the founding of islam -- 2/16/17

Today's encore selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. The founding of Islam by Muhammad came at a time when the newfound wealth of Arabs in Mecca had led them to ignore the plight of the poor. Muhammad's message was a reminder to his fellow merchants to take responsibility for one another and feed the destitute, even when they were hungry themselves. It was only later that this message was subsumed into a maelstrom of war:

"In 610, the year that saw the outbreak of the Persian-Byzantine war, a merchant from Mecca in the Arabian Hejaz experienced a dramatic revelation during the sacred month of Ramadan. For some years, Muhammad ibn Abdullah had made an annual retreat on Mount Hira, just outside the city. There he fasted, performed spiritual exercises, and gave alms to the poor while he meditated deeply on the problems of his people, the tribe of Quraysh. Only a few generations earlier, their ancestors had been living a desperate life in the intractable deserts of northern Arabia. Now they were rich beyond their wildest dreams, and since farming was virtually impossible in this arid land, their wealth had been entirely created by commerce. For centuries the local nomads (badawin) had scratched out a meagre living by herding sheep and breeding horses and camels, but during the sixth century, they had invented a saddle that enabled camels to carry heavier loads than before. As a result, merchants from India, East Africa, Yemen, and Bahrain began to take their caravans through the Arabian steppes to Byzantium and Syria, using the Bedouin to guide them from one watering hole to another. Mecca had become a station for these caravans, and the Quraysh started their own trade missions to Syria and Yemen, while the Bedouin exchanged goods in an annual circuit of regular suqs ('markets') around Arabia.

16th Century painting from a Turkish manuscript depicts a scene from the time of Muhammad.

Members of the powerful Quraysh tribe in Mecca debate the impact of the growth of Islam in Medina,
the nearby city where Muhammad led his converts.

"Mecca's prosperity also depended on its status as a pilgrimage center. At the end of the suq season, Arabs came from all over Mecca during the month of Hajj to perform the ancient rituals around the Kabah, the ancient cube-shaped shrine in the heart of the city. Cult and commerce were inseparable: the climax of the hajj was the tawaf, the seven circumambulations around the Kabah that mirrored the suq circuit, giving the Arabs' mercantile activities a spiritual dimension. Yet despite its extraordinary success, Mecca was in the grip of a social and moral crisis. The old tribal spirit had succumbed to the ethos of an infant market economy and families now vied with one another for wealth and prestige. Instead of sharing their goods, as had been essential for the tribe's survival in the desert, families were building private fortunes, and this emerging commercial aristocracy ignored the plight of the poorer Qurayshis and seized the inheritances of orphans and widows. The rich were delighted with their new security, but those who fell behind felt lost and disoriented.

"Poets exalted Bedouin life, but in reality it was a grim, relentless struggle in which too many people competed for too few resources. Perpetually on the brink of starvation, tribes fought endless battles for pastureland, water, and grazing. The ghazu, or 'acquisition raid,' was essential to the Bedouin economy. In times of scarcity tribesmen would invade their neighbors' territory and carry off camels, cattle, food, or slaves, taking care to avoid killing anybody, since this would lead to a vendetta. Like most pastoralists, they saw nothing reprehensible in raiding. The ghazu was a kind of national sport, conducted with skill and panache according to clearly defined rules, which the Bedouin would have thoroughly enjoyed. It was a brutal yet simple way of redistributing wealth in a region where there was simply not enough to go round.

"Although the tribesmen had little interest in the supernatural, they gave meaning to their lives with a code of virtue and honor. They called it muruwah, a term that is difficult to translate: it encompasses courage, patience, and endurance. Muruwah had a violent core. Tribesmen had to avenge any wrong done to the group, protect its weaker members, and defy its enemies. Each member had to be ready to leap to the defense of his kinsmen if the tribe's honor was impugned. But above all, he had to share his resources. Tribal life on the steppes would be impossible if individuals hoarded their wealth while others went hungry; nobody would help you in a lean period if you had been miserly in your good days. But by the sixth century, the limitations of muruwah were becoming tragically apparent, as the Bedouin got caught up in an escalating cycle of intertribal warfare. They began to regard those outside their kin group as worthless and expendable and felt no moral anguish about killing in defense of the tribe, right or wrong. Even their ideal of courage was now essentially combative, since it lay not in self-defense but in the preemptive strike. Muslims traditionally call the pre-Islamic period jahiliyyah, which is usually translated as 'the time of ignorance.' But the primary meaning of the root JHL is 'irascibility' -- an acute sensitivity to honor and prestige, excessive arrogance, and, above all, a chronic tendency to violence and retaliation.

"Muhammad had become intensely aware of both the oppression and injustice in Mecca and the martial danger of jahiliyyah. Mecca had to be a place where merchants from any tribe could gather freely to do business without fear of attack, so in the interests of commerce, the Quraysh had abjured warfare, maintaining a position of aloof neutrality. With consummate skill and diplomacy, they had established the 'sanctuary' (haram), a twenty-mile zone around the Kabah where all violence was forbidden. Yet it would take more than that to subdue the jahili spirit. Meccan grandees were still chauvinistic, touchy, and liable to explosions of ungovernable fury. When Muhammad, the pious merchant, began to preach to his fellow Meccans in 612, he was well aware of the precariousness of this volatile society. Gathering a small community of followers, many from the weaker, disadvantaged clans, his message was based on the Quran ('Recitation'), a new revelation for the people of Arabia. The ideas of the civilized peoples of the ancient world had traveled down the trade routes and had been avidly discussed among the Arabs. Their own local lore had it that they themselves were descended from Ishmael, Abraham's eldest son, and many believed that their high god Allah, whose name simply meant 'God,' was identical with the god of the Jews and Christians. But the Arabs had no concept of an exclusive revelation or of their own special election. The Quran was to them simply the latest in the unfolding revelation of Allah to the descendants of Abraham, a 'reminder' of what everybody knew already. Indeed, in one remarkable passage of what would become the written Quran, Allah made it clear that he made no distinction between the revelations of any of the prophets.

"The bedrock message of the Quran was not a new abstruse doctrine, such as had riven Byzantium, but simply a 'reminder' of what constituted a just society that challenged the structural violence emerging in Mecca: that it was wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth with the poor and vulnerable, who must be treated with equity and respect. The Muslims formed an ummah, a 'community' that provided an alternative to the greed and systemic injustice of Meccan capitalism. Eventually the religion of Muhammad's followers would be called islam, because it demanded that individuals 'surrender' their whole being to Allah; a muslim was simply a man or woman who had made that surrender. At first, though, the new faith was called tazakka, which can be roughly translated as 'refinement.' Instead of hoarding their wealth and ignoring the plight of the poor, Muslims were exhorted to take responsibility for one another and feed the destitute, even when they were hungry themselves. They traded the irascibility of jahiliyyah for the traditional Arab virtue of hilm -- forbearance, patience, and mercy. By caring for the vulnerable, freeing slaves, and performing small acts of kindness on a daily, even hourly basis, they believed that they would gradually acquire a responsible, compassionate spirit and purge themselves of selfishness. Unlike the tribesmen, who retaliated violently at the slightest provocation, Muslims must not strike back but leave revenge to Allah, consistently treating all others with gentleness and courtesy. Socially, the surrender of islam would be realized by learning to live in a community: believers would discover their deep bond with other human beings, whom they would strive to treat as they would wish to be treated themselves. 'Not one of you can be a believer,' Muhammad is reported to have said, 'unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself.' "


Karen Armstrong


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2014 Karen Armstrong


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