In the seventh century of the Common Era (C.E.) the Prophet Muhammad began to spread the idea of monotheism through the Arabian Peninsula. He did this with a claim that the one true God had spoken to him, in Arabic, through the angel Gabriel. Muhammad was initially met with skepticism and hostility, but by the time of his death his message had begun to take hold such that the religion of Islam was beginning to flourish and within 100 years of his death was the dominant religion of the Middle East. This paper will examine the manner in which Muhammad spread his message and built a society based on the ideals of universal justice as articulated in the Qur’an, and compare his methods with the spread of Christianity in the first century C.E. by the Apostle Paul.
Since we cannot actually know whether or not “God” spoke to Muhammad, or if Paul experienced a supernatural vision leading to his conversion in the early first century, this paper will take a neutral view of these “events” and treat both the Prophet Muhammad and Paul the Apostle as if they were simply “men with a plan.” Each had an idea, divinely inspired or not, as to how his society could become more highly functional.
Who Was Muhammad?
If Muhammad was not inspired by “God” and acted on his own then it becomes important to learn about the man himself in order to understand his actions. Muhammad was born in or around the year 570 C.E. in the city of Mecca, on the Western edge of the Arabian Peninsula, an area known as the Hijaz. Arabia in the Sixth Century was sparsely populated, being mostly desert, and was inhabited largely by nomadic tribes whose only connection to other tribes was competition for the best grazing land. Calling Mecca a city is even a bit of a stretch but it was a settled area inhabited by more than one tribe. While Mecca had some role in trade with the Yemen to the south and Syria to the north (the fertile regions of the peninsula) it was primarily noteworthy as the site of the Ka’ba, a shrine venerated by the various polytheistic religions of the region. As such Mecca was a rare place of “civilization” in a land where justice was that which one tribe could ensure for itself among other competing tribes. At the Ka’ba feuds and other disputes had to be set aside so that all could perform such religious rituals as they had come to do.
Muhammad was born into a not especially influential family (the Banu Hashim) of the Quraysh tribe, who were powerful enough to be the guarantors of order in Mecca. He was orphaned at an early age, lost his grandfather, whose house he had moved to, shortly thereafter and was adopted by an uncle. Growing up in Mecca Muhammad saw inequality all around. Within Mecca were wealth and power disparities; out past the frontier were nomads living a Spartan lifestyle. Also there were inequities in what can be called their system of justice. Then as always there were disputes between individuals and between tribes. Justice depended upon one’s power, especially the power of the tribe to which one belonged. Yet in Mecca, around the Ka’ba, people accepted that there was a standard of behavior that must be adhered to.
While polytheistic “paganism” was prevalent among Arab nomadic tribes and most of the settled people of the peninsula, salvation religions were popular in the areas surrounding Arabia. Jews and Christians were to the west and north with Manichaeism, Mazdaism and Zoroastrianism being practiced to the east. Followers of these religions believed that there would be an end of time and a judgment day, ideas compatible with monotheism. Muhammad was aware of these other religions and was exposed to their doctrines and their belief in an ultimate judge.
In 610 C.E., according to Muslim tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and began to reveal to him the words of the one true God. Qur’an means literally “he recited” (among other possible translations). Several chapters, or suras begin with the command “recite,” for example, sura 112:
Recite: He is God,
The One and Only,
God, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not, nor is he begotten,
And there is none like unto him.
Tradition has it, then, that God intended for Muhammad to share this revelation with the Arab people.
It is also possible, however, to consider the Qur’an as Muhammad’s own thoughts and that when he began to share them with his people he was merely relying on his own sense of what society needed and would accept. Robert Wright suggests that to properly understand the Qur’an one must first “put it in order.” Not the order which it assumed about twenty years after his death, when it was first assembled as a finished text, but the order in which the suras were first shared by Muhammad. This ordering, Wright asserts, accounts for the variance in tone, “from tolerance and forbearance to intolerance and belligerence and back.” To read the suras this way “is to watch Muhammad’s career, and Islam’s birth, unfold.”
Muhammad’s Career, A Preface
Looking back we can see that Muhammad set about to remake Arabian society in two ways which were codependent upon each other. First he would promote monotheism; there is one God and He is master of all creation. Second, there is one set of rules, one standard of justice, applied to all equally. The idea of one omnipotent God, who would stand as ultimate judge on one’s day of reckoning, served to reinforce the value of one standard of justice. The idea of equality elaborated in the second part appealed to the less powerful in society who would then embrace the idea of one God, as justice was something lacking in their lives.
The Apostle Paul
Six hundred years before Muhammad began his mission, another man set out to remake his society. Saul of Tarsus, as Paul was originally known, was a “Hebrew” born in a University town in Asia Minor, “Greek in atmosphere though under Roman occupation,” in or about the fifth year of the Common Era. Though confirmed details of his life are few, he was evidently educated at the University in Tarsus and went to the renowned University in Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel, the most revered Hebrew teacher of his time. Paul came out of Jerusalem not just a Pharisee, a Jewish “puritan,” but a strict one at that, having been taught that the Pentateuch, Jewish scripture, was the literal word of God, sent to “His people” through the prophet Moses. The Book of Acts, part of the New Testament of the Christian Bible, speaks of Paul’s persecution of Christians (for not being strict Jews) prior to his conversion (to belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Anointed One, or “Christ”) on the road to Damascus. Various interpretations exist as to what caused this conversion including the appearance to Paul of Jesus in a vision. William Van Buskirk attributes it, at least in part, to Paul’s hearing the words of St. Stephen (and then being put in charge of his execution) and having a change of heart.
Something in the manner of Stephen, perhaps his exaltation and certainty of faith, touched a deep chord in Saul’s nature and disturbed him profoundly. And although he secured letters and hurried off to Damascus to apprehend other Christians, his mind grew more and more troubled. Stephen had let fall a great revolutionary idea in the address he had made before the Sanhedrin, and in spite of every effort to do so Saul could not put it out of his mind. On the way this idea continued to clarify itself until suddenly it burst forth in all its majesty, in a light above the brightness of the sun, in a voice that sent him bound by the Spirit to save the Gentile world.
Essentially, Stephen’s message was that the Children of Israel had failed in their spirituality, observing the letter of Jewish law, but not receiving the Spirit. Stephen’s message, then, was that Jesus had come to set the people of God onto the right path. Perhaps this meshed with Paul’s earlier classical education, which would have exposed him to Plato’s Socrates and the idea of a pure soul and knowledge through reason, as opposed to revelation. In any event, Paul ceased persecuting Christians, became one himself and began to try to lead them.
The Christian Church
Unlike Muhammad Paul had no need to start his own religion. He saw Christianity as being the vehicle for his ambition, an ambition at least similar to Muhammad’s: to unite the people in the society in which he lived under one set of rules, and to ensure justice. In Paul’s case there was already a central government in place, that being the Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire did have a justice system and a set of laws, Paul, like Muhammad in Arabia, 600 years later, saw injustice and inequality all around him. As would be the case in Muhammad’s Arabia, justice depended upon one’s access to power, and most people had little of that. Paul, already a monotheist, changed from the Jewish idea of following the (Jewish) Law to accepting all men as equals and believing in Jesus as Messiah. Justice would be better served if all men were equal. If all men are equals they should treat each other as equals. Out of this Paul developed the idea that all men could be “brothers,” in this case, brothers in “Christ.” There are conflicting theories as to how much of Paul’s philosophy traces to Jesus and how much of what Jesus says in the Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, is actually Paul’s influence put into Jesus’ mouth by the authors of those Gospels. Nevertheless we do have Paul’s own words in his Letters to several Christian congregations, and we can try to interpret them in the context of his mission.
Robert Wright suggests that one way to look at Paul and his mission is to think of Paul as CEO of a corporation, with a desire to expand. To reach his goal Paul needed to convince people (his customers) that they needed what he was “selling,” and he needed to enlist some other people to set up “franchises.” He was selling a particular brand of Christianity, one of many at the time. Paul’s brand was based on the idea that Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, held up as an exemplar and a prophet, wanted all men to live together in brotherhood. As Wright and other New Testament scholars point out there is scant evidence that the historical Jesus said anything about brotherhood; the historical Jesus was more likely an apocalyptic Jewish prophet with no interest in converting Gentiles to Judaism or “saving” them. But few people knew this. Christian cults had begun appearing soon after Jesus’ death and Paul tapped into the enthusiasm generated by this new religion.
First, Paul sought to sell people on the basic idea that Jesus was a worthy focus of their worship. The basic message of Christianity, at the time,
can be broken into four parts: Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ; the Messiah died as a kind of payment for the sins of humanity; humans who believed this—who acknowledged the redemption that Christ had realized on their behalf—could have eternal life; but they’d better evince this faith quickly, for Judgment Day was coming.
To this Paul added “brotherly love.” Perhaps because he believed that “God” wanted that. But maybe there was a more pragmatic reason. Wright, again:
The doctrine emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and his social environment.
In the Roman Empire, the century after the Crucifixion was a time of dislocation. People streamed into cities from farms and small towns, encountered alien cultures and peoples, and often faced this flux without the support of kin. The situation was somewhat like that at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, when industrialization drew Americans into turbulent cities, away from their extended families. Back then, as the social scientist Robert Putnam has observed, rootless urbanites found grounding in up-and-coming social organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and the Rotary Club. You might expect comparable conditions in the early Roman Empire to spawn comparable organizations. Indeed, Roman cities saw a growth in voluntary associations. Some were vocational guilds, some more like clubs, and some were religious cults (cults in the ancient sense of “groups devoted to the worship of one or more gods,” not in the modern sense of “wacky fringe groups”). But whatever their form, they often amounted to what one scholar has called “fictive families” for people whose real families were off in some distant village or town.
The familial services offered by these groups ranged from the material, like burying the dead, to the psychological, like giving people a sense that other people cared about them. On both counts, early Christian churches met the needs of the day.
To some extent, then, what Paul called “brotherly love” was just a product of his times. The Christian church was offering the spirit of kinship that people needed, the spirit of kinship that other organizations offered. A term commonly applied to such an organization was thiasos, or “confraternity”; the language of brotherhood wasn’t, by itself, an innovation.
So Paul set out to spread his brand, “converting” existing churches when he could, starting new ones when he had to. The way he did this was to work with people in motion. First century Europe had no internet, no e-mail, not even “snail mail.” If Paul wanted to use networking to spread his message he would first have to establish the network. He did this by traveling himself and preaching his message, converting and establishing a network of churches. But once he moved on he was unable to guide his people or even to know what was happening to them. So he wrote letters and sent them with the “business travelers” of the day. Several of these are collected in the New Testament, known as the Epistles of Paul. “These letters aren’t just inspiring spiritual reflections, but tools for solving administrative problems.”
“Consider the famous ode to love in 1 Corinthians.” (“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful…”)
Paul wrote this letter in response to a crisis. Since his departure from Corinth, the church had been split by factionalism, and he faced rivals for authority. Early in the letter, he laments the fact that some congregants say “I belong to Paul,” whereas others say “I belong to Cephas.” (Cephas is another name for Peter.)
There was another obstacle. Many in the church—“enthusiasts,” some scholars call them—believed themselves to have direct access to divine knowledge and to be near spiritual perfection. Some thought they needn’t accept the church’s guidance in moral matters. Some showed off their spiritual gifts by spontaneously speaking in tongues during worship services—something that might annoy the humbler worshippers and that, in large enough doses, could derail a service.
In other words: they lacked brotherly love. Hence Paul’s harping on that theme in 1 Corinthians, and especially in chapter 13. It is in reference to members’ disrupting worship by speaking in tongues that Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And when he says, “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant,” he is chastising Corinthians who deploy their spiritual gifts—whether speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or even being generous—in a competitive, showy way.
The beauty of “brotherly love” wasn’t just that it produced cohesion in Christian congregations. Invoking familial feelings also allowed Paul to assert his authority at the expense of rivals. After all, wasn’t it he, not they, who had founded the family of Corinthian Christians? He tells the Corinthians that he is writing “to admonish you as my beloved children… Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.”
Had Paul stayed among the Corinthians, he might have kept the congregation united by the mere force of his presence, with less preaching about the need for unity—the need for all brothers to be one in “the body of Christ.” But because he felt compelled to move on, and to cultivate churches across the empire, he had to implant brotherly love as a governing value and nurture it assiduously. In the case of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the result was some of Western civilization’s most beautiful literature—if, perhaps, more beautiful out of context than in.
Thus, for the ambitious preacher of early Christianity, the doctrine of brotherly love had at least two virtues. First, fraternal bonding made churches attractive places to be, providing a familial warmth that was otherwise lacking, for many people, in a time of urbanization and flux. Second, the doctrine of brotherly love became a form of remote control, a tool Paul could use at a distance to induce congregational cohesion.
By itself, this emphasis on brotherhood might not have called for doctrinal innovation. Long before Paul’s time, the Hebrew Bible had told people, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—an injunction, scholars now agree, meaning that you should love fellow Israelites (and an injunction Jesus quotes in the book of Mark). And for all we know, some of Paul’s congregations weren’t ethnically diverse—in which case cohesion within them called for nothing more than this sort of intra-ethnic bonding. So what exactly in Paul’s experience fostered the distinctive connotation of Christian brotherly love—the “universal” part, the part that crosses ethnic and national boundaries?
Part of the answer is that transcending ethnicity was built into Paul’s conception of his divinely imparted mission. He was to be the apostle to the Gentiles; as a Jew, he was to carry the saving grace of the Jewish Messiah—Jesus Christ—beyond the Jewish world, to many nations. (And he probably didn’t get this idea from Jesus, whose encouragement of international proselytizing at the very end of Mark seems to have been added to the book well after its creation.) Here, at the origin of his aspirations, Paul is crossing the bridge he famously crossed in saying there is no longer “Jew or Greek,” for all are now eligible for God’s salvation.
In putting Jew and Greek on an equal basis, Paul was, in a sense, giving pragmatism priority over scriptural principle. By Paul’s own account, the scriptural basis for his mission to the Gentiles lay in prophetic texts—notably, apocalyptic writings in the book of Isaiah, which half a millennium earlier had envisioned a coming Messiah and a long-overdue burst of worldwide reverence for Yahweh. And this part of Isaiah isn’t exactly an ode to ethnic egalitarianism. The basic idea is that Gentile nations will abjectly submit to the rule of Israel’s God and hence to Israel. God promises the Israelites that after salvation arrives, Egyptians and Ethiopians alike “shall come over to you and be yours, they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you.” Indeed, “every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Thus, “in the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.”
So Paul’s basic message was that all men are brothers and should treat each other well, but to truly be accepted into the brotherhood one must accept the message that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and Jesus also wanted men to behave with love toward one another.
Muhammad faced the same situation as Paul, with variations. He saw injustice and inequality all around and he wanted to change that. He was close enough to Jewish and Christian settlements that he was almost certainly aware of their presence and how their societies operated. He could have attempted to convert his people to Christianity. Instead he created his own version, borrowing from these earlier faiths. Having to start somewhere he went first to his wife and, according to Muslim tradition, told her of a disturbing recent experience, which she helped him to recognize as divine revelation. Or, alternately, he went to his wife with an idea regarding how he could improve local society and she encouraged him. Either way, she went along, quite possibly believing that at the very least monotheism deserved her attention. Muhammad set about sharing his message with other family members, immediate and extended, convincing some that he was a new prophet, failing to convince others.
Using the Qur’an
Muhammad had a tool available to him that Paul did not, that being a still developing message from “God.” Whether Muhammad actually was receiving revelations or he was creating them, the fact that they were emerging in “real time” meant that Muhammad could react to circumstances as they unfolded.
Initially, of course, he sought to influence the city in which he lived, Mecca. The idea of a higher justice came largely from Jewish and Christian monotheism, it appears, but also from the Ka’ba, the shrine in Mecca, where people set aside their differences and suspended their blood feuds. Muhammad likely believed he could just expand the idea of the Ka’ba to all of Mecca. If to all of Mecca, to all Arabia. If to all Arabia … well, first Mecca. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately Muhammad’s message was welcomed by his people in inverse proportion to their status in society. Unfortunate as the people he most needed to influence were the ones least receptive to it. Unsurprising because, well, why would the people at the top of society, the ones whose needs were being met, wish to accept a radically different social order? The early suras, taken chronologically, reflect Muhammad’s attempt to reorder his society. They sound, in fact, remarkably like the Jesus of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, preaching meekness and humility, and the idea that positions would be reversed in the afterlife. Sura 42, verse 20,
To any that desires,
The tilth of the Hereafter
We give increase
In his tilth; and to any
That desires the tilth
Of this world, We grant
Somewhat thereof, but he
Has no share or lot
In the hereafter
While Muhammad built a following of the weak and dispossessed, much as Jesus had, the political elites of Mecca were not amused and when his uncle Abu Talib, who had been able to protect him through his influence as a member of the Quraysh, died, Muhammad fled to Medina.
Muhammad In Medina
In Medina Muhammad was welcomed as a Hakim, a mediator, and gained respect through his sage rulings. When he began to preach his religious message, then, it was received much more enthusiastically than it had been in Mecca. Medina became the first real home of the Umma, the Muslim community. This is where Muhammad’s political ideas began to take shape. The Umma would be a community of brotherhood. All who accepted Muhammad’s message of the one true God who would sit in final judgment of all men at the end of days, the basic idea of all the extant salvation religions, would be welcomed as family.
Medina, at the time, contained a Jewish population that had been accepted simply as people with their own brand of religion. This was a source of potential conflict as part of Muhammad’s rules for the Umma was that members accept that there “is no god but God,” easy enough for Jews who already believed that, “and Muhammad is his prophet.” The second part proved problematic and after trying to convert the Jews in Medina Muhammad, who by this time had attained a great deal of authority and political power through his people skills, had two of the three clans exiled and the third slaughtered.
Fortunately and somewhat presciently Muhammad had claimed from the start that the God speaking to him, Allah in Arabic, was the same God who had spoken to Abraham and Moses, the same God worshiped by both Jews and Christians (something which the Jews and Christians didn’t necessarily agree on); he was merely the most recent prophet. So as he set about spreading his religion and expanding the community of believers Christians and Jews, as well as polytheists, were welcome to join, needing only to profess their faith in the basic tenet: there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.
After consolidating his power in Medina and creating the first state-like political entity in Arabia Muhammad sought to bring his hometown, Mecca, into the fold. This required military victory, which he achieved after some early defeats. Once victorious, Muhammad again demonstrated his political acumen by bringing members of the Quraysh in as partners. He then brought the nomadic tribes of the region into the community, having established good relations with them prior to his military campaign against Mecca (indeed they had been allies and crucial to his victory).
Islam eventually spread throughout the Middle East, but it did so after Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., just ten years after the flight to Medina.
Similarities (and One Difference) Between the Prophet Muhammad and the Apostle Paul/ ConclusionBoth Muhammad and Paul altered the societies into which they were born, forever. Prior to Muhammad there was no Arab state, just numerous small tribes competing for resources and imposing justice by extracting revenge from the offending tribe. Prior to Paul there were dozens of tiny Christian churches practicing various forms of worship of a figure about which they knew little. There was a state-type government, indeed an Empire, but justice was something only the powerful could expect. Both societies essentially were ruled by force; justice was what the strong imposed and the weak accepted, however unwillingly. Muhammad and Paul both presented the idea of a community of equals who would treat each other with love and respect, who would band together to see that even the weakest members had access to justice. Muhammad used military means to overcome his principal resistance; Paul never could have raised an Army to fight the Roman Empire and operated within it. Both won many converts in their lifetimes but are remembered more for what they started, communities that lived on long after each died, still alive today, the Catholic Church and Islam.
 Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., Elmhurst, New York, page 1806.
 Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009, pages 330, 331.
 Lyman Abbott, Life and Letters of Paul the Apostle, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, page 19.
 William R. Van Buskirk, The Saviors of Mankind, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1929, page 410.
 The New Testament, 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13
 The Shahada, or, Profession of Faith, Professor John Bragg, lecture, 4 February, 2011.
 Fred McGraw Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey, page 62.