Additional Material
for Key Chapters

Chapter 3, Arabia, Muhammad and the history of Islam to about 700 CE

An example of Jahili thinking”

‘Amr ibn Kulthum was the author of one of the famous seven odes said to have been hung in the Ka‘ba (Mu‘allaqāt) in the pre-Islamic period. He is said to have killed the king of Hira because of an insult to his mother and to have drunk himself to death with wine, accounts which, whether true or not, illustrate the idea of jahiliyya.  He has left us one of the most striking examples of the pre-Islamic use of the root, j-h-l,

"Let no one act fiercely (yajhalanna) against us,
for we shall be fiercer than the fierce (fa-najhalu fawqa jahli al-jāhilīna )."
or we may render it:
"Let no one act in a jahili way against us,
for we shall out-jahl the jahilis"

(Al-Zamakhshari, Al-Kashshaf ‘an haqa’iq al-tanzil wa-‘uyun al-aqawil fi wujuh al-ta’wil , Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1966, vol. 3, p. 99 (a commentary on the Qur’an))

F. E. Peters on the historical questions of Muhammad’s career:
“And in dealing with Muhammad, where the Quran is the historian’s chief ‘document,’ it seems most useful and productive simply to apply a combination of common sense and some modern heuristic devices to the traditional accounts. We must begin with the traditional material and attempt to make some sense out of it.” (Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, p. 266)

The First Revelation to Muhammad

The following is drawn mainly from the biography (sīra) of Muhammad, written by Ibn Ishaq (d. c. 767) and revised by Ibn Hisham (d. 834). The two inset paragraphs come from the parallel section of the History of Prophets and Kings by Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923). They were very likely in Ibn Ishaq’s work but omitted by Ibn Hisham. Guillaume includes them in his translation. (For other translations of these passages see A. Guillaume (1955) The Life of Muhammad, a translation of Ibn Ishaq.  Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford University Press, pp. 105-7; J.A. Williams, ed. (1972) Islam, New York: Washington Square Press, pp. 47-49; Montgomery Watt and M.V. McDonald, trans. (1988) The History of al-Tabari, Vol. VI, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 70-3. I have translated the sections from Ibn Hisham from the Arabic, consulting these translations, and have used Guillaume and Watt & McDonald for the sections from al-Tabari.) The abbreviation (SAAS) represents the phrase “May God bless him and grant him peace”, used conventionally after references to Muhammad.

Ibn Ishaq said: Wahb ibn Kaysan told me that . . . 'Ubayd related:  The Messenger of God would pray in seclusion on Mount Hira' for a month out of each year, practising taḥannuth as was the custom of the Quraysh in the jāhiliyya. Taḥannuth means pious devotions . . .   . The Messenger of God  (SAAS) would pray in retreat the same month each year and feed the poor who came to him. When he finished his retreat at the end of the month and left the place, the first thing he would do, even before going home, was to go to the Ka‘ba and circumambulate it seven times, or as many times as God willed. Then he would return to his house.

Then in the month of Ramadan, the month in which God Almighty had willed to honor him, in the year when He gave him his mission, the Messenger of God  (SAAS) set out for his retreat at Mount Hira as he always had and his family went with him. When the night came on which God honored him with his mission, and thus showed mercy to all of His servants, Gabriel (upon him be peace) came to him with the command [affair] of Almighty God.

"He came to me," said the Apostle of God  (SAAS), "while I was asleep, with a brocade coverlet that had writing on it, and said ‘Recite!’, and I said ‘What shall I recite?’ [or I cannot read] He pressed it against me so hard that I thought I would die; then he let me go and said ‘Recite!’ I said, ‘What shall I recite?’ [or I cannot read]  Then he pressed it against me again so that I thought I would die, then he let me go and said ‘Recite!’ I said 'But what shall I recite?’ Then he pressed it against me again so that I thought I would die, then he let me go and said ‘Recite!’ I said 'But what shall I recite?' - And this I said only to keep him from doing the same thing again, but he said:

‘Recite:  In the Name of your Lord who created,
Created man from a blood clot,
Recite!  Thy Lord is the most generous,
Who taught by the Pen,
Taught people what they did not know.’

So I recited it, and he departed from me.  And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were engraved on my heart. 

"Now none of God's creatures was more hateful to me than an (ecstatic) poet or a man possessed (majnūn); I could not even bear to look at them, I said to myself, 'Woe is me - poet or possessed.  Never shall Quraysh say that of me!  I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down and kill myself and thus gain rest.'

I left and when I had traversed half the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘O Muhammad!  You are the Messenger of God and I am Gabriel.' I raised my head towards heaven to see, and there was Gabriel in the form of a man, with his feet on the horizon, saying, 'O Muhammad!  You are the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.’ I stood gazing at him, moving neither forward nor backward; then I began to turn my face away from him toward other parts of the sky, but wherever I looked I saw him as before, so I kept standing there without moving forward or back. At this point, Khadija sent her messengers in search of me, and they went as far as the high ground above Mecca and then returned to her, while I was standing in that same place. Then Gabriel left me.

Then I left and returned to my family.  I went to Khadija and sat close to her with my thigh next to hers.  She asked, "Abu al-Qasim (Father of al-Qasim, i.e., Muhammad), where have you been?  By Allah, I have sent my messengers in search of you, all the way to the high ground above Mecca and back.' 

[I said to her,] 'Woe is me - a poet, or a man possessed!'  She said 'I take refuge in Allah from that, O Abu al-Qasim! God would not treat you thus; He knows your truthfulness, your great trustworthiness, your fine character, and your kindness to your family. This cannot be, my dear.  Perhaps you have seen something.'  'Yes, I have,' I told her. 

Then I told her what I had seen, and she said, ‘Rejoice, O son of my uncle, and rest assured!  By Him in whose hand is Khadija's soul, I do hope that you will be the prophet of this people.’”  Then she rose and gathered her garments around her and set off to see her cousin Waraqa ibn Naufal ibn Asad ibn 'Abd-al-'Uzza ibn Qusayy, who had become a Christian and read the scriptures and learned from those who follow the Torah and the Gospel.  And when she related to him what the Messenger of God  (SAAS) told her he had seen and heard, Waraqa said: "Holy! Holy! By Him in whose hand is Waraqa's soul, if you have told me the truth, Khadija, what has come to him is the greatest Namus  (generally understood to refer to Gabriel), who came to Moses, and he is indeed the prophet of this people.  Tell him to rest assured."  So Khadija returned to the Messenger of God  (SAAS) and told him what Waraqa had said.  

Ibn Ishaq said: Isma‘il ibn Abi Hakam informed me on Khadija’s authority that she (may God be pleased with her) said to the Messenger of  God  (SAAS), “Cousin, this companion of  yours, can you tell me when he comes to you? He said, “Yes.” She said, “Then do so.” Then Gabriel came to him as he had before, and the Messenger of God  (SAAS) said to Khadija, “O Khadija, this Gabriel has come to me.” She said, “Get up, cousin, and sit by my left thigh,” and the Messenger of God (SAAS) did so. She said, “Do you see him?” He said, “Yes.”  Then she said, “Move over and sit by my right thigh.” And the Messenger of God  (SAAS) did so.  Again she said, “Do you see him?”, and he said, “Yes.” “Then move over and sit in my lap.” And he did so.  And she said, “Do you see him?,” and he said, “Yes.”  Then she began to disrobe and threw her veil (khimār) aside while the Messenger of God  (SAAS) was still sitting on her lap, and said, “Do you see him?” He said, “No.” Then she said, “O cousin, be assured and rejoice, for by Allah, this is an angel and not a shayṭān.”

Additional reading:
Goldziher, I., Muslim studies, vol. 1, Halle, (1889-90, reprint 1967) trans. C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern, London.

Nicholson, R. A., A Literary History of the Arabs (1907, reprint 1969), Cambridge, 1969. Another “classic” work, still useful in my view.

Izutsu, T.(1964) God and Man in the Koran, Tokyo. This and the following ones are seminal works on their subjects.

T. Izutsu, Ethico-religious concepts in the Quran (1966), Montreal.

Brown, Daniel (2003) A New Introduction to Islam, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Strongly emphasizes the new critical approach and has an interesting and distinctive approach to other topics too (Listed in the book under “Textbook and general studies”).

Cook, Michael (1983) Muhammad, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.  A brief, readable study early Islam. Chapter 7, “The Sources”, gives a good introduction to the critical approach . (Listed under “Further reading” for this chapter in the book.)

Crone, Patricia and Cook, Michael (1977) Hagarism : the making of the Islamic world. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1977. Radical critique of the usual view of early Islamic history based on contemporaneous non-Muslim sources. I don’t think the thesis has held up too well over the years.

Crone, Patricia (1987) Meccan trade and the rise of Islam, Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1987. Another radical critique of the usual view of early Islamic history. I found this more persuasive than the previous item.

Crone, Patricia (2006) “What do we actually know about Mohammed?”, Open Democracy,  Takes more cautious position than in the previously mentioned works.

Hawting, G.R. (1999) The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam From Polemic to History. Cambridge University Press. Radically critical approach; sees Meccans as closer to monotheism than is usually thought.

Peters, F. E. (1994) Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, Albany: State University of New York Press. Important critical study, more critical than Watt but less than Crone and others.

© William Shepard

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