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Muhammad: Prophet or General?

July 8, 2010

One of the most haunting and beautiful sounds on earth is the adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer. This sound is heard across the Middle East five times a day, since Islam was spread throughout the Arabian peninsula during the 7th century C.E. The self-proclaimed prophet and founder of the religion, Muhammad, started a monotheistic religion when polytheistic religions were the norm in his geographic area. There were Jews and Christians that lived in Arabia, but they were not a majority of the population.

Muhammad and his army destroying idols in Mecca

Muhammad was born in the year 570 in the town of Mecca in western Arabia, near the coast of the Red Sea. Both of his parents were dead by the age of 5, and he was given to his grandfather in Mecca. In 578, his grandfather died, and he was brought to his uncle, Abu Talib who raised him to be a shepherd and follow him on caravan trips to Syria. During these trips, Muhammad was exposed to the different monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad would have heard the stories of Moses, David, and Jesus while traveling not far from the important city of Jerusalem. These men from the Jewish and Christian faiths would later be mentioned in the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran (Koran).

In the year 594, Muhammad went to work for a wealthy female merchant named Khadija bint Khawalayd. She was a widow and distant cousin of Muhammad that lived in Mecca. Muhammad worked for her by taking caravans to the area where the modern states of Israel, Syria, and Jordan are located today. Again, he would have mingled with those that were of the Abrahamic religions. Khadija found Muhammad to be a very honest employee, and decided to propose marriage to him, which he accepted.  The couple had several children, and their business prospered, as did the town of Mecca. Mecca became a very important center of trade and it was also an important religious site for pilgrims of different polytheistic faiths. The focal point of Mecca’s faith was the kaaba, which house hundreds of statues of different gods from many different faiths. Muhammad did not like the idolatry that was going on in his town, and decided to retreat to the mountains that surrounded Mecca to meditate on what should be done. Around the year 610, Muhammad claimed to have a series of visionary experiences where he was given a series of revelations by God. He later recited his revelations, and they were recorded and became the Qu’ran.

Muhammad eventually started to preach in public, which made many in the town very angry since they made a lot of money from religious pilgrims. Muhammad had many followers, but they were persecuted by the Quraysh, which was the dominant tribe of Mecca. Muhammad was protected by the influence of his uncle and wife, but when they both died, the Quraysh attempted to assassinate Muhammad to stop his following.

In 622, Muhammad and his followers went to Yathrib to settle a civil war, which was later called Medina. Muhammad was there for six years and gathered a number of followers that became the foundation of his army. There was a large Jewish community in Yathrib when Muhammad arrived, and Muhammad was amicable to them. Later, the Jews and Muhammad’s followers had several conflicts and the Yathrib Jews either left or were killed by the Muslims. This is one of the first recorded conflicts between the Muslims and Jews.

The leaders of Mecca did not like Muhammad’s success, and the Muslims began attacking unarmed caravans that were going to and from Mecca. There were three major battles between the two sides, and Muhammad commanded the Muslims during the battles. One of the best known battles is the Battle of Badr, where Muhammad’s army attacked and looted Mecca’s largest caravan of the year. For a man with little to no military training, he was apparently an inspirational leader. The two sides later signed a truce, but the agreement was broken within  a year, and the two sides fought again.

Map of Muslim Conquests

Muhammad had many tribes join him and his cause against the city of Mecca. The two towns clashed several times, and eventually Muhammad was able to enter Mecca without a battle, since the Meccan’s were heavily outnumbered. When Muhammad’s army entered Mecca, they went to the kaaba and destroyed the idols of the other religions. As it is written in the Qu’ran: “Slay them wherever you find them…Idolatry is worse than carnage…Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God’s religion reigns supreme.” (Surah 2:190-). After the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad used the city as his base and eventually conquered the rest of the Arabian peninsula. Muhammad was the commanding general of the Muslim forces until his death in the year 632.

The question remains; was Muhammad a religious prophet or a successful military leader? Muhammad did start one of the largest religions in the world, but did he just take parts of Christianity and Judaism, which he would have known a lot about from his travels, and create his own monotheistic religion? Muhammad’s converts took the Arabian peninsula in a very short time period, so we know that he was a good commander. Eventually Islam spread from the Iberian peninsula in Spain to the Indian subcontinent by the 8th century C.E. This did not happen by passing out pamphlets and knocking on doors. Although many modern Muslims like to believe that their religion was not ‘spread by the sword,’ it is hard to contend with the evidence. Muhammad served as the military commander for the Muslim army for twenty years, and took over Arabia. Many Muslims claim that Muhammad’s wars were in self-defense, but after they eliminated their main rivals in Mecca, there was no need to expand militarily. Within a few years of Muhammad’s death, the Muslims were taking Alexandria, Egypt and Antioch, Syria. The Muslim armies were eventually halted from spreading by European forces in France and Eastern Europe, but the constant conflicts between the cultures eventually led to a European offensive action called the Crusades. I will write more about that in the future. I will let you make up your own mind whether Muhammad was a bit of a charlatan military commander who wanted to conquer his own theocratic empire, or a prophet of God. Thank you for reading my Blog!

Muhammad at the Battle of Badr

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