May 292011
The term “sunna” occurs fourteen times in nine Qur’anic verses. It is used in four verses in the expression “sunnat al-awwalin” or the “sunna of the ancients.” The term “sunna” is usually interpreted as meaning “example” or “fate,” but it is a more general concept that means “way,” “practice,” “course,” “tradition,” “habit,” “state,” or “situation.” So “sunnat al-awwalin” should mean “the way or practice of the ancients.” These are three of those four verses:

Say [O Muhammad!] to the disbelievers that if they desist then they will be forgiven what has past; but if they return, then the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (8.38)

They (the disbelievers) will not believe in it (the Qur’an), and the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (15.13)

Nothing prevented people from believing when the guidance came to them and from asking pardon of their Lord other than [arguing for] the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) to come upon them or for the torment to come upon them before their eyes. (18.55)

The term “sunna” appears eight times in five verses in the expression “sunnat Allah” or the “way of Allah.” One of these verses has both expressions “sunnat al-awwalin” and “sunnat Allah”:

Do they (the disbelievers) wait for other than the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin), but you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) and you will not find any change in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (from 35.43)

Some exegetes understand the reference to “sunnat al-awwalin” as referring to God’s punishment of those who rejected the messengers that He sent to them. In this case, this expression could be translated as the “fate of the ancients.”

These are the other four verses in which “sunnat Allah” appears:

There is no fault in the Prophet in seeking what Allah has ordained for him — the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before. The commandment of Allah is a determinate decree. (33.38)

This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (33.62)

Their faith did not help them when they faced our might; [this is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past to His servants, and there the disbelievers lost. (40.85)

[This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (48.23)

Finally, this verse uses the term “sunna” twice, first in reference to the way of the messengers that God sent before Muhammad and then in the expression “sunnatuna (Our way),” meaning God’s way:

[This is] the way (sunna) of those whom we sent [as messengers] before you, and you will not find any change in Our way (sunnatuna). (17.77)

To recap, in the nine verses in which the term “sunna” appears, it is used nine times to refer to the sunna of Allah, four times for the sunna of the people of old, and once for the sunna of the previous messengers of Allah.

So the Qur’an does not use the term “sunna” in the sense of the way/practice of Prophet Muhammad. The closest that the Qur’an comes to this use is in verse 17.73 which talks about the sunna of the messengers before Muhammad. Naturally, the reference here is to one sunna or way, as the essence of religion never changed, as so it must apply to Prophet Muhammad also. But this reference must refer to the one set of general practices and values that all Messengers followed, as commanded by God, rather than actions that are specific to any one of them. So the distinct meaning of the term “sunna” as the actions and deeds of Prophet Muhammad specifically is not found in the Qur’an. This observation, however, does not change the fact that the Qur’an commands the Muslim to follow and emulate the Prophet:

You have had a good example in the Messenger of Allah for the person who hopes for Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much. (33.21)

This command, of course, endorses the general behavior of the Prophet, both word and action, which is effectively what his Sunna means.

There are twelve verses that instruct the Muslims to “obey” the Prophet. To stress that obeying the Prophet is essential for obeying God, eleven of the twelve verses order the Muslims to “obey Allah and the Messenger” (3.32, 3.132), “obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (4.59, 4.92, 24.54, 47.33, 64.12), and “obey Allah and His Messenger” (8.1, 8.20, 8.46, 58.13). The twelfth verse tells the Muslim: “Obey the Messenger that you may be shown mercy” (24.56).

There are many more verses that command the Muslims to follow the Prophet. These verses confirm that the Prophet set by his words and deeds the best example for the Muslims, as God instructed him to do. This is why learning and understanding the behaviour of the Prophet is necessary for the Muslim. But we should always be aware of the fact the Sunna of the Prophet has never been as accessible after the Prophet as the Qur’an. Allah promised in the Qur’an that He will protect the Qur’an from being lost or changed, but He did not make such a promise about the Sunna of the Prophet. A number of factors affected what was written about and attributed to the Prophet over the decades and centuries after him. Indeed, various supposed details of the Sunna have been the subject of considerable disagreement among Muslims scholars from the early times after the Prophet. This fact should not stop us from being interested in learning the Sunna of the Prophet, but it should make us aware that this process is difficult and fraught with uncertainty. The suggestion that there is any source other than the Qur’an that we can fully trust about the history of the Prophet is in contradiction with history. To seriously study and examine the available sources of the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah is one way in which the Muslim discharges his/her duty to follow the Prophet.

The Qur’anic Verses that Contain the Term “Sunna”

قُل لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِن يَنتَهُوا يُغْفَرْ لَهُم مَّا قَدْ سَلَفَ وَإِن يَعُودُوا فَقَدْ مَضَتْ سُنَّتُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿8.38﴾

لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ وَقَدْ خَلَتْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿15.13﴾

وَمَا مَنَعَ النَّاسَ أَن يُؤْمِنُوا إِذْ جَاءَهُمُ الْهُدَىٰ وَيَسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّهُمْ إِلَّا أَن تَأْتِيَهُمْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ أَوْ يَأْتِيَهُمُ الْعَذَابُ قُبُلًا. ﴿18.55﴾

فَهَلْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَّا سُنَّتَ الْأَوَّلِينَ فَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿35.43﴾

مَّا كَانَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ مِنْ حَرَجٍ فِيمَا فَرَضَ اللَّـهُ لَهُ سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللَّـهِ قَدَرًا مَّقْدُورًا. ﴿33.38﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿33.62﴾

فَلَمْ يَكُ يَنفَعُهُمْ إِيمَانُهُمْ لَمَّا رَأَوْا بَأْسَنَا سُنَّتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ فِي عِبَادِهِ وَخَسِرَ هُنَالِكَ الْكَافِرُونَ. ﴿40.85﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿48.23﴾

سُنَّةَ مَن قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِن رُّسُلِنَا وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿17.77﴾


Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Mar 122011

The term “hadith” is one of the most used Islamic terms by both Muslims and non-Muslims. But despite its importance there is often a good deal of ambiguity about what it exactly means. It is often used inconsistently and inaccurately. This article aims at clarifying the exact meaning of this term.

The noun “hadith” occurs in the Qur’an twenty three times (4.42, 4.78, 4.87, 4.140, 6.68, 7.185, 12.111, 18.6, 20.9, 31.6, 33.53, 39.23, 45.6, 51.24, 52.34, 53.59, 56.81, 66.3, 68.44, 77.50, 79.15, 85.17, 88.1). Its plural form “ahadith” is found five times (12.6, 12.21, 12.101, 23.44, 34.19). In these twenty eight verses, the term broadly means “narrative,” “story,” “speech,” or “news,” which may or may not be religious. For instance, God describes the Qur’an as “the best of hadith” (39.23), refers to the story of Moses as the “hadith of Moses” (20.9), and says about nations that He destroyed for rejecting the messengers He sent to them “We have made them ahadith” (23.44). Other variations of this term occur in another eight Qur’anic verses (2.76, 18.70, 20.113, 21.2, 26.5, 65.1, 93.11, 99.4).

Of the thirty six occurrences of the term “hadith” only one is linked to something specific to Prophet Muhammad. This is verse 93.11 where the Prophet is commanded by God to speak about His favor to him, i.e. making him a Prophet: “As for the favor of your Lord, haddith (speak about).” But even in this solitary instance, the verb “haddith” is used in its generic meaning. Indeed, the verb is used in another verse to refer to the speech of disbelievers (2.76).

But the term “hadith” has acquired in Islamic literature the very specific meaning of reports about what the Prophet said, did, approved, and disapproved of, explicitly or implicitly. Indeed, hadith is considered as the main source of the “Sunna” or “customary behavior” of the Prophet. The other source is the “sira” or “biography” of the Prophet. It is this technical meaning of the term “hadith” that the rest of this article focuses on.

Any hadith consists of two parts, the first is known as “isnad” or “sanad,” and the second is known as “matn.” The generic meaning of “isnad,” whose plural is “asanid,” is “support” or “foundation.” But in the terminology of hadith it refers to the chain of transmitters of the hadith. These narrators are called “isnad” because they provide the “support” for the historicity of the hadith.

Lexically, “matn” denotes the visible part of something. In the technical language of Islamic literature, “matn” denotes the saying, behavior, or incident that is being reported by the chain of transmitters. To illustrate these concepts, this is a hadith about using the visibility of the new moon to determine the beginning and the end of the fasting month of Ramadan:

Yahya bin Bukair told us on that al-Laith said, that ‘Uqail said, that ibn Shihab said, that Salim said, that ibn ‘Umar said that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: “When you see it start your fast and when you see it break your fast. If it was cloudy, make an estimate [for the start of end of the fasting month].” (Bukhari, 1900)

The chain of transmission, or isnad, is marked in red whereas what is being reported, or matn, is in green.

Hadith narratives at times quote the Prophet directly:

Sa‘id bin Yahya bin Sa‘id al-Qurashi told us that his father said, that Abu Burda bin Abdullah bin Abi Burda said, that Abi Burda said, that Abi Musa said that people asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Whose practice of Islam is the best?” He said: “The one who does not cause harm to Muslims by his tongue or hand.” (Bukhari, 11)

A hadith may not quote the Prophet directly but report what he was heard saying or seen doing:

‘Abda bin ‘Abdullah told us that ‘Abdul Samad said, that ‘Abdullah bin al-Muthanna said, that Thumama bin ‘Abdullah said, that Anas said about the Prophet that when he said something he repeated it three times until it was fully understood and that when he encountered people he greeted them three times. (Bukhari, 95)

A hadith may show the Prophet’s tacit approval of something, as in this example in which the Messenger does not stop Muslims from keeping his cut hair:

Muhammad bin Abdul Rahim told us that Sa‘id bin Sulaiman said, that ‘Abbad said, that ibn ‘Awn said, that ibn Sirin said, that Anas said that when the Messenger of Allah had his hair cut Abu Talha was the first to take his hair. (Bukhari, 171)

But even in Islamic literature the term “hadith” has been used in a broader sense. Some of the reports found in the collections of hadith detail things that “Sahaba (Companions)” of the Prophet said or did, rather than the Messenger himself. At times, this may be a statement reflecting the view of a Companion:

‘Ali said: “Speak to people about what they know. Do you want them to accuse Allah and His Messenger of lying?” It was ‘Ubaidullah bin Musa on the authority of Ma‘ruf bin Kharrabudh, on the authority of Abil Tufail, on the authority of ‘Ali [who reported this] (Bukhari, 127)

The implication of such hadiths is that the teaching conveyed by the Companion reflects what he learned from the Prophet.

It should be noted, however, that the term “Companion” is used rather loosely by scholars. While some individuals, such as ‘Ali bin Abi Talib who transmitted the hadith above, spent many years in the company of the Prophet, others are called Companions for only seeing the Prophet! For instance, in his book al-Isaba fi Ma‘rifat al-Sahaba (Identifying the Companions Correctly), ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1448) calls “Companion” any “Muslim who met the Prophet, believed in him, and died while still a believer.”

Another interesting feature of hadith 127 is that its isnad follows the matn, which is the opposite of the normal situation.

The following hadith reports a statement by a Companion rather than something the Prophet said, but because it is about a pledge given by that Companion to the Prophet, the implication is that the Companion’s words and actions were approved by the Prophet:

Musaddad told us that Yahya said, that Ismail said, that Qais bin Abi Hazim said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Messenger of Allah that I will perform the prayer, pay the obligatory alms, and give good advice to every Muslim.” (Bukhari, 57)

In the text of hadiths, variations of “hadith” are also used in the generic sense of this term, i.e. not referring specifically to sayings of the Prophet. For instance, the term “haddathana (told us)” is frequently used with individuals who are quoted as the source of hadith. In fact, all of the hadiths quoted above use the term “haddathana (told us)” in reference to at least one of the narrators.

Another feature of the hadith literature worth noting is that a hadith may exist in a number of different wordings and different chains of transmission. For example, this hadith is clearly a different version of the hadith above:

Ya‘qub bin Ibrahim told us that Hushaim said, that Sayyar said, that al-Sha‘bi said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Prophet listening and obeying, so he taught me to add ‘as much as I can, and to give good advice to every Muslim’” (Bukhari, 7402)

Significatly, the last part of the statement that hadith 57 attributes to Jarir appears in hadith 7402 as something the Prophet said.

Unlike the Qur’an whose authenticity is accepted by all Muslims, a hadith may or may not be authentic. Muslim denominations differ on which hadiths are authentic and which are not. Sunni Muslims have particularly high regard for the two hadith collections of Bukhari (194-256/810-870) and his student Muslim (206-261/821-875). They call them “sahih (correct)” to reflect their almost complete confidence that they contain authentic hadiths only. Other highly regarded hadith collections are those of Abu Dawud (202-275/817-888), ibn Maja (209-273/824-887), al-Tirmidhi (209-279/824-892), and al-Nasai (215-303 / 830-915). All six were compiled as late as about two and a half centuries after the Prophet, although they relied on earlier sources.

Shia scholars do not have as much confidence in those sources, in particular as they contain many narratives attributed to Companions of the Prophet that the Shais do not trust because they think they showed animosity toward ‘Ali bin Abi Talib — the Prophet’s close Companion and cousin, fourth caliph, and the first Shia imam. The Shias rely on other compilations of hadith and the accounts related through their imams. One of the most respected hadith books by the Shias is al-Kafi by Muhammad al-Kulaini (250-329/864-940).

While there are clear differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims in their assessment of the authenticity of hadith collections, differences about hadith are not confined to the Sunni/Shia divide. Scholars within any denomination have also differed on whether certain hadiths are genuine or not. Yet because of the importance of hadith as the main source of the Sunna, which is considered the second source of legislation in Islam, Muslim scholars have developed a complex system for critiquing hadiths. This system classifies hadiths into a number of different categories of historical reliability. The classification system aims to describe the likelihood of each hadith being authentic, i.e. how likely that the hadith accurately describes a historical event. There are many categories that range from the “sahih (correct/authentic)” and “hasan (agreeable)” to the “dha‘if (weak)” and “maudu‘ (forged).”

The hadith classification system focuses almost exclusively on the reliability of the chain of transmission. For instance, if one of the narrators in the isnad lacked credibility or is known to have lied then that would discredit the hadith. Similarly, if the hadith was originally reported on the authority of someone who did not meet the Prophet then that would put the hadith in a lower category, and so on.

This near complete concentration of hadith criticism on the chain of transmission reflects the scholars’ view that they could not tell whether a reported event or saying by the Prophet is likely to have happened on the basis of its details, i.e. matn. They could not claim to have the ability to judge, for instance, whether the Prophet could have given a particular instruction or not, because that might implicitly be the equivalent of claiming a level of knowledge that is comparable to that of the Prophet. There are some hadiths that were challenged on the basis of their matns despite the reliability of their chains of transmission — for instance, if they were found to be in conflict with other accepted hadiths — but these are relatively small in number. Significantly, in these cases, scholars are being “forced” to consider the matn, which is a completely different approach from giving matn at least as important a position as isnad in hadith criticism.

In my view, relying almost completely on the credibility of the chain or transmitters and not examining the substance of the hadith to take a view on its credibility is an extreme position that is highly insufficient and likely to mislead:

  • First, examining the chain of transmission can at times allow the scholar to form a firm view on its reliability, but this is not always the case. It is often an extremely difficult task that is fraught with difficulties some of which are insurmountable. Let’s take a hadith whose narrators are considered to be reliable and who are known to have met each other, so they could have heard the matn of the hadith from each other. It is still perfectly possible that the matn of this hadith might be unhistorical. This could be the result of an innocent mistake by one of the narrators or outright forgery. The older any such mistake or forgery the more difficult it is to spot it by later scholars.
  • Second, the Qur’an has a wealth of information and principles that can be used to assess the credibility of the matn of any hadith, so one is not relying completely on their own judgment. The Qur’an, after all, is the word of God which can be used to examine the reliability and accuracy of any other statement, including what people have attributed to the Prophet.
  • Third, one can reject the historicity of any hadith whose matn looks illogical, unreasonable or absurd. The status of Muhammad as the Messenger of God would rule out the possibility of him behaving in the way some hadiths claim or making the kind of statements that are found in some hadith reports.

The science of hadith criticism that Muslim scholars have meticulously developed over the centuries has provided scrutiny of the numerous hadiths. But inevitable limitations in this human system mean complete submission to it was always going to be the wrong approach. The Qur’an is indispensable when assessing the reliability of the matn of the hadith. Similarly, any hadith that attributes an unreasonable or absurd statement or behavior to the Prophet should be rejected regardless of the chain of transmission attached to it. Hadith criticism over-relies on the chain of transmission to the point of making the matn almost irrelevant. This, in my view, has been a serious flaw in hadith criticism which has resulted in the acceptance of a large number of inauthentic hadiths.

Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Oct 112007
The oldest surviving biography of Prophet Muhammad is that of Ibn Hisham (died 833 CE), which is a freely edited version of Ibn Ishaq’s (ca. 704 – 767 CE). In this biography, Ibn Hisham tells us that before the revelation of the Qur’an Muhammad used to retreat for a month every year in a mountain called Hira in Mecca. When he would finish his seclusion he would return to circumbulate the Ka‘ba seven times before heading home. One year, corresponding to 610 CE, the Prophet had retreated in Hira’ in the month of Ramadhan when he was visited by the ruhGabriel who read to him the first verses of the Qur’an to be revealed.

According to Ibn Hisham, Gabriel appeared to Muhammad in his sleep, carrying a book. He commanded him to “read.” Muhammad refused twice the order before finally asking what he was supposed to read. Gabriel replied with following verses of the Qur’an: 

Read in the name of your Lord who created (96.1). He created man from a clot (96.2). Read and your Lord is the most honorable (96.3) who teaches by the pen (96.4). He taught man what he did not know (96.5).

Muhammad then recited the verses in his sleep. When he woke up, he felt as if the words had been engraved on his heart. On his way down from the mountain, the Prophet heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Muhammad! You are the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.”

Al-Bukhari (810-870 CE), whose compilation of sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad is highly regarded by Sunnis, gives a slightly different account: 

The commencement of the divine inspiration to the Messenger of Allah was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed on him. He used to go in seclusion in the Cave of Hira’ where he used to worship [Allah alone] continuously for many days before he would desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to [his wife] Khadija to take food for another stay, until suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the Cave of Hira’. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read.”

The Prophet added, “The angel caught me [forcefully] and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said: 

Read in the name of your Lord who created (96.1). He created man from a clot (96.2). Read and your Lord is most honorable (96.3) who teaches by the pen (96.4). He taught man what he did not know (96.5).

 Then the Messenger of Allah returned with the inspiration and with his heart beating fast. Then he went to [his wife] Khadija bint Khuwailid and said: “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him until his fear was over, and after that he told her everything that had happened and said: “I fear that something may happen to me.” Khadija replied: “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your kith and kin, carry the weak, help the poor, serve your guests generously, and assist the calamity-afflicted ones.” 

Although the overwhelming majority of scholars believe the verses of chapter 96 above are the first to have been revealed, others have disagreed. For instance, in his famous exegesis of the Qur’an, AtTabari quotes some who insist that the first verses of chapter 74 were the first to be revealed. In addition to his citation of those who argue that it was the verses of chapter 96, Al-Bukhari also quotes a number of transmitters of Prophetic sayings who claim that those verses of chapter 74 were revealed first:

[The Messenger of Allah] said: “I went to stay in Hira’. After finishing my stay, and while I was coming down, I was called upon. I looked right, left, in front, and behind, but could not see anyone. But when I raised my head I saw something. I then came to Kadhija and said: ‘Cover me, and pour cold water on me!’ He said: “They covered me and poured cold water on me.” He said: “Then the following verses were revealed: ‘O you who are clothed (74.1)! Arise and warn (74.2)! And your Lord do magnify(74.3).’” 

In his interpretation of verse 96.1 in his renowned exegetical work, Al-Qurtubi (died 1272 CE) adds another two opinions one of which claims that chapter 1, known as Al-Fatiha, was the first to be revealed, and the other claims it was verse 6.151. The majority of scholars, however, believe that the verses of chapter 96 were first revealed.

Despite the conflicing accounts and the impossibility of finding out the exact details of the first revelation of the Qur’an, Muslim scholars and historians have not disputed the fact that the Prophet used to retreat to the Mountain of Hira’ for worship, and the overwhelming majority agree that it was during one of those seclusions that the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed. The books of Prophetic sayings also mention at least two instances after the revelation of the Qur’an in which the Prophet went on Hira’. In one instance he was with a group of his companions when the mountain shook, and in another he was alone when he recited the Qur’an to a group of jinn on that mountain.

Muslims over the centuries continued to climb to the top of the 600-meter high Mountain of Hira’ to visit the cave where the Qur’an was first revealed and to seek blessings. The name Hira’ has become used almost exclusively for that cave, whereas the mountain has become known as the “Mountain of Nur (Light)”, in reference to the revelation of the light of the Qur’an.

I first visited the cave in 2001, when I went for pilgrimage with my wife. I visited it again when we went for ‘umra in 2006, which is when I took the photos in this article. Mecca is in a valley surrounded by desolate hills and mountains, so even when we were getting very close to the mountain we needed our taxi driver to point it out for us. Image 1 shows the mountainous and hilly terrain of that area as seen from the Mountain of Nur:

Image 1 (click to enlarge): A view of the surrounding terrain from the Mountain of Nur

One physical feature that differentiates it from other mountains and hills is its strange looking summit, which makes it look more like two mountains on top of each other:

Image 2 (click to enlarge): The peculiar looking summit of the Mountain of Nur

But that could not answer the question that started to occupy my mind as we were approaching the site: why and how did that seclusion seeking Meccan man choose this particular mountain? It looks just like any other mountain, but it probably looked different to him. Today there is a village at the bottom of the mountain, but in the early sixth century the mountain must have stood in an uninhabited area. This makes it even more mysterious as to how the Prophet chose this mountain.

Climbing the mountain today is much easier than it used to be. Many pilgrims over the years have volunteered to pave the way for visitors. A relatively easy path has been made for a considerable part of the journey, and the friendliest route has been well marked. Some parts of the path have even been turned into relatively easy-to-climb steps:

Image 3 (click to enlarge): Steps made by pilgrims for fellow pilgrims for easier access to the Cave of Hira

In my first climb to see the cave of Muhammad’s meditation and later the revelation of the Qur’an, the idea that the Prophet must have been attracted to this mountain rather than he chose it was becoming stronger as I was making my way up. This feeling became near certainty when, having arrived at the summit, and presumably become very close to the cave, I still failed to know how to find that well hidden cave! Some individuals who were climbing ahead of me had already disappeared by the time I got to the summit, so I knew that they must have found it and that it must be very close, but I just could not see where it could be! Then another visitor who had seen the cave before arrived and showed me the way. It turned out that having climbed to the summit, I now needed to descend to get to the cave!

Image 4 (click to enlarge): You need to climb to the summit of the Mountain of Nur to descend to The Cave of Hira

The dangerous path, which lies left of the position where image 4 was taken, had been turned into some 20 steps or so and a low protective wall has been erected by some volunteers:

Image 5 (click to enlarge): The steps leading to the narrow path to the Cave of Hira

And I was set to get yet further astonished at the cave. When I came down the steps I found myself in front of what is supposedly a path to the cave, as someone had written in Urdu or imperfect Arabic “the door to the cave” on the rocks. But it looked more like a barrier than path!

Image 6 (click to enlarge): The narrow, rocky path leading to the Cave of Hira

The huge rocks protected a very narrow path to the cave. It was so narrow that one had to squeeze himself through. Again, had I not known that the cave was behind those rocks, it would not have occurred to me that this unreassuring path would lead anywhere. In my second visit to the cave, having just left the cave through that narrow path and stood to take some photos, a new pilgrim to the cave who had just arrived had to ask me because he could not figure out where the cave was!

Once you have squeezed yourself through the 3-meter long narrow path to the other side of the rocks you first come to a little open courtyard that is roughly 3×2 meters. At the end of this court is the cone-shaped cave. It is surrounded from the top, right, and left with the same building blocks of that place: large, heavy rocks. It is over 2 meters deep, and about 1.5 meters wide at the beginning, but less than a meter at the front end. It is too small for more than one person to stand comfortably to pray:

Image 7 (click to enlarge): A pilgrim is praying at the entrance of the cave, surrounded by others waiting for their turn to pray

Image 8 and 9 show the cave from the courtyard, and image 10 is from the front end of the cave, showing mainly the courtyard:

Image 8 (click to enlarge): A straight view of the cave from the courtyard

Image 9 (click to enlarge): A side view of the cave from the courtyard

Image 10 (click to enlarge): A view of the courtyard taken from the front end of the cave

Amazingly, the cave faces the direction of the Ka‘ba, so when you pray in the cave you face the Ka‘ba. Remember that Muhammad worshipped and meditated here many years before Allah commanded Muslims to face the Ka’ba during prayer — some 14 years after the revelation of the Qur’an.

The top of the Mountain of Nur in that mountainous desert is surely one of the loneliest places. But the cave, and even the courtyard, is even more isolated. If you stand in the courtyard, you can only look over the surrounding rocks at the desert or, these days, building that are hundreds of meters down and hundreds of meters to many kilometers away. If you sit down, the surrounding rocks are just too high to see anything other than the sky. Inside the cave you are completely surrounded by those rocky walls. It is total isolation and complete emptiness. There is nothing of this world there to see or get distracted by — the ideal place for someone who wanted to forget the world and focus on what lies beyond the present, visible, and material.

No one can stay there even for a minute or two without feeling lonely. In my second visit, which took place when we went for ‘umra, the pilgrims who were there before me left at some point and I found myself on my own for about 5 minutes before new visitors started to arrive. It was so lonely. You do not see or hear anyone, and you feel so apart from the rest of the world. It can be scary in the morning, but it must be utterly terrifying in the night. This is the place that Muhammad frequented and lived in for days and probably weeks, day and night. He wanted to be alone, away from all people, because he was seeking a different company. This is where Muhammad sought and worshipped Allah, the only God, who was going to inspire him, make him His last Prophet, and reveal the Qur’an to him.

Visiting the Cave of Hira’ was one of the most moving and memorable experiences of my pilgrimage and later ‘umra. Having seen how well hidden the cave is, even to someone at its path, there is no way Muhammad, looking up from the bottom of that mountain, could have guessed that somewhere near the summit of that mountain there was a totally isolated cave. We do not know whether he climbed up the mountain looking for the cave he felt existed and needed to find, or whether he was made to find it having been led to explore that summit. But what is certain is that Muhammad must have been drawn to the cave. Allah wanted him to find the cave and make it the private abode that he would frequent to be on his own with Him and think of the spiritual matters that preoccupied him.

My first visit to the cave left me with an overwhelming sense of amazement, reverence, and awe. The belief that it was Allah who led Muhammad to the cave was so intense. But the impact of what I saw and learned about that breathtaking cave and the Prophet’s miraculous journey to its discovery was too strong to easily neutralize by my knowledge that this miracle, like anything else, is easy for Allah to do.

As this visit was during the pilgrimage season and its arresting religious atmosphere, it was normal to find oneself thinking of and remembering Qur’anic verses. But it was still unusual that for the rest of that day one particular verse kept appearing in my head: 

Or, do you [O Muhammad!] think that the People of the Cave and Raqim were too wonderful for Our signs? (18.9)

The reference to the “cave” in the verse should have made me figure out why I kept remembering this particular verse. But I did not realize the link until I told my wife Shetha later that night about the verse I could not forget. She drew my attention to the similarity between my experience in the morning with the cave, which I never stopped talking about all day, and what that verse says.

This is the verse with which Allah starts recounting the story of a group of young men who escaped persecution to a cave and whom Allah put to sleep for 309 years. Interestingly, while “Raqim” is taken by many exegetes to mean “inscriptions,” some have suggested that it might be the name of the “mountain” on which that cave was situated. The verse tells us that as strange as this miracle may look, we must not be surprised by what Allah can do, for He can do anything. I think what was particularly overwhelming for me is how close, visible, and tangible the miracle of the cave was. It is not so often that you can touch a miracle!

In the same way that Muhammad could not have sought and found the cave, he could not have sought and obtained the Book that was revealed in that cave. If he could have really made any choice at all, he could have only chosen to be chosen!

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jun 192006

The cartoons of Prophet Muhammad are the latest saga in what must look like endless sources of tension between Muslims and the West. When looking at how this controversy was started and allowed to escalate, and the reactions that it invoked, one struggles not to think that some Muslims and some Westerners are ready to jump at any opportunity to discredit each other and trade insults. Laying all the blame on the West or Muslims would bear little relation to the facts on the ground.In this article, I will try to analyze what happened and offer a view on what I think went wrong. I will discuss the Qur’an’s perspective on this controversy, evaluate the Muslims’ responses in the light of the Qur’an, assess the response of the supporters of the cartoons in the light of their right to freedom of speech, and finally consider how reconciliation and mutual understanding can be reached.

A Qur’anic Perspective

The Qur’an’s perspective on issues raised by the cartoons controversy may be summarized under six points.

First, the Qur’an prohibits Muslims from insulting the objects of worship of other religions, as seen in its command to the early Muslims not to insult the idols that the people of Arabia used to worship: 

And do not insult those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they would insult Allah out of ignorance. Thus We have made the deeds of every people look fair to them; then to their Lord shall be their return, so He will inform them of what they did (6.108).

Insulting and mocking someone’s beliefs is a highly provocative action that can rarely solicit a rational or positive reaction. Even when instructing the Muslims to try to convert the idolatrous Arabs to Islam, God commands the Muslims to use debates and argue their points in the best possible way:

Call [O Muhammad!] to the way of your Lord with Wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner; surely your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He best knows those who follow the right way (16.125).

Second, if Muslims find their beliefs being insulted, they should turn away from the places and gatherings where this is done, until the offensive attacks against their religion is stopped: 

And He has revealed to you [O you who believe!] in the Book that when you hear Allah’s verses being disbelieved and ridiculed, do not sit with them (those who do so) until they engage in some other conversation. Otherwise, you would be like them; Allah will gather together the hypocrites and the disbelievers all in hell (4.140).

And when you [O Muhammad!] see those who meddle with Our verses, turn away from them until they engage in some other conversation. And if Satan causes you to forget, then do not sit, after you remember, with the wrongdoing people (6.68).

Note that the Muslim is not told to return the insult with insult or violence, but he is commanded to respond in a completely peaceful manner. He should turn away from those who are trying to provoke him and avoid listening to their insults to his religion. This is not a passive reaction to a serious issue, but it is a positive response that protects the Muslim’s faith and underlines his veneration for the symbols of his religion, and also preserves peace and avoid conflict.

These verses also imply that Muslims should not live in isolation from those who do not share their belief. They should avoid them only if they ridicule and insult Islam, but Muslims should continue to cohabitate with non-Muslims if they stop trying to hurt them.

Third, the practice of ridiculing Prophet Muhammad started from the very first days when he started calling people to Islam: 

And when the disbelievers see you [O Muhammad!], they treat you only with mockery, [saying]: “Is this he who speaks of your gods?” And they disbelieve the Remembrance (the Qur’an) of ar-Rahman (Allah) (21.36).

And when they see you [O Muhammad!] , they treat you only with mockery, [saying]: “Is this he whom Allah has sent as a messenger?” (25.41).

The Prophet was continuously berated, reviled, and denigrated. The Qur’an has documented in several verses the different accusations that were leveled at Prophet Muhammad. Some of these charges, which probably mainly came from the polytheistic Arabs, accused Muhammad of basing the Qur’an on confused dreams; making it up; and being merely a poet, a madman, or a soothsayer:

Nay! They (the disbelievers) say: “[The Qur’an is] Medleys of dreams; nay! he has made it up; nay! he is a poet. So let him bring to us a sign as the former [prophets] were sent with” (21.5).

And they (the disbelievers) say: “O you [Muhammad] to whom the Remembrance (the Qur’an) has been revealed! You are a madman” (15.6).

Therefore continue [O Muhammad!] to remind; for by the grace of your Lord, you are not a soothsayer or a madman (52.29).

Another charge was that the Qur’an is a collection of ancient stories that was being taught to and written down for Muhammad by some people:

And they [the disbelievers] say: “[The Qur’an is] stories of the ancients that he [Muhammad] has got them written, as they are read out to him morning and evening” (25.5).

Another verse responds to a specific form of this accusation which claims that the Prophet was being taught by a non-Arab teacher, who was probably Jewish or Christian:

Say [O Muhammad!]: “The Spirit of Holiness [Gabriel] has revealed it [the Qur’an] from your Lord with the truth, that it may establish those who believe and as a guidance and good news for the Muslims (16.102). Certainly We know that they say: “It is a man that teaches him”. The tongue of the man to whom they attribute the Qur’an is foreign, yet this is clear Arabic tongue (16.103). 

This particular accusation is likely to have been leveled at the Prophet by Jews and Christians who did not accept that he could have received revelation in the same way that their prophets had done.

There is not a single verse in the Qur’an that told the Prophet or Muslims in general to respond to the accusers with any form of violence.

Fourth, the Qur’an commands the Muslims to revere Prophet Muhammad and love him even more than their family members, as the reverence and love for the Prophet is derived from and feeds into the reverence and love for God: 

Say [O Muhammad!]: “If your fathers, sons, brothers, mates, clans, properties which you have acquired, trade whose decline you fear, and dwellings which you like, are dearer to you than Allah, His Messenger, and doing jihad in His way, then wait till Allah brings about His command”; and Allah does not guide the backsliders (9.24).

Say [O Muhammad!]: “If you love Allah, then follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your sins”; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful (3.31). 

While Muslims do not worship the Prophet, and only consider him as a human being who is very close to God, all accept that loving him is an essential part of their practice of Islam.

Fifth, the Qur’an states that the Muslim must revere and believe in all other prophets, not only Muhammad. Rejecting the prophethood of any prophet is equivalent to rejecting the prophethood of Muhammad: 

Say [O you who believe!]: “We believe in Allah; and in that which has been sent down to us; and in that which was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the children of Jacob; and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus; and in that which was given to the prophets from their Lord. We do not discriminate between any of them, and to Him we are Muslims (we submit)” (2.136).

Say [O Muhammad!]: “We believe in that which has been sent down to us; and in that which was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the children of Jacob; and in that which was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We do not discriminate between any of them, and to Him we are Muslims (we submit)” (3.84).

This is why Muslims hold prophets such as Moses and Jesus in the highest esteem and would never insult them. It is common practice among Muslims to follow the name of every prophet with the honorific phrase “peace be upon him”.

Sixth, contrary to the belief of many Muslims, the Qur’an does not explicitly prohibit the visual depiction of Prophet Muhammad. Nevertheless, since the early days of Islam Muslims refrained from showing Prophet Muhammad, or in fact any other prophet, in artwork. Sunni Muslims would not depict even his revered companions. Shias do depict their most revered figures after the Prophet, including his cousin and closest companion, Imam ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, but they also do not depict the Prophet. The original reason for this universal consensus on not depicting the Prophet is probably the Qur’an’s censure of the worship of other than God, which is believed to be facilitated by the use of statues, images, and icons. This is why not only Muhammad, but all other prophets are never depicted by Muslims, as they try to avoid a practice they feared could lead some to treat Prophet Muhammad as Christians treated Jesus, i.e. elevate him to divinity. Another, probably later, reason is that Prophet Muhammad is seen as the perfect Muslim, so any visual depiction of him may be seen as violating this perfection.

Let’s look know at the reaction of Muslims to the publication of the cartoons in the light of what the Qur’an says.

The Muslims’ Reaction

The verses above show that the recent defamatory cartoons are nothing other than the latest of countless attacks against Islam and its Prophet which started almost 1400 years ago. What those cartoons and their promoters say is no different from what the idolatrous population of Arabia said 14 centuries ago and what many other opponents of Islam have been saying and doing ever since. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which first published the cartoons in September 2005, and other newspapers that republished them did nothing other than maintain that anti-Islam tradition.

If you look at the publication of the cartoons against this background you would struggle to understand why these specific insults have been given this much attention by Muslims. Of course, the fact that these cartoons continue a centuries long tradition of mocking and defaming Islam, Prophet Muhammad, and Muslims does not give them any legitimacy, but it also in some way shows that there was nothing particularly new about them. The reaction of some Muslims suggests that they have been quite unaware of what has been happening to the image of Islam. There should have not been any sense of surprise, and certainly no shock, at the publication of the cartoons.

What is particularly sad is the violent reaction of some of Muslims, which is completely detached from the teachings of the Qur’an. The Qur’an commands the Muslims to shun those who deliberately insult and ridicule their religion, but some Muslims have rather decided to confront the offenders, and do so in an equally provocative way which can only make the offenders more insolent and insistent on their act. There is absolutely nothing in the Qur’an that gives any Muslim the right to call for the beheading, killing, or physical harming of someone who insults Islam. The Qur’an stresses in many verses how the Prophet himself was being insulted and ridiculed, but there is not a single verse that states that the Prophet or Muslims should attack those offenders. Even the Qur’an’s permission to Muslims to respond to violence with violence came only after 13 years of patient and courageous endurance of all kinds of mistreatment, torture, and killing they were subject to. I have dealt with this issue in more detail in article The Divine Permission for Armed Jihad and other articles that can be found in the Jihad category of articles.

We have seen hundreds and thousands of Muslims attack the Danish and other European embassies in various countries. This is completely unacceptable. The religion that these people claim to represent and defend has never given them the right to do that. Some extremists have demonstrated on the streets of London carrying placards that glorify the 7th/July bombing of London. Islam does not support the glorification of terrorism. Those violent protesters are not true Muslims, and their incitement to murder has nothing to do with Islam. It is instructive that one protestor who dressed up as a suicide bomber turned out to be a convicted drug dealer who was on parole!

Unlike some commentators, I differentiate between violent and emotive reactions, like those cited above, and the economic sanction against Danish products that spread throughout the Muslim world. Muslims have the right to express their outrage at what happened in a peaceful way, and boycotting Danish goods is one of those ways. This is no different from what many interest groups do on a daily basis throughout the democratic world. This is one way for a group of people to make their voice heard. To object to Muslims exercising this right is yet another example of discriminating against them — denying them a right that is given to others. This can only advance the cause of those minority of Muslims who believe that violence is the only means available to them.

It is informative to contrast such limited sanctions with the 13 years long embargo that the West imposed on Iraq. The latter prevented children from getting milk and the ill and weak from getting their medicines, and it killed millions of children, women, and innocent people. May be those who object to the Muslims’ sanction against Danish goods had this embargo on the back of their mind, but surely what the Muslim did has nothing of the cruelty and brutality of the blind sanctions against the people of Iraq. I should also note that regardless of the legality and validity of the grounds on which the sanctions against Iraq were started, they were made to continue for years on the basis of pure lies and misinformation.

Muslims complain, and rightly so, that the West adopts double standards in its dealing with them. They, however, have also to wake up to the fact that they have among them people who are equally involved in double standards. Take for example the burning of the Danish and other embassies. One may argue that the Danish government should have shown more sensitivity and understanding of the feelings of Muslims. In a move that defies any sense, the Danish Prime Minister even refused to meet ambassadors of Muslims countries who requested to discuss with him the escalating issue. But no sensible person would accuse the Danish government of being involved in the publication of the cartoons and the defaming of the Prophet. On the other hand, surely the Taliban government of Afghanistan did so much damage to the image of Islam and Muslims and was directly involved in supporting terrorism under the name of Islam, yet their embassies were not subjected to anything similar to this level of protest for the disservice of Taliban to Islam!

Some protestors also carried banners condemning the freedom of speech. Yet it is this very right that allowed them to voice their anger at the publication of the cartoons. What these protestors should have objected to is not the freedom of expression, but the abuse of this right which they also need and have.

Muslims’ protestation has also confused the issue of the depiction of the Prophet with the way in which he was depicted. Muslims have the right to object to any demeaning depiction of the Prophet, such as the cartoon that showed him as a terrorist carrying on his head a bomb with the Islamic statement of faith written on it. This is clearly offensive, provocative, and inciting. I will discuss this in more detail later. Objecting to any depiction of the Prophet, even if it does not degrade him, is a different matter. Muslims have the right to choose not to depict the Prophet, but whether they have also the right to impose this ban on others is debatable, because it can be seen as an attempt to force their beliefs on someone else.

Let me approach this point from a different angle to illustrate the contradiction in the Muslims’ position. Muslims know that most non-Muslims do not share their belief that Muhammad was the messenger of God. I have already cited examples from the Qur’an about the kind of charges that were leveled at Muhammad. Nothing has changed, and what the population of Arabia claimed at the time is still being claimed today and will continue to be so. Nothing in history suggests that this would change. On religious grounds, accusing Muhammad of being a fake prophet is actually far more serious than depicting him visually. The latter might not imply anything with respect to the verity of the Prophet’s message and his credibility and integrity, but denying Muhammad’s prophethood means that he was a liar, magician, deluded person, and so on. This is surely a bigger attack on the person, integrity, and honor of the Prophet than any neutral depiction of him. This is why those Muslims who object to non-Muslims depicting the Prophet in a non-demeaning way are in contradiction.

A Western Perspective

I will try now to look at the controversy from the Western point of view and judge the actions of the publishers of those cartoons accordingly.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and one of the cornerstones of Western democracy. It signifies the individual’s right to express his views without fear of punishment or retribution. It is this human right that the publishers of the cartoons have been arguing allows them to publish the cartoons. This argument has been applied inaccurately and misleadingly.

The freedom of speech, like any form of freedom, is not a license to say anything as if one has the world for himself and has the right to disregard the effects that what he says may have on other people. I am aware that this argument can cut both ways, and that there would always be a tension between someone’s right to free speech and someone else’s right not to be hurt by that speech. I am not interested in discussing this rather complex issue in abstract terms here, but I would like to show that the publishers of the offensive cartoons understood all too well that freedom of speech is not an absolute right to say anything. In an interview about the cartoons controversy, the editor of Jyllands-Posten stuck to his argument that what he did was nothing more than to exercise his right to freedom of expression. The BBC journalist who was interviewing him, Stephen Sacker, called his bluff by asking him whether he would consider publishing a cartoon of a Jewish rabbi in Nazi uniform. The editor never cited his right to freedom of expression to answer with yes, and chose to dodge the question repeatedly!

The journalist’s question and the failure of the editor to answer it reflect the fact that freedom of expression does not give the person the right to say anything and everything. There are statements that some might find amusing but others see highly offensive or hurtful, and the freedom of expression does not legitimize saying them.

Some in the West have been discussing the cartoons controversy as if Muslims are trying to change the human right of expression by introducing the concept of offensiveness to a world that has never dealt with the term “offensive” before. Every individual and every group of people, including those in the West, have things that they consider offensive. They would be willing to tolerate some of the less offensive things, but they would never tolerate others. In the UK and many other courtiers, the protest of some people at a TV program as being offensive, even if the program did not contain anything that attacks those viewers, could result in it being taken off the screen.

Muslims are not the only group of people who consider some statements and actions as highly offensive and require others not to use them. The failure of Jyllands-Posten’s editor to answer the question clearly shows that he understood this simple fact very well. His failure also exposes his double standards, as he sees that freedom of expression as allowing him to offend some people but not others. There is nothing in the right to speech that discriminates between the feelings of different people. It is the abuse of that right that introduces this pseudo discrimination.

When Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi soldier in a fancy dress party there was near universal condemnation of his “offensive” act, even though he did not do or say anything that glorified what the Nazis did or show disrespect to their victims. Nevertheless, many people felt that what he did was offensive, and he rightly apologized for the hurt he inadvertently caused. The fact that being offensive is wrong and should not be justified under the right to freedom of speech is not an Islamic novelty.

The clever question of the journalist takes me to another important aspect of the offense caused by the cartoons. Cartoons of a Jew in Nazi uniform would have, understandably, hurt the feelings of Jews, but it would not have implied that the Jews themselves did anything wrong. It would not have meant, for instance, that the Jews themselves were like Nazis. The cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, did not only hurt the feelings of Muslims, but were a direct attack on Muslims, their image, and their religion. It does not take a genius to conclude that the cartoon that depicted the Prophet as a terrorist suggests that he is the head of terrorism, and it does not take any more intellect to realize that many people would read this to mean that Muslims in general are terrorists or that they are particularly inclined to terrorism because of their very religion and spiritual guide. This outcome is particularly ensured by the current climate of Islamophobia and misrepresentation of Islam. This makes the cartoons nothing short of being a very effective tool for inciting violence and hatred toward Muslims.

If there is even a hint of justification for publishing the cartoons, and I do not believe there is any, then surely the republication of these offensive images by several European newspapers is nothing other than total provocation and a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims. Additionally, having seen what the publication of these cartoons had already done in terms of straining relationships, outraging people, an even causing many deaths, it is extremely difficult not to think that the publishers have a bad agenda. They are not idiots to think that their reproduction of the cartoons was going to change Muslims’ perception and reaction to them, and I cannot believe that they did not know that this act can only make a bad situation worse.

The publication of the cartoons is an act of abuse, not use, of the right of expression.

Where To Go From Here?

In the cartoons controversy, as is the case in most conflicts, there is always more than one side to the story, and there is not one party that is completely innocent and another that is the epitome of guilt. This latest conflict between Muslims and Westerners was started and fueled by some provocative Westerners, but the reactions of some Muslims were also wrong.

There is a gap of communication and there is mutual cynicism between Muslims and the West. Both sides are applying double standards when dealing with the other, and both are failing to practice what they preach. Westerners are offended, and rightly so, by the scene of a protestor mimicking a suicide bomber. But they have to accept that Muslims have also the right to feel offended by a cartoon that depicts their Prophet as a terrorist. Muslims have to be sensitive to the feelings of non-Muslims, whether in Europe or elsewhere, but equally no one in Europe has the right to tell Muslims what they should consider offensive. If Muslims choose to show utmost reverence for Prophet Muhammad, consider him closer to them even than their family members, and see any attack on him as if it was an attack on their most loved ones, then that is their right and no one should be allowed to interfere with this right. In the same way that Muslims do not have the right to impose their own values and beliefs on others, others do not have the right to impose theirs on Muslims.

Many in the West seem to confuse democracy with moral authority. They behave as if they have the moral high ground in their perceived conflict with Muslims, particularly as most of the latter live in non-democratic counties and many of them who live in Western democracies have yet to learn how to utilize democratic institutions. One major mistake that many Westerners make is to think that democracy cannot be abused. Recent and past history has shown that regimes that are fully democratic within their borders can treat other countries as despotically as the worst dictators. The USA and Britain, for instance, have given themselves the right to decide what happens in some Muslim countries. Surely, the USA and Britain can help those countries learn from their democratic experiences, but their behavior is often nothing short of colonialism and dictatorship masquerading as a campaign to spread democracy. Many Muslims saw in the approach of the West to the cartoons controversy a strong reminder of this abuse of democracy to treat them dictatorially.

Muslims must also take their share of responsibility for the growing gap between them and the West. Muslims who live in the West have a particularly important role to play in building bridges between Muslims and Westerners. But when some European Muslims go on London’s streets to glorify terrorism against the West, we should not be surprised that the Muslims in Islamic countries do not contribute anything positive and constructive to the much needed dialog and understanding between the West and Islam. Those Western Muslims who do not like what is being done to the name of Islam in the West have two options: shun the West and go elsewhere, or respond to any black propaganda in a positive and peaceful way, making full use of the democratic institutions and the law of the land. If these Muslims have learned anything from living in the West, then they need to show that, and they need to convey this learning to fellow Muslims who have not had the opportunity of experiencing a different culture and living in a democracy.

Most of the time Muslims and the West seem to be locked in battle of moral supremacy. Enough self-indulgence and the addictive drug of looking in the mirror. We all need to learn to be aware and respectful of the others, at least as much as we are aware and respectful of ourselves. We have to first accept that we need to learn from each other, and we then need to learn how to do that. In a changing world whose distant parts are getting increasingly closer to each other, mutual understanding and tolerance are our only option.

Copyright © 2006 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jan 292004

This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.

Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 CE (Common Era) in the city of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, part of modern day Saudi Arabia. As his father had died shortly after marriage, his grandfather ‘Abd al-Muttalib became his guardian. ‘Abd al-Muttalib was the respected head of the clan of Hashim and the tribe of Quraysh, to which his clan belonged. With the Quraysh being the biggest and most influential tribe in Mecca, ‘Abd al-Muttalib was seen as the master of all of Mecca. The Quraysh had a special status in Mecca because they used to be in charge of the sacred Ka’ba. The Qur’an tells us that this holy edifice was built by Prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael:

And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House [Abraham prayed]: “Our Lord! Accept from us; surely You are the Hearing, the Knowing (2.127). Our Lord! Make us Muslims and raise from our offspring a nation of Muslims. Show us our ways of worship, and relent toward us. Surely, Your are the Relenting, the Merciful” (2.128).

This means that the Ka’ba was built around 1900 BCE, which is when Abraham is thought to have lived. The Ka’ba maintained its venerable status as the destination of pilgrimage in the eyes of the pilgrims and the Arab population of the Arabian Peninsula down the centuries. ‘Abd al-Muttalib was personally in charge of the Ka’ba.

The Prophet was only about five to six years old when he lost his mother. Orphan Muhammad then lost his grandfather and custodian ‘Abd al-Muttalib at the age of eight. Now one of ‘Abd al-Muttalib’s sons, Abu Talib, became the guardian of his orphan nephew. Though respected by the clan of Hashim and the people of Mecca in general, Abu Talib did not possess the high status and influence of his father. Had he been more fortunate financially, he might have aspired to acquire that special leadership status.

When Muhammad was twenty five years old, he was hired by a woman called Khadija to take her merchandize to Syria. Khadija, a widow fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, later proposed marriage to him, which he agreed to. They lived together for almost a quarter of a century, until the death of Khadija about 8-9 years after the revelation of the Qur’an.

It is interesting to note that Muhammad did not get married to any other woman during Khadija’s life, despite the fact that polygamy was common practice in that society. Living out his youth with only one woman in that highly polygamous environment contradicts Muhammad’s lecherous image in the Western mind.

Muhammad was deeply interested in matters beyond this mundane life. He used to frequent a cave that became known as “Hira‘” on the Mountain of “Nur” (light) for contemplation. The cave itself, which survived the times, gives a very vivid image of Muhammad’s spiritual inclinations. Resting on the top of one of the mountains north of Mecca, the cave is completely isolated from the rest of the world. In fact, it is not easy to find at all even if one knew it existed. After visiting the cave, I found myself concluding that Muhammad must have been divinely guided to that hideaway, even if he had chosen it consciously. Once inside the cave, it is a total isolation. Nothing can be seen other than the clear, beautiful sky above and the many surrounding mountains. Very little of this world can be seen or heard from inside the cave. The inhabitant of that cave was obviously interested in things beyond this world and its material riches.

It was in that cave in 610 CE, i.e. at the age of forty, that Prophet Muhammad received from Allah the first verses of the Qur’an. Then and there, history changed.

The Qur’an continued to be revealed in fragments to Prophet Muhammad over the following twenty two years. The last words of the Book were revealed to the Prophet shortly before his death in 632 CE. We will read more about the Qur’an in section 2.2.

In the first two to three years after the revelation, the Prophet preached Islam secretly to individuals whom he trusted. When he started calling people to Islam publicly, the new religion gradually attracted more people but, not surprisingly, also increasing hostility from the idol worshipping population of Mecca. The Prophet was subjected to harassment and abuse. However, armed with patience, resilience, and determination, and protected by his uncle Abu Talib and the clan of Hashim, the Prophet was able to carry on preaching the new faith to people.

Converts to Islam, some of whom were slaves, had to suffer all kinds of persecution, including brutal torture and murder, at the hands of the enemies of the new religion in Mecca. In 614 CE, the Prophet had to instruct a group of Muslims to escape the persecution to Abyssinia and seek the protection of its just Christian king. The Quraysh then sent a delegation to the king, carrying precious gifts, to secure the extradition of the Muslim refugees. The king, however, rejected the bribe and let the Muslims stay in Abyssinia.

One year later, the Quraysh imposed economic and social sanctions on the Prophet, his followers, and his clan. As a result, the Muslims withdrew to a mountain in Mecca. The sanctions lasted about three years before collapsing in 618/619 CE without achieving their goals.

Soon afterward, the Prophet lost his wife Khadija. Matters got worse quickly with the death of his uncle and protector. Prophet Muhammad started to suffer more from the disbelievers’ relentless attempts to uproot Islam and destroy its followers. During the pilgrimage season in 622 CE, Muhammad met in Mecca with a number of chiefs from the city of Yathrib, where he had previously sent some Muslims to settle in. Having converted to Islam, the chiefs made a secret pledge to protect the Prophet should the Quraysh try to kill him.

However, the Quraysh learned about the agreement, so the people from Yathrib had to return quickly to their city. Sensing that the danger to Muslims has increased, Muhammad instructed them to immigrate individually or in small groups to Yathrib. The Qurayshites tried to prevent Muslims from fleeing Mecca to Yathrib, but the converts continued to sneak out gradually.

The continuing immigration of Muslims to Yathrib where they had allies was already very bad news for the Qurayshites. This could yet get much worse if Muhammad also would move to that city. They decided that they had no other option but to kill him.

The various clans of the tribe of Quraysh agreed to act as one and assassinate the Prophet while asleep. The idea behind acting collectively was that no one party could be blamed for the killing and become embroiled in a war of vengeance with the clan of Hashim.

The assassination plan, however, was sabotaged by divine intervention. The night the murder was planned to take place, Allah informed His Prophet of the danger and ordered him to secretly leave Mecca and head to the city of Yathrib. The latter became known as “al-Madina al-Munawwara” (the illuminated city), or “al-Madina” for brief, after the arrival of the Prophet.

This famous event, known as the “Hijra ” (immigration), occurred in 622 CE, about twelve years after the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an. This flight was destined to have far-reaching consequences in establishing the Islamic community, strengthening the position of Islam, and spreading its message.

The Prophet lived in al-Madina for about ten years. By the time of his departure from this world in 632 CE, Islam had become well established as the religion of the Arabian Peninsula and had made inroads in neighboring regions; Muslims had become a major force to be reckoned with in the area.

There are a number of good, detailed English biographies of Prophet Muhammad. One biography written by a non-Muslim is Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (London: Phoenix Press, 2001). Another one written by a Muslim is Martin Lings’ Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Inner Traditions Intl Ltd, 1987).

For easy reference, this is a short chronology of major events in the life of Prophet Muhammad:

Date (CE)



Birth of the Prophet in Mecca. His father was already dead when he was born.


The death of the Prophet’s mother.


The death of the Prophet’s grandfather and custodian ‘Abd al-Muttalib. The Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib became his guardian.


The first revelation of the Qur’an.


The Prophet started calling people to Islam publicly.


The first immigration of Muslims to Abyssinia escaping the persecution of the idol-worshipping Meccans. They stayed there for three months. A second immigration to Abyssinia, involving more Muslims, took place later on. This time, the immigrants stayed in Abyssinia until 628 CE when they rejoined the Prophet in al-Madina.


The tribe of Quraysh imposed economic and social sanctions on Muslims and the clan of Prophet Muhammad, Hashim.


The collapse of the sanctions.


The death of Abu Talib, the Prophet’s uncle, triggering increased hostility from the Meccans toward the Prophet.


The emigration of the Prophet from Mecca to al-Madina.


The first major battle of the Muslims against the disbelievers, known as the battle of Badr.


The Muslims conquered Mecca without fighting.


The last revelation of the Qur’an.


The departure of the Prophet from this world in al-Madina.

Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
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