Muhammad (pbuh) was not only a wise, just, compassionate, honoured and respected man, but also a profoundly contemplative and spiritual person. As he approached the age of 40 he had long detested the decadence and cruelty of his society. He was deeply grieved by the lack of justice. Increasingly he came to spend more and more of his time in retreat, in contemplation, worship, prayer, in the cave of Hira in jabal al-Nur, sometimes for several days at a time.
It was here that one night before dawn, in the last part of the month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, the Angel Gabriel appeared before him in the form of a man, and said to him: ‘Read’, and the Prophet said: ‘I am not a reader.’ Thereupon, as he himself told it, ‘the Angel Jibrail overwhelmed me in his embrace until I reached the limit of my endurance. Then he returned me and said: ‘Read.’ Again I said: ‘I am not a reader.’ Thrice the same thing happened. The third time, after releasing me from his embrace, the Angel finally said:
Read in the name of your Lord Who has created. He has created man from a clot of blood. Read, and your Lord is the Most Bountiful: He who has taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not. (Qur’an 96:1-5)
He recited these words after the Angel. And, then, the Angel said to him: ‘You are the Messenger of God.’ Overawed by the unique experience of the Divine and overwhelmed by the huge burden of truth and message, he came out of the cave, his body trembling and his heart quaking. Muhammad (pbuh) returned home. ‘Cover me! Cover me!’ he said to his wife Khadijah. She quickly covered him with a cloak. Wrapped in the cloak, he told her what had happened in the Cave of Hira, how he had come to be appointed as God’s Messenger.
The event in Hira, as narrated by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), was the supreme and most crucial event of his life. All that happened later has been happening over the centuries, and all the positions that he enjoys in the eyes of his followers, or his detractors, hinges on the veracity, truthfulness, authenticity and nature of this event in Hira. Yet the only thing to support his claim in this respect was and remains his own word.
Was he truly a Messenger of God?
Was what he saw real and true? Or, was he a man possessed?
Did he just compose in words as poets do?
These questions are raised today, as they were raised by his compatriots then. Of these his Wife of 15 years was to be the first judge. She knew him too well to doubt even for a moment that he could say anything but the truth. She also knew his character. So, she believed in him without a moment’s hesitation. As with his wife Khadijah, so his closest friend Abu Bakr, his adopted son Zayd, his cousin Ali who lived with him, in short all who knew the Prophet (pbuh) most intimately, believed in his truthfulness most spontaneously. Khadijah took the Prophet (pbuh) to her cousin Waraqah, who had converted to Christianity, and acquired great learning in Christian Scriptures. Both the Jews and Christians had been expecting the coming of the last Prophet as foretold in their Scriptures. Had not Moses, just before he died, been told:
‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth’ (Deuteronomy 18: 18)
Who could be the brethren of the sons of Israel except the sons of Ishmael? Who could be the mysterious Shiloh but the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), about whom Jacob prophesied immediately before his death, that to him would be transferred the Divine mission in ‘the latter days’:
‘And Jacob called his sons and said, gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days… The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him the gathering of the people be.’ (Genesis 49: 1, 10)
And, whom did Jesus mean other than Muhammad (pbuh) when he said:
‘If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you…he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak’ (john 16: 7-14)
Waraqah therefore had no doubts that the last Prophet had come; so, he, too, believed in him. But most of the people of Makkah who had acclaimed him as the trustworthy (Al-Amin) and the Truthful (Al-Sadiq) could not bring themselves to believe in him.
This simple message shook the very foundations of the Makkan society as well as the seventh-century world. That world, as today, lived under the yoke of many false gods: kings and emperors, priests and monks, feudal lords and rich businessmen, soothsayers and spell-binders who claimed to know what others knew not.
The Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) message challenged them all, his immediate opponents in Makkah could do no better than brand him unconvincingly as a liar, a poet, a soothsayer, a man possessed. But how could he who was unlettered, he who had never composed a single verse, he who had shown no inclination to lead men, suddenly, have words flowing from his lips, so full of wisdom and light, morally so uplifting, specifically so enlivening, so beautiful and powerful, that they began to change the hearts and minds and lives of the hearers? His detractors and opponents had no answer. When challenged to produce anything even remotely similar to the words Muhammad (pbuh) claimed he was receiving from God, they could not match God’s words.
Firstly privately, then publicly, the Prophet (pbuh) continued to proclaim his Message. He himself had an intense, living relationship with God, totally committed to the Message and mission entrusted to him. Slowly and gradually, people came forward and embraced Islam. They came from all walks of life-chiefs and slaves, businessmen and artisans, men and women- most of them young. bSome simply heard the Qur’an, and that was enough to transform them. Some saw the Prophet (pbuh), and were immediately captivated by the light of mercy, generosity and humanity.
So also the opposition continued to harden and sharpen. It grew furious and ferocious. Those who joined the Prophet as also the Prophet himself were tortured in innumerable ways: they were mocked, abused, beaten, flogged, imprisoned, and boycotted. Some were subjected to much more inhuman tortures: made to lie on burning coal fires until the melting body fat extinguished them, or were dragged over burning sand and rocks. Yet such was the strength of their faith that none of them gave it up in the face of such trials and tribulations. However, as the persecutions became unbearable, the Prophet said to them:
‘If you go to Abyssinia, you will find there a king, a Christian, under whom no one suffers wrong.’
About 80 of his followers, therefore, forsook their homes and emigrated to Abyssinia, where the Christian king gave them full protection despite the pleadings and machinations of the emissaries sent by the Quraysh chiefs. This was the first emigration of Islam. All the while, the Prophet (pbuh) and his Companions continued to nourish their souls and intellects and strengthen their character and resolve for the great task that lay ahead. They met regularly, especially at a house near the Kabah called Dar al-Arqam, to read and study the Qur’an, to worship and pray, and to forge the ties of brotherhood.
Ten years passed, but the people of Makkah would not show any signs of mitigating their persecution. At the same time, the Prophet (pbuh) lost his wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib, his chief protector in the tribal world of Makkah.
The Prophet (pbuh) now decided to carry his Message to the people of the nearby town of Taif. In Taif, too, the tribal leaders mocked and ridiculed him and rejected his Message. They also stirred up their slaves and the street urchins to insult him, mock him, and throw stones at him. Thus, he was stoned until he bled and was driven out of Taif. And yet when his Companion, Zayd, requested him to curse the people of Taif, he only prayed for their being guided. Such was the mercy and compassion of the one who is the ‘mercy for all the worlds’. The Taif episode was the hardest moment in the Prophet’s life.