Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris


Mohammed, to name him by the title that he afterwards acquired, was born in Mecca, five years after the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and belonged to a branch of the powerful Koreish tribe. He began life as a shepherd. At twenty-five he married Kedija, who had employed him as camel-driver. Traveling extensively for her, he found his fellow-countrymen in a condition of religious neglect. The old star-worship and fetichism were losing their force, just as in more classic lands the divinities of Olympus had lost their meaning, some half dozen centuries earlier. Mohammed, given much to solitary contemplation, yearned for something better. He became filled with fine aspirations to uplift his fellowmen. For a period he led an ascetic life, spending much time in prayer. In the solitudes of the wilderness he experienced at times a strange exaltation. Others, like himself, groping for religious truth, were brought in contact with Jewish and Christian colonies in Syria and Babylonia. But the idea of one sole God, Allah (Arabic), he learned from Jewish teachers. A highly nervous nature, he "dreamed dreams and saw visions," and gave vent to his emotions in violent outbursts.

It was in about his fortieth year that he felt the divine call to preach God to his benighted Arabian brethren after the manner of the Hebrew Prophets, whose words had moved him deeply. He began to feel that perhaps he was the ordained Messiah whom the Jews awaited. He had learnt the Hebrew Scriptures in the more highly colored Midrashic form. From what he thus learned and from what he gathered from some hermits and from a group of ascetic Arabians, together with his own religious experience, he gradually evolved a religion for his people that came to bear his name.

He did not reach these convictions without much anguish of soul his spirit torn by doubt—the true experience of every deep religious nature. First Kedijah, then his family, then a small circle of adherents gathered about him, convinced of his divine mission. His vigorous personality attracted many more. At first his purpose was not to teach a new religion, but to reinforce the great truths recognized by the noblest natures in all times, his own enthusiasm contributing the only new element. The humbler classes were first attracted, the higher holding aloof. Is that not always so? Guided by his first teachers, the Jews, he saw the worthlessness of idolatry and preached a strict monotheism. He also adopted many Jewish rules, among them some of the dietary laws.

But gradually he made himself the centre of his message. He had some allies, but many opponents, especially as he denounced the idols of the Kaaba and rode roughshod over many of the cherished traditions and superstitions of the Arabians. Partly for this reason and partly because the success of his preaching meant the withdrawal of rich revenues derived from the pilgrims who came to the "holy city" of Mecca, its people began to persecute him. His life was full of peril. A breach with the Arabians was a breach with the world—a living death. So, for a moment he temporized and was prepared to make a quasi acknowledgment of the old divinities. But with the conversion of his uncle and one Omar—a man like himself of great force of character—he took a rigid stand again. He was put under interdict by the Koreish, his own family tribe.

The Hegira

In the meantime he suffered much privation. Among the people of Medina however, his preaching, in which he referred to the Jewish Scripture for endorsement, received more kindly recognition; for among them, Jewish teaching had, as it were, prepared the way. This meant new converts. So in the year 622 Mohammed bade all his followers emigrate with him to Medina. This was called the famous Hegira (flight), and marked the turning point in the movement. Medina became a commonwealth and Mohammed its chief and judge. All disputes, hitherto decided by combat, were now brought to him for decision. Thus he began to build up a system of law and justice. Here then he founded a religious settlement, and its whole social tone was raised. He preached particularly against greed and injustice. The bitter blood feuds were modified, property rights were respected, and the position of woman elevated. He had long since condemned the barbaric Bedouin practice of putting to death newly born daughters. The whole life of the people of his community was ordered with a kind of military precision in which the battle cry was, "No God but one God."

Unfortunately he also proclaimed, "Who is not for me is against me." This meant war against all outside his adherents.

The cardinal precepts of the New Faith were: 1. Confession of unity of God; 2. Stated times of prayer; 3. Alms giving.

His most daring act perhaps was breaking with that fundamental principle of Arabian life—blood relationship. The old Arabian ethics had concentrated all duty within tribal boundaries. These were now to be disregarded and a new brotherhood built up, that of Islam (submission)—a religious brotherhood that could disregard even the holiest ties outside of it. Yet to ask his followers to exchange kinship for faith was an unnatural demand. This long meant bitter resistance; but Mohammed's determination prevailed.

His followers now became an army and a remorseless conflict was waged with all who refused to come within the fold. This, brought his arms against the Jews. Their strongly fortified castles were taken one by one. Completely to break with the old regime he even ordered his followers to attack the caravans in the "holy month of truce, Ramadhan." This was a severe test of their faith. Victory steadilly followed his aggressions and brought him many converts; many deputations came in voluntarily, dazzled into conviction by his success.

In 630 he had conquered Mecca. This was called "The Conquest." Although he compelled the inhabitants to give up their idols he compromised so far as to retain the Kaaba and the Festival of Mecca and to reinstate Mecca as a holy city. Abraham, now styled an Arabian, was said to have worshipped the Kaaba stone and was credited with being the father of the ritual. Fascinated by the glamor of Mohammed's remarkable triumphs, adherents came to him from all sides. What other creeds have taken centuries to attain, he achieved in his lifetime. This too rapid success is one of the defects of his movement. It grew too fast for excellence. So some of his successes were failures, for to obtain them the spiritual was occasionally sacrificed to the worldly.

As each new province came under his sway, its submission was to be exemplified by proclamation of the Mueddin for prayer, payment of alms-tax and acceptance of the Moslem law. But in each instance the internal tribal affairs were left untouched. In 632, in the eleventh year of the Hegira, Mohammed died. But not till Arabia was at his feet. He had founded a religion and a State.


Islam, the name given to this religion, and Moslem, to its followers, are both derived from a word meaning 'submission' (to God). Musselman is another variant.

A Jew, Waraka Ibn Naufel, is said to have been Mohammed's chief teacher and one of his strongest supporters.

Theme for discussion:—Should Mohammed be called a prophet?