Rageh Omaar presents a series charting the life of Muhammad. Beginning in Muhammad's birthplace of Mecca, he investigates the Arabia Muhammad was born into.
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1,400 years ago a man born here, in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia,
changed the course of world history.
If you had to rate the top people in the history of the world,
the name of Muhammad would be in the top three.
Here we have a man who began a mission.
He gave light to the world.
For one and a half billion Muslims, he is the last and greatest
of that long line of prophets who have brought the word of God to humanity.
He was not just a spiritual genius, but he also had political gifts of a very high order.
He laid the foundations for a religion, Islam,
that after his death developed a culture and civilization that spread around the world
and inspired some of the most beautiful architecture.
But today, Islam is at the very heart of the conflict that defines our world
and Muhammad's name is associated with some of the most appalling acts
of terrorism the world has ever seen.
Osama bin Laden and others who have committed acts of Jihad terrorism
consistently invoke the Qur'an and Muhammad's example, to justify what they are doing.
Obedience to one true God, Allah, and follow in the footsteps
for the final prophet and messenger...
Outside of the Islamic world, almost nothing is known about Muhammad,
whereas for Muslims, he is the ultimate role model and his life is known in every detail.
So who was he? What was his message?
And why are so many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, divided over his legacy?
In this groundbreaking series, I will explore the many complexities of his life story,
about the Revelations he is said to have received from God, about his many wives,
about his relations with the Jews of Arabia, about his use of war and peace
and about the laws that he enacted when he set up his own state.
I want to examine his life and times and understand how they still affect
today's world and whether they are a force for good or evil.
I want to uncover the real Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.
Peace be upon him.
When Muslims come on a pilgrimage to Mecca they put on two simple pieces of white cloth.
They discard their everyday clothes, in favour of these simple cloths,
which symbolises purity and make everyone equal,
a tradition dating back to Muhammad's time, more than 1,400 years ago.
Just after I was born, the very first words whispered into my ear were those of the Shahada,
the simple statement of faith. "There is no God but Allah, Muhammad is God's messenger."
Words that link me to this holy place and to the founder of Islam.
Like most Muslims, the first human name I heard was not that of my mother or father, but of Muhammad.
I first came to Mecca over 30 years ago, as a child
of just five years, with my family, on Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage.
As pilgrims, we came to the Grand Mosque,
to the Kaaba, the most familiar symbol of Islam.
It is the place to which Muslims face, everyday, wherever they may be, in prayer.
When Muslims circle the Kaaba, they walk in the footsteps of their Prophet, Muhammad,
in devotion to God.
People come from the four corners of the world, but what unites
everyone here is a desire to emulate the life of the Prophet Muhammad...
..a man as important to Muslims as Jesus is to Christians.
A man defines who they are.
But unlike Jesus, Muhammad was not the Son of God.
For him, there was no miraculous birth, no healing miracles and no resurrection after death.
He was just a man.
Muhammad was born 1,400 years ago in one of the world's most inhospitable regions.
It was a stark, harsh environment of mountain, desert and searing heat, one-third the size of Europe.
The vast emptiness of Arabia was sandwiched between two of the ancient world's great powers.
To the north was Christian Byzantium,
the last remnant of the Roman Empire, with its capital in Constantinople.
To the east was another ancient civilisation, the Sassanids, the remains of the Great Persian Empire.
In between, were hundreds of Arab tribes and clans,
constantly competing in a battle for supremacy and survival.
There were very few cities. One of them was Mecca, the city where Muhammad was born.
Muhammad is believed to have been born
on a spot close to here, in the year 570.
His father Abdullah died before he was born
and his mother, Aminah, was very poor.
And what's really interesting is, at the time, there was no sense of the coming of a messiah,
no stars in the sky and wise men didn't travel from afar in order to worship him.
In fact, at the time, barely anyone noticed and no-one really cared.
And yet today there isn't anything to mark where Muhammad was born.
No shrine, no museum, not even a plaque on a wall.
Most Muslims make a clear distinction between the messenger and the message.
Muhammad may be held in high esteem, but to worship HIM
is considered "shirq", a heinous and unforgivable corruption of Islam.
So, over the years many sites connected with Muhammad and his life
have been removed, to ensure there is no worship of anyone other than God.
The same goes for visual depictions of Muhammad.
Unlike in Christian Churches, with their myriad images of Jesus
on the cross and the Virgin Mary, mosques have no images of Muhammad or any other person at all.
What is very important in the Islamic tradition
is to understand the very essence of monotheism, what we call "tawhid"
in Arabic, the oneness of God. He is beyond everything and we don't represent God,
but in order to be quite clear in this relationship with God, we never represent or have an
image of any of the prophets. It's not only the last prophet, Muhammad,
it's all the prophets - Abraham, Moses, Jesus are not seen and drawn or anything like this in Islam.
It's out of respect towards this oneness of God and following the messenger, never worshipping him.
In the past, some Ottoman and Persian miniature paintings have depicted Muhammad,
but his face was always hidden behind a veil.
But in the West there is a long history of depicting Muhammad in drawings and paintings.
Most recently a Danish cartoon portrayed him as a terrorist, with a bomb in his turban.
This led to an explosion of anger and protest right across the Muslim world,
not just because it was showing Muhammad's face, but also because it was ridiculing him, too.
Despite the lack of visual imagery, the written sources for Muhammad's life are extensive.
The first is the Qur'an itself, Islam's holy book, but there is also a rich library of stories
and sayings connected to Muhammad preserved and written down after his death, and known as the Hadith.
Muslim scholars had to sift through thousands of sayings and stories
about Muhammad, to check their validity.
Muslim scholars themselves were terribly worried to try and verify whether
the Hadith they were collecting were true,
whether they were false,
whether they were fabricated.
The problem that scholars have with it is,
one, it's only set down in writing at a much later time.
The actual earliest physical text that we can hold are actually only
from the 820s, and Muhammad dies in 632, so that's a long period.
Obviously yes, of course they've been transmitted over time,
but with transmission orally over time, problems can come in.
The Arabs relied on their memory throughout history,
their history and their genealogy was all retained by memory and Muhammad
was a very important man.
By the time he died, he had hundreds of thousands of people following him
or some opposing him. And they all said and preserved
all this and that is a source which cannot be ignored
simply because some people say, "No, this is an just an invention"
or that it was written later. It wasn't.
While the veracity of the Hadiths is still debated and argued over,
there are, remarkably, accounts of Muhammad's existence from non-Muslim sources.
Non-Muslim evidence for Muhammad is not copious, it exists.
The name Muhammad is attested in Greek,
Syriac and Armenian writings from, say, the first 30 years after the death of Muhammad.
Which 30 years after Muhammad's death is, I suppose, pretty good.
The Armenian historian, Sebeos, wrote about Muhammad just 24 years after his death.
The particular interest
here is, that for the first time, in Armenian, someone talks about
Muhammad and mentions him
by name and says a little bit about what he did.
Sebeos himself was talking about the events around the year 630,
which was before Muhammad had actually died.
Sebeos gives a surprisingly accurate account of Muhammad's background and teachings.
Translating from the Armenian...
"At that time, a certain man, whose name was Mehmet" -
which is the usual name for Muhammad in Armenian - "a merchant,
"as if by the command of God, appeared to them as a preacher."
"Now, Muhammad gave them laws,
"namely, not to eat carrion, not to drink wine,
"not to speak falsehood and not to engage in fornication."
Sebeos and other non-Muslim historians write about
the existence of Muhammad in roughly the same timeframe as Muslim accounts.
Together, with the Hadiths and the Qur'an,
we have a large body of detailed facts about the life of Muhammad.
We know he was born into the tribe that ruled the town of Mecca,
the Quraysh, and that his family was poor.
His father had died before he was born and left his mother, Aminah, little to live on.
When he was just a few months old, she handed him over to a Bedouin tribe living on the outskirts
of the town - a tradition among the Arabs of the time.
Muhammad had a Bedouin wet nurse and lived a nomadic life for the first four years of his life.
Arabia at the time of Muhammad's birth was a cruel place to live.
There was no law, no state and very little peace.
Tribal loyalty and customs were the only sources of protection.
Justice was harsh, arbitrary, and it was swift and the punishments were brutal.
A man, for example, caught stealing a loaf of bread would be killed,
and it meant that the daily struggle for survival left very little room for compassion.
For most people, there was very little chance of a better existence.
Muslims have a special word to describe this era,
the Jahiliyah, or The Age of Ignorance.
This was a society that had its structures, a belief system,
but not as we would understand an organised religion today.
The peoples of Arabia
were polytheistic. They venerated a number of different gods.
In general, each tribe had their own patron god and that was the case throughout Arabia.
And Mecca, Muhammad's birthplace, is believed to have been the most
important centre of this polytheistic worship.
There was a long established Arabian paganism, as we'd call it today,
that took virtually the same form in most of the cities and settled regions.
There would be a, sort of, square shrine in the middle,
circumambulation around it and various gods.
There was Allah, the high god, and there were goddesses,
but most of the Arabs
were not particularly religious, in that sense.
This was something more for the settled areas - the towns, the agricultural settlements.
Orthodox Muslims believe the Kaaba was built by God in the time of Adam,
but there is no archaeological or historical evidence to confirm its exact origins.
By the time of Muhammad's birth, it had long been a shrine,
drawing people to the town of Mecca, the centre of pagan cults for the peoples of Arabia.
Muslim sources acknowledge that the Kaaba is a central
temple for the worship of god, which has existed from time immemorial,
so there's a sense in which
the first founder of this particular sanctuary for god was Adam
and then the various prophets after kept it up, then it was eroded away,
as people moved away from the worship of the one god
and then it was rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael and then again people forgot what its reason was.
There are no non-Muslim sources which connect Abraham to Mecca, but by Muhammad's birth,
the Kaaba contained the idols of over 360 different gods, each one venerated in its own right.
There was a special time of truce declared every year, when all the
hostile tribes could come to Mecca to circle the Kaaba and worship their Gods without fear of conflict.
This regular pilgrimage brought many people to Mecca and that meant trade and wealth.
The tribe Muhammad was born into, the Quraysh, controlled the running of the Kaaba
and so were rich and powerful, although Muhammad's immediate family were not part of the ruling elite.
At the age of five, Muhammad returned to his mother, Aminah, and lived in Mecca.
But she was in poor health.
She decided to visit some of her family in Yathrib, a town about 300km north of Mecca.
But as the camel caravan made its way through the desert, Aminah's illness got worse.
The caravan stopped here, in the small oasis of Abwa, in order to drop off Muhammad and his mother,
in the hope that she would recover her strength. But it was not to be.
After just a few days, Aminah died.
With both his parents now dead, Muhammad was all alone in the world, an orphan at the tender age of six.
These searing events would have a profound impact on his outlook and his personality.
Muhammad's virtually alone at this resting place,
watching his mother die
and it's only when the next caravan
comes on this well-established journey
that he gets re-integrated into society.
It must have been terrifying, deeply poignant and disturbing.
The young Muhammad was to learn even more about loss and sorrow.
He was taken in by his paternal grandfather, who died just two years later,
before coming under the protection of his uncle, Abu Talib, a powerful figure among the Meccan elite.
Abu Talib was a trader, taking caravans to Syria, part of a business which from
ancient times connected Arabia to the populous centres
and civilizations of the Middle East and beyond.
Mecca was a link in that chain.
I imagine trading caravans picking up the spices
in Yemen, or the silver or the leather,
bringing them to Mecca and a quite separate group of traders
picking them up and taking them to Syria, to Gaza, to Egypt, to Palestine.
And all around the holy sanctuary you'd have had the bustle of trading and of camels being gathered.
For Muslims, Mecca is seen as a major trading centre at the time
and a fitting place for the birth of their Prophet.
But some historians dispute its historical importance.
The Muslim tradition gives us a portrait of Mecca
as this great trading city,
this great pagan cult centre and the problem is that
the archaeology and the records of the time do not back this up.
Mecca, if it existed, was way off any trading routes
and we have no mention of it, at all, before the Islamic era.
This is easily explained
by the fact that Mecca was in the middle of the desert
and we know that these foreigners, historians,
would not cross such a hostile terrain
as the Arabian desert to get to Mecca, they kept
to the sea or to the coast and if they haven't talked about it, this is understandable.
I mean, people here didn't talk about Timbuktu
the 18th century or before. It didn't mean they didn't exist.
The charge by some historians is that, after Muhammad's death,
Muslim historians deliberately exaggerated the importance of Mecca.
This was done, they claim, in order to show that Muhammad was born in a rich and important city with its
own religious history, independent of any Jewish and Christian influences.
I am not saying that there was no place called Mecca.
There must have been somewhere called Mecca before Islam, it's just not very well attested.
But its importance for Islam, I would imagine,
is something that
is discovered by the early Muslim community, as it develops.
By the early Muslim community I'm not thinking of the Prophet and his followers, but rather Islam
as it begins to develop, following the Arab conquest of the Middle East.
Whatever the importance of Mecca, Muhammad's involvement
in the caravan trade was an extraordinary opportunity.
Not only did it lift him out of poverty, but it also brought him into contact with the outside world.
The pace of travel was slow - through deserts and oasis,
through Arabian towns and past the ruins of ancient civilizations,
such as Petra, the capital of the Nabatean Arab civilization, brought to ruin by a massive earthquake.
In his travels, Muhammad would have heard stories about these
other peoples with their alien cultures and different faiths.
When I talk to extremely pious Muslims, they don't want any influences at all.
They just want the Prophet like a white sheet of paper to be written on by the words of God.
One can still allow that image, but absolutely, for me, the caravans are vital.
The experience of knowing the tribes, of dealing in marketplaces,
seeing what people wanted from the world, seeing the difficulties of the world, experiencing the ruins
of great Arabic civilizations, passing by the ruins of Petra, looking at the glories of Damascus.
That experience of the world, he knew about the realities of what the Arab world was about.
According to Muslim tradition, by the time he was 21,
Muhammad had gained a reputation for integrity and was known as 'al-Amin' and 'al-Sadiq',
the honest and truthful one.
So what did Muhammad, a man entering his prime, actually look like?
Although Muslim tradition prohibits any portraits of him, we do have a detailed written account
from one of the earliest biographies, that describes him as
"a little above average height.
"He had a sturdy build with long muscular limbs and tapering fingers.
"His hair was long, thick and wavy.
"His eyes were large and black, with a touch of brown. His beard was thick.
"He was of fair complexion and now ready to get married."
Muhammad's first attempt to find a wife ended in humiliating failure.
When he asked his uncle for the hand of his daughter,
he was refused because of his lowly status as an orphan.
But then, his luck changed dramatically.
He was asked by a rich older woman called Khadija to do some business for her in Syria.
When Muhammad fulfilled his promise and brought her a good profit,
she did a very unusual thing. She asked him to marry her.
His marriage to Syedna Khadija was most unusual.
She was most unusual to start off with, being, you know,
a little bit older than him and also being so successful
in her own right as a businesswoman,
but I think it could actually be quite unusual, even by today's time.
I mean many men - Western men, Muslim/non-Muslim - are intimidated by successful women,
so I think it shows great strength of character, confidence and respect
for women in the Prophet himself that he entered into this marriage back then and anyone who would do
so now would have to have those qualities, as well.
Even in today's Islamic world, it would be unusual for an older woman to marry a younger man.
But in Muhammad's day, it was almost unheard of.
In most of Arabia, women before the coming of Islam
were treated as little better than animals and had few human rights,
but city life, merchant life, often gives women opportunities.
They quite often took an important part in cottage industries and trading
and Khadija seems to have been one of these women. She was widowed and her husband had probably left
her a sort of a business and it was a good business, powerful business, and she was able to manage it.
Muhammad's marriage to Khadija lasted 24 years.
Despite polygamy being the norm, while Khadija was still alive, Muhammad never took another wife.
And by all accounts, Muhammad never stopped Khadija from carrying on her business, an independent
status most Muslim societies still struggle to offer to women today.
An older woman marrying a younger man today is still stigmatised.
The idea of women in business, in politics,
is also difficult in Muslim societies.
In the case of Khadija, she is proof that women are an equal partner
in creating a Muslim society.
Muhammad's marriage to Khadija brought him personal happiness,
but it did not mean that he was content with his life or the ways of the world in which he lived.
He, from age 25 to 40, should have been the prime of his life.
He'd got Khadija, a wealthy, beautiful, Arab woman who trusted him.
He'd got four beautiful daughters and had two sons born of him which didn't survive.
He'd become a man of respect. He was from a respectful clan anyway, but now he had the family to back him.
And in a funny way, he'd risen to the top of his society and had become sort of sickened
at what that meant, with the sort of violence of clan society and the way that wealth could buy you anything.
The fact was that Muhammad was not happy.
He himself had experienced the extremes of Arab tribal society,
and the iniquities of tribal life disturbed him and made him uneasy.
By all accounts, he'd reached a moment of personal crisis.
He was really upset by
the bad treatment of the poor
and the weak and the down-trodden people in society.
There's definitely this great ontological anxiety he had
about, you know, the big questions - why we are here?
What's the purpose of life? How do we make sense of the world around us?
I believe he was looking for a connection, just like Abraham was looking when he was young,
just like Moses was looking when he was wandering the valleys, just like
all the other prophets of the Old and New Testament were looking.
Probably at the heart of it also is the most rooted issue for many who begin to question
their society and even question, if you will,
the morality of the society and the religious values
they were raised with, which get down to the nature of God.
According to Muslim tradition, at this time, Muhammad, had begun to make regular spiritual retreats.
Throughout the year he would take Khadija and his family
up into the mountains above Mecca to seek peace and quiet, and pray.
What was Muhammad after?
What was he seeking and what was he doing?
He was certainly troubled and he was seeking some kind of spiritual truth.
Muhammad's spiritual retreats were becoming more intense and ever more frequent
and they were devoted to really intense personal reflection and meditation.
And he chose this spot, Jebil Nur, which is a hill far up
and a really challenging climb up from the city down below.
He would climb all the way to the very top, to a cave,
known as Gar Hira, and it was there that he would spend hours,
in fact, whole days and nights, in ever more intense and fervent meditation.
Until one day, in the year 610 something happened that would
transform not just his life, but the entire history of the world.
According to Muslim tradition Muhammad was meditating, as usual, and he fell asleep.
But then suddenly he awoke in abject terror, his body was shaking uncontrollably.
He later described the experience as if an angel had him in such
a tight, suffocating embrace that he felt that his life was being squeezed out of him.
As he lay there, completely shattered, Muhammad heard one voice
and it commanded him with one word, "Iqra!" - "Read!"
But Muhammad replied, "I can't. I'm not one of those who read."
The voice returned for a second time, "Read."
Muhammad replied, "I'm not one of those who read."
Then the voice returned for a third time, "Read."
On this third command Muhammad replied. "What shall I read?"
He was able to hear the divine message.
And it's quite clear that revelation -
some of the prophets of Israel had this experience, too - is devastating.
Not a nice peaceful experience,
but something that racks them in every limb.
Prophet Jeremiah cried aloud,
"Ah, God, God. I can't speak, I'm a child.
"Your revelation hurts me in every limb."
Isaiah when he saw his vision of God in the temple said,
"I am dead, I have looked on the Lord of Hosts."
This is a lethal power, because the impact of what's coming through is shattering.
Your world goes, the world, as it was before, goes.
You have an essence
of the divine power, which you have to articulate,
that's the role of prophets, into the language of your time,
into the metaphors of your time, so that people around you can understand
this completely unworldly experience you have.
For me, the prophet has got that sort of terrifying brief access to divine power
and he's using that consciousness that sort of flooded into his body and creating the words.
This is the defining moment in Muhammad's life.
And today, for the one and a half billion people all around the world who follow him, completely accepting
his revelation defines what it means to be a Muslim.
And yet, at the time of the first revelation at the Cave of Hira,
Muhammad's reaction was very different.
Muhammad ran to his beloved wife. "Khadija, oh, Khadija," he said. "Cover me, cover me.
"What has happened to me? I fear for myself."
Khadija took her cloak and covered his exhausted body and then, with all of his doubts,
she was the one who reassured him about his experience.
Khadija's words not only calmed Muhammad,
but they also helped him reconcile himself with what had happened.
The seeker had finally found what he was looking for.
But then, nothing.
Muhammad's first blinding revelation was followed by a long silence that threw him into complete crisis.
Had he been deluded after all?
Was the Revelation just meaningless hysteria?
Had Muhammad the Seeker been abandoned by God?
He was absolutely in despair.
One of the sources says he was so despairing, he almost flung himself off the top of the mountain.
Days of silence became weeks, then months.
All the while, Muhammad lived in turmoil, doubting what he had experienced, doubting himself.
Then one morning, after several months, the long silence ended and the revelations began again.
Muhammad now began to understand that he had a special responsibility. He had a message.
Like the other prophets before him,
he believed God had given him a vision.
His duty was to share this message, to pass it on to the people
around him, to help them change their lives for the better.
Muhammad's Revelations would become the sacred text of Islam
and what is now known as the Qur'an, literally "the recitation".
The Orthodox Muslim position is that it is God himself
who is the author of the Qur'an and Muhammad was just the person
just the person to whom it was first revealed.
The Qur'an is considered by most Muslims to be God's miracle.
Throughout Muhammad's life, he steadfastly denied he had any miraculous powers,
he insisted no extraordinary signs and wonders were associated with him,
except for the words. He was just a man, the Qur'an,
the message, was the only miracle that mattered,
the spiritual power of the message is in the words themselves.
Almost all Muslims believe that Muhammad was unable to read or write.
His illiteracy has become essential to their faith. It is important because some critics of Islam have
often claimed that Muhammad in his travels must have read Christian
and Jewish scriptures,
and so borrowed religious ideas from them which he then rehashed as his own message.
But if he could not read or write then he was,
the Muslim argument goes, pure and free of any such influences,
and the revelations that form the basis of the new religion of Islam came direct from God.
It is very important for Muslims to believe that the Qur'an
is the unmediated word of God.
That Muhammad did not obtain it
from Christian or Jewish or Samaritans.
That is why, despite the Qur'an actually saying the opposite,
tradition says that he was illiterate.
That is also why he is put in the middle of a desert,
because in the middle of a desert he is hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the melting pot
of the Near East, the place where all these extraordinary religious traditions
are bubbling and welling up.
To present the argument that the Qur'an
is influenced by Judaism and Christianity is quite absurd.
Clearly Islam sees itself
as continuation of the monotheistic tradition.
We are a continuation of Judaism
and Christianity. So of course we are influenced by these religions.
The Qur'an clearly says that the Prophet Muhammad could not write with his right hand.
It is very clearly mentioned in the Qur'an. And although the term
Umi doesn't mean illiterate, it means not versed,
not learned, it means a person who has not studied
and learned scripture, but it has the implication of
also being someone who is illiterate.
But the point also is that when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Prophet Muhammad
in the cave and tells him, "Read", the Prophet says, "I can't read."
The Qur'an is as sacred to Muslims as the person of Jesus is to Christians.
Whereas for Christians Jesus is the word of God, the logos, and for him to remain divine and pure
his conception has to be unsullied by man, for Muslims it is the Qur'an that is the word of God
and so for it to remain divine it has to be untarnished by any human interference too.
So dishonouring the Qur'an is profoundly shocking to Muslims
as it is an attack not only on Muhammad but also on God himself.
In recent years there have been numerous instances where the Qur'an has been burnt or desecrated.
Sometimes to humiliate Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo Bay,
sometimes as a reaction to a terrorist attack.
Initially, Muhammad took his message to those closest to him.
The first convert was his wife Khadija, followed by family members like his teenage cousin, Ali,
who would eventually marry Muhammad's daughter.
And then there were good friends, like the prominent local
businessman like Abu Bakr, who would eventually succeed Muhammad as the first Caliph of Islam.
It's often said that the earliest Muslims were a mixture of young men
from aristocratic families,
as well as those who were very much in the margins of society.
So there's the idea that Islam was a revolutionary message.
Revolutionary in the sense that it actually wanted to
overturn the social order, the cosmic order of society at the time.
The process of conversion was as straightforward as it is today.
All it requires is the simple statement of faith in front of two witnesses.
The key requirement is that conversion
must be the exercise of free and informed personal choice.
In fact, one of the most important people in Muhammad's life, Abu Talib, who was his uncle
and the head of his clan, who protected him throughout all his troubles in Mecca,
never converted, despite Muhammad's best efforts to persuade him,
and there was nothing he could do about it.
The most direct, the most unequivocal statement in the
Qur'an is "There is no compulsion in religion." No ifs, ands or buts.
That is the essence. Unless you make a free choice,
a free, willing choice for faith, you cannot be held accountable
for your actions thereafter, that's the essence of what Islam is about.
The Qur'an itself is quite clear.
There is an oft-quoted example from the Qur'an itself,
there should be no compulsion in religious matters,
and the Prophet said even vis a vis the pagan Arabs,
"To you your religion and to me mine."
And that seems a very good way of promoting tolerance.
But of course, throughout history we have seen that that kind of attitude has not been respected.
The divine revelation that Muhammad was preaching would later become known as Islam,
which literally means "surrender".
So a believer, a Muslim, is one who surrenders to God.
The origin of the word is from "salaam", meaning peace.
At first, when Muhammad began his mission to the people of Mecca, he kept referring back to the
Abrahamic message of the Christian and Jewish prophets, that he was only
preaching what they had preached - the message of the one true God.
And he repeatedly warns against oppression and the injustices of Meccan society.
He becomes, and is, in many ways the heart of what a prophet is.
A prophet is one who yes, brings and declares God's message
but a prophet at heart is a warner,
because he is a reformer, the reformer is warning the
society and saying this is a society that has departed from the straight path.
Muhammad's message was not always welcome.
The rulers of Mecca, the Quraysh, disliked what he preached about equality for all.
The more he preached, the more incensed the Quraysh became.
So they tried to make him change his mind by offering him money, power, anything that he wanted.
To all their proposals, Muhammad gave the same answer -
"I haven't come here to accumulate wealth, or to be your leader or to be your king.
"I've only come here for one purpose and that is to be the Messenger of God and to convey his word.
"And, if you accept, it will be beneficial for you.
"But if you don't I'll simply wait and await God's judgement."
Now, clearly, for the Meccan authorities, gentle persuasion
was not going to work.
They were going to have to try something else, something a little bit more aggressive.
Gentle persuasion was now replaced by violent persecution.
Muhammad's followers, especially those with no clan or tribal protection,
such as slaves, women and orphans, were now subjected to brute force.
According to Muslim tradition some were thrown on burning coals,
others cruelly beaten and tortured and some women were even stabbed to death.
Now, this is because
Muhammad is challenging the Quraysh where it hurts, in their purse,
because the old cult is very much bound up with the business of Mecca.
People come to the Kaaba and they come to worship in the Kaaba and this will be really bad for trade.
They are very, very angry. They feel it is a profound threat.
Muhammad and his small band of followers faced a very difficult situation.
They were attacked in public, both verbally and physically.
And in private they had nowhere they could meet and pray.
A million miles away from the freedom of worship that Muslims enjoy today.
This five-storey mosque and Islamic centre is being built here in North West London
and similar things are being done almost everywhere where Muslims live
in the West. And although we take this kind of opportunity for granted today,
the Prophet faced a completely different
experience when he first tried to gather his own Muslim community among his own people in Mecca.
What's amazing standing here with you now is that the building of
this community centre is so different from the experiences that the Prophet
had in establishing his own first community where he didn't have any of the opportunity or freedom.
Well, yes, I mean those were the very difficult times,
obviously Islam started and they
had to work very hard. They're not allowed to pray, not allowed to
do anything they had to do, and even if they are going for praying they had to endure a lot of problems...
But nowadays things are different.
Instead of trying to resist the Quraysh's persecution with force,
the Prophet looked for another way to safeguard his followers.
In many ways, a far more radical step.
He got them to leave Mecca, to abandon their homes and seek refuge
on the other side of the Red Sea in the African Kingdom Of Aksum, ruled by King Negus, a Christian.
In 615 AD, a group of Muslims secretly left Mecca with their families
and settled in a refugee camp in what is now modern day Ethiopia.
The Quraysh were incensed by this exodus.
They immediately sent a delegation to Negus, the king of Abyssinia,
in order to persuade him to send the exiles back home.
Negus, the king, summoned the leader of the Muslims, in order to explain and after telling the king that
Muhammad was in fact the Prophet of the One True God,
he famously began to recite a verse from the Qur'an.
The verses he read described the virgin birth of Jesus and described him to be a prophet of God.
The words worked their miracle, and Negus, the King of Abyssinia, was moved to tears
and allowed the Muslims to stay.
Back in Mecca, the Quraysh began to turn the heat up on Muhammad and his remaining followers.
They instituted a city-wide ban, which basically prevented
anyone from having anything to do with Muhammad and his entire clan.
They weren't allowed to intermarry, they weren't allowed to trade,
they weren't even allowed to buy food from the local markets.
In Mecca, Muhammad and his followers were now public enemy number one.
There was now immense pressure on Muhammad and his remaining followers
to compromise their message of believing in one God only, and to give in to the Quraysh
or to at least accept some of the other gods worshipped by them.
It was at this moment that an event is supposed to have taken place that would lead to a fundamental
clash of values, an event that still defines Islam's relationship with the rest of the world.
Most Muslims deny that this event ever actually happened.
But it has been used by Islam's enemies to condemn both Muhammad and the Qur'an as bogus.
There are different accounts of this story. But the main version goes something like this.
One day Muhammad was sitting somewhere in the Kaaba
when he received a new revelation, one which suggested that he could strike a compromise deal with
the Quraysh that would allow them to continue to worship their old gods.
Well, when the Quraysh heard this they were overjoyed.
At last, they thought, Muhammad was coming back to their way of thinking.
But now comes the key part of the story,
which is that Muhammad is then supposed to have received another
revelation that told him his apparent acceptance of the old gods
had actually been inspired by Satan.
Hence why these verses were later called The Satanic Verses.
If true, it seems to suggest that Muhammad was able
to alter the divine word of God at will
and that in consequence, both Muhammad and the Qur'an were fake.
Now of course Muslims say this incident did not happen
and was manufactured by haters of Islam.
It then becomes very hard for them to explain, however,
how it got into Islamic sources
that are relatively early or are, like Zamakhshari,
based on earlier Islamic sources that are lost.
One wonders how it is that somebody like that who is a pious Muslim,
would have or could have picked up such a thing if it had originated from the enemies of Islam.
There are three different and conflicting versions of this story
in the Muslim histories of Muhammad's life compiled after his death.
There is no direct reference to it in the Qur'an and neither is it mentioned
in the earliest and most reliable account of his life by Ibn Ishaq.
Neither is there any mention of it in the great Hadiths of the ninth century.
Muslims do not generally reject traditions because they are
critical of Muhammad but because they cannot be properly verified.
In 1989 a storm of violent protest erupted across the Islamic world
when a novel written by Salman Rushdie was published in the UK.
The book, The Satanic Verses, is a fictional account of this incident,
and Muslims claim, depicts Muhammad as an impostor
with purely political ambitions and the Qur'an as the work of the devil.
All over the world, Muslim public opinion was outraged.
Well, the event of 14th January 1989 is the day
when I can very clearly remember
there where over a thousand peoples to a minimum,
and just to show that we do disapprove this material,
we will publicly burn this book,
and that's what we did on that day.
The burning of the book was just the start.
Violent demonstrations and riots broke out all over the Muslim world.
Attempts by the Muslim community to have the book banned
were opposed by many in the name of freedom of speech.
This issue was then taken over by Ayatollah Khomeini, the then leader of the Islamic republic of Iran,
who declared a fatwa, or religious order,
against Rushdie, calling for his death by any means.
The Fatwa has never been lifted and although Rushdie survived unharmed,
numerous people connected with the book have been attacked and even killed.
A single contentious event in Muhammad's life,
and one most Muslim scholars believe never took place,
was being used to define Muhammad,
who he was and what he stood for and, most importantly,
what it meant to be a Muslim in today's world.
What this whole issue did was that it highlighted a fundamental difference of views
between those in the West who believed that they had a right
to say what they wanted to say and those Muslims who believed that they had a right not to be insulted.
It was a defining moment, it was the first time that British Muslims
came out as a community to assert themselves, but it was also a defining moment internationally.
On one hand they rejected what Rushdie wrote,
they were united in condemning the book.
But on the other hand they were also united in condemning the fatwa.
They realised what is going on in the West is not acceptable to them
but they also realised at the same time that certain mechanisms in traditional Islam
were also not acceptable to them.
This incident led the Muslim community in Britain to feel
that they were part of a larger international Islamic community with Muhammad at its heart.
It would also mark the start of a clash between the liberal values so central to Western identity
and the more traditional and conservative views in the British Muslim community.
And at the heart of this clash was the character of Muhammad himself
and conflicting opinions as to whether he was a force for good or evil in the world.
Whatever the truth of this event, in Mecca Muhammad was locked into
a desperate battle of ideas,
between his new message of the One God and the old tribal values of the Quraysh.
The Quraysh had by now imposed even tougher sanctions on Muhammad and his followers.
From now on no-one was allowed to do any business with them,
they were not allowed to intermarry, trade or even buy food.
But in contrast to some Muslims now, even when faced by this extreme provocation
Muhammad and his followers resisted without resorting to any violence.
In the earliest period you could argue that a violent confrontation wasn't even feasible.
You know we were talking about tens of people maybe even then hundreds
of people, but certainly not more than say 200 or so.
And so if there was a confrontation it would have been a massacre
and we certainly wouldn't know such a thing as Islam now.
Muhammad's stoic non-violent resistance began to pay off.
The people of Mecca started to react against the extreme measures imposed
on people who had once been their clan relatives.
A huge amount of social pressure began to be exerted on
the Quraysh leadership, and within two years after they imposed the ban they had to rescind it.
But this was by no means the end of Muhammad's troubles.
What Muslims call his year of sorrows was about to begin.
A few months after the ban had been lifted, Muhammad's wife and the constant rock of his life,
Muhammad was devastated.
She had been his beloved wife, his closest companion and advisor for 25 years.
She had been the first to recognise him as the Prophet of God and had been the first person
he had turned to when confronted by the terrifying and bewildering experience of revelation.
She must have been astonishing in that she was the first person
to accept the revelations.
You could almost say that she was the first Muslim because she believed in the revelations before
the Prophet himself
and so she had that instinctive ability
to recognise authenticity and genius.
We see her in the sources
as a very maternal figure and this is something the Prophet
had lost himself, he had lost his
own mother and he really loved Khadija.
You know, Western critics often sneer at the Prophet's
sort of opportunistic marriage to the wealthy widow,
that's not born out in the sources, he loved her all his life.
His later wives used to hate the mention of her
because they knew that none of them could compete with her in his heart.
Then a few months later Muhammad was hit by another devastating loss, the death of his uncle, Abu Talib,
the man who had protected him from the worst attempts of the Quraysh to crush him.
The leadership of Muhammad's clan now fell into the hands of his most violent opponents.
Attacks against him increased.
His enemies now gave him a stark warning -
stop spreading your message or your life could be in danger.
Muhammad and his small band of followers were now at their most vulnerable.
Half of them had fled to Ethiopia, the rest were almost in hiding in Mecca.
His enemies were now openly making plans to crush his embryonic Islamic movement...
and even to kill him.
The next step he would take would be critical.
It would shape not only his future but the history of the world.
In the next episode, Muhammad's persecution by the Quraysh
intensifies and he's forced to leave his hometown of Mecca.
It also brings him into conflict with some of the Jewish tribes of Arabia,
leading to one of the most controversial events of his life...
a massacre whose consequences still reverberate today.
I think it seared itself into the Muslim historical memory
and to that extent it has had an impact that we feel down to this day.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
In a ground-breaking first for British television, this three-part series presented by Rageh Omaar charts the life of Muhammad, a man who - for the billion and half Muslims across the globe - is the messenger and final prophet of God.
In a journey that is both literal and historical, and beginning in Muhammad's birthplace of Mecca, Omaar investigates the Arabia Muhammad was born into - a world of tribal loyalties and polytheistic religion.
Drawing on the expertise and comment of some of the world's leading academics and commentators on Islam, the programme examines Muhammad's first marriage to Khadijah and how he received the first of the revelations that had such a profound effect both on his life, and on the lives of those closest to him.