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Book Excerpt -- Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time

Chapter One: Mecca

Afterwards he found it almost impossible to describe the experience that sent him running in anguish down the rocky hillside to his wife. It seemed to him that a devastating presence had burst into the cave where he was sleeping and gripped him in an overpowering embrace, squeezing all the breath from his body. In his terror, Muhammad could only think that he was being attacked by a jinni, one of the fiery spirits who haunted the Arabian steppes and frequently lured travellers from the right path. The jinn also inspired the bards and soothsayers of Arabia. One poet described his poetic vocation as a violent assault: his personal jinni had appeared to him without any warning, thrown him to the ground and forced the verses from his mouth.1 So, when Muhammad heard the curt command "Recite!" he immediately assumed that he too had become possessed. "I am no poet," he pleaded. But his assailant simply crushed him again, until—just when he thought he could bear it no more—he heard the first words of a new Arabic scripture pouring, as if unbidden, from his lips.

He had this vision during the month of Ramadan, 610 CE. Later Muhammad would call it layla al-qadr (the "Night of Destiny") because it had made him the messenger of Allah, the high god of Arabia. But at the time, he did not understand what was happening. He was forty years old, a family man, and a respected merchant in Mecca, a thriving commercial city in the Hijaz. Like most Arabs of the time, he was familiar with the stories of Noah, Lot, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus and knew that some people expected the imminent arrival of an Arab prophet, but it never occurred to him that he would be entrusted with this mission. Indeed, when he escaped from the cave and ran headlong down the slopes of Mount Hira', he was filled with despair. How could Allah have allowed him to become possessed? The jinn were capricious; they were notoriously unreliable because they delighted in leading people astray. The situation in Mecca was serious. His tribe did not need the dangerous guidance of a jinni. They needed the direct intervention of Allah, who had always been a distant figure in the past, and who, many believed, was identical with the God worshipped by Jews and Christians.*

Mecca had achieved astonishing success. The city was now an international trading center and its merchants and financiers had become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Only a few generations earlier, their ancestors had been living a desperate, penurious life in the intractable deserts of northern Arabia. Their triumph was extraordinary, since most Arabs were not city dwellers but nomads. The terrain was so barren that people could only survive there by roaming ceaselessly from place to place in search of water and grazing land. There were a few agricultural colonies on the higher ground, such as Ta'if, which supplied Mecca with most of its food, and Yathrib, some 250 miles to the north. But elsewhere farming -- and, therefore, settled life -- was impossible in the steppes, so the nomads scratched out a meagre existence by herding sheep and goats, and breeding horses and camels, living in close-knit tribal groups. Nomadic (badawah) life was a grim, relentless struggle, because there were too many people competing for too few resources. Always hungry, perpetually on the brink of starvation, the Bedouin fought endless battles with other tribes for water, pastureland, and grazing rights.

Consequently the ghazu (acquisition raid) was essential to the badawah economy. In times of scarcity, tribesmen would regularly invade the territory of their neighbors in the hope of carrying off camels, cattle, or slaves, taking great care to avoid killing anybody, since this could lead to a vendetta. Nobody considered this in any way reprehensible. The ghazu was an accepted fact of life; it was not inspired by political or personal hatred, but was a kind of national sport, conducted with skill and panache according to clearly defined rules. It was a necessity, a rough-and-ready way of redistributing wealth in a region where there was simply not enough to go around.

Even though the people of Mecca had left the nomadic life behind, they still regarded the Bedouin as the guardians of authentic Arab culture. As a child, Muhammad had been sent to live in the desert with the tribe of his wet nurse in order to be educated in the badawah ethos. It made a profound impression on him. The Bedouin were not very interested in conventional religion. They had no hope of an afterlife and little confidence in their gods, who seemed unable to make any impact on their difficult environment. The tribe, not a deity, was the supreme value, and each member had to subordinate his or her personal needs and desires to the well-being of the group, and fight to the death, if necessary, to ensure its survival. Arabs had little time for speculation about the supernatural but were focused on this world. Fantasy was useless in the steppes; they needed pragmatic, sober realism. But they had evolved a chivalric code, which, by giving meaning to their lives and preventing them from succumbing to despair in these harsh conditions, performed the essential function of religion. They called it muruwah, a complex term that is difficult to translate succinctly. Muruwah meant courage, patience, endurance; it consisted of a dedicated determination to avenge any wrong done to the group, to protect its weaker members, and defy its enemies. To preserve the honor of the tribe, each member had to be ready to leap to the defense of his kinsmen at a moment's notice and to obey his chief without question.

Above all, a tribesman had to be generous and share his livestock and food. Life in the steppes would be impossible if people selfishly hoarded their wealth while others went hungry. A tribe that was rich today could easily become destitute tomorrow . . . .

The foregoing is excerpted from ['Muhammad' by Karen Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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Karen Armstrong