Muhammad depicted in a frieze at the
Supreme Court of the United States,
one of a series of traditional lawgivers.
In 1997, the Supreme Court struck
down a suit to sandblast away this
image, regarded as offensive by
Muslims who do not allow any
pictures of their prophet.

June 7

Muhammad (d. 632)

It was on this date, June 7, 632, that the Prophet Muhammad died of a stroke at Medina. He was born on a date uncertain in 570 in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, orphaned, brought up by an uncle, and became a camel driver and shepherd as a boy. When he was about 25 he married a rich widow and became a merchant. Muhammad thought it tragic that his Arab race were idolaters and polytheistic, so in 610 (he was about 40) he started having visions from the Angel Gabriel and began a life as a prophet and teacher.

The religion he founded, Islam, means "submission," as in submission to the one God. Islam was resisted at first because of its novelty against the ancient tribal customs. Muhammad's wife died in 620 and he acquired several more over the years. In 622 Muhammad was forced to flee from Mecca to Yathrib, which is now called Medina, and found his religion welcomed there. The date of that flight is called the hegira and that event marks the beginning of the Muhammadan era. His followers helped him punish the ungrateful Meccans, and after victory there extended his triumphs throughout Arabia.

The holy book of Islam, the Koran, means "the reading," or "the lesson." It was jotted down, on bits of skin and palm-leaves, during the last twenty-two years of the Prophet's life. The fragments were collected in the year after the Prophet's death, and an authorized version circulated in 650. It was Muhammad's successor, a convert named Omar, and a genuine fanatic, who reunited the apostates after Muhammad's death by declaring war on rich Persia. As one historian (W. Muir) put it, it was "the scent of war that turned the sullen temper of the Arabs into eager loyalty." Or perhaps it was the scent of loot. As another historian (Becker) wrote, "hunger and avarice, not religion, were the impelling forces" of the Arab expansion, and that "it was not the religion of Islam that was disseminated by the sword, but political sovereignty."

Inasmuch as the Koran reflects the ideas of Muhammad, a few points need to be made. First, neither in Islamic history nor in the Koran is Islam a peaceful religion. It was not moral suasion that made Muslims of millions from Spain to India, including non-Arab Zoroastrians like the Persians. Second, it is not true that Islam is a tolerant religion. If we discount the early suras in the Koran, which were revealed when Muhammad was struggling for acceptance, and concentrate on the later ones, revealed when Muhammad was master of Arabia, you will understand the context of holy words such as,

22.9: As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron- rods.
47.4: When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives.
There is much uncertainty about the events of Muhammad's life because, as with the life of Jesus, no one thought to write it down until many years after his death — in the case of Muhammad, until 100 years after his death. Furthermore, because Muhammad was illiterate, he memorized his visions and dictated them afterwards, sometimes long enough afterwards to have forgotten contradictory earlier visions.

Want to comment on this essay? Send me an e-mail!


Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
Wordcount 581