When he was around Forty years old, Mohammed started to take month-long retreats, to pray and to perform the religious practices of the Quraysh. He began to have visions where he was visited by the Angel Gabriel.
He said that Gabriel would teach him scriptures. Gabriel then told him to recite these scriptures so he could teach them to his followers. These would later be written down by his followers and were compiled after his death into what is known today as the Koran.
His wife Khadija supported him and became the first convert to the new religion of Islam. In Arabic Islam means “submission”. Khadija was soon joined by Mohammed's adopted son and other family members. Eventually some other people outside of the family joined them too.
As Mohammed gained followers he became more confident. Soon he began to preach quite openly from his new religion.
In the beginning this did not cause a problem. The Quraysh were very tolerant of different religions as that was how they made their money. For them, more religion meant more money. If Mohammed's new religion brought in more people to worship, it would be all the better.
Things soon began to sour however, as the tone of Mohammed's teachings became steadily less tolerant. Mohammed began to teach that his religion was the right one (which was okay) but that all the other religions were false (which was not).
He mocked the other religions and ridiculed their Gods. What was even worse for the Quraysh, was Mohammed’s claim that because their ancestors were not Muslims, they were burning in hell. For the Quraysh whose ancestors were sacred, this was intolerable. They begged him to stop doing this and return to promoting his own religion without rubbishing theirs.
When he refused, the Quraysh wanted to kill him. Unfortunately for them, Mohammed still enjoyed the protection of his powerful uncle, Abu Talib. The Quraysh tried to offer his uncle inducements. They wanted him to hand over Mohammed so that they could kill him, but he steadfastly refused.
Mohammed was clearly a charismatic preacher who gradually gained more followers. This increased the divisions within the community. There were quarrels and constant bickering. Mecca was a small town and everybody knew each other’s business.
What had once been a peaceful and profitable community was now split badly, between the Quraysh and the new converts who were known as Muslims (which means those who have submitted).
Some of the less powerful Muslims and especially slaves who had converted, were treated quite badly by the Quraysh. Fortunately for them, Mohammed's uncle was able to protect them all from serious harm. Some of the Meccans who converted were also among the strongest and most powerful members of the community.
It gradually became harder for the Quraysh to do anything about Mohammed. Although he had called them stupid, insulted their gods and claimed that their ancestors were burning in hell, they were unable to stop him.
The Quraysh tried to reason with Mohammed and even tried to cut him a deal. They offered him money, or even the leadership of the tribe, if he would just stop his preaching. Mohammed refused, insisting that he was only the messenger of Allah and had no choice in the matter.
Before I get too far into Islam, I want to give a very brief overview of Christianity. Like it or not, if you grew up in a “Western” country then your ethics, your sense of right and wrong, are based upon Christian teachings, as are the laws which our society makes.
People who grow up in different cultures may have a different definition of what is right and wrong. To give an example, what a Viking might have considered to be “the right thing to do,” would probably be seen as seriously anti-social in modern day Denmark.
Islam has a set of ethics. In order to explain these ethics I will sometimes be comparing them to Christian ethics. This is not because I’m promoting Christianity but because most Westerners, (including myself) understand it far better than for instance Hinduism or Buddhism.
The basis of Christian (and Jewish) ethics is the Ten Commandments which we are all probably familiar with. Don’t steal, cheat, lie, kill, covet etc. These are then capped off with the Golden Rule which is:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
From the Golden Rule are derived the other principles of freedom of speech, the rule of law, equality, tolerance etc. which underpin the laws and customs of most Western countries.
Growing up in a society based on this Golden Rule, we tend to believe that it is universal and not even remotely a radical idea. Keep in mind however, that the man who popularized this idea 2000 years ago, got nailed to a tree for it.
Despite this, the idea gained currency and continued to spread. By the time of Mohammed’s birth, Christianity was the dominant religion throughout most of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
The Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments however, ARE NOT the basis for every religion and society. As you will soon find out they are definitely not the basis of Islam.
Islam is difficult to explain clearly. In some ways, it is a bit like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I could show you a single piece of a jigsaw and tell you for instance, that it is a tiger’s nose. Although it might not look like a tiger’s nose, it is not until you see it surrounded by the other pieces that you can tell what it really is.
Some of the things I write may seem strange, or even ridiculous to someone who has grown up in a Western country with Christian based ethics. Hopefully however, by the time you finish this book you will be able to see each piece in the context of the whole picture.
(To read the next chapter, click on the link below)