Muhammad Speaks

Classical Islam: A History 600 A.D.-1258 A.D.

by G.E. von Grunebaum, translated by Katherine Watson
Aldine Publishing Co., 243 pp., $6.00

The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume I: The Central Islamic Lands, Volume II: The Further Islamic Lands; Islamic Society and Civilization

edited by P.M. Holt, edited by Ann K.S. Lambton, edited by Bernard Lewis
Cambridge, 815 and 966 pp., each volume $19.50

A History of Islamic Philosophy

by Majid Fakhry
Studies in Oriental Culture No. 5. Columbia, 427 pp., $15.00

The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture

translated by Bayard Dodge
Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies No. LXXXIII Columbia, 2 volumes, 1,149 pp., $40.00

Arabic and Persian Poems

in English by Omar S. Pound
New Directions, 80 pp., $1.95 (paper)

There is always something spectacular about the rise of a new religion—the suddenness, in historical terms, with which a new faith, preached by one man to a handful of followers, spreads over a vast area, sweeping along with it whole peoples and often conferring on its first adherents wealth and power beyond their dreams and ambitions. Perhaps none has been so spectacular as the rise of Islam.

At first sight the geographical source looks unpromising—a backwater of civilization even in the seventh century A.D. Arabia was then as now a largely desert area—natura maligna, to use Irfan Shahid’s phrase—thinly populated by a mainly nomadic people, organized on tribal lines that would seem effectively to prevent any mass movement under a centralized administration. This picture is not however complete; the southwestern corner of the peninsula was an important source of spices, frankincense and myrrh, and other products, and the trade routes from Yemen, as well as from Ethiopia on the other side of the Red Sea, passed along the narrow Hijaz coast on their way to the prosperous lands of Syria, Asia Minor, and Persia. The city of Mecca naturally became a breeding ground not merely for material wealth but also for religious, political, and social ideas of all kinds, brought there by merchants and travelers from all over the Middle Eastern world.

In this ferment of Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and pagan ideas was born and raised the young Muhammad. Orphaned as a child, he was brought up by his uncle, a prominent member of the dominant Meccan family, and in due course married a wealthy widow some years older than himself. So far there had been little to mark him out from his contemporaries, though we may be sure that the contacts he made on business trips to Syria and elsewhere as his wife’s agent set him thinking about many matters over and above his commerical interests.

He was already forty when in 610 (Professor von Grunebaum questions this traditional date, as also the date of Muhammad’s birth, but does not give any reasons for his doubts) he began to see visions and to receive revelations which to him, and increasingly to his family, friends, and fellow townsmen, were nothing less than the Divine Word conveyed to him as the chosen messenger of God to His people. The claim is an immense one, accepted now by millions of Muslims throughout the world, rejected by non-Muslims; but neither point of view requires us to ignore either the personality of the Prophet or the social and economic environment that molded it. As Professor Montgomery Watt percipiently remarks, “For him religion was the total response of his personality to the total situation in which he found himself.”

The events of the next twenty years—the steady flow of new revelations (later collected into the book known as the Koran), the opposition of the Meccan politicians, Muhammad’s flight to the town of Yathrib or Medina in 622 A.D. (the Hijra or Migration, from which…

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