THE STORY OF MOHAMMED THE PROPHET
A poor shepherd people roaming unnoticed in the deserts of Arabia: a
Hero-Prophet sent down to them with a word they could believe: See! the
unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has grown world great.
CARLYLE: Hero as Prophet.
HE two hundred years which cover, roughly
speaking, the actual period of the Holy War, are
crammed with an interest that never grows dim.
Gallant figures, noble knights, generous foes, valiant
women, eager children, follow one another through these
centuries, and form a pageant the colour and romance
of which can never fade, for the circumstances were in
themselves unique. The two great religious forces of
the world-Christianity and Islam, the Cross and the
Crescent-were at grips with one another, and for the
first time the stately East, with its suggestion of mystery,
was face to face with the brilliant West, wherein the
civilisation and organisation of Rome were at last
prevailing over the chaos of the Dark Ages.
A very special kind of interest, moreover, belongs to
 the story of the Crusades in that the motive of the wars
was the desire to rescue from the hands of unbelievers
Those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which, fourteen hundred year before, were nailed
For our advantage on the bitter cross.
But we shall see, as we read the story, that this was
only a part of the real motive power which inspired and
sustained the Holy War.
Even if the land of Palestine and the Holy City,
Jerusalem, had never fallen into the hands of the
Saracens, some such war was inevitable. The East
was knocking at the doors of the West with no uncertain
sound. An extraordinary force had come into existence
during the four centuries that immediately preceded the
First Crusade, which threatened to dominate the whole of
the Western world. It was a religious force always
stronger and more effective than any other; and it was
only repelled with the greatest difficulty by
Christendom, inspired, not so much by the motive of religion, as
by that curious mixture of romance and adventurous
design which we call chivalry.
Let us try, then, first of all, to get some idea of these
Men of the East, the Mohammedans or Saracens, who
managed to keep Europe in a state of constant turmoil for
upwards of five centuries, and to do that we must go back
to the latter years of the sixth century after Christ.
About fifty miles from the shores of the Red Sea
stands the city of Mecca, one of the few important towns
to be found on the fringe of the great sandy desert of
Arabia. During hundreds of years Mecca had been the
venerated bourne of pilgrims, for, embedded in the walls
 of the sacred building known as the Kaaba, was the
"pure white stone," said to have fallen from heaven on
the day that Adam and Eve took their sorrowful way
from the gates of Paradise.
The Arabs, or Saracens, of these early days were closely
connected with their neighbours, the Jews of Palestine,
and claimed the same descent from Abraham through
Ishmael, the outcast son. They believed in the existence
of God, whom, to some extent, they worshipped, under
the name of Allah. But they were deeply interested in
nature-worship: the sun, moon, and stars were their
deities. They bowed down before the "pure white
stone" in the Kaaba, now from its frequent handling
rather black than white. They peopled the whole
realm of nature oceans, rivers, mountains, caves-with
spirits good and evil, called "jinns" or genii, made, not
of clay, like mortal men, but of pure flame of fire.
Once upon a time these jinns were said to have lived
in heaven, and to have worshipped the Lord of Hosts;
but having rebelled, under the leadership of Iblis, against
Allah, they were cast forth, and descended to the earth,
where they became sometimes a pest and annoyance to
men, and sometimes their servants.
Many legends concerning these spirits are to be found
in the Koran, the sacred book of the Mohammedans.
One of these tells how the jinns were wont to roam round
about the gates of heaven, peeping and listening and
catching here and there a little of the converse of the
angels. But these were only isolated words, or
disjointed phrases; and the mischievous jinns, hoping that
evil would come of these odds and ends of conversation
separated from their context, whispered them
industriously in the ears of the sons of men. These the
 latter, always eager to know more of the Unseen World,
readily accepted, and invariably put a wrong interpretation
upon them. Hence arose superstition, black magic,
false prophecies, evil omens, and all such things as had in
them the germ of truth, but had been misunderstood and
From the midst of this imaginative and nature-worshipping
people there arose the prophet who was to found
one of the most powerful religious sects in the world.
In the year 570 A.D., in the city of Mecca, a boy
child came to the young mother Amina, to comfort
her in her widowhood for the husband who had died
a few weeks before. Tradition has been active regarding
the cradle of this child, the young Mohammed.
He is said to have exclaimed at the moment of birth,
"Allah is great! There is no God but Allah, and I
am His prophet."
That same day an earthquake was reported to have
overturned the gorgeous palace of Persia; a wild camel
was seen in a vision to be overthrown by a slender Arab
horse; and Iblis, the evil spirit, leader of the malignant
jinns, was cast into the depths of ocean.
What is actually known about the matter is that the
babe was presented to his tribe on the seventh day after
his birth, and was named Mohammed, the "Praised One,"
in prophetic allusion to his future fame.
For the first five years of his life, according to Arabian
custom, the child was sent to a foster-mother in the
mountains that he might grow up sturdy and healthy.
Soon after the end of that period, his mother died, and
he was left to the care of his uncle, Abu Talib, a wealthy
trader, who was so fond and proud of his nephew that he
let the boy accompany him on many of his long caravan
 journeys to Yemen or Syria. Thus the young
Mohammed became intimately acquainted with all sorts
and conditions of men. He had no books, but he was an
eager listener to the poems recited by the bards in the
market-place of each great town. He quickly absorbed
the legends and superstitions of his country, formed his
own opinion about the idol-worship practised by many
of the Arab tribes, and was present on a great historic
occasion, when an oath was taken by his tribe in alliance
with others, to be the champions of the weak and the
avengers of the oppressed. Moreover, since his own
home was at Mecca, the " Fair of all Arabia," the centre
of trade for India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy, the boy had
plenty of chances of acquiring that knowledge of the
world which subsequently served him in good stead as a
leader of men.
He grew up a silent, thoughtful youth, loved and
respected by his companions, who named him El Amin,
the " Faithful One." He was notable too for his good
looks, for his bright dark eyes, clear brown skin, and for
a curious black vein that swelled between his eyebrows
when he was moved to anger. He had wide opportunities
for thought and meditation, since, as was the case with
most Arabs, his occupation was for years that of a
shepherd on the hillsides of his native city. Eventually,
at his uncle's wish, be became camel-driver and
conductor of the caravan of a certain rich widow named
Kadija. The long journey to Syria was undertaken with
success, and on his return the widow Kadija looked upon
the young man of twenty-five with eyes of favour. She
imagined she saw two angels shielding him with their
wings from the scorching sunshine, and, taking this for an
indication that he was under the special protection of
 Allah, sent her sister to him, according to a common
custom of Arabia, to intimate her willingness to be his
So the poor camel-driver became the husband of the
wealthy Kadija, and a very happy marriage it turned
out to be. Six children came to gladden the peaceful
home, of whom the youngest, Fatima, was to play a part
in future history. To all appearances these were years
of calm existence, almost of stagnation, for Mohammed;
but all the time the inner life of the man was growing,
expanding, throwing out fresh tentacles of thought and
inquiry, as he brooded upon the condition, and especially
upon the religious condition, of his fellow-countrymen.
For the Arabs of his day were a degenerate race, much
given to drinking and gaming and evil passions. They
thought nothing of burying their girl-children alive after
birth, as unworthy to be brought up. They had no
heroic ideals, and their religion was becoming more and
more vague and shadowy where it was not given over
entirely to the worship of idols.
It was the Arab custom to keep the month Ramadan
as a kind of Lent, in fasting, in seclusion and meditation;
and Mohammed, during that period, was wont to retire to
a cave in a mountain near Mecca, sometimes with
Kadija, sometimes quite alone. There he was overtakes
on one occasion by strange trances and visions in which
he uttered weird prophetic sentences. He subsequently
confided to Kadija, who was with him at that time, that
he had made the Great Discovery; that all these idols,
and sacred stones, and empty phrases of religion were
nothing-nothing at all. "That God is great, and that
there is nothing else great. He is Reality. Wooden
idols are not real; but He is real-He made us and
 protects us; hence We must submit to Allah, and strive
after righteousness." This was to be the keynote of the
faith to be known as Islam.
After this revelation had come to him, Mohammed
continued his life of thought and meditation for some
time, until he was nearly forty years of age. He may
have spoken of his conviction to his friends, but he does
not seem to have gained much sympathy, and rather he
appears to have earned the reputation of a dreamer.
But about the year 610, as he was wandering over the
wild hillsides, the clear call came, as it is bound to come
to the humble, listening soul. He had lain down to sleep
when, in a vision, he heard three times his name
repeated, and the third time saw the angel Gabriel—in
whose existence both Arabs and Jews believed—who
spoke to him and bade him
Cry! in the name of Allah!
In the name of Allah,
Who hath created man.
At first Mohammed was much disturbed by this
message, which he did not clearly understand. He
feared he was under the influence of magic, and was filled
with dread of falling into the hands of jinns. After a
visit to his home, he again sought the mountain, intend-
ing in his harassed state of mind to put an end to his life.
Each time he attempted this, something restrained him,
and as he sat at length in despair upon the ground
wrapped in his cloak, the angel once more appeared,
O thou that art covered,
Arise and preach,
And magnify Allah!
Purify thy garments,
Shun all evils,
Grant not money on usury,
Wait patiently for Allah.
When the trump shall blow shall be distress for unbelievers.
From that time the vocation of Mohammed was clear.
He was to go forth and preach to a nation of idolaters
that there was one God, and only one, who might claim
their worship. Never again did he hesitate, nor, on the
other hand, did he begin his work in haste. He still
sojourned among the mountains, where he was visited
by his uncle, Abu Talib, and by the little son of the
latter, a boy called Ali.
"What calls you here, Mohammed?" asked the
puzzled Abu, "and what religion do you now profess?"
Said Mohammed: "I profess the religion of Allah, of
His angels and His prophets, the religion of Abraham.
Allah has commissioned me to preach this to men, and
to urge them to embrace it. Nought would be more
worthy of thee, O my uncle, than to adopt the true faith,
and to help me to spread it."
But Abu Talib replied: "Son of my brother, I can
never forsake the faith of my fathers; but if thou art
attacked, I will defend thee." Then to his young son
Ali he continued: "Hesitate not to follow any advice he
giveth thee, for Mohammed will never lead thee into any
The first attempts of Mohammed to begin his work
of conversion met with small success. We have good
authority for the proverb that " a prophet has no
honour in his own country," and in Mohammed's case
his task was made supremely difficult by the fact that
Mecca would no longer be the goal of thousands of pilgrims
every year if the Arabs were to give up the worship
 of the idols of the Kaaba, which numbered, exclusive of
the "pure white stone" itself, some three hundred; and
sixty-five images. Now the whole prosperity of the city
depended upon the caravan trade brought by these
pilgrims, as well as on the profits made out of providing
food and shelter for such vast numbers. Realising this,
Mohammed made no attempt at a public proclamation of
the new faith for the first three years, but contented
himself with training two or three converts to be his
helpers in the future.
His faithful wife Kadija was with him heart and soul,
and to her, first of all, he disclosed the details which the
angel had revealed to him in a vision, as to the particular
acts of ritual, forms of prayer, and actual doctrine which
Islam, as their faith was called, demanded of its followers.
The essential fact of this religion was a belief in Allah as
the one true God, in a future life of happiness or misery
after death, and in Mohammed himself as the Prophet
of Allah, whom they were bound to obey. It was
essentially a practical faith, however, and, in addition to
prayer five times a day, the Islamite or Moslem must
give alms to the poor, be perfectly honest in weighing
and measuring, be absolutely truthful, and keep strictly
to all agreements made. Many minor details were
afterwards added to these, and the whole were gradually
written down in the Koran, the sacred book of Islam.
This, of course, was not done till many years later, when
Mohammed had drawn up a moral and social code which
he hoped would reform the whole world. In the
meantime he had a hard struggle before him.
One of his first followers was the child Ali, who,
though but eleven years old, became his constant
companion in his lonely rambles, and eagerly received his
 instructions. A freed slave, and Abu Bekr, a man of
official rank, enthusiastic for the new faith, were his
next converts. In vain did Mohammed call together
the members of his tribe, saying unto them—
"Never has an Arab offered to his people such
precious things as I now present to you—happiness in
this life, and joys for ever in the next. Allah has bidden
me call men to Him—Who will join me in the sacred
work and become my brother?"
Deep silence followed this appeal, broken only by the
high, childish voice of little Ali, who cried out—
"I, Prophet of Allah, I will join you!"
Quite seriously Mohammed received the offer, saying
to the assembled throng, "Behold my brother, my
Kalif! Listen to him. Obey his commands."
Soon after this appeal to his own tribe, a spirit of
active opposition arose among the men of Mecca, so much
so that the chief men came to Abu Talib and warned him
that if he did not prevail upon Mohammed to hold his
peace and give up these new doctrines, they would take
up arms against him and his supporters. Much alarmed
at this protest, Abu Talib implored his nephew to keep
his new-formed faith to himself. But Mohammed
answered, "O my uncle, even if the sun should
descend on my right hand and the moon on my left to
fight against me, ordering me to hold my peace or
perish, I would not waver from my purpose."
Then, thinking that the friend he loved so well was
about to desert him, he turned away and wept. But the
old Abu, touched to the heart, cried out, "Come back,
O my nephew! Preach whatever doctrine thou wilt.
I swear to thee that not for a moment will I desert thy
 Opposition soon took the form of misrepresentation.
The enemies of Mohammed would lie in wait for the
pilgrims going up to the Kaaba and warn them to
beware of a dangerous magician, whose charms sowed
discord in the household, dividing husband and wife,
parent and child. But this had the natural effect of
making strangers much more curious about Mohammed
than they would otherwise have been. They made their
own inquiries, and though few converts were the result,
the reputation of the Prophet, in a more or less
misleading form, was gradually spread by them throughout the
length and breadth of Arabia.
Meantime, Mohammed himself was the object of open
insult in the streets of Mecca, as well as of actual
violence. One effect of this, however, was to bring over
to his side another uncle, Hamza by name who had been
one of his fiercest opponents. Hearing of some new
outrage, he hastened to the Kaaba and stood forth
openly as the champion of the Prophet.
"I am of the new religion! Return that, if you dare!"
he cried, dealing a vigorous blow at one of the angry
and astonished assembly. They drew back in awe,
and Hamza, the "Lion of Allah," became one of the
most ardent followers of Islam.
The tide of persecution, however, was not stayed, and
at length Mohammed, unable to protect his followers
from the violence he was willing to endure himself,
persuaded them to take refuge in Abyssinia, under
the protection of the Christian king.
Furious at this, the men of Mecca placed Mohammed
and his whole family under a ban for three long years,
during which the Faithful nearly perished of hunger,
for no man might buy of them or sell to them or have
 any kind of intercourse with them. This ban was
removed at the end of three years, but then a worse
blow fell upon the Prophet. Kadija, his faithful, loving
wife, and Abu Talib, his friend and protector, both
died. The death of Abu led to a renewal of persecution;
very few fresh converts were made; failure met him
on every side. The only ray of light in this period of
gloom was the discovery that twelve pilgrims
journeying from the distant city of Medina had already become
followers of Islam from what they had heard of the new
faith as taught by Mohammed. These men he gladly
instructed more fully, and sent them back as missionaries
to their own city.
In the midst of his depression and disheartened
forebodings for the future, Mohammed was vouchsafed
a marvellous vision or dream.
"Awake, thou that sleepest!" cried a voice like a
silver trumpet, and there appeared to him an angel
of wonderful brightness, who bade him mount the
winged steed, Borak, the Lightning, and ascend to
the Temple at Jerusalem. Thence by a ladder of light,
Mohammed rose to the first heaven, made of pure silver,
and lighted by stars suspended by chains of gold. There
he was embraced as the chief of prophets by Adam,
the first created man.
THE VISION OF MOHAMMED
Thence he proceeded to the second heaven, which was
of steel, and there he was greeted by Noah. The third
heaven, where Joseph met him, was brilliant with
precious stones. There too sat the Angel of Death,
writing down the names of all who were to be born,
and blotting out the names of those whose time had come
to die. In the fourth heaven Aaron showed to him
the Angel of Vengeance, in whose hands was a fiery
 spear. In the fifth Moses spoke with him and wept to
see one who was going to lead to Paradise more of the
Chosen People than he, their prophet. In the sixth,
of marvellous brightness, Abraham occupied chief
place; and Mohammed was even allowed to penetrate
further to the seventh heaven, where Allah, His glory
veiled, gave him instructions as to the doctrines of
Islam, and bade him command his followers to utter
fifty prayers a day.
When the Prophet returned to Moses, the latter
pointed out that the number was too much to expect
of Arabs, and bade him ask Allah to reduce it. In
answer to his supplications, Allah said at first that
forty prayers would be satisfactory, but Mohammed
pleaded earnestly for further relief, and at last the
number was fixed at five, at which it remains to this
day. "Allahu akbar—Prayer is better than sleep!
There is no God but Allah! He giveth life and He dieth
not! O thou bountiful! Thy mercy ceaseth not!
My sins are great, greater is Thy mercy! I praise His
perfection! Allahu akbar!"
Still, five times a day, the peculiar cry of the "mullah"
is heard from the tower of prayer, giving the
signal for the follower of Islam to turn towards Mecca,
throw himself on his face, and utter the prescribed
Much inspired by this wonderful dream, Mohammed
was further encouraged by the news that seventy men
of Medina had joined the ranks of Islam and were about
to meet him on the hillside beyond Mecca, with intent
to induce him, if possible, to take up his future abode
in their city, leaving his birthplace to its fate. There,
under the dark midnight sky, these men bound
them-  selves to worship Allah only, to obey the Prophet, and
to fight in defence of him and his followers.
"And what will be our reward?" asked one.
"Paradise!" replied Mohammed briefly.
And then the oath was sworn; while the Prophet,
on his side, promised to live and die with his new converts
when the time was ripe.
The meeting had, however, been watched by spies,
who reported all to the men of Mecca; and a new
persecution arose, so bitter that most of the " Faithful," as
the followers of Mohammed came to be called, fled
at once to Medina. Mohammed himself remained,
hoping that thus he might turn the wrath of the idolaters
upon himself and protect the flight of his children.
Presently, however, came information that forty
men, one from each tribe, had sworn together to take
his life; and forthwith Mohammed with Abu Bekr,
his devoted friend, departed one dark night and shook
off the dust of Mecca from his feet. Danger was so
near that they dared not take the path to Medina,
but made their way to a mountain, on whose rocky
summit they found a small cave into which they crept
at dawn of day.
Knowing what the end of the pursuit would mean,
Abu began to lose nerve, and asked, "What if our
pursuers should find our cave? We are but two."
"We are three," was the calm reply: "Allah is with us!"
Legend says that the pursuers actually approached
the mouth of the cave and were about to investigate
it. But in the early hours of the day Allah had caused
a tree to grow up before it, a spider to weave its web
across it, and a wild pigeon, most timid of birds, to lay
 eggs in a nest made in the branches; and the searchers,
seeing these things, declared it impossible that any
one could be within. A faithful friend provided them
in secret with food and milk, and on the third night
they began the journey to Medina.
"He is come! He is come!" cried the Faithful
in Medina, flocking to meet the wayworn travellers
as they entered the city.
And thus a new chapter was opened in the history
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics