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. In Mecca 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 that led to monotheism. Muhammad was aware of these other religions and was exposed to their doctrines and their belief in an ultimate judge.
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 that led to 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, One,
God, the Everlasting Refuge,
Who has not begotten, and has not been begotten,
And equal to him is not anyone.
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.”
Sorry about the weird formatting. Blame it on blogger. (Or me.)
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 are few, he was likely 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. 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. 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.
 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.