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§ 42. Life and Character of Mohammed.


Mohammed, an unschooled, self-taught, semi-barbarous son of nature, of noble birth, handsome person, imaginative, energetic, brave, the ideal of a Bedouin chief, was destined to become the political and religious reformer, the poet, prophet, priest, and king of Arabia.

He was born about a.d. 570 at Mecca, the only child of a young widow named Amina.150150    We know accurately the date of Mohammed’s death (June 8, 632), but the year of his birth only by reckoning backwards; and as his age is variously stated from sixty-one to sixty-five, there is a corresponding difference in the statements of the year of his birth. De Sacy fixes it April 20, 571, von Hammer 569, Muir Aug. 20, 570, Sprenger between May 13, 567, and April 13, 571, but afterwards (I. 138), April 20, 571, as most in accordance with early tradition. His father Abdallah had died a few months before in his twenty-fifth year on a mercantile journey in Medina, and left to his orphan five camels, some sheep and a slave girl.151151    According to Ihn Ishâk and Wâckidi. Bahador adopts this tradition, in the last of his essays which treats of “the Birth and Childhood of Mohammed.” But according to other accounts, Abdallah died several months (seven or eighteen) after Mohammed’s birth. Muir. I. 11; Sprenger, I. 138. He belonged to the heathen family of the Hàshim, which was not wealthy, but claimed lineal descent from Ishmael, and was connected with the Koreish or Korashites, the leading tribe of the Arabs and the hereditary guardians of the sacred Kaaba.152152    On the pedigree of Mohammed, see an essay in the work of Syed Ahmed Khan Bahador, and MuirI1. 242-271. The Koreish were not exactly priests, but watched the temple, kept the keys, led the processions, and provided for the pilgrims. Hâshim, Mohammed’s great-grandfather (b. a. d.442), thus addressed the Koreish: “Ye are the neighbors of God and the keepers of his house. The pilgrims who come honoring the sanctity of his temple, are his guests; and it is meet that ye should entertain them above all other guests. Ye are especially chosen of God and exalted unto this high dignity; wherefore honor big guests and refresh them.” He himself set an example of munificent hospitality, and each of the Koreish contributed according to his ability. Muir I. CCXLVII. Tradition surrounds his advent in the world with a halo of marvellous legends: he was born circumcised and with his navel cut, with the seal of prophecy written on his back in letters of light; he prostrated himself at once on the ground, and, raising his hands, prayed for the pardon of his people; three persons, brilliant as the sun, one holding a silver goblet, the second an emerald tray, the third a silken towel, appeared from heaven, washed him seven times, then blessed and saluted him as the “Prince of Mankind.” He was nursed by a healthy Bedouin woman of the desert. When a boy of four years he was seized with something like a fit of epilepsy, which Wâckidi and other historians transformed into a miraculous occurrence. He was often subject to severe headaches and feverish convulsions, in which he fell on the ground like a drunken man, and snored like a camel.153153    Sprenger has a long chapter on this disease of Mohammed, which he calls with Schönlein, hysteria muscularis I. 207-268. In his sixth year he lost his mother on the return from Medina, whither she had taken him on camel’s back to ’visit the maternal relations of his father, and was carried back to Mecca by his nurse, a faithful slave girl. He was taken care of by his aged grandfather, Abd al Motkalib, and after his death in 578 by his uncle Abu Tâlib, who had two wives and ten children, and, though poor and no believer in his nephew’s mission, generously protected him to the end.

He accompanied his uncle on a commercial journey to Syria, passing through the desert, ruined cities of old, and Jewish and Christian settlements, which must have made a deep impression on his youthful imagination.

Mohammed made a scanty living as an attendant on caravans and by watching sheep and goats. The latter is rather a disreputable occupation among the Arabs, and left to unmarried women and slaves; but he afterwards gloried in it by appealing to the example of Moses and David, and said that God never calls a prophet who has not been a shepherd before. According to tradition—for, owing to the strict prohibition of images, we have no likeness of the prophet—he was of medium size, rather slender, but broad-shouldered and of strong muscles, had black eyes and hair, an oval-shaped face, white teeth, a long nose, a patriarchal beard, and a commanding look. His step was quick and firm. He wore white cotton stuff, but on festive occasions fine linen striped or dyed in red. He did everything for himself; to the last he mended his own clothes, and cobbled his sandals, and aided his wives in sewing and cooking. He laughed and smiled often. He had a most fertile imagination and a genius for poetry and religion, but no learning. He was an “illiterate prophet,” in this respect resembling some of the prophets of Israel and the fishermen of Galilee. It is a disputed question among Moslem and Christian scholars whether he could even read and write.154154    Sprenger discusses the question, and answers it in the affirmative, Vol. II. 398 sqq. The Koran (29) says: “Formerly [before I sent down the book, i.e. the Koran] thou didst not read any book nor write one with thy right hand!” From this, some Moslems infer that after the reception of the Koran, he was supernaturally taught to read and write; but others hold that he was ignorant of both. Syed Ahmed Khan Bahador says: “Not the least doubt now exists that the Prophet was wholly unacquainted with the art of writing, being also, as a matter of course (?), unable to read the hand-writing of others; for which reason, and for this only, be was called Ummee“ (illiterate). Probably he could not. He dictated the Koran from inspiration to his disciples and clerks. What knowledge he possessed, he picked up on the way from intercourse with men, from hearing books read, and especially from his travels.

In his twenty-fifth year he married a rich widow, Chadijah (or Chadîdsha), who was fifteen years older than himself, and who had previously hired him to carry on the mercantile business of her former husband. Her father was opposed to the match; but she made and kept him drunk until the ceremony was completed. He took charge of her caravans with great success, and made several journeys. The marriage was happy and fruitful of six children, two sons and four daughters; but all died except little Fâtima, who became the mother of innumerable legitimate and illegitimate descendants of the prophet. He also adopted Alî, whose close connection with him became so important in the history of Islâm. He was faithful to Chadijah, and held her in grateful remembrance after her death.155155    Sprenger attributes his faithfulness to Chadyga (as he spells the name) not to his merit, but to his dependence. She kept her fortune under her own control, and gave him only as much as he needed. He used to say, “Chadijah believed in me when nobody else did.” He married afterwards a number of wives, who caused him much trouble and scandal. His favorite wife, Ayesha, was more jealous of the dead Chadijah than any of her twelve or more living rivals, for he constantly held up the toothless old woman as the model of a wife.

On his commercial journeys to Syria, he became acquainted with Jews and Christians, and acquired an imperfect knowledge of their traditions. He spent much of his time in retirement, prayer, fasting, and meditation. He had violent convulsions and epileptic fits, which his enemies, and at first he himself, traced to demoniacal possessions, but afterwards to the overpowering presence of God. His soul was fired with the idea of the divine unity, which became his ruling passion; and then he awoke to the bold thought that he was a messenger of God, called to warn his countrymen to escape the judgment and the damnation of hell by forsaking idolatry and worshipping the only true God. His monotheistic enthusiasm was disturbed, though not weakened, by his ignorance and his imperfect sense of the difference between right and wrong.

In his fortieth year (a.d. 610), he received the call of Gabriel, the archangel at the right hand of God, who announced the birth of the Saviour to the Virgin Mary. The first revelation was made to him in a trance in the wild solitude of Mount Hirâ, an hour’s walk from Mecca. He was directed “to cry in the name of the Lord.” He trembled, as if something dreadful had happened to him, and hastened home to his wife, who told him to rejoice, for he would be the prophet of his people. He waited for other visions; but none came. He went up to Mount Hirâ again—this time to commit suicide. But as often as he approached the precipice, he beheld Gabriel at the end of the horizon saying to him: “I am Gabriel, and thou art Mohammed, the prophet of God. Fear not!” He then commenced his career of a prophet and founder of a new religion, which combined various elements of the three religious represented in Arabia, but was animated and controlled by the faith in Allah, as an almighty, ever-present and working will. From this time on, his life was enacted before the eyes of the world, and is embodied in his deeds and in the Koran.

The revelations continued from time to time for more than twenty years. When asked how they were delivered to him, he replied (as reported by Ayesha): “Sometimes like the sound of a bell—a kind of communication which was very severe for me; and when the sounds ceased, I found myself aware of the instructions. And sometimes the angel would come in the form of a man, and converse with me, and all his words I remembered.”

After his call, Mohammed labored first for three years among his family and friends, under great discouragements, making about forty converts, of whom his wife Chadijah was the first, his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, and the young, energetic Omar the most important. His daughter Fatima, his adopted son Alî, and his slave Zayd likewise believed in his divine mission. Then he publicly announced his determination to assume by command of God the office of prophet and lawgiver, preached to the pilgrims flocking to Mecca, attacked Meccan idolatry, reasoned with his opponents, answered their demand for miracles by producing the Koran “leaf by leaf,” as occasion demanded, and provoked persecution and civil commotion. He was forced in the year 622 to flee for his life with his followers from Mecca to Medina (El-Medina an-Nabî, the City of the Prophet), a distance of two hundred and fifty miles North, or ten days’ journey over the sands and rocks of the desert.

This flight or emigration, called Hégira or Hidshra, marks the beginning of his wonderful success, and of the Mohammedan era (July 15, 622). He was recognized in Medina as prophet and lawgiver. At first he proclaimed toleration: “Let there be no compulsion in religion;” but afterwards he revealed the opposite principle that all unbelievers must be summoned to Islâm, tribute, or the sword. With an increasing army of his enthusiastic followers, he took the field against his enemies, gained in 624 his first victory over the Koreish with an army of 305 (mostly citizens of Medina) against a force twice as large, conquered several Jewish and Christian tribes, ordered and watched in person the massacre of six hundred Jews in one day,156156    So Sprenger,III. 221. Others give seven hundred and ninety as the number of Jews who were beheaded in a ditch. while their wives and children were sold into slavery (627), triumphantly entered Mecca (630), demolished the three hundred and sixty idols of the Kaaba, and became master of Arabia. The Koreish were overawed by his success, and now shouted: “There is but one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.” The various tribes were melted into a nation, and their old hereditary feuds changed into a common fanatical hatred of the infidels, as the followers of all other religions were called. The last chapter of the Koran commands the remorseless extermination of all idolaters in Arabia, unless they submit within four months.

In the tenth year of the Hegira, the prophet made his last pilgrimage to Mecca at the head of forty thousand Moslems, instructed them in all important ordinances, and exhorted them to protect the weak, the poor, and the women, and to abstain from usury. He planned a large campaign against the Greeks.

But soon after his return to Medina, he died of a violent fever in the house and the arms of Ayesha, June 8, 632, in the sixty-third year of his age, and was buried on the spot where he died, which is now enclosed by a mosque. He suffered great pain, cried and wailed, turned on his couch in despair, and said to his wives when they expressed their surprise at his conduct: “Do ye not know that prophets have to suffer more than all others? One was eaten up by vermin; another died so poor that he had nothing but rags to cover his shame; but their reward will be all the greater in the life beyond.” Among his last utterances were: “The Lord destroy the Jews and Christians! Let his anger be kindled against those that turn the tombs of their prophets into places of worship! O Lord, let not my tomb be an object of worship! Let there not remain any faith but that of Islâm throughout the whole of Arabia .... Gabriel, come close to me! Lord, grant me pardon and join me to thy companionship on high! Eternity in paradise! Pardon! Yes, the blessed companionship on high!”157157    See Sprenger, III. 552 sqq., Muir, IV. 270 sqq.

Omar would not believe that Mohammed was dead, and proclaimed in the mosque of Medina: “The prophet has only swooned away; he shall not die until he have rooted out every hypocrite and unbeliever.” But Abu Bakr silenced him and said: “Whosoever worships Mohammed, let him know that Mohammed is dead; but whosoever worships God, let him know that the Lord liveth, and will never die.” Abu Bakr, whom he had loved most, was chosen Calif, or Successor of Mohammed.

Later tradition, and even the earliest biography, ascribe to the prophet of Mecca strange miracles, and surround his name with a mythical halo of glory. He was saluted by walking trees and stones; he often made by a simple touch the udders of dry goats distend with milk; be caused floods of water to well up from the parched ground, or gush forth from empty vessels, or issue from betwixt the fingers; he raised the dead; he made a night journey on his steed Borak through the air from Mecca to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to paradise and the mansions of the prophets and angels, and back again to Mecca.158158    This absurd story, circumstantially described by Abulfeda, is probably based on a dream which Mohammed himself relates in the Koran, Sura 17, entitled The Night Journey: “Glory be to Him who carried his servant by night from the sacred temple of Mecca to the temple that is remote” [i.e. in Jerusalem]. In the Dome of the Rock on Mount Moriah, the hand-prints of the angel Gabriel are shown in the mysterious rock which attempted to follow Mohammed to its native quarry in Paradise, but was kept back by the angel! But he himself, in several passages of the Koran, expressly disclaims the power of miracles; he appeals to the internal proofs of his doctrine, and shields himself behind the providence of God, who refuses those signs which might diminish the merit of faith and aggravate the guilt of unbelief.159159    See an interesting essay on the “Miracles of Mohammed” in Tholuck’s Miscellaneous Essays (1839), Vol. I., pp. 1-27. Also Muir, I., pp. 65 sqq.; Sprenger, II. 413 sqq.


Character of Mohammed.


The Koran, if chronologically arranged, must be regarded as the best commentary on his character. While his followers regard him to this day as the greatest prophet of God, he was long abhorred in Christendom as a wicked impostor, as the antichrist, or the false prophet, predicted in the Bible, and inspired by the father of lies.

The calmer judgment of recent historians inclines to the belief that he combined the good and bad qualities of an Oriental chief, and that in the earlier part of his life he was a sincere reformer and enthusiast, but after the establishment of his kingdom a slave of ambition for conquest. He was a better man in the period of his adversity and persecution at Mecca, than during his prosperity and triumph at Medina. History records many examples of characters rising from poverty and obscurity to greatness, and then decaying under the sunshine of wealth and power. He degenerated, like Solomon, but did not repent, like the preacher of “vanity of vanities.” He had a melancholic and nervous temperament, liable to fantastic hallucinations and alternations of high excitement and deep depression, bordering at times on despair and suicide. The story of his early and frequent epileptic fits throws some light on his revelations, during which he sometimes growled like a camel, foamed at his mouth, and streamed with perspiration. He believed in evil spirits, omens, charms, and dreams. His mind was neither clear nor sharp, but strong and fervent, and under the influence of an exuberant imagination. He was a poet of high order, and the Koran is the first classic in Arabic literature. He believed himself to be a prophet, irresistibly impelled by supernatural influence to teach and warn his fellow-men. He started with the over-powering conviction of the unity of God and a horror of idolatry, and wished to rescue his countrymen from this sin of sins and from the terrors of the judgment to come; but gradually he rose above the office of a national reformer to that of the founder of a universal religion, which was to absorb the other religions, and to be propagated by violence. It is difficult to draw the line in such a character between honest zeal and selfish ambition, the fear of God and the love of power and glory.

He despised a throne and a diadem, lived with his wives in a row of low and homely cottages of unbaked bricks, and aided them in their household duties; he was strictly temperate in eating and drinking, his chief diet being dates and water; he was not ashamed to milk his goats, to mend his clothes and to cobble his shoes; his personal property at his death amounted to some confiscated lands, fourteen or fifteen slaves, a few camels and mules, a hundred sheep, and a rooster. This simplicity of a Bedouin Sheikh of the desert contrasts most favorably with the luxurious style and gorgeous display of Mohammed’s successors, the Califs and Sultans, who have dozens of palaces and harems filled with eunuchs and women that know nothing beyond the vanities of dress and etiquette and a little music. He was easy of access to visitors who approached him with faith and reverence; patient, generous, and (according to Ayesha) as modest and bashful “as a veiled virgin.” But towards his enemies he was cruel and revengeful. He did not shrink from perfidy. He believed in the use of the sword as the best missionary, and was utterly unscrupulous as to the means of success. He had great moral, but little physical courage; he braved for thirteen years the taunts and threats of the people, but never exposed himself to danger in battle, although he always accompanied his forces.

Mohammed was a slave of sensual passion. Ayesha, who knew him best in his private character and habits, used to say: “The prophet loved three things, women, perfumes and food; he had his heart’s desire of the two first, but not of the last.” The motives of his excess in polygamy were his sensuality which grew with his years, and his desire for male offspring. His followers excused or justified him by the examples of Abraham, David and Solomon, and by the difficulties of his prophetic office, which were so great that God gave him a compensation in sexual enjoyment, and endowed him with greater capacity than thirty ordinary men. For twenty-four years he had but one wife, his beloved Chadijah, who died in 619, aged sixty-five, but only two months after her death he married a widow named Sawda (April 619), and gradually increased his harem, especially during the last two years of his life. When he heard of a pretty woman, says Sprenger, he asked her hand, but was occasionally refused. He had at least fourteen legal wives, and a number of slave concubines besides. At his death he left nine widows. He claimed special revelations which gave him greater liberty of sexual indulgence than ordinary Moslems (who are restricted to four wives), and exempted him from the prohibition of marrying near relatives.160160    He speaks freely of this subject in the Koran, Sur. 4, and 33. In the latter (Rodman’s transl., p. 508) this scandalous passage occurs: “O Prophet! we allow thee thy wives whom thou hast dowered, and the slaves whom thy right hand possesseth out of the booty which God hath granted thee, and the daughters of thy uncle, and of thy paternal and maternal aunts who fled with thee to Medina, and any believing woman who hath given herself up to the Prophet, if the Prophet desired to wed her, a privilege for thee above the rest of the faithful.” Afterwards in the same Sura (p. 569) he says: “Ye must not trouble the Apostle of God, nor marry his wives after him forever. This would be a grave offence with God.” He married by divine command, as he alleged, Zeynab, the wife of Zayd, his adopted son and bosom-friend. His wives were all widows except Ayesha. One of them was a beautiful and rich Jewess; she was despised by her sisters, who sneeringly said: “Pshaw, a Jewess!” He told her to reply: “Aaron is my father and Moses my uncle!” Ayesha, the daughter of Abû Bakr, was his especial favorite. He married her when she was a girl of nine years, and he fifty-three years old. She brought her doll-babies with her, and amused and charmed the prophet by her playfulness, vivacity and wit. She could read, had a copy of the Koran, and knew more about theology, genealogy and poetry than all the other widows of Mohammed. He announced that she would be his wife also in Paradise. Yet she was not free from suspicion of unfaithfulness until he received a revelation of her innocence. After his death she was the most sacred person among the Moslems and the highest authority on religious and legal questions. She survived her husband forty-seven years and died at Medina, July 13, 678, aged sixty-seven years.161161    Sprenger, III. 61-87, gives a full account of fourteen wives of Mohammed, and especially of Ayesha, according to the list of Zohry and Ibn Saad. Sprenger says, p. 37: ”Der Prophet hatte keine Wohnung für sich selbst. Sein Hauptquartier war in der Hütte der Ayischa und die öffentlichen Geschäfte verrichtete er in der Moschee, aber er brachte jede Nacht bei einer seiner Frauen zu und war, wie es scheint, auch ihr Gast beim Essen. Er ging aber täglich, wenn er bei guter Laune war, bei allen seinen Frauen umher, gab jeder einen Kuss, sprach einige Worte und spielte mit ihr. Wir haben gesehen, dass seine Familie neun Hütten besass, dies war auch die, Anzahl der Frauen, welche er bei seinem Tode hinterliess. Doch gab es Zeiten, zu denen sein Harem stärker war. Er brachte dann einige seiner Schönen in den Häusern von Nachbarn unter. Es kam auch vor, dass zwei Frauen eine Hütte bewohnten. Stiefkinderwohnten, so lange sie jung waren, bei ihren Müttern.

In his ambition for a hereditary dynasty, Mohammed was sadly disappointed: he lost his two sons by Chadijah, and a third one by Mary the Egyptian, his favorite concubine.

To compare such a man with Jesus, is preposterous and even blasphemous. Jesus was the sinless Saviour of sinners; Mohammed was a sinner, and he knew and confessed it. He falls far below Moses, or Elijah, or any of the prophets and apostles in moral purity. But outside of the sphere of revelation, he ranks with Confucius, and Cakya Muni the Buddha, among the greatest founders of religions and lawgivers of nations.



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