The New International Encyclopædia/Mohammed
MOHAM'MED (Ar. Muhammad, the Praised; according to Deutsch, Sprenger, and Hirschfeld, the predicted Messiah (cf. Haggai ii. 7). The founder of Islam. He was born about A.D. 570, at Mecca, the son of Abd Allah, of the family of Hashim and Amina, of the family of Zuhra, both of whom belonged to branches of the powerful tribe of the Koreish. His father, a poor merchant, died before or shortly after Mohammed's birth; and his mother, after the fashion of her tribe, gave the child to a Bedouin woman, that she might nurse him in the healthful air of the desert. The infant was subject to fits, which were ascribed to demons, and the nurse brought him back in his third year. Three years afterwards his mother died. His grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, adopted the boy; and when the grandfather died, Mohammed's uncle, Abu Talib, a man of influence, though poor, took him into his house, and remained his best friend and protector throughout his life. The later tradition has surrounded Mohammed's youth with unreliable legends. What is known is that he at first gained a scanty livelihood by tending the flocks of the Meccans, and that he once or twice accompanied his uncle on his journeys to South Arabia and Syria. In his twenty-fifth year he entered the service of a rich widow named Khadija, who was also of the Koreish, and accom- panied her caravans, perhaps as a camel-driver, to the fairs. Soon Khadija, who was much older than he and twice widowed, offered him her hand, which he accepted. She bore him a son, Al-Kasim, and four daughters, Fatima, Zainab, Rukaiya, and Umm Kulthum; and afterwards a second son, whom he called Abd Allah. Both sons died early. Mohammed conducted Khadija's business at Mecca with success, although he spent much time in solitary contemplation. He was esteemed for his integrity and good judgment, and there is nothing of much importance to be told of his life until he reached his fortieth year, and received his first revelation.
The conditions attending his advent as a religious leader are important. By the year 600 Christianity had penetrated Arabia through Syria and Abyssinia. Judaism no less played a prominent part in the peninsula, particularly in the north, which was dotted over with Jewish colonies founded by emigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially round about Yathrib (Medina). That both Christianity and Judaism had found an entrance into the more southerly part of Arabia is shown by the monotheistic inscriptions found there. Besides these two important religious elements, several sects, remnants of the numerous ancient sects which had sprung up everywhere during the first Christian centuries on the borders of Syria and Babylonia, heightened the religious ferment which, shortly before the time of Mohammed, began to move the minds of the thoughtful. Certain men in the Hedjaz (Waraka, Obaid Allah, Othman, Zaid, and others) began to preach the futility of the ancient paganism, with its star-worship, its pilgrimages and festive ceremonies, its temples and fetishes. It had long ceased to be a living faith, but the mass of the people clung to it as to a sacred inheritance from times immemorial. The unity of God, the ‘ancient religion of Abraham,’ was the doctrine promulgated by the religious reformers, and many were roused by their words to search for a form of religion which should embody both the traditions of their forefathers and a purer doctrine of the divinity, and turned to Judaism or to Christianity. Mecca, the centre of the pilgrimages of most of the Arabian tribes, where, from times anterior to the city itself, the Kaaba (q.v.), Mount Arafat, the valley of Mina, etc., had been held sacred—the Koreish, Mohammed's tribe, had had supreme care over these sanctuaries since the fifth century—was naturally the scene of much of this reform preaching. Surrounded by such conditions, Mohammed in his fortieth year entered the field as a teacher of a faith independent alike of the old idolatry and of Judaism and Christianity. Like other Oriental prophets, he claimed to have received a divine call, which, he asserted, had come to him in the solitude of the mountain Hira, near Mecca. Gabriel appeared to him, and commanded him to proclaim the name of Allah—that is, to preach the true religion. That Mohammed was no common impostor is clear. The source of his visions is more difficult to determine. By some they have been attributed to his epilepsy. Undoubtedly they were in considerable measure due to his frequent retirement into desert solitudes, which brought on the ecstasies so familiar in Oriental religious enthusiasts. Waraka, one of his wife's relatives, who had embraced Judaism, may have instructed him in Jewish doctrines and told him the stories of the patriarchs and Israel, not as they are related in the Bible, but as in the Midrash. The legendary poetry of the latter seems to have made as deep an impression on Mohammed's poetical mind as the doctrine of the unity of God and the moral teachings of the Old Testament, together with those civil and religious laws, scriptural and oral, which are either contained as germs or fully developed in this record. Christianity exercised less influence upon him. His knowledge of the New Testament was confined to a few apocryphal books; and while he recognized Jesus, whom, together with Moses, he called the greatest prophet next to himself, his notions of the Christian religion and its founder were excessively vague. He told of his mission to Khadija, who stood by him faithfully from the first, to his daughter, his step-son Ali, his favorite slave Zaid, whom he had freed and adopted, and to his trustworthy friend, Abu Bekr. His other relatives rejected his teachings. Abu Lahab, his uncle, called him a fool; and Abu Talib, his uncle and adoptive father, although he protected him, never professed belief in Mohammed's works.
By the fourth year of his mission he had made forty proselytes, chiefly slaves and people from the lower ranks; and now first he claimed to have received a command to come forward publicly as a preacher, and to defy the unbelievers. He vigorously assailed the superstition of the Meccans, and exhorted them to believe in a just but merciful God, eternal, indivisible, almighty, and all-wise, and in himself as chosen, like the prophets of old, to teach mankind how to escape the punishments of hell and attain eternal happiness. He adopted a primitive Oriental doctrine that the mercy of God is to be obtained by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He was too practical to challenge the strong belief in the sacredness of the Kaaba and the ceremonies of the pilgrimage, and he made them a part of the new religion; but he unsparingly condemned certain barbarous habits of the Bedouins, such as the killing of their new-born daughters. The prohibition of certain kinds of food also belongs to the first period, when he was still under the influence of Judaism; the prohibition of gambling, usury, etc., probably are of a somewhat later date. Whether he did or did not understand the art of writing and reading is not quite clear; but be employed the services of amanuenses for his Koranic dicta, which at first consisted merely of brief rhymed sentences, in the manner of the ancient Arabic soothsayers. The Meccans looked upon him as a common ‘poet’ or ‘soothsayer,’ who was not in his right senses, or simply a liar. Nevertheless, the number of his converts increased until his progress compelled attention; and, finally, fearing for the sacredness of Mecca, the rejection of which would deprive them both of their preëminence and of revenue, they assailed the new prophet and his adherents, who dared “to call their ancient gods idols, and their ancestors fools.” The converted slaves and freedmen had to undergo terrible punishment; and others suffered so much at the hands of their own relatives that they were fain to revoke their creed; so that the Prophet himself advised his followers to emigrate to Abyssinia. Mohammed himself yielded so much as to acknowledge the idols he had assailed as intermediate between God and man; but he soon revoked this as an inspiration of Satan, thereby increasing the hatred of his adversaries, who in every way tried to throw ridicule upon him. At last it became necessary that he should be put beyond the reach of his persecutors, and Abu Talib hid him in a fortified castle of his own in the country. Hamza, his uncle, and Omar, who was formerly an enemy of Mohammed, and who later succeeded Abu Bekr as the third head of Islam, continued in the meantime to spread the new doctrine. The Koreish now demanded that Mohammed should be delivered into their hands: but Abu Talib steadfastly refused to comply with their wishes; a feud thereupon broke out with the family of the Hashimites, and Mohammed and all the members of his family, except, perhaps, Abu Lahab, were excommunicated. After the space of three years, however, the ‘peace party’ in Mecca brought about a reconciliation, and Mohammed was allowed to return. A great grief befell him at this time—his faithful wife Khadija died, and shortly afterwards his uncle, Abu Talib, and to add to his misery the vicissitudes of his career had reduced him by this time to poverty. A migration to Taif, where he sought to improve his position, proved a failure; it was with great difficulty that he escaped with his life. Shortly after his return from Taif he married Sauda, and in the course of his later life so increased the number of his wives that at his death he left nine, of whom Ayesha, the daughter of Abu Bekr, and Hafsa, the daughter of Omar, are best known.
In the course of time Mohammed succeeded in converting several men from Yathrib, who came to Mecca on pilgrimage. The inhabitants of that city had long been accustomed to hear from the numerous Jews living their the words ‘Revelation,’ ‘Prophecy,’ ‘God's Word,’ ‘Messiah’—to the Meccans mere sounds without meaning. In Yathrib the new faith took a strong hold. The next pilgrimage brought twelve, and the third more than seventy, adherents of the new faith from that city; and with these Mohammed entered into a close alliance. He now conceived the plan of seeking refuge in the friendly city, and in the year 622 (about twelve years after entering upon his work), after encouraging about 150 of his adherents to migrate to Yathrib, he fled thither, accompanied by Abu Bekr. The fugitives reached their destination not without danger, and were enthusiastically received. Thenceforth Yathrib was known as Madinat al-Nabi (City of the Prophet), or Medina. The flight (the Hejira) is one of the great events of Islam and the starting-point of the Mohammedan calendar. See Hejira.
The Hejira was also a turning-point in the career of Mohammed. Previously he had been despised as a madman or imposter; now he became judge, lawgiver, and ruler of Medina, and of two powerful Arabian tribes. His first care was to organize his forms of worship; his next to proselytize the numerous Jews who inhabited the city, to whom, besides having received their principal dogmas into his religion, he made many important concessions in the outer observances of Islam, and concluded alliances with many of their tribes; but the Jews resisted conversion. They ridiculed his pretensions, and by their constant taunts made him their bitter adversary up to the hour of his death. The most important act in the first year of the Hejira was his permission to go to war with the enemies of Islam in the name of God, a kind of manifesto chiefly directed against the Meccans. Not being able at first to fight his enemies in the open field, he endeavored to weaken their power by attacking the caravans of the Koreish on their way to Syria. He interfered materially with their trade, concluded alliances with the adjoining Bedouin tribes, and at last the signal for open warfare was given. A battle between 314 Moslems and about 600 Meccans was fought at Bedr, in the second year of the Hejira; the former gained the victory, and made many prisoners. A great number of adventurers soon flocked to Mohammed's colors, and he made successful expeditions against the Koreish and the Jewish tribes, chiefly the Bani Kainuka, whose fortified castle he took after a long siege. He sustained heavy losses, and was himself wounded in the battle near Ohod, but his power increased so rapidly that in the sixth year of the Hejira he was able to proclaim a public pilgrimage to Mecca. Although the Meccans did not allow this to he carried out, he gained the still greater advantage that they concluded a formal peace with him, and thus recognized him as an equal power and belligerent. He now sent missionaries all over Arabia and beyond the frontiers without hindrance; and in the following year celebrated the pilgrimage for three days undisturbed at Mecca. Soon afterwards he narrowly escaped death from poisoning at the hands of a Jewess, one of whose relatives had been killed while fighting against him. His missionaries went to Khosru II., of Persia, to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, to the King of Abyssinia, and to the Governor of Egypt, and the chiefs of several Arabic tribes received the new gospel; but the King of Persia, and Amru, the Ghassanide, rejected his proposals, and Amru had the messenger executed. This was the cause of the first war between the Christians and the Moslems, in which the latter were beaten with great loss by Amru. The Meccans took the occasion to commit depredations upon certain allies of Mohammed, with the result that the Prophet marched upon the city, captured it without a blow, and was recognized as ruler and prophet. This completed the triumph of the new faith in Arabia. Mohammed now undertook to destroy all traces of idolatry in Mecca, and to establish the laws and ceremonies of his true faith; but he soon learned of a new attack by a considerable force of Arab tribes, gathered near Taif (630). Again he was victorious, and his influence and reputation correspondingly expanded. Deputations came to do homage to him in the name of the various tribes, either as the messenger of God or at least as the Prince of Arabia, and the year 9 of the Hejira was therefore called the Year of the Deputations. He made extensive preparations for a war against the Eastern Empire, but was not able to assemble forces enough to carry out his plan. Toward the end of the tenth year of the Hejira he undertook, at the head of at least 40,000 Moslems, his last solemn pilgrimage to Mecca, and there (on Mount Arafat) instructed them in the important laws and ordinances, chiefly of the pilgrimage; and the ceremonies observed by him on that occasion were fixed for all time. (See Hajj.) He exhorted his believers to righteousness and piety, recommended them to protect the weak, the poor, and women, and to abstain from usury. Soon after his return from Mecca he became ill and began to decline rapidly. He took part in public prayers as long as he could. At last, realizing the near approach of death, he preached to the people, recommending Abu Bekr and Usama, the son of Zaid, for the leadership of the army. He asked whether he had wronged any one, read passages from the Koran, and exhorted the people to peace among themselves, and to strict obedience to the tenets of the faith. A few days' afterwards he died in the arms of Ayesha, his favorite wife, on the 12th of the third month, in the year 11 of the Hejira (June 8, 632). His death caused intense excitement, and Omar tried to persuade the people that he was still alive. But Abu Bekr said to the assembled multitude: “Whoever among you has served Mohammed, let him know that Mohammed is dead; but he who has served the God of Mohammed, let him continue in His service, for He is still alive, and never dies.” He had made no provision for a successor, and the quarrel over the leadership, which not long after divided the Moslem world into two warring sects, began before Mohammed's body was buried. Abu Bekr finally received the homage of the principal Moslems at Medina. Mohammed was buried in the night in the house of Ayesha, where he had died, and which afterwards became part of the adjoining mosque.
Mohammed was not an idealist, and his religion was adapted to his age and surroundings. It has been said that he gave the people as much religion as he thought they could take care of, judging by his knowledge of them and of his own tendencies. He was at times deceitful, cunning, even revengeful and cowardly, and much addicted to sensuality. But he is praised for his amiability, his faithfulness toward friends, his tenderness toward his family, his frequent readiness to forgive an enemy, and the extreme simplicity of his domestic life. He lived, when already in full power, in simple quarters, mended his own clothes, and freed all his slaves. He was much inclined to melancholy and nervous sensitiveness. His mind contained a strange mixture of truth and error, of right and wrong. Entering the field as the foe of the old superstitions, he yet clung to superstitious beliefs current among his people. He believed in jinns, omens, charms, and dreams. However much the religion of Islam may, rightly or wrongly, he considered the bane and cause of the decay of Eastern States and nations in our day, it must, in the first place, not be forgotten that it is not necessarily Islam which has caused the corruption, as indeed its ethics are for the most part of the higher order; and in the second place, that Mohammed is not to be made responsible for all the errors of his successors. Take him all in all, the history of humanity has seen few more earnest and sincere ‘prophets,’ using the word prophet in the true sense of one irresistibly impelled by an inner power to admonish, and to teach, and to utter austere and sublime truths, the full purport of which is often unknown to himself.
Mohammed is described as of middle height, lean, but broad-shouldered, with slightly curling hair about a well-developed head. His eyes, overhung with thick lashes, were large and coal-black; his nose, large and slightly bent, was well formed. A long beard added to the dignity of his appearance. A black mole between his shoulders became known among the faithful as the ‘seal of prophecy.’
Bibliography.—Of the lives of Mohammed the best are: In English, Sir William Muir (4 vols., London, 1851-61; 2d ed., abridged, 1 vol., ib., 1894); in German, Nöldeke (Hanover, 1863); Weil (Stuttgart, 1864); Sprenger (2d ed., Berlin, 1869); Krehl (Leipzig, 1884); Grimme (Münster, 1892); in French, Lamairesse and Dujarrie (Paris, 1898). Consult also Saint Hilaire, Mahomet et le Coran (Paris, 1865); Wellhausen, Muhammed in Medina (Berlin, 1882); id., Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, iii. and iv. (ib., 1887-89); August Müller, Der Islam im Morgen- und Abendlande, vol. i. (Berlin, 1885); Muir, Mahomet and Islam (London, 1887); Ameer Ali, The Life and Teachings of Mohammed (London, 1891); and the works mentioned under Koran and Mohammedanism. See also Sunna.