At the age of forty, when Prophet Muhammad was in spiritual retreat in the cave of Hiră’, he received the first revelation from God through Arch-Angel Gabriel: this was the beginning of the mission of propagating the new religion. At that moment the first five verses of Chapter 96, Surah al-Alaq, of the Qur’ăn were revealed to him. (This event is known as bi‘that — being raised to proclaim God’s message.)
That very day he mentioned the revelation to his cousin, ‘Alí bin Abi Tălib who declared his acceptance of the faith. After the Prophet returned home and told his wife of the revelation, she likewise accepted Islam. Soon after, Zayd bin Hăritha (a loyal slave whom he treated like his own son) also became a convert.
The first time that the Prophet invited people to accept the message of Islam, he faced a distressing and painful reaction. Out of necessity he was forced henceforth to propagate his message secretly for three years until he was ordered again by God to invite his very close relatives to accept the message. He organized a family feast and invited forty of his kinsmen. At the gathering, Muhammad asked if they had ever found him lying? The general response was: ‘We have never found you lying.’ Then he asked, “If I were to tell you that your enemies have gathered beyond the sand hills to attack you, would you believe me?” They replied, ‘Yes.’ Then he said:
“I know no man in all Arabia who can offer his kindred a more excellent thing than I now do. I offer you happiness both in this life and in the hereafter. God Almighty has commanded me to call you unto Him. Who, therefore, among you will assist me herein shall become my brother, my heir and my successor.”
But this call was also fruitless and no one heeded it except ‘Alí bin Abi Tălib, who in any case had already accepted the faith. According to the historical documents and the extant poems composed by Abu Tălib, Abu Tălib had also embraced Islam; however, because he was the sole protector of the Prophet, he hid his faith from the people in order to preserve the outward power he had among the people of Mecca.
After this period, according to Divine instructions, the Prophet began to propagate his mission openly. With the beginning of open propagation the people of Mecca reacted most severely because the Islamic message —of worshipping One God and of equality among the believers without any distinction of race, colour or wealth— fared completely against the status quo. Most painful afflictions and tortures were inflicted upon the Prophet and the new converts.
For example, Bilal, an Ethiopian slave who had accepted Islam, was tied to the burning sand of the Arabian desert and a large stone was placed on his chest with the warning from his master Umayya that he would be left in that state until he rejects Islam. But the only sound heard from Bilal’s lips was: “Ahad! Ahad!” (One God! One God!)
The Quraysh treated the believers so harshly that a group of about 100 Muslims, under the leadership of Ja‘far bin Abi Tălib, left their homes and belongings, and migrated to Abyssinia. They were told by the Prophet that they would find the Abyssinian king to be a just ruler. With the intention of stopping the spread of Islam, the Quraysh pursued them to Abyssinia seeking their extradition. But Ja‘far eloquently presented the Muslims’ case to the Abyssinian king, and the request of the Quraysh was rejected.
“O King! We were plunged in the depth of ignorance and barbarism; we worshipped idols, we lived an unchaste life, we ate dead bodies and we spoke abominations; we disregarded every feeling of humanity and the duties of hospitality and neighbourhood; we knew no law, but of the strong — when God raised among us a man, of whose noble birth, truthfulness, honesty and purity we are aware; and he called us to the Unity of God and taught us not to associate anything with Him; he forbade us the worship of idols; and enjoined on us to speak the truth, to be faithful to our trusts, to be merciful and to regard the rights of neighbours; he forbade us to speak evil of women or to eat the sustenance of orphans; he ordered us to fly from vice and to abstain from evil; to offer prayers, to render alms, to observe the fast.
We have believed in him, we have accepted his teachings and his injunction to worship God and not associate anything with Him.
For this reason our people have risen against us, have persecuted us in order to make us forgo the worship of God and return to the worship of idols of stone and wood and other abominations. They tortured and injured us, until finding no safety among them; we have come to your country and hope you will protect us from their oppression.”
Back in Mecca, economic and social boycott was imposed on the Prophet and his family. Therefore, the Prophet and his uncle, Abu Tălib, along with their relatives from the Banu Hashim, took refuge for three years in the “mountain pass of Abu Tălib,” a fort in one of the valleys of Mecca. No one had any dealings or transactions with them and they did not dare to leave their place of refuge.
Although the idol-worshippers of Mecca at the beginning considered inflicting all kinds of pressures and tortures such as striking and beating, insult, ridicule and defamation of the Prophet, occasionally would also show kindness and courtesy toward him in order to have him turn away from his mission. They would promise him great sums of money or leadership and the rule of the tribe. But for the Prophet, their promises and their threats only resulted in the intensification of his will and determination to carry out his mission. Once, when they came to the Prophet promising him wealth and power, the Prophet told them, using metaphorical language, that if they were to put the sun in the palm of his right hand and the moon in the palm of his left hand, he would not turn away from obeying the One God or refrain from performing his mission.