During this period there were several important influences in the life of Muhammad. The tribal poetical contests gave him opportunity to cultivate his own genius, and learn from the greatest masters the art of poetry and the power of rhetoric. The period of occupation tending sheep and goats gave him the opportunity we may presume of giving him an appreciation of a Deity powerful in Nature and Providence. The early impressions from the Jews and Christians gave him an initial understanding of monotheism. Lamentable however is the poor reflection of Christianity which was disclosed by the ecclesiastics and monks of Syria to the earnest enquirer. Instead of the simple majesty of the gospel, as a revelation of God reconciling mankind to himself through his Son, – the sacred dogma of the Trinity was conveyed through the misguided zeal of heterodoxy and the worship of Mary.
The Annual Fair at Ocatz and the Poetical Contests
In Dzul Ca‘ada, the sacred month preceding the days of pilgrimage, an annual fair was held at Ocatz. It was within a three day journey east of Mecca. Goods were bartered, contests of Bedouin chivalry held, and poetry recited by the bards of the various tribes. The successful poems produced at this national gathering were treated with distinguished honour. They were transcribed in illuminated characters, and thus styled Golden; or they were attached to the Kaaba and honoured with the title Suspended. ‘The seven suspended poems’ still survive written from a period before Muhammad, a wondrous specimen of artless eloquence. The beauty of the language and wild richness of the imagery are acknowledged by the European reader; but the subject of the poet was limited. The charms of his mistress; the solitude of her deserted haunts; his own generosity and prowess; the unrivalled glory of his tribe; the noble qualities of his camel; these were the themes which, with little variation of treatment, and with no contrivance whatever of plot or story.
At the fair of Ocatz at this period great rivalry was engendered between the Qurraish and Hawazin, a numerous tribe of kindred descent, who lived in the country between Mecca and Taif. An arrogant poet, vaunting the superiority of his tribe was struck down by an indignant Hawazinite; a maid of Hawazin descent was rudely treated by some Qurraishite youths; an important creditor was insolently repulsed. On each of these occasions the sword was unsheathed, blood flowed, and conflict developed. Such was the origin of the ‘sacrilegious war,’ so called because it occurred within the sacred term, and was eventually taken within the territory.
Between the years A.D. 580 and 590, the valley of Mecca and the surrounding country were disturbed by one of those bloody feuds. Several battles were fought and hostilities were prolonged for four years after which a truce was proposed. In some of these conflicts, the whole of the Qurraish and their allies were engaged. The children of Hashim were present also, under the command of Zobair the eldest surviving son of Abd al Muttalib; but they occupied no prominent position. In one of the battles Muhammad attended upon his uncles; but, though now near twenty years of age, he had not acquired the love of arms. According to some authorities, his efforts were confined to gathering up the arrows discharged by the enemy and handing them to his uncles. Others assign to him a somewhat more active share; but the sentence in which mention of this is preserved does not imply much enthusiasm in warfare: ‘ I remember,’ said the Prophet, being present with my uncles in the “Sacrilegious war;” I discharged arrows at the enemy, and I do not regret it.’
The struggles for pre-eminence and the contests of eloquence, at the annual fair, must have possessed for the youthful Muhammad a more engrossing interest than that of arms. At these spectacles, he had opportunities of cultivating his own genius, and learning from the greatest masters and the most perfect models, the art of poetry and the power of rhetoric. But another and a nobler lesson might be learned in the concourse at Ocatz. The Christianity, as well as the chivalry, of Arabia had representatives there; and if we may believe tradition, Muhammad while a boy heard Coss, the bishop of Najran, preach a purer creed than that of Mecca. And many at that fair, besides the venerable Coss, also held to the same belief and shared the same good tidings. There were also the Jews, serious and earnest men, surpassing the Christians in number and equally with them appealing to an inspired Book. This was the scene annually witnessed by Muhammad as he advanced into mature years.
A developing germ of faith?
Was there here a germ for his developing faith around which all the tribes of Arabia were to rally? At the fair, religion clashed against religion in hopeless opposition; and yet amid the discord he might discern some common elements, a book, and a name, to which all would reverently bow. With the Jews he was more familiar than the Christians, for as a child he had seen them at Medina, had heard of their synagogue and worship, and had learned to respect them as men that feared God. Notwithstanding the mutual enmity of Jews and Christians there was a Revelation equally acknowledged by both to be divine; both denounced idolatry as a damnable religion and professed to worship the One only God; and both repeated with profound veneration a common name, the name of Abraham.
The youth of Muhammad passed away without any other incident of interest. At one period he was employed, like other lads, in tending the sheep and goats of Mecca upon the neighbouring hills and valleys. He used when at Medina to refer to this employment and to say that it comported his prophetic office, even as it did with that of Moses and David. The hire received for this duty would contribute towards the support of his needy uncle Abu Talib, and the occupation itself was congenial with his thoughtful and meditative character and we may presume that during this occupation a deep and earnest faith in the Deity as an ever-present, all-directing Agent was conceived. A faith which in later days would be expressed in his well-furnished observations of Nature and Providence.
Muhammad Al-Amin – his youthful temperament
Our authorities all agree in ascribing to the youth of Muhammad a correctness of deportment and purity of manners rare among the people of Mecca. His modesty is said to have been miraculously preserved. ‘I was engaged one night’ (so the Prophet relates) ‘ feeding the flocks in company with a lad of the Qurraish. And I said to him, if thou wilt look after my flock, I will go into Mecca and divert myself there, even as youths are wont by night to divert themselves.’ But no sooner had he reached the precincts of the city, than a marriage feast engaged his attention, and he fell asleep. On another night, entering the town with the same intentions he was arrested by heavenly strains of music, and sitting down slept until morning. Thus he escaped temptation. And after this,’ said Muhammad, ‘ I no more sought after vice; even until I had attained unto the prophetic office.’
Making every allowance for the fond reverence which favoured the currency of such stories, it is quite in keeping with the character of Muhammad that he should have shrunk from the coarse and licentious practices of his youthful friends. With his reserved and meditative personality, he lived much within himself and the unobtrusive youth won the approbation of his fellow-citizens; and he received the title, by common consent, of Al-Amin ‘the Faithful’.
Muhammad’s mercantile expedition with Abu Talib
The story is as follows: When his nephew was twenty-five years of age Abu Talib addressed him in these words: ‘I am, as thou knowest, a man of small substance; and truly the times deal hardly with me. Now here is a caravan of thine own tribe about to start for Syria, and Khadija daughter of Khueilid needeth men of our tribe to send forth with her merchandise. If thou wert to offer thyself, she would readily accept thy services.’ Muhammad replied: ‘ Be it so as thou hast said. ‘Then Abu Talib went to Khadija, and enquired whether she wished to hire his nephew, but he added: ‘ We hear that thou hast engaged such a one for two camels, and we should not be content that my nephew’s hire were less than four.’ The matron answered: ‘hadst thou asked this thing for one of a distant or alien tribe, I would have granted it how much rather now that thou askest it for a near relative and friend!’ So the matter was settled.
The caravan took the usual route to Syria, the same which Muhammad had gone with his uncle thirteen years earlier. In due time they reached Bostra, a city on the road to Damascus and about sixty miles to the east of the Jordan. The transactions of that busy market ill-suited to the tastes and the habits of Muhammad, yet his natural sagacity and shrewdness carried him prosperously through the undertaking.
Muhammad, had the great opportunity of enquiring into the practices and and tenets of the Syrian Christians or of conversing with the monks and clergy with whom he met. Bringing in the Quran the conclusion “Thus shalt surely find those amongst them who profess Christianity to be the most inclined to the believers. This cometh to pass because there are priests and monks among them, and because they are not elated with pride.”
Lamentable, indeed, is the poor reflection of Christianity which was disclosed by the ecclesiastics and monks of Syria to the earnest enquirer. Instead of the simple majesty of the gospel, as a revelation of God reconciling mankind to himself through his Son, – the sacred dogma of the Trinity was conveyed through the misguided zeal of Eutychian and Jacobite partisanship, and the worship of Mary exhibited in so gross a form as to impress upon the mind of any that she was held to be a goddess, if not the third Person and the consort of the Deity. This viewpoint can be found in the Quran Al-Maidah 5:116
>”And when God shall say: O Jesus son of Mary! Didst thou speak unto mankind saying, ‘ Take me and my mother for two gods besides the Lord? He shall answer, Praise be to thee! It is not for me to say that which I ought not,'”
Muhammad’s knowledge of Christianity was apparently derived from the Orthodox party who styled Mary ‘Mother of God.’ He may have heard of the Nestorians, and they were possibly referred to among the ‘Sects’ into which Jews and Christians are said in the Quran to be divided, but, had he ever obtained a closer acquaintance with the Nestorian doctrine, at least in the early part of his career, it would have been more definitely mentioned in his revelation. The truth, however, is that Muhammad’s acquaintance with Christianity was at the best singularly meagre. It must surely have been through such blasphemous extravagances that Muhammad was repelled from the true doctrine of Jesus as ‘ the Son of God,’ and led to him regarding Jesus as only as ‘ Jesus son of Mary,’ the sole title by which he is spoken of in the Quran.
Copyright © 2011 “Message 4 Muslims