As it was customary among the wealthy Arabs of Mecca, the new born Mohammad was given to a Bedouin nanny to breast-feed him in her tribe’s campground outside the town. Zarrin Koob attributes that separation to the fact that Mecca was so filthy and decease-ridden at the time that most kids would have died, if they were kept there at an early age. So the prophet spent his first years among the Bedouin tribes and in the wild and fresh air of the desert.
Mohammad was very young when his father passed away and his custody (based on Semitic traditions) went to his grandfather, and upon his death, to his uncle. In the brutish city of Mecca, the orphaned Mohammad was treated roughly by the other kids who were better off, and was constantly reminded of his poverty and loneliness. Nevertheless, he grew up to be a hardworking, honest and thoughtful young man, very employable in the service of the Mecca traders.
Back then, the Roman trade with Far East (mostly India) had been disrupted by the century old Persian-Roman wars. Therefore, some of that trade was rechanneled through Yemen, Mecca and Syria. It was a lucrative operation for the Arab warlords who would organize and protect the safe passage of the caravans to the East Roman Empire (Byzantine).
Mohammad worked for nearly a decade in the Roman trade route and became very familiar with both the Christian and the Jewish traditions of the Near East. As an intelligent young man, although illiterate, he absorbed most of the biblical stories, which put his life in a much more appealing prospective. He found solace in the hardship stories of Job and Moses, but perhaps was most influenced by Abraham, a Semitic prophet who recanted his own town and traditions, to build a new Utopia and create a new way of life.
At the age of 40, after marrying a wealthy business woman, Mohammad found some spare time to contemplate his past and future, his beliefs and doubts. Like some other contemporary mystics of Mecca, he started frequenting the caves outside town, fasting and praying to the god for guidance. He finally claimed that an angle of god had spoken to him, and had read him a book (Koran) which would put the affairs of all mankind, including the Arabs, the Jews, the Persians and the Christians, in order!
That message was first tried on his wife and close relatives, with partial success. A handful of them accepted that the honest Mohammad was not lying, and that the incredible verses he was reciting were miraculous and could not be the work of an illiterate man. Soon, the prophet said that god had asked him to openly summon all the people of Mecca to the new faith. But the tough and cynical men of Mecca laughed at Mohammad’s calls to brotherhood, monotheism and observance of what seemed like the Jewish rituals. Even the Jewish rabbis criticized his inadequate knowledge of the biblical traditions and mistakes in reciting their stories as part of a new testament.
The laughter and the criticism made Mohammad upset and angry enough, to start confronting the prominent townspeople with daily repudiation of their barbaric manners. In response, the Mecca nobility boycotted his business, openly disowned him and even encouraged the street kids to ridicule and stone him. Poor and desperate, the prophet then concentrated his message towards the disadvantaged of Mecca, the deprived and the slaves. He not only promised them freedom and hope, but also the Abraham god’s pledge that ‘the meek would inherit the earth’!
When the Mecca upper class was confronted with the specter of a slave uprising, they killed some of the rebellious poor, confiscated Muslims’ properties and banished Mohammad and his followers to the outskirts of the city. Pained and worried that the fickle flame of his calling would die in such hardship, Mohammad sent messengers far and wide. The people of Yathrib (later called the Medina or city of prophet) gave him refuge, and became his base to fight the aristocracy of Mecca.
From his base in Medina, Mohammad encouraged and organized his followers to revenge on the Meccans, who had earlier confiscated their belongings. This started years of looting of the Mecca caravans that had to pass Medina on route to Syria, and back. In reply, the Mecca warlords organized much bigger trade missions that could be guarded more effectively. This in turn encouraged the now militaristically organized Muslims to engage in open combat with the Meccans who were accompanied by large sums of money and goods.
The rich and powerful of Mecca lost their first famed battle (Badr) to the Muslims, because they had grossly underestimated the ragtag party of Mohammad. The true strength of Mohammad’s faith was the open-door policy and merit-basedhierarchy. If you wanted in, well, you were in, without any tribal or racial barriers. And if you were any good, you could get command, without prejudice and bias. In addition, most of the followers ‘had nothing to lose but their chains’ (as Karl Marx rediscovered later), and had a lot to gain by attacking and defeating the pampered, pompous and disorganized aristocracy.
His first relatively easy victories made Mohammad both jubilant and gracious. He would be forgiving even towards his tormenters (the Mecca rich) and his ridiculers (the Jewish tribes). However, soon the opposition woke up under the leadership of Mohammad’s own grandfather tribe (Ghoraish), and organized successful campaigns (like Uhud) against the Muslims. Many of Mohammad’s family and friends were killed, and he was himself injured.
But neither the bloody defeat of Uhud, nor the subsequent siege of Medina (war of Khandagh) could break the back of Mohammad’s uprising. In the face of diminished loots and proceeds of war, the prophet promised eternal heaven to his battle-wary followers, where ‘streams of milk and honey’ would quench their thirst and ‘flocks of young virgins’ would satisfy their desires. At a more practical level, Mohammad resorted to such Persian-Roman war veterans like Salomon the Farsi, who taught the latest war techniques to Muslims. He also started a campaign of intimidation against all the Ghoraish allies, including the neighboring Jewish tribes, starting with the threat of force and concluding with their massacre and total annihilation.
Against the undefeated rich and powerful of Mecca, Mohammad the war-strategist concluded a balanced peace treaty, which among other things, allowed him and his followers to visit Mecca and its famed cubic temple once a year during the pilgrimage. The cubic temple of Mecca (Kaaba) was a traditional holy site for the idolater Arabs, where each tribe used to keep its god’s symbol (idol) for protection, and then visit it once a year. The annual pilgrimage was supposed to be a time of peace, and the tribesmen were only allowed to enter Mecca without their weapons.
Initially, Mohammad had forfeited the holiness of Mecca and Kaaba, in favor of the Jewish holy town of Jerusalem. However, in face of bitter struggles with the neighboring Jewish tribes, and in order to gain favors with the Arab tribes who worshiped Kaaba, Mohammad changed the Muslim point of prayer. Then next year, the Muslims returned to Mecca for pilgrimage and show-of-force, chanting: ‘no god but Allah’. However, they did not otherwise force the issue on the Meccans. Allah being one of the chief existing gods in Kaaba, the message started to sink in.
The simple unifying message of ‘no god but Allah’ appealed to the disjointed Arab tribes who could finally see a chance for unity and nationhood. The most powerful of them appealed to Mohammad to also accept the legitimacy and holiness of four highly regarded idols in the Kaaba, as a precondition for them to join the Muslims. Upon reflection, Mohammad accepted and uttered verses which praised the four idols of Kaaba as holy and legitimate. However, the next day, he changed heart and recanted that acceptance as the Satanic Verses, which apparently the devil had whispered into his ears!
Next year, during the pilgrimage to Mecca, Mohammad summoned 10,000 armed Muslims to converge on the city. He reneged on the peace treaty and gave two options to the Meccans, Islam (submission) or war! However, when the rich and powerful of Mecca submitted, Mohammad was again gracious and allowed them full amnesty, and even notable positions in his armed forces and governmental organization. There and then, the prophet’s journey from revolutionary to sovereign was complete!
Reading Mohammad’s life, one can find so many similarities between him and the other revolutionaries, who tried to change the world but world, changed them. Mohammad being an actual person (unlike such mythical characters like Moses and Jesus with no direct historical confirmation), is so real and flesh-and-blood that we can easily see his similarities with many other revolutionaries everywhere and even down to our own time (Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao and even Khomeini).
At the end, no story is luscious without a bit of rumor. In Islamic tradition, it is known that the first wife of Mohammad (Khadijeh) was the first Muslim believer, and that the prophet did not marry anyone else (although Khadijeh was 15 years his senior) as long as she was living. Apparently, it was Khadijeh who proposed marriage (so 21st century) to the then shy Mohammad (a 25 year-old bachelor in her employment). It is also reported that Khadijeh was of a monotheistic family (Hanifian), who are rumored to have been Jewish. Now, based on most Jewish traditions, even if a person born into the faith recants Judaism, they are still considered a Jew. More interestingly, Jewish lineage is a maternal one, going from mothers to offspring. Therefore, deliciously enough, that can make Khadijeh, her daughter Fatima and even her grandson Hossein, all Jewish! Not that there is anything wrong with it!
Reference The 23 years of prophecy, by Prof. Ali Dashti, temporarily posted at the link below.