In a recent post I asked whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. By extension the same question asks, "If there is one true God, is it Allah?" My conclusion is No to both questions. If I'm correct, however, the next question is, "Where did Allah come from?"
I'm not talking about a pre-Muhammad historical study of the Allah who was probably one of the 360 idols in the Kaaba. I'm not interested in whether or not this Allah was the moon god worshipped by the Quraysh, although I do find it intriguing that the moon plays such a prominent role in Islam. I'm also not interested in a study of Allah's family, although again it is fascinating that he apparently had a female counterpart named Allat who was also one of the local gods (the letter "t" is used to feminize Arabic nouns, so Allat is the female Allah, perhaps even Mrs. Allah!). I'm not even talking about the possibility that Muhammad, longing for the father he never had, named his god after his father Abdallah, the servant of Allah. It is interesting to ponder, however, whether if Muhammad's father had been named after another local god, Abdalshams for example, the servant of the sun, the God of Islam might be Shams instead of Allah, and the sun might have the same significance in Islam that the moon does.
No, I'm not thinking about any of these local entities. I'm talking about the Allah of the Quran, of whom we know nothing except what Muhammad told us. Where did he come from?
According to historian Ibn Ishaq, the story of Muhammad does not begin with his birth, but several generations before when his ancestor Qusay married the daughter of the chief of the Quraysh in Mecca and subsequently assumed leadership of the tribe. Strategically located on the route that trade caravans took between Yemen and Syria, Mecca profited financially from these transiting caravans. Visiting merchants often visited the Kaaba that contained their idols with the result that Mecca, then as now, became a pilgrimage destination where people circumambulated the Kaaba, kissed its black stone, and proffered prayers and offerings to their gods.
Qusay's leadership passed to his son Abd al-Manaf and then to Hashim, Muhammad's great-grandfather. Hashim did much to develop the economy of Mecca and the Quraysh. He provided food to the pilgrims who visited the Kaaba and initiated both winter and summer trade caravans from Mecca instead of just once a year as had previously been the case. He married a woman from Medina, a city located a few hundred miles to the north. In contrast to Mecca which was largely inhabited by illiterate tribes that had emigrated from Yemen, Medina contained a flourishing educated Jewish population that had lived there for centuries. When Hashim's wife gave birth to a son, Hashim sent him to Medina to learn religion from the Jewish rabbis and horsemanship from his wife's family.
Hashim's young son learned several things from the rabbis that deeply influenced him and later his grandson Muhammad. One of these was that there was only one true God, and all the idols worshipped by the Arab tribes were an expression of ignorance and superstition. Another was that God approved leaders who ruled as both prophet and king. The prime example in Jewish history was King David, who was anointed and accepted by his tribe as prophet years before he was crowned king.
When Hashim died on a trade expedition to Gaza, his brother Mutalab was sent to bring the son back from Medina. As Mutalab and the young man entered Mecca with the son leading the camel on which his uncle was riding, people assumed he was a slave Mutalab had purchased in Medina and addressed him as Abd al-Mutalab, the slave of Mutalab. The name stayed with him the rest of his life.
Although he remained a monotheist, and with several friends formed a movement of like-minded people known as the Hanifs, Abd al-Mutalab recognized the financial value of the Kaaba and never destroyed its idols. He did however attempt to imitate the life of the Jewish prophet Abraham in numerous ways. As Abraham dug wells whenever he moved, Abd al-Mutalab claimed he had received revelation to redig the well it was believed Abraham had once dug in Mecca. And as Abraham was prepared to sacrifice a son, Abd al-Mutalab announced that if he was given ten sons he too would sacrifice one of them. When his tenth son was born, Abd al-Mutalab prepared to carry out his vow and was only stopped by shocked tribal members who persuaded him to sacrifice 100 camels instead. World history would probably be quite different if Abd al-Mutalab had made his original sacrifice, since the lots he cast to determine which son to kill fell on his young son Abdallah who later became the father of Muhammad.
Abd al-Mutalab loved his young grandson Muhammad, and several stories in Islamic history indicate that he recognized in the young boy signs of leadership. One of these stories is that Abd al-Mutalib would repeat to his children and grandchildren that if God ever chose to raise a leader of the Arabs, he would choose someone such as them. Another is that Muhammad was the only person who dared sit in Abd al-Mutalab's special chair in the Kaaba. When Abd al-Mutalab saw the young boy sitting there, he would pat him on the shoulder in affection rather than becoming upset.
Even though Abd al-Mutalab died when Muhammad was only eight years old, I believe his influence was great in Muhammad's life. The family had lost much of the power it held when Hashim ruled Mecca, and none of Abd al-Mutalab's nine surviving sons had the ability to gain it back. At the same time, many other Arab tribes were successful in forming local kingdoms. These included the kingdom of Hirah, the Ghassanid Kingdom, the Kingdom of Sheba, and numerous others. As their caravans crisscrossed Mecca, the young Muhammad would have heard stories of the accomplishments of their kings. Why was it only his tribe, the Quraysh, who were unable to form a powerful kingdom? Why were his people still locked in the ignorance of worshipping their flimsy idols, rather than a powerful god who could lead them to power and victory? And why couldn't he be the leader to do this?
But to accomplish his dream, he needed a model. What better example than that he had learned from his grandfather of a king named David who was a prophet before becoming a king? Why could not he, Muhammad, announce that he also was a prophet chosen to be a king? The god Allah was not merely the local idol the Quraysh believed him to be, he was the True and Mighty God who had chosen Muhammad to be his prophet and their ruler. Allah was the Enforcer, the Club, the Weapon that Muhammad needed to back his message. "I am a Prophet of Allah, and if you don't accept me Allah will be very angry at you. Your skins will roast in hell only to be replaced by other skins that will also burn off (Quran 4:56)!"
There was only one problem with Muhammad's plan; the Quraysh didn't buy it. His early followers were mostly slaves impressed by his promise that if they obeyed him he would give them the treasures of the Byzantine and Persian Empires. For the dream to come true, Muhammad had to find a tribe to accept him as their prophet. He tried to persuade other tribes, including those in the nearby city of Taif, but to no avail. Finally thirteen years later, he met some Arabs from Medina who were jealous of the prosperity of the Jews living there. They recognized that by accepting Muhammad as their leader and inviting him to Medina they might be able to gain the upper hand over their enemies. Muhammad gladly accepted their offer, naively assuming that these Jews would recognize him as the prophet of the One True God. He moved to Medina, the migration that marked the turning point of his life and Islamic history.
For the rest of his life, Muhammad continued to receive inspiration from the Allah he had created. The revelations progressed from the early warnings of hell file to detailed descriptions of how he was to engage in warfare. When Muhammad wanted to marry more women than the four he allowed his followers, his Allah came to his rescue. When he wanted his own son to divorce his wife so that he, the father-in-law, could add her to his list of sexual conquests, his Allah granted him permission. When he was unsure as to whether his wife Aisha had been unfaithful to him or not, his Allah assured him of her innocence. When the Jews of Medina did not accept him as their prophet, his Allah told him to expel and kill them all. When he promised his wife Hafsah he would not sleep with her slave Mary the Copt again, his Allah released him from the promise. The Allah created by the prophet served him well.