Table of Contents

Abbreviations Used in the Essay
-
Foreword: Dr. John O Voll
-
Editor's Note: Sabreen Akhter
-
Acknowledgments
-
Objectives of the Review
-
Attitudes towards Prophet Muhammad
-
I. The Seeker of Truth
-
II. The Recipient of the Mantle of Prophethood/ The Warner and the Exhorter
-
III. The Stoic Optimist
-
IV. The Pluralistic Leader
-
V. The Courageous Yet Reluctant Warrior
-
VI. The Statesman par excellence and the Teacher
-
VII. The Compassionate Ruler and Spiritual Leader
-
Does this essay cover any new ground?
-
Appendices
-
The Sources for This Essay

Back to ISPI Home
 

Chapter III: Open Invitation and Brazen Hostility

The Stoic Optimist

Muhammad's (S) first attempt at public invitation (da'wah) was when he climbed atop a hill near Makkah and addressed the gathering, "O! the people of Quraysh. If I were to tell you that I see a cavalry on the other side of the mountain, would you believe me?" When they answered in the affirmative, he said, "Know then that I am a warner and that I warn you of a severe punishment... unless you affirm that there is no God but Allah." Though Muhammad's (S) plea had a sense of urgency, the Quraysh decisively rebuffed him.
Muhammad's (S) second effort at proselytization was to his relatives and tribe at a banquet he gave at his home. This invitation also was ignored. Ali , who was then merely a boy, was the only exception and offered to be Muhammad's (S) helper, incurring the derision of those present at the meal.
Although neither of the two invitations had a significant immediate effect, the word spread. Hardly a day would pass by without someone joining the fold of Islam. The Quraysh became increasingly alarmed at this trend. The new religion posed a great threat to the hegemony of the Quraysh over Makkah. The Quraysh held the honor of being the social and religious leaders of the Arabs. Their family was sometimes called the "family of Allah," or "Allah's neighbors", and held all the important positions which had to do with administration of the Ka'bah and performing of the rituals within it.
Another reason why the Quraysh were opposed to Islam was envy. The Quraysh could not reconcile themselves to the fact that a poor orphan was the recipient of the revelation and not one of their rich and powerful leaders. Envy and ignorance have always been the root cause of stereotyping and blind hatred.
"Also they say, Why is not the Qur'an sent down to some leading man, In either of the two cities?" (Qur'an 43: 31)

They also looked down upon Muhammad (S) because he did not have a surviving male progeny, since both his sons from Khadijah died before they were two years old.
The most important reason, though, was that the morality which Islam was advocating in its oft repeated dictum, "Believe and live righteously," was a direct attack on the lifestyle of the rich and powerful in the community. The challenge which Muhammad (S) presented, as Hodgson points out in his book The Venture Of Islam was to "rise to a level of personal moral piety such as had occurred to few to dream of. He (Muhammad) (S) presented it as a real possibility for human beings. And he presented it in a concrete, tangible form in which, by an act of will, they could adopt a new ideal practically". In a society where pride and conceit, lying and deceit, sexual decadence and mindless cruelty were the norm of the day, and compassion and mercy were looked down upon as character flaws, Qur'an's challenge of building up morality and changing long entrenched personal behavior proved to be both threatening and infuriating to many of the prominent leaders of Makkah.
In spite of their anger and frustration, the Makkans were leery of physically harming Muhammad (S). As he was under the protection of the tribe of Banu Hashim, killing Muhammad (S) would start the tribal cycle of revenge killing which could go on ad infinitum. Moreover as the total number of Muslims at that time was only about forty to fifty, Muhammad (S) was not considered a serious threat. This, however, did not prevent the Quraysh from plotting against him constantly. Qur'an talks about one such individual, who was prominent in opposition to Muhammad (S). (Some exegetes believe this individual was Walid ibn Mughayrah.)
For he thought (and) he plotted And woe to him how he plotted Yea woe to him how he plotted Then he looked around Then he frowned and he scowled Then he turned back and was haughty Then said he " this (Qur'an) is nothing but magic This is nothing but the word of a mortal. (Qur'an 74: 18-26)

As part of a campaign to destroy his credibility, Muhammad (S) was maligned as a poet, a soothsayer, and a possessed man.
So go on with thy mission (O Prophet) for thou art not by the favor of thy Lord either a sooth-sayer or one possessed. (Qur'an 52: 29-30)
I swear by the stars and their rising and setting, And by the night as it falleth, And by the dawn as it brighteneth. This is verily the word of an apostle, gracious by nature, endowed with wisdom emanating from the Lord of the throne: Deserving of obedience and trust. And your compatriot is not possessed. (Qur'an 81: 15- 22)
The Quraysh would frequently dump filth and garbage on Muhammad (S) and spread thorns in his path. It is fascinating to note how stoic and patient Muhammad's (S) response to these types of provocation was. Once when he noticed that the woman who would routinely thrown thorns in his path had not done so, he went over to inquire if she had become ill.
The poor and unprotected among the Muslims, especially the slaves, were brutally tortured. One notable example was the torture of Bilal. Every time pain was inflicted on him, his response, referring to Allah, was "Ahad" (One and only One). Some of these Muslims succumbed to this physical abuse. It is indeed extraordinary that these early followers of Muhammad (S) were so steadfast in their beliefs that they would endure this torment sometimes until it proved fatal. It is worth noting that by then, only a small portion of the Qur'an had been revealed. This was before the battle of Badr and other victories, which means that none of these early converts knew if Islam would survive as a religion.
Another tactic that the Quraysh employed to attempt to modulate Muhammad's (S) behavior was bribery. This prompted the famous retort by Muhammad (S), which is recorded by Haykal , "By Allah, if even they place the sun in one hand and the moon in my other hand, I will not be dissuaded from my mission."
One benefit of Muhammad's (S) incessant public humiliation and his patient acceptance of it, was the conversion to Islam of Hamzah bin Abdul Muttalib. Hamzah a prominent and powerful individual in Makkah could not stand to see his cousin being abused any longer. Within a few days of Hamzah's acceptance of Islam, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, who would become the second Khalifah (Caliph) of Islam, also became a Muslim. Initially angered by his sister and brother- in- law's becoming Muslim, he was quickly metamorphosed when he heard the following Verses:
"Whatever is in the heavens and on earth, Let it declare the praises of Allah, For He is the exalted in might, the Wise, To Him belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, It is He who gives Life and Death, and He has power over all things..."(Qur'an 57:1-5)

He had never heard anything as eloquent, compelling and majestic as these verses.

Migration To Abyssinia (Ethiopia) Of Some Muslims (the First Hijrah)

The continuous persecution lead to the first migration of Muslims to Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia). This occurred in the fifth year of the revelation. Fifteen individuals, eleven men and four women, were in the group, which traveled on a merchant ship to Abyssinia. The objective was not merely escaping persecution. It appears to have been at least partly an attempt to spread Islam. In fact, some of the most persecuted Muslims like Bilal,'Amr and Yasir did not migrate. Amongst those who migrated were prominent people like Uthman ibn 'Affan who was clearly not at risk of being persecuted. Abyssinia may have been chosen as a country to migrate to as the Christian king Negus, who was known for his tolerance and generosity, ruled it. In addition, Muslims felt more empathetic to Christians than to any other contemporary religious group because of the commonalties between the two religions.
The Quraysh decided to pursue the Muslims vigorously and make an example out of them. They petitioned Negus for the Muslims' repatriation back to Makkah. This lead to a court appearance by the Muslims and a dramatic dialogue between them and Negus. When Negus asked, "What is this new religion which is against both idol worship and Christianity?" Ja'far ibn Abu Talib, (Ali's [ra] brother), replied in part, "...We were ignorant, we would worship idols, eat carrion, indulge in every possible indecency. We would be cruel to our neighbors and relatives and would oppress each other and the strong would exploit the weak. Amongst us was born someone whose truthfulness and reliability became widely known. He invited us to Islam and urged us to give up idol worship, be truthful, stop being bloodthirsty, stop usurping the orphan's wealth and property, provide help to our neighbors, stop calumny against pious women, establish regular worship, practice abstinence, and give charity..."
When the Quraysh saw how impressed Negus was by this statement, they played their ultimate card. They tried to incite Negus, a good Christian, by stating that Islam was disrespectful to Christ ('Isa). Negus challenged the Muslims to recite what the Qur'an said about 'Isa (as). Ja'far ibn Abu Talib recited a few verses from Surat Maryam (Mary):
"Thereupon, she made a sign towards him (the newborn baby Jesus, suggesting that they should speak to him rather than to her). They said, 'How shall we speak with one who is in the cradle, a mere infant?' The babe said, 'Verily, I am the servant of Allah; He hath given me the Book, and hath made me a Prophet. And he hath made me blessed wherever I be, and enjoined on me regular prayer, and alms as long as I live, and to be duteous to my mother; And He hath not made me to be overbearing, or depraved. And blessed I am the day I was born and the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised to life." (Qur'an 19: 29-33).

The eloquence of the verses deeply moved Negus' and his court and won the Muslims a safe stay in Abyssinia. Over the next few years, approximately eighty-three Muslims migrated to Abyssinia. Many of them returned to Makkah when they heard a rumor that the pagans of Quraysh had accepted Islam. The rumor is linked incorrectly to the infamous and fictitious incident of the satanic verses. (See appendix)

Siege in Abu Talib's tribal abode. (Boycott By Makkans of Muhammad's (S) Clan)

In spite of all the hostility of the Quraysh the number of Muslims kept increasing slowly. The Quraysh in the seventh year of the mission decided to try a different tactic to stop the spread of Islam. To stop Muslim contact with the outside world they physically isolated Muhammad (S), his followers and his uncle Abu Talib's tribe in the part of Makkah where they had their homes. They cut off food supplies to the clan and shut down trade and all social contact with its members. This siege would go on, the Quraysh declared, until the tribe rescinded their protection of Muhammad (S) and handed him over to be punished.
This which siege lasted for three long years and must have at times appeared endless and hopeless, but eventually, many of the less militant elders in Makkah could not stand to witness the misery of Abu Talib's clan any longer. The steadfast support shown to Muhammad (S) by his clan must have impressed them and so they decided to remove the sanctions.

Reconfirmation of the mission and rejuvenation of hope (Isra'/Mi'raj).

It was now ten years after the revelation and the ordeal of the siege was over. However the attempts at spreading the message of Islam and gain new converts were advancing at a very slow pace. It was in this period of darkness and despondency that Muhammad (S) had the experience of the night journey (Isra') and of the ascent through the heavens (Mi'raj).
Glory be to Him who conducted His servant by the night from the holy mosque (in Makkah) to the distant mosque of al- Aqsa (in Jerusalem) The precincts of which We have hallowed that We might show him a few of our signs Verily He is all hearing all seeing. (Qur'an 17:1)

Whether the experience was physical or spiritual is immaterial. It is, however, relevant that it renewed Muhammad's (S) confidence in his mission and restored his sense of hope. The limits of time and space disappeared and he could perceive the unifying and eternal nature of the message of Islam. The entire universe was gathered up and laid out before his eyes and the continuity of the message and its finality were reaffirmed. The morning following this profoundly mystical event, it was reported that his face was radiant with joy.
This event did not end the years of anguish. Soon, (possibly in the year 619 C.E) two of Muhammad's (S) most important supporters, his uncle Abu Talib and his wife Khadijah died. The Messenger would remember it as the "Year of Grief". With their deaths an exponential increase in physical hardship and humiliation was heaped upon Muhammad (S).
Hoping to find a friendlier audience elsewhere Muhammad (S) made a trip to the city of Ta'if, alone. There he ran up against the hostility of the local tribal leaders. They incited the rabble in the streets to taunt him and throw stones at him, forcing him to seek refuge in a vineyard. The prophet Muhammad (S) turned to his Lord in despair and pleaded:
"O Allah, To Thee I complain of my weakness, my lack of resources and my lowliness before men. O most Merciful! Thou art the Lord of the weak and Thou art my Lord. To whom wilt Thou relinquish my fate! To one who will misuse me? Or to an enemy to whom Thou hast given power over me? If Thou art angry with me then I care not what happens to me. Thy favor is all that counts for me. I take refuge in the light of Thy countenance, by which all darkness is illuminated. And the things of this world and next are rightly ordered. I wish to please Thee until Thou art pleased. There is no power and no might save in Thee".

Muhammad's (S) return to Makkah from Ta'if was impossible without the renewal of tribal protection. Muhammad (S) asked and received protection from a non-Muslim man named Mut'im bin 'Adi. This surely must have been one of the grimmest periods of Muhammad's (S) mission, as nothing seemed to be going right. Two of the most important people in his life had passed away. The hostility of the tribes appeared to be reaching new crescendos all the time. Attempts to invite outside tribes appeared to be fruitless as well. The difficult period when Muhammad's (S) mission seemed to run into a series of dead ends had reached its lowest point. He didn't know that the long tunnel of despair was about to end and his mission would enter the next phase. This phase culminated in the migration to Madinah.
The patience and stoicism Muhammad (S) displayed during this phase has been a source of strength to many a Muslim who has found himself beleaguered by apparently hopeless circumstances.

The Prophet's interactions with non-Muslims

`Mut'im bin 'Adi, Muhammad's (S) "protector" on his return from Ta'if to Makkah, was one of many non-Muslims who helped Muhammad (S) during his mission.
Abu Talib, his uncle and mentor, never accepted Islam, but he remained a steadfast supporter all his life. He was the Prophet's main protection against the wrath of the other Qurayshi clans. He and his clan suffered a great deal because of this, which included the boycott and the siege they endured for several long months. Due to the fear of retaliation and reprisal, which would be unleashed under the tribal traditions, the Quraysh were restrained from inflicting significant bodily harm to Muhammad (S), as long as Abu Talib was alive. During the siege some Quraish smuggled in small amounts of food. The biographers record Hakim bin Hazam as one who was caught by Abu Jahl while smuggling flour to the Prophet's household.
Early in his mission, the Prophet realized that although he was protected by his relationship with Abu Talib, many of his companions were not. They were being subjected to torture. He advised his followers to migrate to the Christian nation of Abyssinia. "If you were to go to Abyssinia (it would be better for you) for the king will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country," he said "until Allah shall relieve you from your distress".
Another outstanding figure in the early history of Islam is the Christian elder Waraqah bin Nawfal, who may have become a Hanif at the time Muhammad (S) received his first revelation. He listened to the description of the revelatory experience and confirmed it to be a true event rather than the hallucination of a man possessed. This was a crucial source of reassurance for Muhammad (S) at that time.
During the migration, the Prophet and Abu Bakr hired Abdullah bin Arqat, a polytheist, to guide them to Madinah. They confided to him their plan to migrate, handed over to him the two camels that Abu Bakr had prepared for the journey, and told about the location of the cave where they would hide until the pursuit abated. After three days Abdullah bin Arqat joined them with his own camel and led them safely to Madinah.
The most remarkable and the least known of these non-Muslim helpers was a Jewish Rabbi who fought along with the Muslims and died in the battle of Uhud. Ibn Hisham records his name as Mukhayriq and identifies his tribe as the Banu Tha'lah. His tribesmen tried to dissuade Mukhayriq from joining the Muslims in this war by pointing out that as the battle was being fought on a Saturday, the day of Jewish Sabbath, he had a religious excuse not to participate. Mukhayriq argued that the covenant Jews and taken with the Muslims took precedence over any religious and other excuses.
When the Prophet was forced to go out of Makkah to face the tribe of Hawazain in the battle of Hunain, he was short of weapons. He asked the wealthy polytheist Safwan bin Umayya if he would loan his weapons to the Muslims. Safwan bin Umayya wanted to know if the Prophet was demanding them by force. The Prophet replied that they were to be a "loan and a trust until we return them to you". The Muslims borrowed a hundred coats of mail and arms to go with them. The Prophet continued this practice of cooperating with non-Muslims and finding common ground with them all his life. His invitation to the rulers of the neighboring kingdoms is another example discussed later in this manuscript.
Muslims these days would be well served to keep these examples in mind. The Prophet's attitude was in perfect harmony with what the Qur'an itself says about non-Muslims.
"Yet they are not all alike. Among the people of the book an upright section recite the word of God during the night hours and bend in adoration. They believe in God and the Day-After, enjoin the right, forbid the wrong, and are eager to do good. These are the righteous. In addition, whatever good they do shall by no means go unacknowledged and Allah knoweth those who are righteous. (Qur'an. 3: 113-115)

On another occasion in the same chapter the Qur'an says:
"Among the people of the book are some to any of whom if thou should entrust a large treasure, he will restore it to thee; and among them also are some to anyone of who if thou shouldst give even a single dinar, he will not restore it to thee unless thou art pressing in thy demand on him. This because they say, "we owe no responsibility to keep faith with those who have no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures" and thus they foist a lie on Allah and they do it knowingly. (Qur'an 3: 75)

There is a tendency among some Muslims to look at all non-Muslims as enemies. That clearly wasn't the case then nor is it the case now. The list of people who empathize with the Muslim cause and have taken a courageous and noble stand on their behalf is long and impressive. The Prophet did not have any close confidants that were non-Muslims, but he sometimes took non-Muslims into confidence in matters of extreme importance.