In the year 610 CE, a trustworthy but otherwise unremarkable man withdrew from his home in the city of Mecca to a cave in the mountains, to contemplate existence. Alone by the fireside, Mohammad was the personification of his society and the era in which he lived -- a snapshot of a time and a people. Suddenly, in the flickering firelight, an angel delivered the first of many revelations to the trembling man. When the experience had ended, Mohammad stumbled down the hillside back to Mecca, a messenger bearing the word of God. Like a prism thrust before a beam of light, the delivery of this message would profoundly alter the spectral facets of an entire civilization.
Of course, the social, political and religious components of life had existed in this ancient land long before the advent of Islam. The very existence of the Arab race could be traced to the biblical Abraham, whose devotion to the one God would be revived by Islam more than a millennium later. In the interim, the natives of Arabia lived in what the Qur'an calls “Jahiliyya,” which can be interpreted as ignorance or an "age of innocence." For these Arabs, faith was nothing more than "a belief in a blind fate, called The Time, that controlled certain critical stages of human existence: birth, sustenance, and death" (Rahman 30).
Such were the ultimate concerns of a people ruled by a desiccated desert environment. Already for centuries, men and women alike had shielded themselves from the harsh elements by dressing in veils and hooded robes. To defend themselves and their water source, families banded together, forming tribes that lent each man and woman a sense of identity and safety. No individual could survive outside the tribe. Within it, a code of honor evolved, where traits such as generosity and honesty were prized and inculcated. This code of honor applied between tribes as well, extended to include bravery, defense of one's self and one's tribe, and -- above all -- honoring a promise. Breaking a pact with another tribe was cause for retaliation, which often resulted in bloodshed. In fact, any transgression imposed upon another tribe demanded retribution, usually in the form of blood. If the offended tribe's revenge was judged to be too harsh, a blood feud could ensue that might last for countless generations.
In a civilization were few men learned to read or write, the tribe’s culture and history were preserved in the form of stories and poetry that were passed from parent to child. Any man who could tell of the tribe’s glory in rousing, eloquent language gained esteem -- poets who were especially skilled had even been known to intercede in tribal warfare, turning the opponent away with withering language. The spoken word had an undeniably mystic, even magical, importance.
A woman’s role within the tribal (and extremely patriarchal) community was exceedingly limited. Although some women gained a degree of freedom through the providence of marriage or fortune, most endured hopeless lifetimes of servitude, working within the homes of their fathers until a marriage was arranged, and they were passed to the family of the groom. Inheritance was granted only to sons. Consequently, the birth of a daughter could be seen as a burden on an already taxed family, and it was therefore considered acceptable to kill a girl child in infancy.
Religion seemed particularly problematic in this world. Tribes were divided into clans, each with its own nature spirits and gods. For centuries, clans kept icons of their gods within the Ka’ba of Mecca, the cultural and spiritual center of Arab life even before Mohammad. People made pilgrimages to Mecca from all parts of Arabia, leaving behind large numbers of disenfranchised people and creating substantial social inequity.
Such was the world Mohammad embodied when he entered the cave – the reality that God's message spoke to. The message, whether met with interest or defiance, ultimately affected every aspect of life in this world.
First was the power of the word itself. For a culture that prized beautiful language, the Qur'an would have been immediately arresting, "characterized by a numinous quality that is at once powerful, graceful, and awe-inspiring" (Rahman, 49). Mohammad, a man not known for his eloquence, could only serve as the channel for this message -- its origins, therefore, must be divine.
Affirming divine existence was the most important purpose of the message. In response to it, people everywhere adopted the belief in a single God. Mohammad swept the icons of polytheistic faiths from the Ka'ba, maintaining its (and therefore Mecca's) reputation as the spiritual epicenter of mankind. As a tenet of the new faith, followers would continue the ancient tradition of pilgrimage to this holy place.
The Qur'anic theme of social equality would reach deeply into Arabic culture. The text constantly emphasized each person's responsibility to the weaker segments of society, even instituting almsgiving as one of the primary pillars of the faith. Virtually every aspect of the message, including this one, was reinforced by the example of Mohammad's own life. For example, his many marriages served to unite previously combative clans, underscoring the Islamic idea of equality and unity. Soon, tribes were united by piety, and the blood feud was replaced by a fairer system of justice outlined in the Qur'an. The qualities of generosity and honesty, valued long before the arrival of Islam, were encouraged with promises of reward, both in life and after death.
Within the context of its era, the rights of women were radically advanced by the new faith. Female infanticide was strictly forbidden, inheritance mandated, and terms of divorce made more equitable. The veil, previously a simple necessity, became a symbol of purity that many people find contentious to this day.
Although Muhammad had ventured up the hillside an “unremarkable” man, he returned a Prophet and Messenger of God. Because his revelation was of a moral law, it allowed “little room for the compartmentalization or separation of life into sacred and secular spheres" (Mottahedeh, 55). In truth, these spheres had always existed indistinguishably from each other, since the beginning of time. The permeation of Islam into every aspect of life brought Muslim converts into close, constant contact with a previously distant God. His presence was felt not just in the place of worship, but in the home and workplace, and in each man’s interactions with those around him, even strangers. Acceptance of the message was acceptance of God himself, recognition of “God's active participation in history to communicate His will to mankind" (Awn, 3).
Awn, Peter J. "Faith and Practice." Islam: The Religions and Political Life of a World Community. Ed. Marjorie Kelly. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Mottahedeh, Roy P. "The Foundations of State and Society." Islam: The Religions and Political Life of a World Community. Ed. Marjorie Kelly. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Rahman, Fazlur. "The Message and the Messenger." Islam: The Religions and Political Life of a World Community. Ed. Marjorie Kelly. New York: Praeger, 1984.