The Age of Ignorance
It was an age of ignorance (ayyamul-jahiliyyah) in which, generally speaking moral rectitude and the spiritual code had long been forgotten. Superstitious rites and dogmas had replaced the tenets of the Divine religion.
Only a few Quraishites (the ancestors of the Holy Prophet and a handful of others) remained followers of the religion of Ibrahim (a.s.), but they were an exception and were not able to exert any influence on others who were deeply submerged in pagan rites and beliefs. There were thoge who did not believe in God at all and thought that life was just a natural phenomenon. It is about these people that the Qur'an says:
And they say: There is nothing but our life of this world; we live and die and nothing but time annihilates us. (Qur'an, 45:24)
Some believed in God but not in the Day of Resurrection or reward and punishment. It is against their belief that the Qur'an says:
Say: He will give life to them Who brought them into existence at first. (Qur'an, 36:79)
While a few believed in God as well as in the reward and punishment in the life hereafter, they did not believe in Prophethood. It is about them that the Qur'an has said:
And they say: What sort of prophet is he that eats and goes about in the market? (Qur'an, 25:7)
But, by and large, the Arabs were idolaters. They did not, however, recognize idols as God but only as intermediaries to God. As the Qur'an has pointed out, they said:
We do not worship them save so that they may bring us nearer to Allah.(Qur'an, 39:3)
Some tribes worshipped the sun, others the moon. But the great majority, while indulging in idolatry, believed that there was a Supreme Being, the Creator of the heavens and the earth whom they called "Allah." The Qur'an says:
And if you ask them: Who has created the heavens and the earth and made the sun and the moon subservient?, they will cry out 'Allah'. Then whither are they going? (Qur'an, 29:61)
And when they sail in boats, they sincerely solicit the aid of Allah, but when He brings them safely to the land, behold! They ascribe others (with Him). (Qur'an, 29:65)
Christianity and Judaism, in the hands of their then followers in Arabia, had lost their appeal.
Sir William Muir writes:
Christianity had now and then feebly rippled the surface of Arabia and the sterner influences of Judaism had been occasionally visible in a deeper and more troubled current, but the tide of indigenous idolatry and superstition, setting out from every quarter with an unbroken and unebbing surge towards the Ka'bah, gave ample evidence that the faith and worship of the Ka'bah held the Arab mind in thraldom, vigorous and undisputed. After five centuries of Christian evangelization, it could only claim a sprinkling of disciples among the tribes, and as a converting agent was no longer operative.
The Dawn of Prophethood
It was a man from among themselves who was to lift the Arabs from their slough of ignorance and depravity into the light of faith and devotion to one God.
Because of its geographical position and connection by land and sea routes with the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, Arabia had been powerfully influenced by the superstitious beliefs and evil ways prevailing in many parts of these continents. But once it forsook disbelief and unbecoming practices, it could, as a result of the same geographical position, easily become the center of enlightenment radiating guidance and knowledge to the entire world.
When Muhammad (s.a.w.a.) was 38 years of age, he spent most of his time in meditation and solitude. The cave of the mount Hira was his favorite place. It is there that he used to retire with food and water and spend days and weeks in remembrance of Allah. Nobody was allowed to go there except Khadijah and 'Ali. He used to spend the whole month of Ramadhan therein.
The period of waiting had come to a close. His forty years of life had varied experiences, and from the world's point of view, he had developed a maturity of mind and judgement, although in reality he was the embodiment of perfection from the very beginning. He has said: "I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay." His heart was overflowing with profound compassion for mankind and a pressing urge to eradicate wrong beliefs, social evils, cruelty and injustice. The moment had arrived when he was to be allowed to declare his prophethood. One day, when he was in the cave of Hira, Jibril (Gabriel) came to him and conveyed to him the following message of Allah:
Read in the name of thy Lord Who created, created man from a clot (of congealed blood): Read and thy Lord is most Bountiful, no taught with the pen, taught man that which he knew not. (Qur'an, 96:1-5)
These were the first ayats to be revealed, and the date was the 27th of Rajab, 40th year of elephant (610 C.E.).
The flow of the Divine message which continued for the next twenty-three years had begun, and the Prophet had arisen to proclaim the Unity of God and the Unity of Mankind, to demolish the edifice of superstition, ignorance, and disbelief, to set up a noble conception of life, and to lead mankind to the light of faith and celestial bliss.
Commencement of the Mission
The task was stupendous. The Prophet, therefore, started his mission cautiously, confining it initially to his own close relatives and friends. He was met with immediate success. His wife Khadijah testified to his truth as soon as she heard the news of the revelation from God. Then his cousin 'Ali, and his liberated slave and adopted son Zaid, readily accepted the new faith, Islam, "submission to the Will of God." The fourth was Abu Bala.
Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani in his book Al-Isabah, and 'Abdul Malik ibn Hisham in his book As-Sirah have written that:
"Ali was the first to accept Islam and pray (offer salat), and that he accepted whatever was revealed to the Messenger by the Lord. At that time, 'Ali was only ten years old. After 'Ali, Zaid ibn Harithah accepted the Islamic creed and prayed and then Abu Bakr embraced Islam. The companions of the Holy Prophet, Muhammad ibn Ka'b al-Qarzi, Salman the Persian, Abu Dharr, Miqdad, Khabbab, Abu Sa'eed al-Khudri and Zaid ibn al-Arqam testify that 'Ali was the first to proclaim Islam. These celebrated companions have given'Ali preference over others."
Justice Ameer Ali writes in his Spirit of Islam:
"It is a noble feature in the history of the Prophet of Arabia, and one which strongly attests the sincerity of his character, the purity of his teachings and the intensity of his faith in God, that his nearest relations, his wife, beloved cousin and intimate friends, were most thoroughly imbued with the truth of his mission and convinced of his inspiration. Those who knew him best, closest relations and dearest friends, people who lived with him and noted all his movements, were his sincere and most devoted followers."
John Davenport writes in his Apology for Mohammed and the Koran:
"It is strongly corroborative of Mohammed's sincerity that the earliest converts to Islam were his bosom friends and the people of his household, who, all intimately acquainted with his private life, could not fail to have detected those discrepancies which more or less invariably exist between the pretensions of the hypocritical deceiver and his actions at home."
Slowly the message spread. During the first three years, he gained only thirty followers. In spite of the caution and care exercised, the Quraish were well posted with what was going on. At first they did not take much note and only jeered at the Prophet and the plight of his followers. They doubted his sanity and thought him crazed and possessed. But the time had come for proclaiming the will of God in public.
Calling the Near Ones
After three years, the call came from Allah:
And warn thy near relations (Qur'an, 26:214)
This ayat (verse) ended the period of secret preaching and heralded the open proclamation of Islam.
Abu Muhammad Husain al-Baghawi (in his Tafisir-Ma'alim ut-Tanzil), Shaikh 'Ala'uddin 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Baghdadi, known as Khazin al-Baghdadi, in his Lubab-ut-Ta'wil, best known as Tafsir Khazin, Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Husain al-Bayhaqi (in his Dalail-un-Nubuwwah), Jalaluddin as-Suyuti (in his Jam'ul Jawami), 'Ala'uddin 'Ali Muttaqi (in Kanz-ul-'Ummal), Abu JaTer Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (in Tarikh-ur-Rusul-wal-Muluk), Abu Sa'adat Mubarak ibn Athir al-Jazari (in Tarikh-ul-Kamil) and Isma'il Abul Fida (in his history, Kitab-ul-Mukhtasar fi Akhbar-il-Bashar) have quoted 'Ali as saying:
"When the verse Wa andhir 'Ashiratakal-aqrabin was revealed, the noble Messenger called me and ordered me, 'O 'Ali! The Creator of the world has made me warn my people about their doom, but in view of the condition of the people and knowing that when I will give them the words of Allah, they will misbehave, I felt depressed and weakened and therefore I kept quiet until Gabriel came again and informed me that there should be no more delay. Therefore, O 'Ali, take a measure of food grain, a leg of a goat and a big bowl of milk and arrange for a feast, then call the sons of 'Abdul Muttalib unto me, so that I may deliver to them the words of Allah.' I did what the Prophet had told me to do and the sons of 'Abdul Muttalib, who were about forty in number gathered together. Among them were the uncles of the Prophet: Abu Talib, Hamza, 'Abbas and Abu Lahab. When the food was brought, the Prophet lifted a piece of meat and tore it into small morsels with his own teeth and scattered the pieces on the tray and said, 'Start eating in the name of Allah,' All people present there had the food to their fill although the milk and the food were just sufficient for one man. Then he intended to speak to them, but Abu Lahab interfered and said, `Verily, your comrade has entranced you.' Having heard this, all of them dispersed and the Messenger did not get a chance to speak to them.
On the next day, the Messenger, of the Lord again said to me: 'O 'Ali? Make arrangements again for a feast as you had done yesterday, and invite the sons of 'Abdul Muttalib'. I arranged for the feast and gathered the guests as I was asked to do by the Prophet. Once they had finished the food, the Messenger addressed them thus: 'O sons of 'AbdulMuttalib, I have brought for you the best blessings of this world and of the next, and I am appointed by the Lord to call you unto Him. Therefore, who amongst you will help me in this cause in order that he should be my brother, my successor and my caliph?' Nobody responded. But I, although the youngest of the congregation, said, 'O Messenger of Allah, I am here to be your helper in this task.' The Prophet then patted my neck very kindly and said, 'O my people! This 'Ali is my brother, my successor and my caliph amongst you. Listen to him and obey him.' Having heard it from the Prophet, they all burst into laughter and said to Abu Talib, 'Hearken! You are ordered to obey and follow your own son! "'
This event has also been recorded by Thomas Carlyle in Heroes and Hero Worship, by Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Davenport in Apology for Muhammad and The Koran and by Washington Irving in Muhammad And His Successors, with all its details.
Abul-Fida, in Kitabul-Mukhtasar fi Akhbaril-Bashar states that some of the verses composed by Abu Talib prove the fact that he had accepted the Prophethood of the Prophet from the core of his heart. A translation of a few poetic verses is given here:
You have called me (to Islam) and I believe that you are truthful, straightforward and trustworthy.
And there is no doubt in my belief that the religion of Muhammad is the best of all the religions of the world.
By God! As far as I am alive, not a single person from among the Quraish can harm you.
Then one after another came the Divine commands:
Disclose what has been ordained to thee. (Qur'an, 15.94)
O thou wrapped (in thy mantle!) Arise and warn, and thy Lord do magna. And thy raiment do purify. And uncleanness do shun. And show not favor seeking gain! And for the sake of thy Lord be patient. " (Qur'an, 74:1-7)
The method to be employed was:
Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and dispute with them in the best way. (Qur'an, 16:125)
The Prophet proclaimed the Oneness of God in the Ka'bah. The Quraish were aghast. Till then, they had held the Prophet and his followers in contemptuous disdain, but now they were genuinely alarmed. The new movement amounted to a denunciation of their forefathers. It meant the termination, in one stroke, of their authority and privilege as the guardians of the Ka'bah.
The Quraish retaliated violently. A life and death struggle for-Islam ensued. The Prophet was not allowed to worship in the Ka'bah, thorns were strewn in his way, dirt and filth were thrown at him while he was engaged in prayers, and street urchins were incited to follow him, shouting and clapping their hands in derision. He and his followers were subjected to all types of calumnies and humiliation. They were taunted and insulted. Oppression and relentless persecution were let loose. In an effort to force believers to renounce the new faith and to go back to the old cults, they were subjected to extremes of physical torture. They were mercilessly beaten, made to lie on burning sand while heavy blocks of stones were placed on their chests, or nooses were put around their necks and their bodies dragged. One of the faithful, Yasir by name, succumbed to these tortures and, when his wife Sumayyah, an African, protested, her legs were tied to two camels, and the animals were driven to opposite directions, tearing her body in halves. These were the first martydoms in the cause of Islam. The believers, under the inspiration of their great Teacher, were, however, fired with holy zeal. They braved all persecutions and danger and bore up against all agonies and tortures.