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Sirat Rasoul Allah

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It is always extremely difficult to be objective about the life of the founder of a great religion - his personality is inevitably blurred by an aura of the miraculous. Early biographers are preoccupied, not with historical fact, but with glorifying in every way the memory of one they believe to have been a Messenger of God or even God Himself. Consequently, there is a rich accretion of myth and miracle, mysterious portents and heavenly signs, of residues from other religious beliefs and traditions, the propaganda, in fact, of an expanding faith. All these will be found in the biography of Muhammad which follows. But behind the legendary Muhammad there lies one of the great figures of history, and, although very little is known about his early years - the first certain date being that of the migration from Mecca to Medina, which took place in AD 622 - it is possible to build up the events of his real, as distinct from his symbolic, life.

Muhammad was born at Mecca about AD 570 into a poor family of the Quraysh tribe. When he was twenty-five years of age he was employed by Khadija, a wealthy widow, to go with one of her trading caravans to Syria . On the successful completion of the journey, Muhammad married Khadij a, who was some fifteen years older than he. Two sons and four daughters were horn of this marriage. The two boys died in infancy, but one of the daughters, Fatima, married Muhammad's cousin Ali, and it is the descendants of Fatima and Ali who are said to be the true heirs of the Prophet.

The community Muhammad was born into was pagan, the gods often being represented by stones. One of the most important places of pilgrimage was the sanctuary of the Kaba, in which was a black stone, at Mecca . Scattered about Arabia at this time were communities of Jews and Christians, whose belief in only one god was to influence Muhammad when he came to state his own religious ideas. How he learned of these beliefs during the fifteen years between the date of his marriage to Khadija and the revelation of the first divine communication is not known, but there were many Arab converts to Judaism and Christianity and, as Muhammad grew more and more dissatisfied with the pagan gods, it is obvious that he must have investigated the religions of those who claimed to worship the one true god.

Muhammad was in the habit of spending periods in meditation on Mount Hira , near Mecca , and there in his fortieth year he is supposed to have received his first revelation from God. The communication terrified him and he spoke of it and of a number of others which followed only to Khadija and a few close friends. But finally he received a command to proclaim publicly what had been revealed to him. Most of his family had scornfully rejected his teaching and his early converts were slaves and people of the lower classes. His preaching soon drew not only mockery but active opposition from the people of Mecca , who believed that his mission threatened their position as guardians of the Kaba a position which brought them great wealth from the pilgrim traffic. The Meccans tried to discredit him, charging him with sorcery and with stealing his ideas from Jews and Christians. From opposition to persecution was but a step. A hundred of his followers emigrated to Abyssinia, and finally Muhammad himself decided to leave Mecca and went to Medina in AD 622. From this year the Muslim Era is dated.

From a persecuted religious teacher in Mecca , Muhammad In Medina became the leader of a religious community and was acknowledged to be the messenger of God. He still, however, had doubters and enemies. The Jews, whom he had hoped would welcome him, were among his bitterest opponents. His assumption of authority at Medina was also resented by some of that city's leading men. Nevertheless, by careful diplomacy and firmness of purpose, he began to create a brotherhood of the faith, transcending all other ties and relationships, even those of father and son. This brotherhood united all Muslims by giving them a common purpose - the defence of the faith - and made God, and His prophet, the final source of law.

This achieved, Muhammad began to look outward, not only because he wished to convert all Arabs to his teaching, but also in an attempt to alleviate growing economic distress in Medina . Muhammad's first step was to persuade the Medinans that they must attack Mecca . This was, in fact, the first test of the new brotherhood, for many of those in Medina had relatives in Mecca and to the Arabs the ties of blood were sacred. Muhammad, however, insisted that war was a sacred duty, demanded by Allah, and he was finally able to persuade his followers that this was so. Muhammad first sent parties to attack the caravans of Mecca on their journeys to or from Syria . One attack was carried out during the sacred month of Rajab (January 624), when war was banned throughout Arabia . In the Koran, Muhammad justified this break with tradition by claiming that there could be no scruples in the fight to overcome idolatry.

From this time onwards events moved rapidly. Two months later a battle took place at Badr between three hundred Muslims and nearly a thousand Meccans. The former were triumphant, taking many prisoners. Soon after, Muhammad began a series of campaigns to expel the Jews from around Medina . These campaigns were interrupted firstly by an attack by the Meccans, in which the Muslims were defeated at Uhud, and then by an unsuccessful Meccan attempt to besiege Medina . After the Meccans had retired, Muhammad dealt with the last Jewish tribe near Medina which had supported the Meccans. The men were killed and the women and children enslaved.

Muhammad now began to subdue the tribes surrounding Mecca , and the result was a ten-year truce permitting the Muslims to return to Mecca for the yearly pilgrimage to the Kaba. After this, adherents flowed in and, though the prophet only lived four more years, in that time the future of the countries of the Near East was to be determined for hundreds of years to come. The attacks on Jewish tribes continued and much of the wealth of the country, which had previously been monopolized by Jewish traders and landowners, was seized by the Muslims. From a despised minority the followers of Muhammad were now becoming the most powerful single force in Arabia .

The truce was broken by the Meccans in AD 630, when the Quraysh attacked a tribe under Muslim protection. Muhammad marched on Mecca and occupied the city with very little opposition. The prophet showed great magnanimity in dealing with his opponents and only four people were put to death after the capture of the city, though one was a singing-girl who had composed satirical verses about Muhammad. He was now accepted as the apostle of God. Soon his armies were moving out to areas occupied by Christians, but an expedition against the Byzantines was soundly defeated. Deputations, however, came to pay him homage and there were so many that the year 9 of the hijra (AD 63 1) is known as the Year of Deputations. But the prophet had not much longer to live. He died at Medina on 8 June 632.

There is no doubt that Muslims are right when they date the beginning of an era from the prophet's migration to Medina in 622. In Mecca , Muhammad had been merely a preacher of unpopular doctrine. In Medina , however, he found a centre from which to propagate a new religion. In organizing a community of believers, Muhammad gradually established religious, social and political laws, and from them produced a distinct religious system. The system was all-embracing, and from it emerged something like a totalitarian state, with Allah as the universal king and His prophet ruling in His name. Muhammad, though preaching compassion and mercy, sometimes acted cruelly, but he must be judged within the context of his times and none of his contemporaries criticized his actions on moral grounds. He was a man of extraordinary powers and he must have had great personal charm, for he was able to attract and keep the devotion of men of widely differing types. Within a century of his death the cry 'Allah is most great!' was to be heard from Spain to China . Today, over two hundred million people in the Near East and Africa, in South and South-east Asia, still listen to the same call to prayer that was first heard in the remote Arabian desert thirteen centuries ago.

The followers of Muhammad, like the followers of Christ, are 'People of the Book'. The Bible of the Christians was once believed to be the literal word of God. Today, modern research has made this difficult to accept. To the Muslims, however, the doctrine of God's infallible word is a fundamental article of faith and very few have ever questioned it. The sacred book which contains the word of God is called the Koran. The actual words were given to Muhammad by an angel, Gabriel, over a period of some twenty years, firstly in Mecca and then in Medina . Muhammad, who is said to have been unable to read and write, repeated the angel's words from memory and they were either written down or memorized by his followers. After the death of the prophet, Abu Bakr, his successor as Caliph of Islam, commissioned the prophet's secretary Zayd to make the first collection of the Koran. The final form was reached under the third Caliph, Uthman.

The Koran is divided into 114 chapters, called suras. They are not chronologically arranged, and only occasionally is there a clue as to when the words were spoken or upon what occasion. The arrangement is based upon length, the longest suras first and the shortest, last. For many hundreds of years scholars have been trying to relate individual suras to particular periods of Muhammad's life, but until the same scientific treatment that has been given to the Christian Bible is given to the Koran no great progress can be expected.

The contents of the Koran can be divided under four main heads: (i) Those passages concerning the worship of the one god, Allah, the creator of all things, and from whom all that is good flows. (2) Passages concerned with the doctrine of death, resurrection, judgement, and the rewards of heaven and hell. The delights of paradise are very considerable. There, beautiful girls and youths minister to the pleasures of believers; but hell is black smoke and terrible heat. (3) Stories of earlier messengers of God, most of them Jewish and derived from the Old Testament. (4) Proclamations and regulations, mainly from the Medina period. The laws expounded show the influence of Judaism and Christianity, but are in many cases adaptations of old Arab customs.

The chief religious duties laid down by the Koran are prayer, alms-giving, fasting and pilgrimage. Prayer is the 'key to paradise' and requires religious purifications, bathing before prayer, and so on. 'The practice of religion being founded on cleanliness', the ground upon which the believer prays must also be clean and a special prayer-carpet is suggested. There are five prayers every twenty-four hours, and the face of the worshipper must be turned towards Mecca .

Alms were originally collected by the ruler and were supposed to represent one-fortieth of a man's income in money or kind. Today, however, it is left to the conscience of the individual.

The third duty is fasting. This is based upon Christian and Jewish practices and is specifically stated to be so in the Koran. The month of Ramadan, which does not fall at the same season every year - since the Muslim calendar is a lunar one - often occurs in the hottest time of the year and, in consequence, imposes very considerable strains on Muslims. During the fast, eating, drinking, smoking, smelling perfumes, bathing, and all other worldly pleasures are forbidden between sunrise and sunset. None except the sick, travellers, and soldiers in time of war, are exempt, and they must fast an equal number of days at some other time in recompense. Nurses and pregnant women need not fast at all.

The last of the principal - and binding - duties is that of a pilgrimage. Every Muslim, unless prevented by sickness or poverty, is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in his ife . There he must walk around the Kaba seven times, kiss the black stone set in one of its walls, run between the two hills of Safa and Marwa near by, travel to Arafat, a hill some twelve miles from Mecca, and on the way back sacrifice sheep and camels at Mina, where a ceremonial stoning of devils takes place.

These four duties plus the profession of faith in Allah and Muhammad, His prophet, are known as the five 'Pillars of the Faith'.

Among the many other ordinances contained in the Koran is a prohibition against alcohol, as giving rise to 'more evil than good'. Pork is also forbidden, and animals must be slaughtered according to fixed rules. Idolatry is an unforgivable sin and the laws against the making of images and pictures are particularly stringent. Anyone who makes an imitation of any living thing will, on the day of judgement, undergo punishment in hell for a certain period of time. Usury is prohibited and all forms of gambling are condemned. Slavery is recognized, but slaves must be kindly treated and even encouraged to purchase their liberty. Women slaves may be taken as concubines.

The Koran has much to say about the position of women. That position is implicitly defined by the word for marriage, which is the same as that used for the sexual act. A man may have four wives and any number of concubines, but all his wives must be treated equally. A man may divorce his wife, but a woman cannot divorce her husband. The Koran specifically states that women are inferior to men.

An injunction to fight the infidel guarantees to those who die in defence of Islam the reward of martyrdom and entry into paradise. People of different faiths on whom war is declared are first to be offered the choice: to embrace Islam; to pay tribute, in which case they may continue to practise their faith; or to settle the affair by the fortunes of war, in which case captives are made slaves, the men usually being slain unless they embrace Islam. One-fifth part of any spoil belongs to the ruler.

ethical teaching of the Koran is high and it may be said to represent a sort of mercantile theology, emerging as it does from the commercial background of Muhammad and the Arabs. It was the duty of an Arab in Muhammad's time to support his tribe, to give food and shelter to the traveller, and to protect those who claimed his protection. Commerce was impossible without good faith and honest dealing. To these precepts Muhammad gave a religious sanction and offered in return rewards according to each man's deeds. But the appeal is not only to self-interest. It is God who hates injustice and oppression, and who is above all compassionate and merciful; man has the responsibility and the power to be the same.  

The present life of Muhammad is by the earliest biographer whose work has survived. Ibn Ishaq was born in Medina about eighty-five years after the hijra (AH 85) and died in Baghdad in AH 151. No copy of Ibn Ishaq's biography in its original form is now in existence, but it was extensively quarried by Ibn Hisharn (died AH 213 or 218). Much of the material used was left in the original words and in whole sections, so that Ibn Hisham's work can best be described as an edited version of the original biography, with interpolations by the editor.

Ishaq's work is not a biography in the modern sense, but more a compilation of anecdotes and traditions collected by him and arranged in chronological periods. Collected within a century of the prophet's death, it bears the stamp of authenticity, though again not in a modern sense. The miraculous is always present and is given the same weight as mundane descriptions of the prophet's actions. Because tales of miracles may be unacceptable today, this does not mean that other parts of the biography are untrustworthy. The facts are there, and the miraculous is that essential embroidery of faith which the life of no religious leader - from Christ to the Buddha - is without.

The translation which follows is the first known English version of Ibn Ishaq's biography, and is here published for the first time. The translator, Edward Rehatsek, was born in Hungary in 1819 and died in Bombay in 1891. He arrived in India in 1847 and spent a number of years in research upon oriental subjects. He later became professor of mathematics and Latin at Wilson College, Bombay, from which position he retired in 1871. Rehatsek lived the life of a recluse, working upon his translations from Arabic and many other languages. After his death, his body was burned in the Hindu manner, the first European, it is said, to be cremated in India. The manuscript of the translation was completed just before his death and was presented to the Royal Asiatic Society, London, by F. F. Arbuthnot, the Islamic scholar, in 1898. This edition is published by courtesy of the Society.

The original work is extremely long, over a thousand pages of the translator's small yet clear handwriting. Rehatsek produced an almost literal translation and it suffers somewhat from scholarly pedanticism. In preparing this edition for publication, I have kept one main aim in view - to present the earliest extant life of Muhammad in a form, and at a length, acceptable to the general reader. To do this it has been necessary to cut the text as well as to make some rearrangement in the interests of orderly chronology. I have inserted linking passages, printed in italic, where the text seems to require it. Generally speaking, those parts which have been excised have been repetitions of events, long lists of names, confusing accounts of minor battles, and a large quantity of verse. Some errors have been corrected and verbal infelicities removed. The transliteration of Arabic names is always something of a problem in books intended for the reader who has no knowledge of Eastern languages. In this instance I have omitted all diacritical marks, believing it preferable for the reader to mispronounce the words rather than be prevented from pronouncing them at all by the intrusion of apostrophes and other symbols.





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