SUMMARY: In this program from Al-Hayat TV, Father (Abuna) Zakariya Boutros examines the political and economic situation of Mecca and the surrounding region that influenced the personality of Muhammad. The idea that a prophet would arise who would combine political and religious rule was not unique to Muhammad, but commonly believed by many Jewish tribes in the region. The animosity between Muhammad and the Quraysh did not begin when Muhammad first announced he was a prophet, but when he began to attack their religious beliefs and request they follow him.
COMMENTS: Muslims believe, and many Western writers and academics pick up the refrain, that the early Muslim community in Mecca was intensely "persecuted" for thirteen years before the immigration to Medina. As is often the case, the only evidence for this is what Muhammad himself said. Looking at the situation more objectively in light of other written evidence, as Zakariya Boutros does, gives a quite different conclusion.
AHMAD: In the last segment we talked about the tribal factors that influenced the personality of Muhammad. What do you want to talk about today?
ABUNA: I would like to look at the influence of the domestic political situation on Muhammad’s personality. By that, I mean the situation in Mecca and in the Arab Peninsula. In his book “The Arabs in Ancient History”, Lutfi Abd al-Wahhab Yahya describes the situation at that time. As we saw in the previous episode, the Quraysh were weak following the rule of Abd al-Mutallib. His son Abu Talib was not at his level, and we can now understand the Quranic verse that says of Muhammad, “We found you poor and gave you wealth.” It was a time of need, not in Mecca only but in the entire Arab Peninsula. The situation had deteriorated economically, financially, and in security. The first need was for stability and security. There was a need to establish an organized army to protect the people. There was also a need to guard the caravans as they travelled to and from Syria and Yemen. There was the need to bring back a united control to Mecca and the region. There was a need for someone as strong as Muhammad’s ancestors Qusay, Hashim, and Abd al-Mutallib who could unite the people of Mecca and establish rule over them.
AHMAD: What is the connection between united political rule and the prophethood of Muhammad?
ABUNA: The connection is very close. When Qusay wanted to acquire political power, he was very keen to obtain the keys of the Kaaba. He rebuilt it, reestablished religious rule in it, and revitalized the religion of Abraham. The political leader needed to be the religious leader, largely because of the economic importance of the Kaaba. Abd al-Mutallib followed the example of his grandfather Qusay by paying attention to the Kaaba, to worship, and to the religion of Abraham. The connection between religious and political power was very strong. The person who wanted to rule needed to pay attention to the religious aspect. As we saw in the previous segment, Abd al-Mutallib claimed that revelation to dig the well of Zamzam came to him while he was sleeping in the Kaaba. From the example of Qusay and Abd al-Mutallib, it was clear that religion was important to establish the state. Sayyid al-Qimni said in “Islamiyat”, “Religion was used in the Kaaba as a means to establish the state.”
AHMAD: Where did they get this idea to link religion and power?
ABUNA: It came from the Jews who were scattered around the Arab Peninsula, especially in Medina. The Jews at the time had the concept that their tribes would never be united, unless it was under the rule of a prophet-king as they were originally united under King David. This person would first be a prophet and then a king. This dream was widespread among the Jewish tribes of the region, and each tribe imagined the prophet-king would come from their tribe.
AHMAD: Where there pretenders among them who claimed this role?
ABUNA: There were many. The Arabic history books mention names such as al-Aswad al-Ansi in Yemen, Musaylama in Yamama, Tulayha in the Beni Usid, Askar in Samrira, and others. Some of these lived in the time of Muhammad. They claimed to be prophets, and called upon people to follow them.
AHMAD: Was Muhammad one of these who claimed to be a prophet?
ABUNA: I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am merely a reader of history and am not making declarations about Muhammad? What is doubtless is that he appeared during this time when many people were claiming prophethood. Sayyid al-Qimni says in “Islamiyat”, “When Muhammad reached the age of forty he settled the matter and announced that he was a prophet for the people.”
AHMAD: He “settled the matter”?
ABUNA: Everyone was claiming to be a prophet, and Muhammad “settled it” by declaring he was the true prophet. And by the way, Muhammad did not first announce that he was a prophet of Islam. He declared he was a prophet of the “hanifiya”, the monotheistic religion of Abraham. The idea to name his religion Islam came later. Quran 16:123 says, “We sent the message to you, Muhammad, to follow the hanifiyah of Abraham who was not one of the idolaters.”
AHMAD: How did people respond to this claim?
ABUNA: First of all, it was not a strange or original claim because the hanifs were common at that time. Even Muhammad’s own ancestors, including Qusay, Hashim, and Abd al-Mutallib, had been among them. It was not a problem for him to say that he was a hanif.
AHMAD: What happened when he first began to say it?
ABUNA: He did not find any resistance for a number of reasons. First of all, freedom of expression and criticism was common at that time throughout the Arab Peninsula. There were hanifs, Jews, Christians, Sabians, and others. There was freedom of expression; it’s not like today. Secondly was the matter of economic interests. Mecca was a commercial center for all these religions as well as the idolaters, and religious conflict was of no financial benefit to anyone. Thirdly, there were many hanifs in the area and there was nothing unusual about Muhammad calling people to the religion of Abraham, which was only one of many religions coexistent in Mecca. Fourthly, in the beginning his call was not confrontational, and he did not force anyone to accept his message. Many of the early suras emphasize tolerance and coexistence. Quran 109:6 says, “You have your religion and I have mine.” Quran 10:99 says, “If Allah had willed, he could have made all men believe. So will you then, Muhammad, compel mankind to become believers?” Quran 35:23 says, “You, Muhammad, are only a warner.” There was no pressure from Muhammad in the beginning.
AHMAD: So what happened?
ABUNA: The conflict began little by little. Sayyid al-Qimni says in “Islamiyat”, “Conflict began when Muhammad began to call upon the people of Mecca to follow him. The opposed him saying, “Have you gone crazy and become a madman?” They were saying, in effect, “Believe anything you want, but don’t tell us we need to follow you.” His response was to tell them in Quran 74:50 that they were like wild donkeys running away from a lion. He began to call them kafirs, which is the title of sura 109.
AHMAD: So he was the lion, and they were the wild donkeys. Did the situation get worse after that?
ABUNA: Definitely. Theirs was a slave society, and the slaves were the backbone of the trade caravans. The workers, camel drivers, and guards of the caravans were the slaves. They served as a de facto army. Sayyid al-Qimni writes in “Islamiyat” that Muhammad began to incite the slaves against their owners by telling them to follow him and he would give them treasure. Some of them tried to run away from their masters, and in turn were captured and punished.
The next thing Muhammad began to do was attack the gods of the Quraysh. The history books relate that the people of Mecca did not distance themselves from Muhammad until he began to mock and attack their idols. Tabari writes that a delegation from the Quraysh came to Abu Talib saying that if Muhammad would stop cursing their gods they would allow him to freely worship his God. Muhammad responded by calling upon them to recite the shahada, that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. They then left him and separated themselves from him.
AHMAD: So the conflict began to get serious. What was next?
ABUNA: Al-Qimni writes in “Islamiyat” that the Meccans began to understand the intentions of Muhammad. They realized he had a political purpose, and was beginning to attack the Quraysh in their economic interests. They suspected he wanted to gain control of the city. He wanted to advance the cause of the Beni Hashim at the expense of the other tribes and clans.
AHMAD: What did they do after they realized that?
ABUNA: The next stage was one of attack. The Quran became more warlike in its expression. Quran 100:1-5 says, “The panting horses ran into the midst of the foe, striking sparks of fire from their hooves and raising clouds of dust in the air.” It was like a declaration of war. Tabari writes that once when Muhammad was walking around the Kaaba he said to the people there, “Will you listen to me, people of Quraysh? I tell you by him who holds my life in his hand, I have come to you with slaughter.”
AHMAD: That was a threat. What was their response?
ABUNA: It was the beginning of an increasingly hostile confrontation that resulted in the emigration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. But I would like to present the viewpoint of his own relatives. The oldest son of Muhammad’s ancestor Qusay who ruled Mecca was Abd al-Dar. Abd al-Dar’s younger brother Abd al-Manaf wrested power from Abd al-Dar to become the leader of Mecca, and after that there was conflict between the two families. Muhammad was from the line of Abd al-Manaf. Amre al-Hashim was one of Muhammad’s relatives from the line of Abd al-Dar. Speaking ruefully of the power that had been taken from his family and the claims of Muhammad, Amre said, “They took our honor from us. They told us to feed them, and we fed them. They told us to give, and we gave. And now they are saying, “We have a prophet who receives revelation from the sky!” Our response was, “By God, we do not believe in him nor do we believe he is true.” It was a war of words. Another response was a poem of the time written by Ibn al-Zubari that says, “The Beni Hashim rose up and took power. But no king has come, and no revelation has come down.”