Mind of the Musulman: Mohammed was a Bedouin of Mecca
Mohammed was a degenerate Bedouin of Mecca — Circumstances made him a man of opposition — His lonely and unhappy boyhood — Camel-driver and shepherd — His marriage to Khadija — His good fortune — How he conceived Islam — Islam was a reaction against the life of Mecca — His failures at Mecca — He betrays his tribe — His alliance with the men of Yathreb — His flight — First difficulties at Medina — How he had to resort to force — The principal cause of his success: the lure of booty — The taking of Mecca — Triumph of the Prophet — His death.
KNOWING the Bedouin of Mecca., that is to say the nomad trasformed by city life, by long journeys abroad, and by wealth acquired in the caravan trade, it is possible to understand what Carlyle called “The Man Mohammed.” Mohammed was a Bedouin of Mecca, but a degenerate Bedouin; and, in addition, he was through force of circumstances always in opposition to the environment in which he lived: a rebel against the only sentiment the Bedouins held in common — tribal clanship.
He misunderstood and tried to injure the interests of his tribe and of his native city. His propaganda was carried on against the Koreich and the Meccans, in spite of all they could do, with the support of their enemies. The reasons for his attitude may be easily explained.
In comparison with the wealthy magnates of Mecca, Mohammed was a pauper. His family, the Hachems, formerly well-to-do, had fallen upon evil days, until they had become the poorest family in the Koreich. They were living upon the guardianship of the temple of the Kaaba, that is to say, upon the gifts of the pilgrims. Mohammed's childhood was passed in poverty and sadness; to a feeble father and mother, weakened by privation and sedentary life, he owed a sickly constitution and excessive nervousness. Silent and impressionable, subject to epileptic attacks, his character became more gloomy still from the fact of his wretched condition. Loving solitude, "always tormented by a vague uneasiness, weeping and sobbing like a woman when he was not well, wanting in courage, his character formed a strange contrast with that of the Arabs — hardy, energetic, and warlike, who knew nothing of day-dreams and considered it a shameful weakness that a man should shed tears, even for the loss of the objects of his most tender affection."
He was a degenerate Bedouin, stunted by a sedentary life. His youth was one long struggle against poverty.
He lost his father two months after he was born (570), and six years later his mother, Amina, a gentle, sickly creature subject to hallucinations. From his earliest years he knew the harsh lot of an orphan without means, in a community where power and wealth alone received consideration. He suffered in silence from his feebleness, his poverty and the contempt with which he was treated by the rich caravan-owners about him. He withdrew into himself; his character hardened, and from that time he must have felt some animosity towards the people of Mecca. On the death of his mother (576), he was taken in by his grandfather, Abd-el-Mottaleb, a kind old man, who had no time to surround him with the family affection he needed, as he died three years later (579). Young Mohammed then passed into the family of his uncle, Abu-Taleb, who as a busy man of affairs had no time to waste in maudlin sentimentality. Being a man of action, he made what use he could of the child; he made him a camel-driver, and it was in this capacity that Mohammed, between the age of ten and fourteen, made several journeys into Syria and the neighboring countries.
It is claimed, though without much probability, that in the course of these journeys he made the acquaintance of a Nestorian monk, who taught him the elements of Christianity. Mohammed was then very [too] young to get any good out of such lessons, and it is probable that later on he had better opportunities of getting to know the Christian principles in Arabia itself, where the followers of the Galilean were numerous. On his return from these journeys, Abu-Taleb having collected together the tribes around Mecca to repulse the Negus Abrahah's Abyssinians, Mohammed had for the first time to face the dangers of war.
Nervous, impressionable and sickly, he could not bear the sight of the battle-field; he ran away, and as this behaviour exposed him to the ridicule of his associates, he left his uncle's service and did not go back to Mecca. To gain his daily bread he had to become a shepherd: the poorest of trades and the humblest social position. He was then twenty-five years of age (595). He felt his position so humiliating that he accepted a job as assistant to a travelling cloth merchant named Saib. The chances of business led Saib and his new man to Hayacha, an important market to the south of Mecca; there Mohammed made the acquaintance of a rich widow, Khadija, who was engaged in the caravan trade. He entered her service, first as camel-driver, then as manager, and finally as partner. He served her with devotion and gratitude, for he was grateful to her for having rescued him from misery. Khadija was forty, and in a country where feminine beauty fades so early she might have been considered an old woman; still, passion was not yet extinct [extinguished] in her heart.
Like all neurotic subjects, Mohammed submitted to the influence of his surroundings and of circumstances; poverty had made him timid and taciturn; prosperity gave him back his assurance, and an active life his vigor. Khadija fell in love with him; it may have been the last passion of a woman before the inevitable renunciations of old age, or the necessity of taking a second husband to look after her interests. Mohammed, who had known the hard school of poverty, did not reject the opportunity that chance had thrown in his way; he married Khadija. He married her more from gratitude than from love; possibly interest may have had some share in his decision.
Henceforth his future was assured. He devoted his energy and his intelligence to the development of his business. For ten years he led the rough and spacious life of a caravan leader. At thirty-five he was a rich man. He was at that time a fine strong fellow, hardened by misfortune, softened by experience, educated by travel and association with his fellow men, believing in his star, sure of his own ability and parts. His cousin Ali, son of Abu-Taleb, has drawn a living portrait of him: "He was of medium height, with a powerful head, a thick beard, his hands and feet rough; his bony frame denoted vigor; his countenance was ruddy. He had black hair, smooth cheeks and a neck like that of a silver urn."
From thirty-five to forty Mohammed enjoyed the comforts of his affluence, but in a simple way, without ostentation. In his young days he had been offended by the ostentatious way in which the Meccans lived; he was careful not to fall into the same snare. He lived, moreover, apart from his fellow-citizens and even from the people of his own tribe, whom he did not like, as the mere sight of them brought back recollections of his unhappy childhood. They on their part held him in but light esteem; they had known him when he was poor, and they grudged him his rapid rise to fortune, accomplished without any assistance from them, by a marriage with an elderly widow, a ridiculous bargain in a country where masculine pride demands young virgins hardly yet veiled; they reproached him for his breakdown on the field of battle; some of them had seen him crying like a woman; in short, they looked upon him as an inferior being.
Mohammed lived alone with Khadija, giving free rein to his dreamy and contemplative temperament. Every year, during the sacred month of Rhamadan, he withdrew to a mountain near Mecca, Mount Hira, whose caves provided a natural shelter. There in the solemn calm of silence and solitude, he remained whole days in meditation. It is not impossible to imagine the basis of his thoughts: he was certainly not dreaming the grandiose dreams that some historians have alleged. Islam did not spring all at once from his brain, like Minerva from the brain of Jove; he was not aiming so high nor so far ahead, and if the dim light that glimmered in one corner of his skull has since become a dazzling brilliancy, it has been due to circumstances that the future prophet neither foresaw nor could have foreseen. Devoid of imagination, like most of the Bedouins, it was not of the future that Mohammed was dreaming in his cave on Mount Hira, but of the past and of the present. He saw once more his youth of wretchedness, of privations and humiliations among the wealthy Meccans, at a time when, alone and poor, he had been obliged to accept the most humble employments in order to keep body and soul together.
He thought of the insolent pride of these caravan men, enriched by their boldness and by the renown amongst the idolatrous tribes of the temple of the Kaaba, that Pantheon of pagan divinities. He thought of the injustice of this barbarous society, where the weak were the victims of the strong. He thought of the abomination of the intertribal conflicts, and above all of that unhappy battle where he had gone through all the apprehension of fright and where he had incurred the disgrace of flight under the eyes of his fellow-citizens. Possibly he may have recalled to memory some of the ideas dear to the Fodhoul: the reconciliation of the tribes by the unity of beliefs and the pursuit of a common object; possibly also he may have thought of the propaganda of the Jews of Yathreb, in favor of one God. One God! that would mean the suppression of the idols of the Kaaba, it would be a blow dealt to the authority of Mecca. This idea pleased him as it gratified his spite; and from the spirit of opposition, he was prepared to cherish any projects whose realization would injure the purse-proud Meccans: the equality of men, the condemnation of licentious life, the pulling down of the rich, the return to the pure morals of the earlier days of the world, of which the Jews and Christians sang the praises from their Bible: the generous aspirations that have at all epochs constituted the ideal of those whom life has bruised.
These reflections probably alternated with hallucinations, crises of his nervous temperament, crises that are frequent in a debilitating climate, that in the sultry hours of the day afflict the mind with a torpid gloom, a state of half-sleep conducive to dreams and the seeing of visions.
Another idea would be haunting his mind; the Jews, propagating their Messianic traditions, were announcing the coming appearance of a prophet who would re-establish the reign of justice. These traditions had found some credit among the Bedouins, especially at Yathreb, and Mohammed, desirous of playing a role, above all desirous of avenging the humiliations he had suffered in times past, was perhaps led in a period of hallucination to believe himself to be this predestined man, this messenger from God.
One day, on coming out of one of his trances, he told the story of it to Khadija: "I was in a deep sleep when an angel appeared to me; he held in his hand a piece of silken stuff, covered with written characters; he gave it to me saying: 'Read.' I asked him, 'What shall I read?' He wrapped me in the silk and repeated: 'Read. ' I repeated my question: 'What shall I read.' He replied: ' In the name of God who has created all things, who has created man of clotted blood, read, by the name of thy Lord who is generous; it is He who has directed the scripture; He has taught man that which he knew not.' I pronounced these words after the angel and he departed. I awoke and went out to walk upon the mountain side; there I heard above my head a voice which said: ' Oh, Mohammed, thou art the man sent by God and I am Gabriel.' I lifted up mine eyes and I saw the angel: I stood motionless, my gaze fixed upon him until he disappeared."
Khadija accepted the new faith; it would have been astonishing if she had not done so; for, according to the manners of the period, a wife could not think differently from her husband: besides, Khadija was fifty-five, and she loved Mohammed.
The second disciple of the new prophet was Zaid, his slave; but a slave is certainly obliged to obey his master. The third disciple was Ali, the son of Abu-Taleb, a youth of sixteen, of an enthusiastic temperament who later on was to show a pronounced taste for adventure. Ali was the Don Quixote of Islam.
After all, these three conversions were hardly likely to draw the crowd by their example; nevertheless, Mohammed tried to convert his fellow-citizens. His efforts were received with laughter and low jokes, but he was not discouraged. After three years of determined efforts he had succeeded in gathering round him thirteen followers, of whom all except Ali were persons of no consequence or influential connections. In his desire to play a bold stroke, he gave a banquet to forty notables of the Koreich tribe, and there, with great eloquence, he expounded his doctrine: The worship of idols is only a lie; the coarse images of wood and stone at the Kaaba are nothing but vain simulacra, without consciousness and without power. There is but one God who has created the world and man. He, Mohammed, was the Prophet, the Messenger of this one God. That is the true faith; outside this all is error. Were the men of the Koreich ready to support this doctrine? If they were, their salvation was assured; if not, they would come to make acquaintance with the torments of burning Gehenna.
Ali, alone of all those present, in obedience to his generous temperament, declared himself ready to defend the new belief. The others went into fits of laughter and made sarcastic replies to the summons of which they were the object.
When the affair became known, the Meccans made great fun of these pretensions of the son of Abd’Allah, of this once ragged lad who owed his fortune to his marriage with a decrepit widow, and who wept like a woman at the least provocation. A prophet! this former shepherd! a messenger from God? this coward who had fled from the battlefield! Nonsense! he was overwhelmed with ribald jeers. They were especially indignant that he should have dared to belittle the idols and to proclaim the existence of another divinity; any such belief would bring ruin on the temple of the Kaaba and compromise the prosperity of the town; to propagate it was, therefore, an injury to the community; it was to ignore his sacred obligations to the tribe; to set himself in opposition to established usage; to act the part of an enemy.
Their laughter turned to indignation; from laughing at this dreamer they came to look upon him as a traitor. Abu-Taleb, faithful to family clanship, could not forget that this erring soul was of his own blood, and tried by wise counsels to divert him from his ridiculous project; he advised him if he would not give up his ideas, at least to keep them to himself. Mohammed wept, but refused to renounce what he regarded as the true faith. Realizing that he was not making any progress with the Koreich, he addressed himself to the strangers who frequented Mecca. He found complaisant listeners among the men of Yathreb, of whom some even promised him their support, and that for two reasons; first, because the Jewish propaganda had accustomed them to the idea of one God and to the idea of a prophet sent by that God; then and especially, because the new faith vexed the people of Mecca, and struck a blow at the renown of the temple of the Kaaba. Mohammed, hated as he was at Mecca, became a valuable asset for Yathreb.
These negotiations did not escape the notice of the Koreich, but added fuel to their hatred. Mohammed became in their eyes an enemy, a traitor to the most sacred obligations of family solidarity, a renegade who was deserting his tribe to come to terms with their bitterest enemies. The mob rose in riot against this wretch who attempted to interfere with his fellow men in the free enjoyment of their life; their hatred increasing, he was denounced as an enemy of religion, an abominable blasphemer; he was made an outlaw, together with those who shared his views; and, but for the influence of Abu-Taleb, he would have been killed. He realized the danger and fled. For months he lived out of Mecca, in the caves of Mount Hira, carrying on his propaganda among the caravans. who passed within reach.
During this time, Abu-Taleb, who believed his nephew to be out of his mind, made use of his authority to try and appease the anger against him. It was a difficult task; however, in 619, he obtained the removal of the interdict that had been passed upon Mohammed, who was thus at liberty to re-enter Mecca. By the advice of his uncle he was more prudent, but Abu-Taleb died in the same year and Khadija soon afterwards (620). Left thus alone, Mohammed carried on his propaganda; but convinced that he had nothing to expect from the Meccans, he had an interview with the men of Yathreb, who had made overtures to him (621). Lengthy negotiations followed; the Prophet hesitated: to come to an understanding with Yathreb would be in the eyes of Mecca the worst of treasons; the desire of success carried him away, and he finally came to a decision in the course of a meeting that took place on Mount Acaba (622).
The men of Yathreb offered him their support and an asylum in their city, but they added a condition that disclosed their motives: "If he were to be recalled by his fellow-citizens, would Mohammed desert his allies? " - "Never! " replied Mohammed, "I will live and die with you. Your blood is my blood; your ruin shall be mine. I am from this moment your friend and the enemy of your foes." This was the form of oath used when a man changed his tribe. Mohammed had just committed the worst of crimes; by uniting himself to the men of Yathreb he had broken the tie of blood with the Koreich, a sacred bond that the Bedouins scrupulously respect.
When the Meccans learned of this agreement their fury knew no bounds. This time there was no one to protect Mohammed; Abu-Taleb was dead. They resolved to rid themselves of the traitor. Each of the tribes of Mecca and its allies named a judge: there were forty of them.
Mohammed was not the man to face this danger; he fled with his followers, Zaid, Ali, Abu-Bekr, his new father-in-law, Othman, his son-in-law, and Omar. This was the Hegira, of date September, 622. From that day, Yathreb became the city of the Prophet, Medinet-el-Nebi, which has been corrupted into Medina. It is with this flight to Medina that Islam commences. If the men of Medina had refused to receive him it would have been all up with the new religion; it would have remained the project of an idle dream. Left to the Meccans who would certainly have put him to death, the Prophet would not have been able to realize his work.
Islam, therefore, owes its birth to the hostility between Mecca and Medina. Its first manifestations were acts of hostility against Mecca, and the adhesion of Yathreb to the new faith was inspired by policy rather than religion.
Mohammed was received at Medina with sympathy because he was the enemy of Mecca; but, when the first moment of enthusiasm had passed, this population of shopkeepers and husbandmen called upon him to fulfil his promises. In fact, they had done what they thought was a good stroke of business; they were bent on ruining the rival city so that they might come into its prosperity. Mohammed was to carry it out. First of all he built a Mosque; in opposition to the Meccan temple of the Kaaba he built a temple at Medina. Then he had to commence hostilities, although he was by no means a believer in fighting. In plunging into warlike adventures he obeyed two motives: first, to satisfy the Medinans, and, secondly, to get himself out of a difficult situation.
He was very much discussed. The Meccans not having been able to get rid of him by murder, tried to blacken his character; they had emissaries in Medina itself, charged to undermine his rising influence, to hold him up to ridicule, to show that he was just a man like any other, subject to the same weaknesses, the same passions, and above all, incapable of working miracles. Mohammed was equally opposed by the Jews, who, regarding him as an impostor, refused to accept him as the prophet announced by their scriptures. His enemies pressed him with insidious questions; they called upon him to prove the truth of his mission: if God Almighty was with him, why did He not intervene in his favor? His disciples were equally troublesome; at every moment they asked him for guidance, and he had to have incessantly on his lips verses from his holy book to indicate the rules of conduct according to the new religion. His slightest actions were examined; his public life, commented upon by everyone, must not show any inconsistency. He had also to look after the direction of his most zealous disciples, Ali, Zaid, Abu-Bekr, Omar and Othman. To escape from these worries, he decided upon action. War satisfied at the same time the lust for booty of those who saw in the affair merely an opportunity for pillage and the generous passion of the true believers, burning to impose their faith on the infidel.
Warlike successes were, moreover, the only miraculous proof the Prophet could offer of the divine protection.
Such were the conditions under which, after many hesitations, he attacked the Meccans. It was a success: at Beder (624) his followers defeated six hundred Meccans. This victory confirmed his prestige, but it had the drawback of exciting the ardour and ambition of the Medinans. A second affair enabled the Koreich to take their revenge at Mount Ohod. Mohammed, to please his followers and to satisfy his own resentment, would willingly have continued the struggle against Mecca; he had his own vengeance to wreak upon the insolent Koreich who had mocked him and driven him out, but the reverse at Ohod revealed the danger of any such enterprise. The Meccans were fighting men; the Medinans on the contrary were only shopkeepers and agriculturalists. To carryon hostilities against these powerful enemies was to risk an irreparable check. It was important then in order not to abandon all action, to seek some less redoubtable antagonists, for instance, the Jewish tribes. This explains the successive attacks on the Cainoca, the Lalyan and the Mostelik. There were fine opportunities for looting; the beaten Jews were driven out and their goods were divided among the Bedouins. It might be said that the attraction of loot was the most powerful propaganda for the new religion, and that it brought in more disciples than all the Prophet's harangues.
It was in the exaltation produced by these easy triumphs that Mohammed, playing the bold game, sent threatening messages to Chosroes II, King of Persia, to Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium, to the Negus of Abyssinia and to the Governor of Egypt. In doing this he did not run any great risk, seeing that these sovereigns were not particularly anxious to interfere with a country bare of all resources.
The successes already gained had not only given the Medinans some warlike training, but had had the further effect of grouping around them all the fighting tribes avid for plunder. Mohammed could now contemplate attacking Mecca. His expedition, organized in secret, was perfectly successful. On the 12th of January, 630, Mecca fell into the hands of the Muslims. On that day the men of Medina had promised themselves to make these haughty merchants pay for their unbearable contempt. "This is the day of slaughter, the day when nothing shall be respected," had said the chief of the Khazradj; but Mohammed removed him from his command, and ordered his generals to observe the greatest moderation. The Meccans witnessed in silence the destruction of the idols in their temple, the true Pantheon of Arabia, which then contained three hundred and sixty divinities worshiped by as many tribes; and, with rage in their hearts, they recognized in Mohammed the messenger from God, while inwardly promising themselves to be avenged some day on these rustics, these Jews of Medina who had had the audacity to beat them. 
However, as clever men, they knew how to hide their wrath; they essayed to gain the Prophet's confidence, to make him forget. the past and to work themselves into all the important posts. It was thus that Abu-Sofian, the indomitable Koreichite, who had led the engagement at Ohod against Mohammed, now made his
submission, and gave his son Maowiah to the Prophet as secretary. This example of adroit diplomacy was followed by the majority of the Meccan notables.
Knowing by experience that an open conflict is not always the surest way to win, they accommodated themselves to circumstances. But the rivalry between Medina and Mecca was not extinguished. It will be met with again, for it dominates the whole of Muslim history. For his part, Mohammed, wishing to increase the number of his adherents, did not take any unfair advantage of his victory. Contrary to the wishes of the Medinans, he did nothing to impair the religious prestige of his native city. The Kaaba, by a process not unknown elsewhere, became the temple of the one true God.
The taking of Mecca established the success of the Prophet. Those scattered tribes who had remained hostile or indifferent made their submission in the course of the following years. About A.D. 682, almost the whole of Arabia was Muslim, if not at heart, at any rate in outward seeming. To commemorate his triumph by a ceremony that would strike the imagination, Mohammed made a solemn pilgrimage to Mecca, in 682. More than forty thousand Muslims accompanied him. After the customary devotions — pagan devotions that he took over on account of Islam — he ascended Mount Arafat and harangued the crowd. Summing up the main outlines of the new doctrine, he cried: " O, my God, have I fulfilled my mission? " and every voice answered: " Yes, thou hast fulfilled it." On his return to Medina, he fell into a mortal sickness; at the mosque he announced his approaching death, and died soon after in the arms of his favourite wife, Aisha.
It would convey a false idea of Mohammed if he were to be represented as a sort of divine personage, surrounded by an atmosphere of fervor and respectful adoration. To his contemporaries, Mohammed was the leader of a party rather than a religious personage. He imposed himself by force rather than by persuasion. It is possible that his preaching may have had some effect on the unsophisticated Bedouins, and that it may have seemed to them like an expression of the divine will; but it is quite evident that his immediate entourage did not take his Messianic role seriously. There were among his company certain Meccan, skeptics who knew Mohammed's life, his genealogy, his humble and difficult beginnings, his failures, and who saw in him nothing but an upstart favored by a concatenation of circumstances. Many of these followers, especially those most recently converted, seem to have been actuated by the desire to exploit his influence; but very few of them looked upon him as a prophet. Their skepticism is shown by the attitude of some of them towards him. His secretary, Abd’Allah, who took down the divine revelations from his dictation, did not hesitate to alter their meaning so as to be able to make fun of them amongst his friends. He carried his facetiousness so far that Mohammed was obliged to dismiss him.
It is notorious that one of his favourite wives, Aisha, deceived him; causing a scandal that the Prophet could only silence by a declaration which he claimed to be inspired by God, but which deceived nobody. We know that in the course of a discussion a certain Okba spat in his face and nearly strangled him. We know also that a Jew of Khaibar, whom Mohammed was endeavoring to conciliate, tried to poison him. These are sufficient indications to lead us to suppose that the Prophet did not inspire among his contemporaries those sentiments of admiration and respect of which we find the expression in writings subsequent to his demise.
Mysticism only came into Islam later, when the Arabs, leaving their country, mixed with other nations. The Bedouin had not imagination enough to weave a legend round Mohammed. It was the Islamized foreigners, Syrians, Persians and Egyptians who created this legend and who, passing the history of the Prophet through the mill of their imagination, embellished it to the point of making of it a sort of mystical romance.