murderers, thieves (who, as we know, are in danger of losing a limb or two), anyone transgressing the sexual taboos and other miscreants.
In spite of claims made to the contrary by apologists for Islam, it is a severe religion, with stern laws and a stern god. According to the law anyone who becomes apostate, that is, who turns away from the faith is, after three warnings, to be put to death. In other words, once born into Islam there is no way out; a great concept of human and religious freedom this! A swift fate overtakes blasphemers - that is, anyone who speaks against Allah himself, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad or any of the other prophets. There is no occasion given for repentance to such an one. Instant death is prescribed. 'Blasphemy is a sign of complete wickedness, and thorough corruption of the soul,' we are told. Assuredly! Curious indeed that, like all other religions, it requires human intervention to carry out the divine law. If Yahweh or Allah are offended by a mere mortal, why don't they act themselves against such blasphemers and miscreants? There is only one possible explanation for their inaction!
Now although Islam was founded upon the basis of Muhammad's heavenly revelations, as with the revelations encountered before, the messages are not always too clear. After all, it is quite impossible to claim that the messages from the heavens are word-perfect (even letter-perfect) when bits and pieces had to be retrieved from hither and yon after the Prophet's death, then put together, only to be found wanting later and needing further revision and excision of material. The Islamic ideas of inspiration are as woolly as those of the Christians and Jews. If the material destroyed had indeed come from the hand of the Prophet, then the whole concept of the divine origin of the Koran as it now stands falls apart.
Like Christianity before it, Islam soon divided. The parties debated many matters, even when they had before them a 'received text'. The firm rule of Muslim leaders failed to halt the bickering. The story of these divisions is long and complex and beyond the scope of this study. Suffice it to say that today we have two large and hostile groups within Muslim ranks - the Sunnis (the more moderate) and the Shi'ites (the fundamentalists). And there are others. The faith of Islam is by no means fixed and unalterable.
So we stand back and contemplate the life and teaching of one whose influence spread far and wide, as did the influence of Paul's Christ. I have already drawn attention to the fact that the story of the Prophet Muhammad strongly echoes the tale of that earlier Prophet, Zarathustra. The twelve hundred years separating these two figures had seen little change in the temper of the people inhabiting that triangular-shaped hothouse of religious sentiment embracing Persia, Egypt, Arabia, and the lands between.
The religion of the ordinary people was no remote one, played out in vast cathedrals, beautiful mosques or lofty temples. The gods they knew were those of the home and hearth, the lesser ones, and those of the skies, the sun and the moon, the greater ones. The stage was thus always set for some strong personality to take hold of this basic religiosity and point it in new and exciting directions. Moses in his time, Zarathustra around six hundred years later, another six hundred years or so to Paul, six hundred or so years further on, Muhammad. A succession of revolutionaries, a succession of prophets, each launching his special revelation upon the world. And in the periods between many others, coming and going, mostly now forgotten.
Moses, Zarathustra, Paul, Muhammad. Yahweh, Ahura Mazda, Christ, Allah. An interesting succession indeed. Is each one of these divine beings but a manifestation of the Really Truly God, 'immortal, invisible.....hid from our eyes' as the old hymn runs? Or is each a lesser god, mistaken for the One True God, as the Gnostics would have it? Now there's an interesting thought for us! Rival gods? Co-operating gods - elohim ? For that is exactly what we seem to be presented with at this point in our quest.
In the Jewish Old Testament an interesting contest takes place. The story is found in 1 Kings, chapter 18. Elijah, Prophet of Yahweh, laments that he alone is left faithful in an apostate nation. A contest is set up, Elijah against the prophets of Baal (Bel), all 450 of them! The carcases of bullocks are placed upon an altar and the prophets of Baal are to call down fire from heaven, to consume their offering. Naturally, for this is a Hebrew book, they fail. Elijah sets up his bullock. Wood is piled around about but drenched with water. 'Then the fire of the Lord [Yahweh]....consumed the burnt offering, and the wood and the stones and the dust and licked up the water that was in the trench.' So we are told, in 1 Kings 18:38. It was, of course, a miracle. Perhaps, then, we might judge the rival gods as to which of them produces the greater miracles. It is to the subject of the miraculous in religion to which we turn in another study. Unfortunately for the cause of Allah, the Christian Church is far and away the greatest producer of the miraculous. But whether these miracles come from on high is another matter entirely.© Mark Owen, 1991 - http://www.piperpost.net