MUHAMMAD was by no means the first of his nation who became convinced of the folly and worthlessness of the popular religion of the Arabs of the time, and desired to effect a reform. Some years before his appearance as a Prophet, as we learn from his earliest extant biographers, a number of men arose in Medina, Taif, and Mecca, and perhaps in other places1, who rejected the idol-worship and polytheism of the people at large and endeavoured to find the true religion. Whether the first impulse came from the Jews, as is very probable, or from some other quarter, the men of whom we speak determined to restore the worship of God Most High (Allah Ta'ala') to its proper place by abolishing, not only the cult of the inferior deities who had almost entirely supplanted Him, but also many of the most immoral of the practices then prevalent, opposed as they were to the human conscience and to humanity itself. Whether through the survival of a tradition that Abraham, whom they claimed as their ancestor, had known and worshipped the One True God, or through the statement of the Jews to that effect, these reformers asserted that they were seeking for the "Religion of Abraham." It may have been Jewish exclusiveness which prevented them from accepting the faith of these latter in the form which it had then assumed, and joining the synagogue. Or, on the other hand, national and family pride may have rendered them unwilling to accept the religion of foreign settlers in their country. It is also possible that some of these reformers may have been able to perceive that the Jewish religion of the time was by no means free from gross superstitions; and the fact that the Christians accused the Jews of having rejected and slain their Messiah, and pointed to their fallen condition as a proof of God's wrath against them, would also have some influence in preventing these more enlightened Arabs from accepting Talmudic Judaism. Whatever the cause may have been, the fact is that the reformers came forth in the first instance as inquirers and not as Jewish or Christian proselytes. The chief of them who are known to us by name are Abu Amir at Medina, Ummiyyah ibn Zalt at Taif, and at Mecca Waraqah, Ubaidu'llah, 'Uthman and Zaid ibn Amr. Others2 doubtless more or less sympathized with these men, though they commanded no very extensive following.
As these reformers have left us no written record of their beliefs, except one poem which we shall have to consider in due course, it may be of importance to state what authority we have for the statements which we shall make regarding them. Our chief and practically our only authority3 is the earliest biographer of Muhammad whose work has come down to us, Ibn Hisham. The first writer known to us by name who composed an account of Muhammad's life was Zuhri, who died in the year 124 of the Hijra. His information was drawn from what was handed down orally by those who had personally known Muhammad, and especially by 'Urwah, one of 'Ayishah's kindred. In many respects, doubtless, errors and exaggerations may, during the course of years, have crept into such Traditions; yet if Zuhri's book were now extant it would be of very great value indeed. But unfortunately it has not been preserved, unless indeed (as is very probable) Ibn Ishaq, one of Zuhri's disciples, who died A.H. 151, made use of it in the composition of his own work on Muhammad's life. Doubtless, however, Ibn Ishaq added much information which he had collected from other traditional sources, true or false. But even Ibn Ishaq's book has not come down to us in a complete and independent form, though much of it is preserved in the numerous quotations made from it by Ibn Hisham (died A. H. 213) in his Siratu'r Rasul or "Biography of the Apostle," the most ancient which we possess of a large number of works which bear the same title. This book is of great value in all matters connected with Muhammad and his times, for it is evidently far less legendary and fabulous than all other works on the subject.
What Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham tell us about the Arabian reformers in particular is worthy of the more credit on this account, because they had no interest in praising them or in exaggerating the resemblance between their teaching and that of Muhammad. It does not seem to have occurred to these writers that any use could be made of their statements by adversaries, and hence they seem to have told the truth as far as they knew it. It is quite possible that the resemblance between their doctrines and those which Muhammad promulgated may have been greater than the information at our disposal enables us to show but it can hardly have been less, for the reason we have stated. We may therefore safely rely upon Ibn Hisham's account as containing at least a minimum of what they taught, and compare it with the Qur'an.
In order to enable our readers to judge for themselves, we here give a translation of Ibn Hisham's narrative, which, it will be noticed, is for the most part founded upon the earlier account given by Ibn Ishaq.
"Ibn Ishaq says: And4 the Quraish assembled one day, at a festival which they had, unto one of their idols which they used to magnify, and to which they used to offer sacrifice, and near which they were wont to remain, and around which they were wont to circle. And that was a festival which they kept one day in every year. Therefore four men secretly kept apart from them. Then said they one to another, Be ye true to one another, and let one of you keep another's secret. They said, Very good. They were Waraqah ibn Asad5 ... and Ubaidu'llah ibn Jahsh5 ..., whose mother was Umaimah, daughter of 'Abdu'l Muttalab, and Uthman ibnu'l Huwairith5 ..., and Zaid ibn 'Amr5 ... They accordingly said one to another, By God, ye know that your nation is based upon nothing: truly they have erred from the religion of their father Abraham. What is a stone6 that we should circle round it? It hears not, nor sees, nor injures, nor benefits. O people, seek for yourselves [a faith]; for verily, by God, ye are based upon nothing. Accordingly they went into different lands that they might seek Hanifism, the Religion of Abraham. Waraqah ibn Naufal therefore became absorbed in Christianity, and he inquired after the Books among those who professed it, until he acquired some knowledge from the People of the Book. But Ubaidu'llah ibn Jahsh remained in the state of uncertainty in which he was until he became a Muslim. He then migrated with the Muslims to Abyssinia and with him his wife Umm Habibah, daughter of Abu Sufyan, being a Muslim. When therefore he arrived there, he became a Christian and abandoned Islam, so that he perished there a Christian. Ibn Ishaq says: Accordingly Muhammad ibn Ja'far ibn Zubair has related to me, saying: 'Ubaidu'llah ibn Jahsh, when he became a Christian, used to dispute with the Companions of the Apostle of God who were there in Abyssinia, and he used to say, We see clearly and you are blinking, that is, We are clear-sighted and you are seeking to see and do not yet see, and that because a whelp blinks when it strives to open its eyes to see. The word he used means to have one's eyes open. Ibn Ishaq says: The Apostle of God succeeded him as husband of Umm Habibah, daughter of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb. Ibn Ishaq says: Muhammad ibn 'Ali ibn Husain has informed me that the Apostle of God sent 'Amr ibn Ummiyah ad Damri to the Negus for her: therefore the Negus betrothed her to him. Accordingly he married him to her. And he fixed as her dowry from the Apostle of God four hundred dinars. ... Ibn Ishaq says: But 'Uthman ibn Huwairith went to Caesar, Emperor of Byzantium: then he became a Christian, and his abiding with him prospered. ... Ibn Ishaq says: But as for Zaid ibn 'Amr ibn Nufail, he remained, and did not enter into Judaism or into Christianity: and he abandoned the religion of his people; therefore he kept aloof from the idols and from carrion and from blood and from the sacrifices which were offered unto the idols, and he forbade the slaughter of infant girls, and he said, I serve the Lord of Abraham; and he reproved his nation for the faults in which they persisted. Ibn Ishaq says: Hisham ibn 'Urwah has related to me on the authority of his father, on the authority of his mother Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, that she said, Truly I saw Zaid ibn 'Amr ibn Nufail as a very old man leaning his back against the Ka'bah and saying, O tribe of the Quraish, by Him in whose hand is the soul of Zaid ibn 'Amr, not one of you has attained unto the Religion of Abraham except myself. Then he would say, O God, if I knew which manner is most pleasing to Thee, I should worship Thee in it; but I know it not. Then he used to worship at his ease7. Ibn Ishaq says: And it is related that his son, Su'aid ibn Zaid ibn Amr ibn Nufail, and 'Umar bnu'l Khattab, who was his cousin, said to the Apostle of God, Pray for forgiveness on behalf of Zaid ibn 'Amr. He said, Yes, for verily he shall be raised up by himself as a religious sect. Zaid ibn 'Amr ibn Nufail spoke thus in reference to his abandoning the religion of his people and what happened to him from them in consequence:
Throughout this whole account we notice that Ibn Hisham is scrupulously careful to give us the very words which his predecessor Ibn Ishaq had used in his narrative. We have therefore something definite to go upon in considering the history and beliefs of these reformers, and especially of Zaid, whose touching story and whose noble verses show what an influence for good he might have exercised upon Muhammad. We shall see reason to believe that he did exercise9 a certain amount of influence, and we may well wish it had had more effect upon Muhammad's life and character.
Ibn Hisham, again on Ibn Ishaq's authority, informs us that Al Khattab, who was Zaid's uncle, reproved the latter for abandoning the religion of his people, and persecuted him to such an extent that he was unable to live in Mecca any longer. He seems to have travelled in other parts of the country, but at last took up his residence in a cave on Mount Hira10. There he lived to a great age, and when he died he was buried at the foot of the mountain. His death is said to have occurred only five years before Muhammad first put forth, in A.D. 612, his claim to the prophetic office. Now Ibn Ishaq tells us that it was the custom of the Quraish "in the Days of Ignorance" to leave the city and spend a month upon Mount Hira the month of Ramadan, as he implies every year in the practice of penance (tahnannuth)11. It is clear that it was in consequence of this custom that Muhammad afterwards selected the whole of that particular month to be observed by his followers for ever as a time of abstinence. As it fell in summer in his time, this retreat may have been a welcome change to the wealthier members of the community, who were thus enabled to leave for a time the hot and close streets of an unhealthy Eastern city for the pure air of the open country. We have no reason to suppose that asceticism played any considerable part in their life at that period. Muhammad, we are expressly told, used to observe this custom of spending the month of Ramadan every year at Mount Hira: and he was actually living in the very cave once inhabited by Zaid, when, as he believed, the first revelation came to him through the Angel Gabriel. It is an error to see in this any special "retirement from the world" on the part of Muhammad on that occasion, since we are told that his wife Khadijah was with him, and he was only following the custom12 of his tribe.
It is evident that, during this yearly visit to Mount Hira, Muhammad had every opportunity of conversing with Zaid. Muhammad's reverence for the man is clearly shown by Tradition. We have already seen that he afterwards acknowledged that Zaid might be prayed for after his death: and this the more noteworthy because Baidawi, in his commentary upon Surah IX., At Taubah, 114, states that Muhammad was forbidden to pray for the salvation of his own mother Aminah, to whom he was tenderly attached, and who had died in his early youth. Moreover, Al Waqidi states that Muhammad "gave Zaid the salutation of Peace," an honour vouchsafed only to Muslims, that he invoked God's grace on him and affirmed, I have seen Him in Paradise: he is drawing a train after him. Sprenger ... says, Muhammad openly acknowledged Zaid as his precursor, and every word known as Zaid's we find again in the Qur'an13." For instance, in Surah III., Al 'Imran, 19, Muhammad is bidden to say to the common people, "Have ye become Muslims?" or "Have ye surrendered to God?" These words are said by Ibn Ishaq14 to have been addressed to the people by Zaid in the first place. Everyone of the main principles which we have found mentioned as inculcated by Zaid is dwelt upon in the Qur'an also. Among these may be instanced: (1) the prohibition of killing infant daughters by burying them alive, according to the cruel custom of the Arabs of the time; (2) the acknowledgment of the Unity of God; (3) the rejection of idolatry and the worship of Al-Lat, AI-'Uzza' and the other deities of the people; (4) the promise of future happiness in Paradise or the "Garden", (5) the warning of the punishment reserved in hell for the wicked; (6) the denunciation of God's wrath upon the "Unbelievers"; and (7) the application of the titles Ar Rahman (the Merciful), Ar Rabb (the Lord), and Al Ghafur (the Forgiving) to God. Moreover, Zaid and all the other reformers (Hanifs) claimed to be searching for the "Religion of Abraham." Besides all this, the Qur'an repeatedly15, though indirectly16, speaks of Abraham as a Hanif, the chosen title of Zaid and his friends.
The root from which this word Hanif is derived means in Hebrew "to conceal, to pretend, to lie, to be a hypocrite," and in Syriac its meanings are similar. In Arabic it seems to have first denoted "limping," or "walking unevenly," but came to signify impiety in abandoning the worship of the popular deities. In this sense it was doubtless at first applied to the reformers as a reproach. But since, as Ibn Hisham tells us17, in the pronunciation of the Quraish the word denoting "penance" and "purity" was confounded with the term denoting "Hanifism," it is probable that the Hanifs gladly adopted the name as expressing their abjuration of idolatry with all its abominations. It is none the less remarkable, however, that Muhammad should have ventured to apply the term to Abraham, and to invite men to become Hanifs by returning to the "Religion of Abraham," which he identified with Islam as proclaimed by himself. In fact, by this use of the word, Muhammad in the clearest possible manner declared his adhesion to the doctrines of the reformers. When in addition to this we find him adopting their teaching and incorporating it into the Qur'an, we cannot hesitate to recognize the dogmas of the Hanifs as forming one of the main Sources of Islam.
That the Hanifs should have exercised such an influence upon nascent Islam was very natural for family reasons also. All the four leading reformers at Mecca were related to Muhammad, being descended from a common ancestor Liwa'. Moreover, 'Ubaidu'llah was a son of a maternal aunt of Muhammad, and the latter married this reformer's widow, as we have already seen. Two others, Waraqah and 'Uthman, were cousins of his first wife Khadijah, as we learn from the genealogies given by Ibn Hisham18.
One objection may possibly occur to the reader who has patiently followed us so far in our investigations into the origin of Islam. He may perhaps say, "All this is very similar to the play of Hamlet with the part of the Prince of Denmark left out. You have shown that the whole of Islam has been borrowed from previously existent systems, and have therefore left nothing which can properly be attributed to Muhammad himself. Is it not strange to find Muhammadanism without a Muhammad?" The answer to this objection is not far to seek. The creed of Islam, to-day as in the past, shows what a very important part Muhammad plays in the religions system of Muslims, for it consists, as Gibbon has well said of an eternal truth and a necessary fiction: "There is no God but God: Muhammad is the Apostle of God." It is not too much to say that in the minds of his followers Muhammad holds as important a place as Jesus Christ does in those of Christians. The influence of his example for good or ill affects the whole Muhammadan world in even the smallest matters, and few men have played a more momentous part in the religious, moral, and political history of the human race than the founder of Islam.
It was naturally impossible that, occupying the position which he claimed for himself, Muhammad should not have left upon the religion which he founded the distinct impress of his own personality. A builder collects his materials from many different quarters, yet their method and arrangement reveal his skill. The plan of the architect is manifested in the edifice which has been erected as its embodiment. Just in the same way, though we have seen that Muhammad borrowed ideas, legends, and religious rites from many different quarters, the religion of Islam has assumed a form of its own, which differs in certain respects from any other faith with which it may be compared. The beauty of the literary style of many parts of the Qur'an has been universally admired, and it evidences the eloquence of its author in no doubtful manner. Its want of arrangement and harmony of design may not be due to him, but the work as a whole mirrors forth the limitations of Muhammad's intellect, the very slight amount of real knowledge and learning that he possessed, his unlimited credulity and want of all critical faculty, and the moral defects of his character. When studied in the chronological order of its composition, the Qur'an shows traces of a gradual change of policy which corresponds with the alteration in Muhammad's own position and prospects in temporal matters. Certain parts of it are, even by Muhammadan commentators, explained by reference to important events in his life, to which the "revelation" of these particular verses was directly due. To demonstrate this it will be sufficient to inquire firstly into Muhammad's attitude in reference to the use of the sword in the spread of Islam, and secondly into but one incident in his matrimonial relations.
It is well known that, before he left Mecca and took refuge in Medina in A.D. 622, Muhammad had no temporal power. His followers in Mecca itself amounted to only a few score19, and therefore had on two occasions in 615 and again in 616 to seek safety in flight to Abyssinia. Accordingly, in those verses and Surahs which were composed before the Hijrah, no mention whatever is made of the duty of taking up arms for the spread of the faith, or even in self-defence. But after the Hijrah, when many of the people of Medina had become his "Helpers," he in the first place gave permission to his "Companions" to fight for the protection of their own lives. Ibn Hisham20 observes that this permission was for the first time given in these verses "It is permitted to those who fight because they are treated wrongfully ... those who have been expelled from their dwellings unjustly, merely because they say, Our Lord is God" (Surah XXII., Al Hajj, 40, 41). After a time, when victory had attended Muhammad's arms on several plundering expeditions directed against the caravans belonging to the Quraish, this permission was turned into a command. Accordingly we read in Surah II., Al Baqarah, 212, 214: "War is fated for you, although it is hateful to you. ... They ask thee concerning the month in which war is prohibited. Say thou: War in it is a serious matter, and so is hindering from the way of God, and unbelief in Him and in the Sacred Mosque; and the expulsion of His people from it is more serious in God's sight, and rebellion is worse than slaughter.'' This means that the Muslims were bidden to fight, even during the time when war was forbidden by the unwritten law of the Arabs, and not permit their enemies to hinder them from having access to the Ka'bah. Thirdly, when, in the sixth year of the Hijrah, the Muslims had overcome the Banu Quraidhah and certain other Jewish tribes, the command to engage in the Holy War, or Jihad, became still sterner; for in Surah V., Al Maidah, 37, it is written "Verily the punishment of those who fight against God and His Apostle and strive to do evil in the land is that they be slain, or be crucified, or have their hands and their feet cut off on opposite sides, or be expelled from the land: that is a punishment for them in the world, and for them in the next life is reserved great torment." It may be observed that the Commentators explain that this decree refers to the treatment to be inflicted on idolaters, not on Jews and Christians. But the conduct which Muslims should observe towards the "People of the Book," was prescribed some years later, shortly before Muhammad's death, in the eleventh year of the Hijrah. Then the fourth stage is reached in Surah IX., At Taubah, 5 and 29 probably the latest in date of all the Surahs of the Qur'an where it is commanded that, after the conclusion of the four Sacred Months of that year, the Muslims should recommence the war. The command in these verses runs thus: "Accordingly when the Sacred Months are past, then slay the Polytheists wherever ye find them, and take them and besiege them and lay wait for them with every ambuscade. If therefore they repent and raise the prayers and bring the alms21, then free them on their way: verily God is forgiving, merciful. ... Fight with those of them who have been brought the Book, who believe not in God nor in the Last Day, and who forbid not what God and His Apostle have forbidden, and who hold not the true religion, until they give the tribute22 out of hand and be humbled." Thus the law of God as revealed in the Qur'an was notified in proportion to the success of Muhammad's arms. To account for this it was laid down as a rule that certain verses were superseded and annulled by others revealed later, according to what is said in Surah II., Al Baqarah, 100: "As for what We abrogate of a verse or cause thee to forget it, We bring a better than it or one like it: knowest thou not that God is able to do everything?" From that time to this, however, Muhammadan jurists have not been able to decide which verses have been annulled and which others have taken their place, though some 225 are supposed to have been thus abrogated.
We might in the same way trace the change in Muhammad's attitude towards Jews and Christians from the beginning of his career, when he hoped to win them over to his side, to the time when, finding himself disappointed in this expectation, he resolved to turn upon them with the sword. But we learn, the same lesson from all such investigations, and that is how completely Muhammad adapted his pretended revelations to what he believed to be the need of the moment.
The same thing is true with regard to what we read in Surah Al Ahzab regarding the circumstances attending his marriage with Zainab, whom his adopted son Zaid divorced for his sake. The subject is too unsavoury for us to deal with at any length, but a reference to what the Qur'an itself (Surah XXXIII., 37) says about the matter, coupled with the explanations afforded by the Commentators and the Traditions, will prove that Muhammad's own character and disposition have left their mark upon the moral law of Islam and upon the Qur'an itself. The licence given to him, and to him alone, in the Qur'an to marry23 more than the legal number of four wives at a time allowed to each Muslim is an additional proof to the same effect, and it is explained by a very unpleasant Tradition which contains a saying of 'Ayishah in reference to his idiosyncrasies.
All this being considered, it is clear that, although Muhammad borrowed religious practices, beliefs, and legends from various different sources, yet he combined them in some measure into one more or less consistent whole, thus producing the religion of Islam. Some parts of this are good, and Islam contains certain great truths, borrowed from other systems of religion, which in a measure account for its continued existence in the world. But it certainly does not contain a single new or lofty religious conception, and its general tone is all too faithful a reflexion of the carnal and sensual nature of its founder. To use an Oriental simile is not perhaps inappropriate in speaking of such a thoroughly local and Oriental religion as Muhammadanism. Islam therefore may aptly be compared with:
which, receiving into its bosom the waters of many streams that, thus united, assume the shape and form of its basin, turns them all into one great widespread Sea of Death, from whose shores flee pestilential exhalations destructive to all life within reach of their malign influence. Such is Islam. Originating from many different sources and receiving into it certain elements of truth, it has assumed its form from the character and disposition of Muhammad; and thus the good in it serves only to recommend and preserve the evil which renders it a false and delusive faith, a curse to men and not a blessing one that has turned into deserts many of the fairest regions of the earth, that has, even in our own days, deluged many a land with innocent blood, and has smitten with a moral, intellectual, and spiritual blight every nation of men which lies under its iron yoke and groans beneath its pitiless sway.