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Orville Boyd Jenkins
A. Background. Islam developed against the backdrop of an Arabic pagan background. Two important factors at the time of Muhammad were idolatry and tribalism. The people were organized into family clans and tribes, which valued clan loyalty, honor and valor. Muhammad himself was a member of the Quraysh tribe, the leading tribe in Mecca. Affronts to honor had to be avenged many fold. Blood feuds were rife. The young Muhammad became concerned about this divisive principle.
He also came to abhor the idolatrous concepts and practices of his people. The Qa'ba in Mecca was the greatest Arab religious shrine, a site for pilgrimage from prehistory. The Qa'ba was thought to have been established by Abraham, but it had been turned into a polytheistic shrine. As Muhammad became convinced that there was only one God, he was convicted that the Qa'ba must be purged and rededicated to the One True God, called Allah in his language.
B. Influences. His own testimony and studies of the period show the sources, or influences in Muhammad's thought, concepts and convictions. Jews were well-established in the area, and because of his tribe's and family's involvement in trade, he met and talked with Jews.
From the first century, Christianity had been strong in Arabia, though the nomadic warrior tribes of southern Arabia had evaded its influences. He likely had contact with both Nestorian and Monophysite Christians. The portrayal of Jesus in the Qur'an reveals a Monophysite concept.
This is seen particularly in the view that Jesus did not really die, because he was totally divine. ("Mono-physite" means "one nature." The Monophysite Christians rejected the Western concept that Jesus had a dual "essence.") The Monophysites, who were warm-hearted evangelists among the Arabs at the time of Muhammad, actively observed almsgiving and fasting, which became two of the five pillars of Islam.
Some of the events from Jesus' ministry related in the Qur'an reflect popular oral traditions of Nestorian Christianity. Some stories of Jesus are similar to those found in The Gospel of Barnabas, an Apocryphal gospel popular in the East. In the Qur'an, Christians and Jews are honoured for their belief in God. They are also honored as "People of the Book," which indicates how impressed Muhammad was with the concept of written revelation.
Zoroastrianism had been a religion in the area for centuries and may have been an influence in his vivid concept of hell and the angels, strong beliefs in Islam. The earlier influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism and Christianity may have come through in the concepts he gathered from those monotheistic faiths concerning judgement, good/evil and determinism. The positive aspect of the latter belief is the total sovereignty of God, which sometimes has a deterministic character in various traditions of Christianity also.
C. Call. Muhammad exhibited a strong sense of "call, " experiencing trances and what he felt were revelations from God. He was convicted about the idolatry of his people, and felt a call to purge the land of idolatry. Muhammad makes it clear that he felt he had the same message and religion as the other monotheist (Biblical) prophets. There is only one God. He would never leave his people without a witness. He calls prophets to proclaim his message to all people.
God would never give a different message to a prophet. There is only one true and living God and only one true religion. Muhammad felt he was called by the same God to present the same monotheistic message. He therefore reasoned that he had been given the same message as the other prophets of the One God of whom he had heard through the Jews and Christians.
There is no evidence that Muhammad ever actually read a Jewish or Christian Bible. In fact, it would be surprising if many of the Jews and Christians ever had, either. Literacy was not a widespread commodity in Muhammad's time. The Bible was not translated into Arabic until after his time, though it was available in Syriac. There is no evidence that he could read Hebrew or Syriac. Muhammad seems to have had access to strong oral traditions.
D. Conflicts. As Muhammad proceeded to proclaim his message that idolatry was wrong, that Allah was the only God, and that the Qa'ba had been perverted, opposition began to build. The Meccan traders made much of their good living from selling idols and religious artifacts to the pilgrims who came to pray at the Qa'ba.
Conflict became so great that his uncle, Abu Talib, who had been protecting him against the political leaders, had to withdraw his protection. Muhammad had to flee Mecca, with his few followers. He went to Yathrib, his mother's original home, where he found a positive reception. Many Jews and Christians lived in Yathrib, and they welcomed him as a monotheist.
The town was renamed Medinah an-Nabi (the town of the prophet) in his honor, or more commonly, Medinah. The Jews later became concerned with Muhammad's concept of his own prophethood and his understanding of God, and withdrew their support for him.
E. Wholistic approach. Muhammad had another great concern, to unite his divided people. He felt if they returned to the God of Abraham, their submission to Him would eliminate the clan and tribal violence. He felt his call entailed the unification of his people both religiously & politically.
For Muhammad here was no separation of spheres of life. This was a part of his sense of a universal message he was called to proclaim. The message and the society he would establish were not just for the Arabs, either. He felt all believers in God would accept him when they heard his message.
After his initial praise for the Jews, he came to resent their rejection of him since he felt that meant they were rejecting their God, who he felt had called him as a prophet, just as he had the other prophets of old that the Jews and Christians accepted.
Originally published in An Outline Introduction to Islam (Nairobi: Communication Press, 1991.)
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 20 November 2007
Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1991, 2007 by Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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