THE PROPHET MOHAMMAD
Mohammad grew up in the trading city of Mecca (in what is now Saudi Arabia) in the late sixth century AD. The city had grown wealthy at the same time that the tribal system of the surrounding desert was eroding. According to historical accounts, many of the newly rich Meccans were selfish and arrogant, flaunting their means, while others — widows and orphans — starved.
God’s revelations, received by Mohammad beginning in about 609 AD, attacked this mentality. They also challenged the pagan gods that Meccans worshipped. This was threatening to many in the city because the pagan shrines made the city a place of pilgrimage, adding to its wealth.
As he passed on God’s message, Mohammad gained a reputation as something of a social reformer. He warned the people of Mecca to pay more attention to the less fortunate in society and to moderate their search for wealth. The more he criticized the ruling classes and their power base, the more uncomfortable his life became. Finally, in 622 AD, he fled the city with a small band of supporters, finally settling in Medina some 200 miles to the north. This event is known as the hejira or migration and marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. It also marks Mohammad’s transition to political leadership.
By the time Mohammad died in 632 AD, his authority was well-tested. His community — guided by the law they believed to be God given — ruled both Mecca and Medina and was the dominant power over the entire Arabian peninsula.
As time passed, the embryonic empire continued to expand. Although Muslims were forbidden to attack other Muslims or support relatives who might have a blood-feud against other Muslims, fighting against those with different beliefs was accepted. Consequently, within a hundred years of the messenger’s death, his followers had overthrown the Persian Empire and conquered all the Asiatic territories of the Roman Empire with the exception of present day Turkey.
Geographic expansion posed challenges, however. Who would succeed Mohammad? And would the successor be an earthly or a spiritual ruler? We’ll discuss these issues in the next e-mail.