Muhammad is the ‘seal of the prophets’ in Islam and his message encompassed religious teachings together with a substantial political influence. Muhammad was born in c570 in Mecca. Although Mecca had no hope of agricultural wealth, the city prospered owing to the trade routes passing through it. Mecca was a centre of pilgrimage due to the Ka’ba, a shrine housing the pagan deities then worshipped by the many Arab tribes. As this suggests Arabia was predominantly polytheistic. However, in the surrounding areas there were a number of Jewish communities and Christians that can be seen to influence Muhammad in his early thinking.
Polytheism, idolatry and a lack of compassion for unfortunate members of society led Muhammad to a ritual of meditation in a nearby cave on Mount Hira. It was during one of these times of contemplation, in 610, that the angel Gabriel is said to have first appeared to him and instructed him to pass on the message that he had been given. Muhammad, at first, was overcome but disbelief but gradually he accepted his mission from Allah. During his life he experienced many visions through which his message continued to develop. After spending a number of years in Mecca preaching it was clear Muhammad’s message was not welcome so he and his followers emigrated to Medina, this journey is known as the Hijra and is the time when the Muslim calendar begins. As with many other of the world’s religions, Islam evolved during and even after Muhammad’s time. However, it can be seen that the core elements of his message remain constant. The most important of these, submission to Allah has been consistently fundamental as the term ‘Islam’ itself suggests, as it means submission in Arabic.
There is much debate as to whether Muhammad’s message in Medina differs from his message in Mecca and to what extent. Some scholars, such as Michael Cook, find that a “broad distinction”1 is necessary concerning his message in Mecca and Medina. Whereas others regard this as unnecessary as there is merely “continuation and development”2 and the key aspect of his message, the idea of one god, Allah, is apparent in both. This had led to further discussion among theologians regarding from where Muhammad’s message sprung. Sprenger argues that Muhammad’s message is “pre-eminently social in its nature and origin”3 in his concern for vulnerable members of society such as orphan’s and widows. This is in part due to his experiences as a child with both his parents’ deaths and his uncle being left to care for him. Contrary to this, Gabrieli believes this notion as untrue as in reality Muhammad’s disgust grew from “the traditional national cults reduced to crude idolatrous ritual, and material interest became the mainspring of life”4. In this way issues arise such as whether Muhammad’s message was altered in order to serve a certain purpose. For example, Ibn Ishaq pointed out from examining parts of the Qur’an, which was revealed in Median “much of the revelation used to come down with reference to the Jewish rabbis, who kept asking him tricky questions”5. Equally, many of the Meccan suras can be seen as having the main task of defending Muhammad.
The term ‘message’ can be interpreted to encompass different factors other than purely religious and this can affect views as to whether Muhammad’s message in Medina differs from Mecca or whether it is consistent. If the term ‘message’ does include aspects religious and otherwise, which for the purpose of this essay it shall, then Muhammad’s message can be seen to differ in respect to his teachings regarding Jihad, together with Islam as a whole evolving into a complex system. Muhammad’s increasing participation in secular issues of Meddinian life is evidence of this. Regardless of changes, the core of his message remained the same, this was: “the duty of man is to acknowledge and worship the one supreme divinity and to live an honest and pious life according to his precepts, avoiding lies, prevarication, and violence”6.
Initially Muhammad shared his experiences with his family and close friends. He was met with contrasting reactions; some accepted his message whilst others mocked him. Then in 613 Muhammad began to proclaim his message publically. Tension emerged between Meccan officials and Muhammad’s message due to his social criticism and condemnation of religious aspects such as polytheism. What began with simple ridicule turned into persecution once Muhammad “hardened his attack on the polytheistic society of Mecca, its inequalities and hypocrisies”7 and attempts were made on Muhammad’s life. This led Muhammad to seek protection elsewhere in a place where his message could be accepted and develop. This was found in the city of Yathrib, later known as Medina, leading Muhammad and his followers to emigrate in 622 in what is known as the Hijra. This is regarded as a key stage in Islam’s history for it “led to the creation of a politically autonomous community”8 and this is reflected in the Muslim calendar beginning at this time.
Originally, whilst in Mecca, it was important to Muhammad to show continuity with other monotheistic faiths in Arabia, mainly Christianity and Judaism. Muhammad had visited neighbouring countries such as Syria through his involvement in trade thus would have been aware of these religious traditions. It was thought that continuity would ease the conversion for people. However, he soon regarded the religions “as completed, perfected and superseded by his own faith”9 as he felt they had distorted the true monastic teaching. For instance, Christian had lapsed from true monotheism with the idea of the trinity. The monotheistic Muslim belief in the oneness of Allah is called Tawhid and to Muslim’s Allah is omnipotent, omniscient, merciful and beneficent. The Qur’an demonstrates this when it states: