For the journey is to him
Article on Islam
We Have Our Words and You Have Yours
“God is our Lord and your Lord, we have our words and you have yours. There is no argument between us and you. God will bring us together, for the journey to him” Sura 42, verse 15
How can we hope to understand the passions of others? It is one of the great and delightful mysteries of life to try and comprehend what it feels like to be a Buddhist, to be a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu,– just as one the greatest joys and tribulations of a marriage is the completely different perspectives on life that a woman and a man bring to a relationship. It would be foolish for anyone to claim that either sex has the monopoly on right thinking – though it can be very illuminating to find out what these different thoughts might be. Keep hold of this image of the two sexes if you can. I think it is a useful tool with which a Christian can inquire about Islam. No one is expecting you to change your attitudes, your mind, your opinions let alone your basic beliefs, loyalties, diet or dress sense. The most that can be expected of any dialogue between Islam and Christianity is an awareness of the different role models for holiness and the different pathways upon which God can be approached. When faced by yet another baffled and occasionally hostile Western audience, I try to remind myself what it must be like for a vegan Jain to look upon a Christmas dinner, which we see as the secular culmination of our festival of the incarnation, as well as a joyful celebration of childhood and of the family but which they (looking upon all those tens of thousands of roast Turkeys) might possibly see as a crime against the soul.
You would need a very corrupt and wordly Jain, to try and explain to his co-religionists just how Christians can enjoy all this meat and still think of themselves as religious. I like to see myself in this wordly role, someone who has tasted sufficiently of the beauty of Islam so that he can feel great affection for it, but yet remains aware of the troubled perceptions of outsiders. There is a very real role for the Christian admirers of Islam to do this for them – for I have sadly met only a handful of Muslim preachers with any intimate sympathy for Christianity. We also have only the spoken and the written word to operate with – all the full panoply of our otherwise all powerful modern media is useless. The colour glossies of our massed magazine racks, videos, films, posters, television documentaries falter and stutter to a halt before the lack of any usable images. I am intrigued – and I suppose not a little bit impressed by this. For otherwise there are precious few aspects of our lives that the camera does not dominate.
So let us use words.
Each day as the dawn light ripples around the world, it awakens a continuous chant of morning prayer from the thirteen hundred million Muslim believers that are spread over our globe. For the last 1400 years there has not been so much as a second, let alone a minute, when this community is not offering up praise to the divinity. The public call to prayer that echoes out from the minarets of all the great mosques of Islam is like a circular beacon that wraps up our world in ribbons of faith. However, it would be unwise to imagine that worldwide Islam, which includes the Brazilians of West African descent, the Uighurs of Chinese Central Asia, Malay villagers, the highlanders of the Yemen, the Moors of Ceylon, the Asian Muslim community within South African, the citizens of Turkey’s secular republic, the well-healed Persian expatriate community in California or the converted followers of a Sufi sheikh in Britain could ever be viewed as members of a single culture.
However, what these Muslims share is much more important that any common material culture, language or social customs. It is the animating glow of faith. Islam is quite literally a matter of trust, a complete submission to the infinite power and knowledge of a God who is known to be ever merciful and compassionate and who loathes injustice and oppression of the weak. This knowledge of an all-powerful but intimately present God (who is ‘closer to you than your jugular vein’) has been preached to mankind through many hundreds, if not thousands of historical prophets before it was articulated by the Prophet Muhammad in 6th century Arabia. Muhammad was proud to be numbered in the long line of prophets which stretches back through the Jewish, Christian and Arab traditions to include Issa (Jesus), Yahya (John the Baptist), Sulaiman (King Solomon), Daoud (King David), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron) as well Yunus (Jonah), Noah, Abraham, Abraham’s son Ishmael and our first parents Adam and Eve. The testaments of all these prophets of God, most noticeably the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, are honoured by a true Muslim athough they also believe that the Koran (also spelled Qoran or Qur’an) is the definitive revelation which supersedes all others. I recently saw this summarised by the shelving labels of a Muslim bookshop in London which stocked, ‘The Old Testament’ and ‘The New Testament’ and ‘The Living Testament’. In his own life, the Prophet Muhammad’s tolerance of the different patterns of belief amongst the Jews and Christians of Arabia is revealed when he answered some theological quibble with, ‘Will you dispute with us about God? When he is our Lord and your Lord! We have our words and you have your words but we are sincerely his’. This must still remain the answer to any inter-faith dialogue, not with the triumph of one belief or some well-worded compromise but the life-long struggle of a believer to fully understand their own faith tradition.
There are six basic principles that define a Muslim. The first and most important is the belief in the absolute oneness of God, the unitary nature of the divinity that allows for no pantheon of saints, demigods or divine consorts and children. Second to the understanding that Muhammad, though just a mortal man like any one of us, is the messenger of God. He is the seal of the prophets, the last to be granted a divine revelation before the end of the world. The third principle is that the Koran is the word of God dictated to Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel. The 114 different chapters (sura) and 6,236 component verses of the Koran were delivered over a twenty-two year period. The first revelation came upon Muhammad as a forty-year-old merchant of Mecca (and father of four daughters) in 610, the last was delivered in the final year of his life, in Medina in 632 AD. The fourth principle is belief in angelic presences on this earth and that Satan (Shaitan or Iblis) and his demons who tempt us to sin are fallen angels. The fifth principle is an acceptance that sin exists and that mortals can actively choose between doing good or evil. The sixth principle is the existence of a final judgement and the division of mankind between heaven and a hell.
Souls are believed to remain in the grave until the great day of judgement when even your limbs will be free to testify against you and a balance made between your sins and good deeds. Though even the most virtuous will have to rely on God’s mercy and be forced to cross over the mouth of Hell (jahannam) on a fiery bridge as narrow as the edge of a sword. The Hell beneath this bridge is visualised as a vast fiery pit made up of seven ever-deeper terraces of progressive damnation each guarded by gates. However there are verses that seem to promise ultimate redemption when even Satan will be forgiven by the overflowing mercy of God. Heaven is imagined as a reverse of Hell, a pyramid of shaded garden terraces filled with rivers of sweet water, milk, wine and honey though elsewhere the Prophet declared, ‘What is paradise? It is what eye hath not seen, nor the ear heard, nor ever flashed across the mind of Man’.
The essential duties of a Muslim are set out in the five pillars of Islam. The initial profession of faith: ‘There is no divinity but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet (Ila ilaha ill’Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah) is known as the shahada (the testimony)’. It is made at the time of your entry to Islam and henceforth repeated at the end of each of the daily prayers.
The second pillar is the practice of daily prayer. In the lifetime of the Prophet public prayers seems to have occurred at dusk (the start of the Muslim day), just before dawn and at noon, times of the day which any believer could calculate for themselves without the intervention of any priesthood. Later this practice was extended to five times a day, so that Maghreb is held four minutes after sunset, Esha when it is quite dark, Sobh Fejr at dawn, Duhe at noon and Asr at the end of the siesta hour - halfway between noon and sunset.
The third pillar is that of almsgiving, providing for the less fortunate in society, the sick, the old, orphans and travellers with food, gifts and shelter. This would later be codified in an annual tax, a tithe of the harvest or a fortieth of your portable wealth, which allowed for centralised care on behalf of the whole community.
The fourth pillar is the annual fast during the ninth lunar month of the Muslim year at Ramadan when the entire Muslim community abstains from food, drink, sex and smoking during the daylight hours. It allows the community, whatever their wealth, to share deprivation and taste absolute poverty. It is also a time of all night prayer sessions and public readings of the Koran mixed up with a carnival-like atmosphere at dusk when the daily fast ends.
The fifth pillar is the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca for all who are strong and wealthy enough to perform it. This can only be made in the twelth lunar month of the Muslim year, the Dhu al-Hijjah, and involves five days of proscribed duties such as the Day of Standing (wukuf) beside the Hill of Arafat, the stoning of Satan and culminates in the Day of Sacrifice (commemorating Abrahams willingness to offer up his son Ishmael to God) which is celebrated by the worldwide community of Islam. The meat is shared and most of it given to the poor.
For a true Muslim can always be recognized by their relationship to poverty. For not only will a sincere believer help all those that are disadvantaged in society; the sick, ill, the outsider, the poor and the old, they also recognize that material poverty is a gift from God that can allow a true believer a clearer vision away from the corrupting distractions of this world. The Prophet Muhammad loathed the pride of the rich and the powerful and defined this sin as ‘What is pride? Holding another man in contempt.’ On other occasions he declared that ‘poverty is my pride’ and prayed to God,
‘O Lord keep me alive a poor man, and let me die poor; and raise me amongst the poor’.
Over the years I have found that there is no great controversy over these vital elements of Islam. Traditional resentment of Islam from a Christian audience seems to boil down to Sex and Violence – like the fundamental principles of any newspaper editor.
As well as becoming aware of the two great subject matters of interest to a western audience, I have also gradually got used to spotting that eyebrow flicker of incredulity when I meet Muslims and they hear that I have written a biography of the Prophet Muhammad followed by a book about the first Four Caliphs. I know exactly what they feel, but are too polite to say. So I have started saying it for them. It should take a dozen lives of scholarship before I attempt so much as a single chapter. I should first spend a century immersed in the 30 volume histories of Waqidi, Tabari and Ibn Sa’d, and another hundred years on the commentaries on the commentaries of these masters, backed up by an exact and critical knowledge of each of the seven dozen-volume editions of the Hadith. I should know Ibn Ishaq and the Koran by heart and then torture the texts of the early grammarians for the exact shade of meanings of early Arabic verbs before penning so much as a single line. I cap it all by admitting that I can only read the prime texts in English translation. Only then can the conversation proceed in more interesting directions.
We might discuss the difference between Sunni and Shia interpretations. This is not just a matter of modern-day faith (reflected today in its most graphic form by the difference between how a writer from Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran would describe the events) but is also rooted in the prime sources. For the early historians were all writing within the highly politicised environment of 9th-century Abbasid Baghdad when doctrinal differences between the Sunni and Shia were being refined. Historians had to combine life-preserving prudence with their own regard for truth, and did this by providing multiple versions of the critically important events – and leaving it to the reader to make their own judgements. No one ever quite knew where to stand with the Abbasid dynasty, for they were supposedly pro-Shiite yet generation after generation conspired to quietly murder the true descendants of the Prophet Muhammad – the blood-royal of the Shiite cause. Nor is this innate division between Sunni and Shia interpretations restricted to Muslim writers. It normally takes but a few pages before you can spot the ‘inclinations’ of even the most supposedly neutral Western historians or home-grown Marxists – in much the same manner that the French Revolution or English Civil War always tends to be coloured by a live political agenda.
Next we might touch on Orientalism. In essence this is Edward Said’s charge that practically all Westerners commenting on the East (that mixed bundle of historians, linguists, artists and anthropologists) have only studied the region so that they can master it - or subconsciously belittle, ravish or exploit it as ‘the other’. This is still a highly charged issue, much animated by the personal rivalry between Edward Said and his scholarly bete-noir, Bernard Lewis, fought out in the journals and well-heeled universities of New England not on the battlegrounds of the Holy Land. Said was an Arab Palestinian and Lewis a London-born Jewish scholar, a Professor at SOAS before he moved to Princeton where he became the eminence grise of the Neo-Cons in his retirement.
The real crunch point however (and one that is very rarely addressed in public) is that the basic thrust of Western scholarship over the last thirty years has been to undermine the authority of all the traditional sources of Islamic history. The basic argument is that since nothing was written down for 130 years after the Prophet’s death, that they cannot have been transmitted with any accuracy. The questing, questioning linguistic inquiries of John Wansbrough and Patricia Crone led the way and helped encourage a brilliant revival of scholarship - though it is astonishing how quickly their tentative suggestions have become a new orthodoxy. I was amazed to find that a university text book dismissed the entire early period of Islam as the mythologizing creation of the historians of Baghdad. So much so that the period before the written histories is labelled “proto-Islam” with an implicit suggestion that early Islam might be more usefully construed as a Jewish-Arab Messianic movement that aspired to reconquer the Holy Land.
It was at that moment that I decided that silence is a greater evil. I was annoyed by these dangerous speculations, but even more horrified by the way that one of mankind’s truly epic stories was being so casually airbrushed out of history. This is an epic that I know from my own travels to be the cherished moral frame, the pattern book of belief and the cultural references by which hundreds of millions navigate their way through life. I neither mind that I will be dismissed as a traditionalist by western academics or as a meddling Orientalist by Muslim scholars. I know where my loyalties stand. I remain true to the story tellers, especially to the Prophet’s young wife whom Urwa, the greatest of the old oral historians praised thus, “What is what I recite, compared to what Aisha could tell.”
The Prophet Muhammed is a hero for all mankind. In his lifetime he established a new religion, Islam, a new state, the first united Arabia, and a new literary language, the classical Arabic of the Koran. A generation after his death he would be acknowledged as the founder of a world Empire and a new civilization.
Any one of these achievements would have been more than enough to permanently establish his genius. To our late 20th century minds what is all the more astonishing is that he also managed to stay true to himself and retained to his last days the humility, courtesy and humanity that he had learned as an orphan shepherd boy in central Arabia. To put it into a Western or classical context, it is as if those three great figures from 4th century Greece, Alexander the Great, Diogenes and Aristotle, were not contradictory aspects of the Hellenic genius but combined within one man. If one looks for a parallel example from Christendom one would have to combine the Emperor Constantine with St Francis and St Paul. It is an awesome yet sublime prospect.
On the 20th August 570 AD, to Abdullah and Amina, a son named Mohammed was born. Mohammed never saw his father, who died a few months short of the birth. Abdullah had been a charming and courteous man, the most handsome of all the ten sons and six sisters of Abdul-Muttalib. It was said of the sons of Abdul-Muttalib that, " there were no more prominent and stately men, none of more nobile profile. Their noses were so large that the nose drank before the lips. " Abdul-Muttalib, the grandfather of the orphaned baby Mohammed, was a considerable figure within Meccan society. He was the head of one of the ruling clans within the Quraysh confederation, the Beni Hashim, and could proudly trace his descent back four generations to Qusayy, the founding patriarch of the Quraysh tribe. The Beni Hashim had once enjoyed a pivotal position in the organisation of the Meccan caravans and were the proud guardians of the holy Zamzam well. Mohammed's mother, Amina bint Wahb, was related to one of the leading merchants within the Zahr clan. Well connected as he was Abdullah was not rich and left only five camels and a young slave girl, Barakah, to his young widow.
It was believed to be unhealthy to bring up babies in the city of Mecca, and once Mohammed had been blessed by being carried to the Kaaba by his grandfather, he was sent out, just eight days old into the desert. A wet nurse, Halimah of the Beni Sa'd clan of the Hawazin tribe, was found to care for him. Apart from the expectations of a present in exchange for her care the poorer families of nomadic herdsmen were naturally keen to make any connection with the Quraysh clan.
The poor orphan Mohammed did not look much of a catch but Halimah's husband's flocks yielded milk in abundance while she was nursing him. They realised that Mohammed was a blessed child and determined to keep him for as long as possible. However sometime in his fourth year they were terrified by what his frightened foster brothers had witnessed. Two men dressed in bright white light had seized the young boy, slit open his chest and bathed his heart in snow before replacing it in his body. They had weighed him and embraced him before departing. Mohammed was seemingly unscarred but Halimah was determined to return him to Mecca lest she be held responsible for any injury that might later develop.
Mohammed was returned to his mother and the next year proudly accompanied her on a caravan journey. Amina became to sick to travel and she was left behind at an oasis to recuperate. Mohammed, left all alone with his mother for the first time in his life, could not believe his luck and learned to swim in the waterhole of the oasis and fly a kite in the evening breeze. It was a brief but golden period in his childhood, for his mother's condition worsened and she died.
For the next two years Mohammed was brought up in the household of his grandfather Abdul-Muttalib who in his old age had let slip his concerns with the world and spent much of his time in the holy shadow of the Kaaba surrounded by a knot of children and grandchildren. He especially delighted in the company of his orphaned grandson Mohammed, who would be passed over a sea of cousins and young uncles to sit beside his grandfather. Two years later the revered but lovable patriarch died and eight-year-old Mohammed was thrice orphaned. He was despatched to the care of his father's oldest brother, Abu Thalib, but the time for play was over and Mohammed earned his keep by shepherding his uncle's flocks. Schooled since infancy in the herding routine of desert life, at the age of 12 the young Mohammed, was employed on the Meccan camel caravans, though the financial interest of the Bani Hashim in this lucrative trade was declining fast.
It was on one such journey that Mohammed, as befitted his lowly status, was left to guard the hobbled camels while the rest of the caravan went to feast with a Christian Arab monk called Bahira which means the 'reverend'. This holy hermit lived in a cave surrounded by holy books and manuscripts and usually shunned all communication with man, but on this occassion he had come down from the hills to intercept the caravan with an invitation. Bahira had seen the caravan bathed in a holy light from a distance and knew that it contained a great teacher, perhaps even the prophet predicted by the desert sages particularly the Jewish Rabbis. He was frankly disappointed as his guests slowly passed before him and exchanged the ritual greetings. Later he asked Abu Thalib if there was not someone missing, and having heard about the sheikhs young nephew, urgently insisted that he should join them at the meal. Bahira knew at once that it was he and he proceeded to quietly question Mohammed about his faith. He asked to see his back where he detected the seal of prophecy between the boy's shoulder blades. At the end of the feast Bahira took Abu Thalib aside and said, "Take your nephew back to his country and guard him carefully against the Jews, for by al-Lah, if they see him and find about him what I know, they will do him evil. A great future lies before this nephew of yours". Abu Thalib heard these things and stored them in his heart.
Thus Mohammed grew into manhood amongst the flocks, the caravans, the markets and pilgrimmages of his native Mecca. By the age of twenty one he had won the epithet al-Ameen, 'the trusty' for his skilful and honourable management of the camel caravans. He was of average height with a good bearing and a head of thick curly hair. He was trained like all his clan in the use of sword, bow and wrestling. His manners were exemplary, for he never looked over anyone's shoulders, listened to conversations behind his back or turned his face with careless lack of attention. When Mohammed met someone he gave them all his attention, turning his whole body to address them and clasping their hands affectionately, so that it is said he was never the first to withdraw from a handshake. His most striking feature, much commented upon by all his contemporaries, was the luminous glow that illuminated his face. He harboured a quiet love for his beautiful cousin, Fakhita, daughter of Abu Thalib his guardian-uncle, and it was a hard blow when she was married off to a wealthy merchant.
In 595 when Mohammed was 25 years-old he was entrusted with some goods by a distant cousin who wished him to sell them in Syria on her behalf. There was nothing unusual in the request except that this wealthy cousin, Khadija, had began to take an interest in Mohammed. A confidante of hers, Maysara, accompanied the caravan to find out if Mohammed was as trustworthy and as good and true as Khadija had heard, for there is no better way to know someone's character than to share a long travel. In due course Maysara gave Khadija a glowing report about Mohammed but hinted that there was also something otherworldly about him. Mohammed had once again been identified by a Christian monk as a prophet (this time by Nestor the hermit of Bostra who recognized him as Shiloh, prophesied by Jacob) while Maysara was himself convinced that he saw Mohammed being shaded from the sun by a pair of angels. Such stories might have put off many women, but Khadija was enthralled and hurriedly consulted her cousin Waraqa who was one of the hanif of Mecca.
An offer of marriage was made through a female intermediary and Mohammed happily accepted, scraping together 20 she-camels as a dowry for Khadija. There was a disparity in age (Khadija had been twice widowed) and wealth (she was rich while Mohammed had remained relatively poor), but not in love. Hostile commentators from the west continue to claim that Mohammed married for money and that he was sexually and emotionally frustrated by the union. They would seem to have deliberately misread the sources for Mohammed made no use of Khadija's wealth (other than to give alms to the poor) and kept to his original simple lifestyle. Far from frustrating Mohammed, it is clear that his wife was also his closest confidant and friend, and shared his spiritual yearnings. In times of trouble or anxiety Mohammed turned first to his wife for support.
Mohammed was a passionate man but beyond the pleasures of the bed he loved the company and society of women. It was he who first coined the expression, "if you would know a man's character look to the health of his wife". He never took another wife while Khadija was alive, and during their marriage she bore him six children, all the children that he would ever conceive. The two boys Qasim and Abdallah died young but his four daughters, Zaynab, Ruqayyah, Oum Khalthoum and Fatima survived. Aside from the burial of the boys, the tragic separations that punctuated his own childhood were not repeated and he delighted in the company and the games of his children. Nor did his foster parents lack for an honourable welcome or a departing gift when they passed through Mecca. Another example of his cheerful humanity was in his treatment of Zayd, the young Arab slave boy that Khadija had given him as a present on his wedding day. Zayd grew to love his master so much that when his own family traced his whereabouts and offered Mohammed a ransom for his return Zayd begged to be allowed to remain. Faced with such loyalty Mohammed refused the ransom, gave Zayd his freedom and adopted him. Later to ease the congestion, and the growing poverty, of his uncle Abu Thalib's household, Mohammed invited his young cousin Ali into his house.
These were not arbitrary acts but part of a determined pursuit of a responsible moral life that stood shoulder to shoulder with the prayers that Mohammed addressed to al-Lah. His standing within the community was sufficiently high for him to be called in to arbitrate a squabble that threatened to break the unity of the Quraysh. The Quraysh had agreed to restore the Kaaba but fell out amongst themselves about who should have the honour of re-placing the sacred dark green meteorite that was built into its walls. Mohammed's solution that the holy stone should be placed on a blanket and jointly lifted into place by all the sheikhs of the clans holding an edge was instantly accepted. During this period of his life, if not before, Mohammed must have been considered by the rest of the city as a hanif, a learned (if still functionally illiterate) seeker of religious truth who devoted a good part of his life to prayer and good works. During the holy pilrimmage month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the year) Mohammed, as well as undertaking all the usual rituals, also began the practice of taking a spiritual retreat in a cave near the summit of Mount Hira, which stood just outside the city of Mecca.
It was on the 17th night of Ramadan that Mohammed became the messenger of God. The experience was clearly unwished for, unexpected and totally terrifying. The archangel Gariel, the divine messenger of truth, appeared before Mohammed and demanded that he recite. Mohammed tried to refuse, saying that he was not a reciter, but the angel "overwhelmed me in his embrace until he had reached the limits of my endurance". Again the archangel demanded that he "Recite in the name of thy Lord who created! He created man from a clot of blood. Recite: and thy Lord is the most bountiful. He who have taught by the pen. Taught man what he knew not." In such a manner was the first verse of the Koran uttered. Mohammed rushed out of the cave, near suicidal with despair, for he felt that he had become a kahin, a man possessed by jinn. If this was what his fasting and his prayers had led to he would have none of it and rushed up the mountain to the clean, sure air of the summit. There he was transfixed by a terrifying vision: the Archangel Gabriel filled his view in which ever way he turned in the guise of an enormous man with his feet astride the horizon.
Mohammed ran home, crawled, now shaking uncontrollably, into the presence of his wife and cried out to be covered by a cloak just as if he was some possessed kahin. Khadija comforted him in her arms and later assured him that it was indeed God who had spoken, for, "you are kind and considerate towards your kin. You help the poor and forlorn and bear their burdens. You are striving to restore the high moral qualities that your people have lost. You honour the guest and go to the assistance of those in distress." She and her saintly hanif cousin, Waraqa, later assured him that was the long awaited prophet to the Arabs.
This was only the beginning of a lifelong series of revelations. It was not an easy road nor were the recitations from the angel always delivered in memorizable words. Sometimes they took a visual form which Mohammed described to be like the brightness of dawn while at other times they became be locked within some insistent but painful incoherence, like the ringing of an internal bell, which would not cease until Mohammed was fully aware of the message. Nor, as he was warned, should he rush into speech for his role was to patiently gather it, and only then should he recite. In the words of the Prophet Mohammed "Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me". Nor could Mohammed in any way know in advance or prepare himself for a revelation, or know their frequency. They often came in response to some difficulty but Mohammed could never be sure. Indeed once when he casually let slip out hopes for a future revelation (which might sort out a particular thorny political problem) he was then left stranded for months, as if he was being punished for taking for granted his divine gift.
There was never any doubt as to what was part of the Koran and what was just Mohammed speaking although it was only after the Prophet's death that the Koran was to be definitively collected and written down. The 114 sura (chapters) of the Koran are arranged purely by length while the chapter titles, such as the Cow or the Bee, seem to be the remains of a 'memory theatre' from the time when it existed purely in the human memory. The example set down by the Prophet in his own conduct of life (whether it be in how he trimmed his beard or ate meat) was also later recorded and is normally known as the sura, the path. His sayings were collected in the Hadith although there has never been a definitive edition.
Far from going out onto the rooftops and enthusiastically proclaiming his message for the first two years the Prophet kept his recitations restricted to the sympathetic ears of just Waraqa, Khadija, his adopted son Zayd, his cousin Ali and best friend Abu Bekr. The former knew he had not much more of his life to run but joyfully dedicated to preparing Mohammed for the tribulations of the future. Mohammed was warned of the fates of the earlier prophets, how he would be reviled by his own people, cast out and rejected, for "the prophet is always without honour in his own country."
Mohammed, supported by Khadija and Warraqa, and called to action by further revelations, only began to openly share his message in 612 when he was 42. It was a joyful call for the Arabs of Mecca to open their eyes to the bounty and grace of the one God, Allah. Mohammed also revealed to his fellow Meccans that there was a future existence beyond the present anxieties of this life. Viewed in this perspective the so called dignities of mortal society were as nothing, while all members of society shared the immeasurable glory of an immortal soul and an eternal destiny. Mohammed never attempted to dismantle the honour codes of the clan, but used them to build a great all-inclusive society. The Meccans should look beyond their immediate desire for status through wealth accumulation, and strive for a just inclusive society where the weak and vulnerable are also treated with honour.
To help man be reminded of the omnipotence of Allah, Mohammed taught his followers the practice of salat, prayer, with a twice daily ritual ablution followed by a protestation of faith. At first Mohammed's followers knew themselves as the tazaqqa, those whose daily life is filled with compassion and generosity. However it soon became apparent that the defining first step was Islam, "surrendering oneself', to Allah and so Mohammed's followers became known as Muslims, "those who have surrendered". This voluntary act of faith was mankind's unique religious gift amongst all the other animals of earth who were all part of God's creation. In short Islam required no renouncement of the Arabic past, just a purification and spiritual enlargement. It is interesting that unbelievers, kafirs, were those 'ungrateful to God" rather than, as we might put it, those who are ignorant or opposed to God, for every Meccan was aware of al-Lah.
Even so for the first three years the Prophet Mohammed kept his spiritual teachings to an almost private circle. This community performed the morning and evening prayers together in some discreet place and on certain occassions keep an all night vigil with recitations of the existing Koranic verses. Although we might think of the Koran as a weighty tome of beautifully bound Arabic script it is important to remember that it has always existed primarily as a living sound, a musical like chant, delivered to an assembly and has never been restricted to the private contemplation of literate individuals.
In 615 AD, much to the Prophet's alarm, he was instructed by the Koran to go out and publically preach. He began, like the good Meccan Arab that he was, by taking his message to the council, the forty leading men, of his own clan, who he invited to a frugal dinner. It was always the Prophet's way to disdain rich food and sumptuious clothing, even when, as on this occassion, a more conspicuous show would have been politically convenient. Although he was teasingly mocked the occasion, for all its embarassment, did succeed in propagating the message of Islam throughout Mecca.
Urged on by the Koran, the next year was to prove even more taxing for the Prophet for he had so far managed to tactfully avoid any direct criticsm of the lesser deities in the Meccan pantheon. In 616 he forbade his followers to worship at the shrines of the Mother Goddess. At a stroke at least half his followers deserted, and the remaining faithful were now subjected to physical assault. It was a testing time and Mohammed longed for a Koranic relevation that might heal the rift that was developing. If the old pantheon could have been honoured as lesser deities, Mohammed could have been sure of the support of the whole city, but the Koran revealed the Goddesses as empty powers.
"They are naught but names yourselves
have named, and your fathers: God has
sent down no authority touching them.
They follow only surmise and what their whims desire."
As the division widened ever further, the ruling chiefs of the Quraysh began to see that only Mohammed's death would bring a solution. They approached Mohammed's uncle, Abu Thalib, chief of the Bani Hisham, and asked him to formally withdraw the protection of the clan from Mohammed. Abu Thalib was no Muslim but he loved his adopted nephew and having tested the Prophet's sincerity declared, " Go and say what you please, for by God I will never give you up on any account". Mohammed was physically safe but his followers became a boycotted minority, threatened, insulted, beaten and reviled. At the end of 616 Mohammed encouraged 83 of his more vulnerable followers to escape persecution and take refuge with the Negus, the Christian King of Abyssinia. In a famous interview the Negus and his court were reduced to tears when these Muslim refugees tactfully recited the Koranic verses about the Virgin Mary, the Incarnation and Jesus.
As well as the physical harrowing of his followers the Prophet Mohammed was subjected to questions from the more thoughtful of his opponents. Why, they asked, has God chosen you, a flawed mortal, and not an angel to recite the Koran, and why does the Koran come bit by bit rather than all at once? Why can you not perform miracles that might support your doctrine of a Day of Judgement and this new notion of life after death? Mohammed's replies, such as that the Koran was his only miracle, greatly helped further formulate the faith. Indeed the miraculous nature of the Koran seems to have been accepted by even his opponents. None of them doubted his sincerity or tried to make unflattering comparisons to the secular verses of the great poets or to the garballed utterings of the kahin. Time and time again it was not so much the careful explanations of the Prophet (his sermons as it were) but the sound of him reciting a verse of the Koran that inspired a conversion. On one such famous occasion Tufayl, the poet of the fearsome Daws tribe of western Arabia, who was passing through Mecca for the pilgrimmage, was converted by the sound of the Koran declaring, " by Allah, I have never heard anything finer or more just". Tufayl returned to his tribe a missionary. In Mecca the pressure was increased with a total ban on any trade with Muslims.
Just after this two year ban was repealed, in 619 AD, a double tragedy struck the Prophet. First Khadija, his beloved wife and companion died, soon followed by his guardian-uncle. Abu Thalib had never wavered in his support of his nephew but neither had he embraced Islam. When pressed on his death bed he confessed that if he did convert, it would not be from the heart but only out of a desire to please Mohammed. Nor did he wish it to be said of him that he converted out of fear of death. As Abu Thalib lay dying he was surrounded by his kin and friends, most of them now Muslims. One such witness saw in the movements of the old sheikhs lips an attempt to recite the chahada, the Muslim profession of faith. Mohammed slowly shook his head at this ardent piece of wishful thinking though in every fibre of his body he too must have yearned that it be true.
As it was the persecution became so intense that Mohammed toyed with moving from Mecca to the neighbouring oasis of Taif, home to one of the great shrines to the Mother Goddess. The attempt ended humiliatingly with the Prophet hiding in a garden from the mob of slaves and children that the Thaqif, the hereditary guardians of the shrine, had set upon him. As similar attempts to find a refuge or a new protector failed one by one, the Prophet reached a personal nadir of dejection and loneliness.
In spiritual terms however the year 620 was marked by the Night Journey, a blazing trail of mystical glory. In one of mankind's seminal spiritual journeys the Prophet, on the evening of 27 Rajab, the seventh lunar month, was guided by the archangel Gabriel onto the back of Buruq, a heavenly winged mule, who took him on the Night Journey to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. There he was greeted by an assembly of prophets and offered goblets of water, milk and wine. Having taken the milk, indicating the middle way of Islam between the two dangerous extremes of asceticsm and materialism, he ascended through the seven heavens, guarded by such great prophets as Adam, Jesus, John the Baptist, Moses and Abraham, to the Lote tree of the uttermost end. This marks the very threshold of the throne of God and the boundary of mortal knowledge of the divine. This journey of the soul has been the examplar and the inspiration to thousands upon thousands of poets and searchers after truth.
The Prophet had made it a custom of his to visit each of the pilgrims' tents whilst they camped in the plain of Mina during the ritual of the Meccan pilgrimmage. It was a long ordeal but it gave him an invaluable opportunity to reach out in just a few days to practically all the tribes of Arabia. The scorn with which he was greeted in some tents was balanced by the converts he could make in others. So it was that in the autumn of 620 he was acknowledged as the Prophet of God by six members of the Khasraj faction of the Beni Qaylah tribe from the oasis of Yathrib. These converts, like hundreds before them, returned home after the pilgrimmage was over. Later they returned to Mecca with seven additional friends who also wished to personally make their submission to God before his Prophet. To keep this small community on the straight path, the Prophet Mohammed, later sent them an articulate and experienced Muslims who increased the tempo of conversions in Yathrib oasis.
This sort of activity was occuring throughout the Arabian peninsular though the political situation in Yathrib accelerated events there. The oasis of Yathrib was 15 days ride north from Mecca and about 20 miles in length. It had never acknowledged a single authority though it was an important stopping off point on the main Mecca to Syria caravan route. The largest tribe in the oasis was the Beni Qaylah who proudly claimed to be of southern Arabian origin. As a tribe they had ceased to exist for they had split into two antagonistic factions, the Aws and Khasraj. The blood feuds between these two factions, complicated by alliances with the three resident Jewish clans of the oasis (also deadly rivals to one another) had virtually paralysed commercial life. In order to survive, the oasis of Yathrib needed a peace brokered by someone whom both factions could trust. From the example of the nascent Muslim community in the oasis, which was drawn from both factions, it seemed that the Prophet Mohammed was just such a man.
In 622 during the pilgrimmage a delegation of 73 Muslims from Yathrib met secretly with the Prophet and later swore to protect him. The Prophet Mohammed, assisted by his deputy Abu Bekr, began to organise the departure of all the Muslims from Mecca to the safety and security of Yathrib. The Muslims did not leave in one great caravan that would have awakened suspicion and hostility but discreetly in small groups.
Having overseen the departure of the bulk of their community Mohammed and Abu Bekr became ever more vulnerable and hated. A plot was hatched to murder the Prophet. Each of the clans contributed a young man to the gang who would collectively assassinate Mohammed and so frustrate the blood feud. The last few days in Mecca were a nerve-racking time. In one incident the young Ali donned the Prophet's old cloak and mimed sleep while Mohammed escaped from his would-be assassins out of a back window. For three days he hid in a cave outside Mecca whilst search parties scoured the area, spurred on by a reward of a hundred she-camels. One such such party reached the cave but didn't bother to search it for the entrance, sealed by a spider's web with a rock dove sitting nearby undisturbed on her nest, could clearly not be sheltering a man. The Prophet for his part looked back on those three days of inactivity as blessed by a divine sakina, tranquility.
When the search had moved elsewhere the Prophet and Abu Bekr met up, as arranged with a guide, who had brought with him two of Abu Bekr's camels. They were in mortal danger for the route to Yathrib was patrolled at a dozen points by their enemies and at any moment a new search party might stumble across them. Even in this moment of danger the Prophet would not accept a gift of a camel from Abu Bekr, his closest disciple, but insisted on paying his own way and buying Qaswa the camel at a fair price. They had to take a bizarrely circuitous route but on Monday 27 September 622 they at last approached the safety of Yathrib. They were spotted by a look out where upon the population poured out from the palm shaded fields of the oasis to give them welcome. Not until Ali had safely joined them three days later did they advance from the outlying palmery of Qubla and process into Yathrib.
Mohammed was besieged by new converts and old supporters begging him to rest awhile in their house, but he surrendered this decision to his camel Qaswa. He let slip the reins and allowed the camel to choose his new home which was a deserted courtyard, a half-ruined date store owned by two orphans beside an old burial ground. Once he had bought the land at a fair price, he began at once on the construction of a mosque. The walls were made of bricks, apart from the wall facing the direction of prayer, which was constructed of stone, while the roof was formed by a weave of palm fronds supported by columns of palm trunks. The rooms of the Prophet's own house opened directly onto this prayer hall. When it was finished, the Muslims assembled here for the five daily prayers but inevitably their impressions of dawn, noon, mid afternoon, dusk and evening differed. Mohammed had had no revelation which would tidy up this confusion and toyed with the idea of either using a horn, like the Jews, or wooden clappers, like the Arab Christians, to signal the times of prayer. Fortunately a believer struck up the courage to report his dream to the Prophet. In it an angel had given orders for prayers to be called by the human voice, announcing, "God is most great (repeated three times). I testify that there is no god but God. I testify that Mohammed is the messenger of God: come into prayer, come into salvation: God is most great. There is no god but God." Mohammed was delighted and promptly gave Bilal, a negro slave who had been much abused by his pagan master for his conversion to Islam, the dignity of making the call to prayer. Bilal had a splendid voice and, though the distinctive minaret tower had yet to be invented, Islam's first muezzin made use of the vantage point of a neighbouring high roof.
To formalise the Prophets relationship with the existing powers in Medina a treaty was signed. This effectively made the Muslims, both the Emigrants from Mecca and the so called Helpers of Medina, into one tribe distinct from the indigenous non-Muslim inhabitants of Medina. God was acknowledged as the head of the Muslim community and the only source of security. The Prophet Mohammed, now 52 years old, secured for himself no royal titles, no princely degree, military authority or sacerdotal priviliege. His only defined role was as arbitrator of disputes between Muslims. The Muslim community takes this move (the hegira) from Mecca to Yathrib as the beginning of a new era, year 1, while the oasis of Yathrib is here after known as Medina from Medinet el nabi, the city of the Prophet.
The last decade of the Prophet's life was dominated by war. Time and again Western critics of Islam have deliberately misread this period of the Prophet's life (making inappropriate comparisons to Jesus's pacific martyrdom on the cross) and in the process exposed their inate hostility. It is as if David is to be scorned for killing Goliath or such heroes of England as Arthur and King Alfred are to be reviled, rather than adored, for bravely resisting the assaults of the pagan Norsemen on Christian England.
As we have seen this century (with the rise to power of Nazi Germany) it is a cruel fact of life that wars are not only sometimes necessary but they are sometimes just. For the Muslims such was the case in the 7th century, for if they had failed to resist their enemies the Prophet of God as well as his unique message of salvation addressed to the Arab people in their own language would have been destroyed for ever. Nor should one forget that war in 7th century Arabia was a normal condition of life. It was mostly a question of desert raids on a caravan or the lifting of a herd while even in the great set piece battles the casualties (at around 6% of the combatants) were comparatively slight. It is a mistake to visualise it in 18th century terms let alone in those of the mass destruction of the 20th century. A much more useful comparison can be made with the clans of the Scottish Borders or Highlands, where raids on each other's herds of black cattle were a central activity in a heroic warrior society.
In 622 and 623 the Prophet Mohammed organised, and occasionally accompanied, raids against the Syrian-bound Meccan caravans. The Muslim forces were led by a white banner attached to a lance whilst the two regiments of Medinan Helpers and Meccan Emigrants each had their own black banner. In March 624 another raid led to a direct clash between the Muslim and the Meccan army at the battle of Badr well. The Muslim force of 350 men was greatly outnumbered by the Meccans. However they had a sense of discipline and unified purpose that was lacking in the clan-commanded Meccans, who left 50 dead on the field before they retreated. The Prophet forbade the usual slaughter of prisoners and set rules for the equitable division of booty which included 150 camels. The Prophet also directed the humane treatment of prisoners of war, commanding that"You should feed them as you feed yourselves, and clothe them as you clothe yourselves, and if you should set them on a hard task, you must help them in it yourselves."
The Muslims returned exultant to Medina and saw Gods hand in their victory which they believed to have been assisted with the help of angels. The battle of Badr irresistably reminds one of the battle of Milvian bridge, the first military triumph of Christianity, which the divinely-inspired Emperor Constantine won against unequal odds.
What of the Prophet's own house whose doors looked directly into the mosque, and which served as a sort of unofficial community centre. In 620, a year after Khadija's death Mohammed had taken two wives, thirty year old Sawdah and young Aisha, Abu Bekr's daughter, though their sexual relationship waited until she had become physically mature. In the aftermath of the victory of Badr he expanded the close web of family contacts in the customary Arab way, through marriage alliances. His closest companions were all honoured, Hafsah, the18-year-old widowed daughter of his eraly follower Omar became his third wife while he gave his daughter Oum Kulthum to another close follower, the ascetic Uthman and his other daughter Fatima to Ali. The latter marriage must have given him peculiar satisfaction, for his young cousin Ali was virtually a son to him and one of the first circle of converts. Mohammed (whose own first love for his cousin had been thwarted by his poverty) must have been delighted to affectionately brush aside Ali's protestations of poverty.
On the political front things were not so amicable. In Mecca a hostile poet (the 7th century equivalent of a radio station and propaganda chief) was composing defamatory verses while one of the Jewish clans within Medina had begun to openly side with the enemy. The former was assassinated, whilst the latter, after a failed trial of strength and a siege of their clan fortress, was expelled from Medina.
There could be no tolerance for traitors within the gates for in the spring of 625 a Meccan army of 3,500 men was advancing upon the oasis. Mohammed led an army of 1,000 Muslims some 20 miles out from Medina in order to defend the oasis. Battle was formed in the plain of Uhud. It was an inconclusive engagement which has to be understood as much in terms of Arab honour than as a tactical exercise. It was true that the Muslims lost more men (65 dead to 22 of the enemy), yet the Meccans failed to complete their advance upon Medina. They took their revenge on the dead, the women slicing off the noses, ears and genitals of the Muslims to wear as grisly necklaces whilst Hind, the wife of one of the Meccan chiefs, fulfilled a bloody vow of vengeance and chewed at the liver of a fallen Muslim warrior who had slain her kin at Badr. As the stakes of the conflict escalated, Mohammed needed to be assured of Medina's loyalty. When the Jewish Beni Nadir clan refused to integrate with his community their fortress's were subjected to a short siege. Later a truce was agreed which allowed all 700 of the Beni Nadir warriors to leave in honour bearing their arms. They were also allowed to leave with all their possessions (even their door frames) while their womenfolk made good use of the safe conduct to make a last parade through the oasis gardens dressed in all their finery, dancing, ulullating and striking their tambourines.
As raids followed counter-raids, the Muslim missionaries that the Prophet sent out to the various tribes, were also vulnerable to attack. In one such ambush all 40 Muslim missionaries were slaughtered whilst in another the two survivors were bought back to Mecca to be crucified.
The fighting had left Medina with many unprotected widows and orphans, but a Koranic verse allowed Muslim men to take up to four wives, though it councelled that those who could not be sure of treating their new wives equally should stick to one. Mohammed, who delighted in the company of women, asked the widow Zaynab to enter his household as his fourth wife, though she died eight months later to be replaced by Umm Salamah. Mohammed happily confessed to his love of the female sex, declaring that, "it has been given me to love perfume and women." His wives were more than just a harem for they collectively worked as a community centre. The long outer colonade of the mosque was set aside as a place for poor newcomers to lodge and be fed, more often than not directly from the kitchen of the Prophet. The Prophet's generosity is summed up beautifully by his declaration "the food of one is enough for two, the food of two is enough for four ..and of four is enough for eight." Later, to stop his house becoming the venue for a continuous day-long party and to guarantee some minimal privacy, for the Prophet had no room of his own but moved between the rooms of his wives, curtains were put up between his wives' apartments and the public space of the mosque. He also established standards of modest dress for his wives, for they filled a very public and central role in the community. It was these specific strictures that would later be taken out of context and used as standards for all Muslim women.
Mohammed discouraged any attempt to turn Islam into an ascetic religion for the minority and put sensible limits on prayer. Aside from sleeping and eating the day was divided into thirds devoted to prayer, family and work. The Prophet was a passionate grandfather, Fatima alone of his daughters produced a family, and always found time to play with young Hussein and Hassan while his granddaughter would perch on his shoulders in the mosque and listen while he recited the Koran.
Nor did his passion for women ebb with age. His adopted son Zayd could also not fail to notice that Mohammed had become besotted by his own wife Zaynab. For Zayd no sacrifice was too great so he divorced his own wife in order that she should be free to become the Prophet's fifth wife. This caused a few raised eyebrows, but it was as nothing compared to the charge of infidelity that was whispered against Mohammed's young and beautiful wife Aisha after she was accidentally separated from the caravan and was returned home by a young man. The scandal passed, but it had a good effect for in the process strict rules of evidence were now required before any accusation could be levelled.
n March 627 Medina was faced by its most serious threat yet as a 10,000-strong Meccan army advanced upon the oasis. The Muslim force of 3,000 could not risk open battle so Mohammed organised, and personally laboured on, the digging of a great protective moat defended by archers. The Meccan army was ill-equipped for a siege and had not the supplies to contemplate a long campaign. Only the defection of the last remaining powerful Jewish clan within Medina, the Beni Qurayzah, put the oasis in danger. When the Meccan army withdrew from the so called "Battle of the Trench" the Beni Qurayzah knew full well that their treason had left them in mortal danger. They contemplated collective suicide but instead surrendered unconditionally. Mohammed left the judgement of their fate to a tribal chief of Medina who had been mortally wounded during the siege. His decision, which was publicly supported by Mohammed, was that all the Beni Qurayzah warriors be executed, their families sold into slavery and their property confiscated. A trench was dug and the Jewish men, having been tied together in bunches, were beheaded and buried. This judicial massacre still has the power to send a shudder down the ages yet it is understandable in terms of realpolitik, the heightened emotions of the moment and the standards of the time.
In terms of tactics this ruthless action proved a striking success and marked a turning point in the war. More and more of the tribes of the desert began to make peace with the Prophet, which was soon followed by a formal profession of faith and a promise to pay an annual alms tax to the Prophet which he used for the support of the poor. The process once started quickly accelerated as the disciplined Muslim community was recognized as the coming power. Jews and Christians in neighbouring oases submitted and were accorded full protection as Peoples of the Book. The following year a truce was patched up between Mecca and Medina.
This truce was breached in November 629 and in January 630 the tables were neatly turned when Mohammed led an army of 10,000 out of Medina on the road to Mecca. By now the pagan opposition had melted away and the Muslim army entered the city without striking a blow. Mohammed cleansed the Kaaba and the surrounding sanctuary of its hundreds of idols chanting as he did so "the truth has come, and falsehood has vanished away: surely falsehood is certain to vanish." He then confirmed his victory with a general amnesty and tactfully withdrew from the city to an encampment at Mount Safa. From Mecca a stream of citizens, all the aristocrats and merchants who had reviled and opposed Mohammed for decades, flowed towards his camp. Their the Prophet flanked by his chief deputies Omar and Abu Bekr (who would rule as Caliphs of the Muslim Arab Empire after his death) personally received their submission and assured them not only of his pardon but of his future protection.
This pact was soon sealed in blood as the newly combined army of Mecca and Medina clashed with a 20,000 strong pagan force defending the shrine of the Mother Goddess at Taif. The Muslim victory over the pagans at the battle of Hunayn placed enormous wealth in the hands of the Prophet who bestowed it freely upon his followers both old and new. The army from Medina was rather taken aback by the Prophet's profligate generosity to the Meccan army who only a few weeks before had been their sworn enemies. Mohammed gently chastised them, "are you not satisfied that men should take away flocks and herds while you take back with you the apostle of God?" before performing the pilgrimmage and returning back to Medina.
All Arabia now flocked to make subsmission and in the following year 630 Mohammed led an Arab army of 20,000 to the frontiers of Syria. In 631 the last bastion of militant paganism, the oasis city of Taif, surrendered and agreed to the demolition of the temple of the Mother Goddess whilst Muslim armies began to secure the submission, and liberation from foreign rule, of the territories of southern Arabia.
By 632 the Prophet knew he was nearing the end of his life. In February he left Medina for Mecca in order to lead and perform the first entirely Muslim pilgrimmage, skillfully finishing his adaptation of the ancient rites to his new expression of faith. On Mount Arafat, half way through the pilgrimmage ritual the Prophet recited his last revelation which sealed the Koran, "This day have I perfected for you your religion and fulfilled my favour unto you, and it hath been my good pleasure to choose Islam for you as your religion." Then he delivered his Farewell Sermon to the massed ranks of the faithful ending his address with an earnest enquiry, "O people, have I faithfully delivered unto you my message ?" There was a pause then a noise, as if thunder had rolled across the valley, as thousands upon thousands of his fellow Arabs roared out their assent with "Allahumma na'm" ("O God, Yes").
He returned again to Medina and set about ordering a second invasion of Syria, then still a province of the Roman Empire. The marshalled army were assembled in a camp just three miles to the north of the oasis when the Prophet's strength failed. Abu Bekr was delegated to lead the prayers in his place and three days later on Monday 8th June 632 Mohammed died, expiring in the lap of his beloved Aisha.
It is a story that is too little known, after 1400 years of intimate contact between the faiths.
But let us conclude with the story of the first written account of Islam that has survived in Christendom which links the scholarship of the British Isles directly to the Holy Land.
We must imagine the storm tossed islands of the Inner Hebrides, of rocks submerged by the deep tides, of fearsome currents and a ship which while attempting to cross the Bay of Biscay is driven far, far off course until it is wrecked in these waters. A holy man, a pilgrim, a monk known as Arculf – perhaps Alexis bishop of Perigeux, survives. He is not enslaved, but taken by some kindly fishermen to the island of the monks, Iona where he is patiently nursed back into health by Adamnan: poet, biographer of St Columba, politician, peace-maker and ninth abbot of Iona. Adamnan also acted as a secretary to Arculf, taking down in meticulous detail the accounts of his pilgrimmage travels – even to the extent of getting him to draw a picture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchure on a wax tablet. Eventually they make a book of it, or rather three; an exploration of Jerusalem, of the holy sites of Palestine and Constantinople. In 698 a handsome copy of this is presented by Adamnan to King Aldfrith of Northumbria – as a thank you letter for the release of sixty Irish captives (which may have included some of Adamnan’s own troublesome kinsmen). Later it is believed to pass into the hands of Bede, who uses the account and popularises it as “De Locis Sanctis”. We can still read this and Arculf’s first hand account of the Muslim community at prayer:
Moreover, in that renowned place where once had been the magnificently constructed Temple, placed in the vicinity of the wall from the east, at this time, the Saracens fabricated in a crude manner a quadrangular house of prayer, constructing it with raised planks and great beams on top of certain remains of ruins; this they frequent; and this house is able to hold, it is said, three thousand men at the same time.
I love that brief, terse description. Though not intended to flatter it testifies to the poverty and purity of the first generation of Islam, it also hints at the ordered ranks of the faithful at prayer and the respect that these men drawn from out of the desert had for the great sites of Abrahamic worship. His account also testify to the absolute freedom with which a Christian holyman could travel throughout the Near East just thirty years after the Arab conquest – with no reference to any disturbance to any Christian churches or ceremonies – and this was at a time when Muawiya was actually laying siege to Constantinople.
A generation later that same mood of easy tolerance can still be found in the writings of John of Damascus, who addresses Islam as just one of the hundred varieties of Near Eastern heresy, which he catalogues as an offshoot of Arianism with their refusal to believe in Jesus as co-eternal with the Father. Rather more contentiously he wrote in defence of prayers offered before icons, against the prevailing iconodule orthodoxy of the day. He would have suffered for these beliefs at the hands of the Emperor and Patriarch who were determined to silence him, if he had not safely dwelt in the lands of Islam protected by the second Ommayyad Caliph. Nor was Yazid some distant figure of vast arbitrary authority but a childhood friend of St John’s. For St Johns father had worked as a treasury minister for Yazid’s father, Muawiya, who maintained the easy open manners of a traditional Bedouin sheikh. Even so it seems Yazid encouraged St John to adopt a lower profile, and take himself away from the dangerous passions and multitudes in the great Christain cities, which was probably the time when St John took up residence in the monastery of St Sabas in Palestine – just half a days ride south from Jerusalem.
It is a fine and encouraging example to end with, of a Muslim ruler protecting a Christian theologian from Christian persecution, of a childhood friend between a Caliph and a Saint.
“And you will find the closest of them in love to the believers are those who say, we are Christians” Sura 5, verse 82
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by Barnaby Rogerson