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Quran Introduction Part I

Written by Marmaduke Pickthall (1875 – 1936)

Qu’ran Introduction Part 1

Muhammad, son of Abdullah, son of Abdul Muttalib, of the tribe of Qureysh, was born at Mecca fifty three years before the Hijrah. His father died before he was born, and was protected first by his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, and, after his grandfather’s death, by his uncle Abu Talib. As a young boy he travelled with his uncle in the merchants’ caravan to Syria, and some years afterwards made the same journey in the service of a wealthy widow named Khadijah. So faithfully did he transact the widow’s business, and so excellent was the report of his behaviour which she received from her old servant who had accompanied him, that she soon afterwards married her young agent; and the marriage proved to be a very happy one, though she was fifteen years older than he was. Throughout the twenty-six years of their life together he remained devoted to her; and after her death, when he took other wives, he always mentioned her with the greatest love and reverence. This marriage gave him rank among the notables of Mecca, while his conduct earned for him the surname Al-Amin, the “trustworthy.”

The Meccans claimed descent from Abraham through Ishmael, and tradition stated that their temple, the Ka’bah, had been built by Abraham for the worship of the One God. It was still called the House of Allah, but the chief objects of worship there were a number of idols which were called daughters of Allah and the intercessors. The few who felt disgust at this idolatry, which had prevailed for centuries, longed for the religion of Abraham and tried to find out what had been its teaching. Such seekers of the truth were known as Hunafa (sing. Hanif) a word originally meaning “those who turn away” (from the existing idol-worship), but coming in the end to have the sense of “upright” or “by nature upright” because such persons held the way of truth to be the right conduct. These Hunafa did not form a community. They were the agnostics of their day, each seeking truth by the light of his own inner consciousness. Muhammad son of Abdullah became one of these. It was his practice to retire with his family for a month every year to a cave in a desert for meditation. His place of retreat was Hira, a desert hill not far from Mecca, and his chosen month was Ramadan, the month of heat. It was there one night toward the end of this quiet month that the first revelation came to him when he was forty years old. He was asleep or in a trance when he heard a voice say :”Read”! He said : “I cannot read” The voice again said : “Read” He said : I cannot read. A third time the voice more terrible commanded: “Read”! He said “What can I read?” The voice said:

“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who Createth.

“Createth man from a clot.

“Read : And it is thy Lord the Most Bountiful

“Who teacheth by pen,

“Teacheth man that which he knew not”


When he awoke the words remained “as if inscribed upon his heart.” He went out of the cave on to the hillside and heard the same awe-inspiring voice say : “O Muhammad! Thou art Allah’s Messenger, and I am Gabriel.” Then he raised his eyes and saw the angel, in the likeness of a man, standing in the sky above the horizon: And again the dreadful voice said: “O Muhammad! Thou art Allah’s messenger, and I am Gabriel.” Muhammad (God bless and keep him!) stood quite still, turning away his face from the brightness of the vision, but withersoever he might turn his face, there, always stood the angel confronting him. He remained thus a long while till at length the angel vanished, when he returned in great distress of mind to his wife Khadijah. She did her best to reassure him, saying that his conduct has been such that Allah would not let a harmful spirit come to him and that it was her hope that he was to become the Prophet of his people. On their return to Mecca she took him to her cousin Waraqa ibn Naufal, a very old man, “who knew the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians” who declared his belief that the heavenly messenger who came to Moses of old had come to Muhammad, and that he was chosen as the Prophet of his people.


To understand the reason of the Prophet’s diffidence and his extreme distress of mind after the vision of Mt. Hira, it must be remembered that the Hunafa, of whom he had been one, sought true religion in the natural and regarded with distrust the intercourse with spirits of which men “avid of the Unseen” sorcerers and soothsayers and even poets boasted in those days. Moreover, he was a man of humble and devout intelligence, a lover of quiet and solitude, and the very thought of being chosen out of all mankind to face mankind alone, with such a Message, appalled him at the first. Recognition of the Divine nature of the call he had received involves a change in his whole mental outlook sufficiently disturbing to a sensitive and honest mind, and also the forsaking of his quiet, honoured way of life. The early biographers tell how his wife Khadijah “tried the spirit” which came to him and proved it to be good, and how with the continuance of the revelations and the conviction that they brought, he, at length, accepted the tremendous task imposed on him, becoming filled with an enthusiasm of obedience which justifies his proudest title of “The Slave of Allah.”


The words which came to him when in a state of trance are held sacred by the Muslims and are never confounded with those which he uttered when no physical change was apparent to him. The former are the Sacred Book; the latter the Hadith or Sunnah of the Prophet. And because the angel on Mt. Hira bade him “Read!” – insisted on his “Reading” though he was illiterate – the Sacred Book is known as Al-Quran, “The Reading”, the Reading of the man who knew not how to read.


For the first three years, or rather less, of his Mission, the Prophet preached only to his family and his intimate friends, while the people of Mecca, as a whole regarded him as one who had become a little mad. The first of all his converts was his wife Khadijah, the second, his first cousin Ali, whom he had adopted, the third his servant Zeyd, a former slave. His old friend Abu Bakr also was among those early converts with some of his slaves and dependents.


At the end of third year the Prophet received the command to “arise and warn,” whereupon he began to preach in public, pointing out the wretched folly of idolatry in face of the tremendous laws of day and night, life and death, of growth and decay, which manifest the power of Allah and attest His Sovereignty. It was then, when he began to speak “against their gods, that Qureysh became actively hostile, persecuting his poorer disciples, mocking and insulting him. The one consideration which prevented them killing him was fear of the blood vengeance of the clan to which his family belonged. Strong in his inspiration, the Prophet went on warning, pleading, threatening, while Qureysh did all they could to ridicule his teaching and deject his followers.


The converts of the first four years were mostly humble folk unable to defend themselves against oppression. So cruel was the persecution they endured that the Prophet advised all who could possibly contrive to do so to emigrate to a Christian country, Abyssinia. And still in spite of persecution and emigration the little company of Muslims grew in number. Qureysh were seriously alarmed. The idol worship at the Ka’bah, the holy place to which all Arabia made pilgrimage, ranked for them as guardians of the Ka’bah as first among their vested interests. At the season of the pilgrimage they posted men on all the roads to warn the tribes against the madman who was preaching in their midst. They tried to bring the Prophet to a compromise, offering to accept his religion if he would so modify it as to make room for their gods as intercessors with Allah, offering to make him their king if he would give up attacking idolatry; and when their efforts at negotiation failed, they went to his uncle Abu Talib, offering to give him the best of their young men in place of Muhammad, to give him all that he desired, if only he would let them kill Muhammad and have done with him. Abu Talib refused. The exasperation of the idolaters was increased by the conversion of Umar, on of their stalwarts. They grew more and more embittered, till things came to such a pass that they decided to ostracise the Prophets whole clan, idolaters who protected him as well as Muslims who believed in him. Their chief men caused a document to be drawn up to the effect that none of them or those belonging to them would hold any intercourse with that clan or sell to them or buy from them. This they all signed, and it was deposited in the Ka’bah. Then for three years, the Prophet was shut up with all his kinsfolk in their stronghold which was situated in one of the gorges which run down to Mecca. Only at the time of pilgrimage could he go out and preach, or did any of his kinsfolk dare to go into the city.


At length some kinder hearts among Qureysh grew weary of the boycott of old friends and neighbours. They managed to have the document which had been placed in the Ka’bah brought out for reconsideration; when it was found that all the writing had been destroyed by white ants, accept the words Bismika Allahumma (“in thy name, O Allah”). When the elders saw the marvel the ban was removed and the Prophet again was free to go about the city. But meanwhile the opposition to his preaching had grown rigid. He had little success among the Meccans, and any attempt which he made to preach in the city of Ta’if was a failure. His mission was a failure, judged by worldly standards, when, at the season of the yearly pilgrimage, he came upon a little group of men who heard him gladly.

They came form Yathrib, a city more than two hundred miles away, which has since become world famous Al-Madinah, “the City” par excellence. At Yathrib there were Jewish tribes with learned rabbis, who had often spoken to the pagans of a Prophet soon to come among the Arabs, with whom, when he came, the Jews would destroy the pagans as the tribes of A’ad and Thamud had been destroyed of old for their idolatry. When the men from Yathrib saw Muhammad they recognised him as the Prophet whom the Jewish rabbis had described to them. On their return to Yathrib they told what they had seen and heard, with the result that at the next season of pilgrimage a deputation came from Yathrib purposely to meet the Prophet. These swore allegiance to him in the first pact of Al’Aqabah, the oath they took being that which was afterwards exacted from women converts, with no mention of fighting. They then returned to Yathrib with a Muslim teacher in their company, and soon “there was not a house in Yathrib wherein there was not mention of the messenger of Allah”.

In the following year, at the time of pilgrimage, seventy three Muslims from Yathrib came to Mecca to vow allegiance to the Prophet and invite him to their city. At Al-Aqabah, by night, they swore to defend him as they would their own wives and children. It was then that the Hijrah, the flight to Yathrib, was decided.


Soon the Muslims who were in a position to do so began to sell their property and to leave Mecca unobtrusively. Qureysh had wind of what was going on. They hated Muhammad in their midst, but dreaded what he might become if he escaped from them. It would be better, they considered, to destroy him now. The death of Abu Talib had removed his chief protector: but still they had to reckon with the vengeance of his clan upon the murderer. They cast lots and chose a slayer out of every clan. All those were to attack the Prophet simultaneously and strike together, as one man. Thus his blood would be on all Qureysh. It was at this time (Ibn Khaldum asserts, and it is the only satisfactory explanation of what happened afterwards) that the Prophet received the first revelation ordering him to make war upon his persecutors “until persecution is no more and religion is Allah only.”


The last of the able Muslims to remain in Mecca were Abu Bakr, Ali and the Prophet himself. Abu Bakr, a man of wealth, had brought two riding camels and retained a guide in readiness for the Flight. The Prophet only waited God’s command. It came at length. It was the night appointed for his murder. The slayers were before his house. He gave his cloak to Ali, bidding him lie down on the bed so that anyone looking in might think Muhammad lay there. The slayers were to strike him as he came out of the house, whether in the night or early morning. He knew they would not injure Ali. Then he left the house and, it is said, a blindness fell upon the would be murderers so that he put dust on their heads as he passed by – without their knowing it. He went to Abu Bakr’s house and called to him, and they two went together to a cavern in the desert hills and hid there till the hue and cry was past. Abu Bakr’s son and daughter and his herdsman bringing them food and tidings after nightfall. Once a search party came quite near them in their hiding place, and Abu Bakr was afraid; but the Prophet said; “Fear not! Allah is with us” Then, when the coast was clear, Abu Bakr had the riding camels and the guide brought to the cave one night and they set out on the long ride to Yathrib.


After travelling for many days be unfrequented paths, the fugitives reached a suburb of Yathrib, whither, for weeks past, the people of the city had been going every morning, watching for the Prophet till heat drove them to shelter. The travellers arrived in the heat of the day, after the watchers had retired. It was a Jew who called out to the Muslims in derisive tones that he whom they expected has at last arrived.


Such was the Hijrah, the flight from Mecca to Yathrib, which counts as the beginning of the Muslim era. The thirteen years of humiliation, of persecution, of seeming failure, of prophecy still unfilled, were over. The ten years of success, the fullest that has ever crowned one man’s endeavour, had begun. The Hijrah makes a clear division in the story of the Prophets Mission, which is evident in the Quran. Till then he had been a preacher only. Henceforth he was the ruler of a State at first a very small one, which grew in ten years to be the empire of Arabia. The kind of guidance which he and his people needed after the Hijrah was not the same as that which they had before needed. The Madinah surahs differ, therefore, from the Meccan surahs. The latter give guidance to the individual soul and to the Prophet as warner; the former give guidance to a growing social and political community and to the Prophet as exemplar, lawgiver and reformer.


For classification the Meccan surahs are here subdivided into four groups; Very Early, Early, Middle and Late. Though the historical data and traditions are insufficient for a strict chronological grouping, the very early surahs are, roughly,speaking those revealed between the beginning of the persecution and the conversion of Umar; the middle surahs those revealed between the conversion of Umar and the destruction of the deed of ostracism; and the late surahs those revealed between the raising of the ban of ostracism and the Hijrah.