Laying Down the Law
"Recite!" The disembodied voice echoed around the cavern. "In the name of thy God who created man from a clot of blood!" With those words, according to the Qur'an, all of humanity was instructed to submit to Islam, but the only person present was a forty-year-old Arab merchant named Muhammad, who reacted by looking around with astonishment. Although it was the holy month of Ramadan and he had come to the cave to meditate, he had never before experienced so uncanny an event. The order was then repeated—"Recite!"—as incomprehensible symbols floated on a piece of cloth before his eyes. Muhammad protested that he could not even read, only to find himself lifted off the ground and crushed until words that he barely understood filled his mouth.
Muhammad was terrified. He came from Mecca, a trading center on the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula that doubled as a place of pilgrimage, and the pagan cults with which he was familiar had no shortage of malevolent deities. Their nymphs, satyrs, and storm gods were constantly up to no good, fighting dusty battles on the desert horizon or shifting villages across its shimmering sands, and Muhammad feared that he was falling victim to one of the most destructive creatures of them all—the jinn, a spirit capable of controlling a person's mind. He scrambled out of the cave, besieged by visions, but as he swayed suicidally on a rocky precipice, he was at last made to realize that he was dealing with no mere demon. A colossal figure now filled the starry sky, and its voice addressed him wherever he turned. "O Muhammad!" it boomed. "You are the Messenger of God and I am Gabriel."
Events on the hillside detained Muhammad for so long that his wife, Khadija, sent out a search party. She was an independently wealthy businesswoman, older than her husband, and when he was found, traumatized and shivering, she swiftly took charge. The region in which Mecca was situated, the Hijaz, was home to a number of faiths, and one of her cousins was an expert in matters spiritual, having studied the Torah and converted to Christianity. A visit was arranged, and Waraqa bin Nawfal's response was both encouraging and ominous. The good news was that Muhammad had encountered the one true God and that the angel Gabriel had been associated with some very auspicious events. The bad news was that Meccans would vilify Muhammad, ridicule his story, and do their utmost to kill him.
Islam so despises the culture it replaced that its hostile claims about Arab paganism always merit a pinch of salt, but there would have been good reasons for Waraqa to be concerned. Although the Meccans considered one of their gods to be paramount, and even called him the god—al-lah, in Arabic—monotheism ran directly contrary to their traditions. As far as they were concerned, al-lah governed the universe in alliance with three daughters and several hundred subordinates, and that belief was fortified by some sound economic calculations. Across the city stood dozens of domed red leather tents, each of them housing holy statuettes and images, and an idol-strewn palace known as the Ka'ba drew thousands of pilgrims annually. The shrine was jointly managed by two branches of the dominant Quraish clan—the Umayyads and the Hashemites—and their partnership was as delicate as it was lucrative. Muhammad was a respected Hashemite, but any attempt to revise the rules would not go down well.
The year was 610, and the channel of communication that had opened between Muhammad and God would transform the world. Thousands of lines of divine wisdom would reach him from the heavens over the next two decades, transmitted by a disembodied voice or heralded by a bell, and as he fell entranced and moved his lips to memorize God's words, he would see far beyond the visible world, far into heaven and deep into hell. Even the jinns that he had initially feared were said to have converted en masse, after several overheard a nocturnal recitation and were struck by its beauty. Among Muslims, Muhammad has become a correspondingly heroic figure, and every child is brought up on stories about his valor, wisdom, and kindness. But though evidence of the admiration is ancient, the process that saw it recorded was far from straightforward. The revelations he received were collected together as a written Qur'an (recitation) soon after his death, but it took another century for the first written accounts of his life to appear, and only in the late ninth century did scholars compile collections of reports (hadiths) that the majority accepted as authentic. Older books were subsequently relegated to irrelevance insofar as they differed. As a consequence, the orthodox version of Islam's origins became definitive only about three centuries after the events it described. Yet for many Muslims, history has turned into an aspect of faith rather than a subject for debate—assumed insofar as it supports the conventional view, and sacrilegious if it seems somehow to undermine it.
Any account of this period therefore faces some serious problems. Not only is there little way to test the received version of events, but the hadiths themselves are contradictory. There is plenty on which the biographers agree, to be sure. No one has ever denied that Muhammad was tall, dark eyed, handsome, fragrant, lustrous, well mannered, soft-spoken, modest, firm of handshake, and purposeful of stride. But the uncertainties quickly multiply. Some hadiths state that he was prone to tears, while others insist that he had an easy smile. There are claims that he once envisioned hell to be full of females, and many others that depict him not just comfortable with but delighted by the company of intelligent and opinionated women. He was a man of unyielding rigor, say some, but he is also supposed to have laughed when told that an arrested drunk had staggered free from a flogging, and to have counseled followers against further action. The truth must lie somewhere, but all that can be said for sure is that the descriptions frequently say more about the describers than they could possibly reveal about Muhammad himself.
A coherent picture does emerge out of the early biographies, however, and it portrays someone who was both resourceful and remarkable. Born after the death of his father, Muhammad lost both his mother and his grandfather during childhood and grew up in the household of an uncle named Abu Talib. Though orphaned and illiterate, he married well and built up a successful trading partnership with Khadija, and his acumen was impressive enough for his fellow Quraish to ask him at one point to arbitrate a dispute over management of the Ka'ba. And even during the first quiet years of his mission, he won supporters. Khadija quickly accepted that her husband was a messenger of God, and though Abu Talib would never acknowledge Muhammad's prophethood, his ten-year-old son, Ali, pledged his allegiance. Slaves and social outcasts also trickled to the cause, along with a prosperous merchant named Abu Bakr. Precisely what Muhammad was divulging at this early stage is not known, but he was clearly already inspirational.
Three years after first making contact, God told Muhammad that the time had come to spread the word more generally. With some trepidation, he duly informed his fellow Meccans that he was a prophet—the last in a line that ran via Jesus and Moses all the way back to Adam. Then, more boldly, he revealed that al-lah had neither companions nor daughters. The Quraish were blindly following their ancestors, he declared, "even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance," and their activities at the Ka'ba were fundamentally misdirected. They should pray twice daily toward Jerusalem instead and seek peace through submission to the divine—a state encapsulated by the Arabic word islam. Only then would they begin to appreciate God's true nature: a spiritual presence "nearer to [man] than his jugular vein."
Although no one would ever doubt Muhammad's eloquence, early reactions were unpromising. Rumors rapidly spread that he had fallen under the spell of a jinn or poetic inspiration (maladies then considered much the same thing), and the first response of Mecca's pagans was to offer Muhammad the best medical treatment that money could buy. But he had found his voice, and it was assuming ever greater urgency. Whereas Meccans seem to have believed that life after death differed little from life before it, Muhammad began to warn that a great reckoning awaited everyone and that earthly deeds carried eternal consequences. In his telling, God was about to snuff out His stars and set seas boiling, and as creation shuddered to a close, trumpet blasts were going to wake all the dead there had ever been. There would then be a time at which commendable deeds would be weighed against sins—the final Hour (al sa'a)—and all the signs suggested that Meccans were in line for scorching winds, molten brass, and unquenchable hellfire.
The apocalyptic vision was informed by solid moral arguments. The world into which Muhammad had been born was so stratified that clans did not even intermarry, while women were chattels and slaves bore a shameful status that lasted through generations. Vengeance was as valued as mercy was considered weak, and though the Meccans venerated three goddesses, the birth of an actual girl was so inauspicious that custom allowed for female infanticide. Against that backdrop, Muhammad had begun to claim that his followers were morally equal, regardless of sex or social standing, and to teach that clemency was no flaw but a virtue—so much so that compassion (al-rahman) and mercy (al-rahim) were the first of God's many names. The killing of a single person was meanwhile tantamount to the murder of all humanity, and at the Hour of Judgment every baby girl ever slaughtered in Mecca would indict her parents from her grave. But there was hope. Penitents might yet spend an eternal afterlife in cool gardens of endless delight.
The attitudes of many Meccans hardened to match. Muhammad's supposed revelations were a mishmash of Jewish and Christian fables, jeered the Quraish. If he was a real prophet, why did he not produce some concrete evidence—a miracle, perhaps, or a public appearance alongside the angel that he talked so much about? Muhammad responded by challenging the naysayers to come up with some verses of their own, if divine inspiration was that easy to fake. He brushed aside charges of inconsistency with the disclosure that God sometimes supplemented His revelations with better ones, and he scorned the demand for miracles. Specific circumstances had required Moses to part the seas and Jesus to raise the dead, but Muhammad's task was to transmit God's final message to humanity—and was that not the greatest wonder of them all?
Many prominent Meccans thought not, and envoys were soon pressing Abu Talib to silence his irksome nephew as a matter of urgency. But though the older man advised Muhammad in private to tone down the revelations, he publicly let it be known that no one could harm his relative without risking retaliation from his household. It was an honorable stand, but its limits were also becoming clear. As conversions grew more frequent, Meccans took to torturing suspect slaves and beating up anyone who was caught trying to pray. Abu Bakr had his beard tugged, and Muhammad himself had the bloody uterus of a sheep hurled at him as he once prostrated. When a group of Muslims fled for Abyssinia, where the Christian king had offered them asylum, the pressure only intensified on those who remained. And crisis then turned to catastrophe—when, in 619, Abu Talib and Khadija both died.
The loss left Muhammad vulnerable as never before. In a hierarchical community where identities were defined by social connections, Muhammad had lost the two people closest to him. It was hard to see how he could recover his position in Mecca, and then, as if by a miracle, the possibility of powerful new allies elsewhere presented itself. As the annual pilgrimage to the Ka'ba proceeded during the summer of 620, six visitors from Yathrib, an oasis situated some two hundred miles to the north, sought a meeting with Muhammad. Having been told by Jewish neighbors that an Arab prophet was long overdue, they were curious to see whether he might be one—and they carried back so favorable a report that many more Yathribis attended the following year's pilgrimage. At a clandestine gathering alongside his own followers in the desert, Muhammad then divulged a momentous revelation. It had long been known that God expected believers to exert themselves—to do jihad—but Muhammad disclosed that spiritual exertions could include the use of force against anyone who opposed the revelations he was transmitting. In the words of an eighth-century biographer:
The apostle had not been given permission to fight or to shed blood before [then]. He had simply been ordered to call men to God and to endure insult and forgive the ignorant ... [But now God] gave permission to His apostle to fight and to protect himself against those who wronged [his followers] and treated them badly.
It was the first sign of a phenomenon that would one day inspire fateful ideas about the legal interpretation of divine rules—God's capacity to adjust His revelations—and its practical impact was immediate. On Muhammad's instructions, Muslims began filtering north toward Yathrib. His enemies in Mecca, faced with a local difficulty that was turning regional, simultaneously resolved to terminate the problem at its source. A gathering of clans decided that the prophet in their midst should be murdered, and every family present agreed to assume a share of the blood guilt by contributing a killer to the death squad. But it was too late. After reportedly receiving a tip-off from the angel Gabriel, Muhammad made good his escape through a window, reconnoitered with Abu Bakr, and set off for Yathrib. Both men sheltered together in a cave for three days and then made their way to their destination, which consequently became known as al-madinat al-nabi (City of the Prophet)—or, more simply, Medina.
The Prophet's emigration (hijra) in September 622 is the seminal moment of Islamic history. It marks the first year of the Muslim calendar, and like Paul Revere's ride or the retreat from Dunkirk it has come to be seen as a portent of triumph rather than a sign of desperation. The righteous exile (muhajir) is a figure of Islamic folklore, and countless Muslim revolutionaries with pretensions to holiness have made sure to abandon their homelands during the course of their struggles. Many have gone all the way and spent time loitering around caves—among them Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose post-9/11 publicity material often seemed deliberately to invite comparisons to the travails of the Prophet. But though emulation of the hijra was long ago ritualized, it gained its significance in 622 for a very practical reason. An earlier era of wicked ignorance, known to Muslims as the jahiliyya, was dispelled forever as they became able for the first time to follow the path toward salvation that God was laying down—the shari'a.
From Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World by Sadakat Kadri. Copyright 2012 by Sadakat Kadri. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.