It was by preaching in secret to those of his own circle that Muhammad gained his first converts his wife, his nurse, his slave, his cousin, and a little later, the most important of his early converts Abu Bakr. He was an elderly man of influence and note amongst the Qurraish, and succeeded in inducing many converts to follow his example. The total number of disciples gained by this secret preaching amounted to thirty or forty persons so, Islam in its inception was a truly missionary religion.
The new doctrines were now preached to the Prophet’s relatives, the descendents of Abd al Muttalib. He appealed to them to acknowledge him, and when he asked them who would become his delegate, Ali, the son of Abu Talib, Muhammad’s youthful cousin, showing his early impetuous and chivalrous spirit, alone stood up and was accepted, amid the laughter of his elders. But, as we know the sequel proved no laughing matter. Muhammad, though unsuccessful amongst his own near relatives with unabated confidence proclaimed his mission to the other Qurraish.
His preaching was first limited to the fundamental doctrines that there was one God, that mankind would rise again and be judged, everyman according to his works. The real distinctive dogma of Islam, the source of its power as well of its weakness, the dogma that Muhammad was the Apostle and vice-regent of God, was enunciated from the first, but was not insisted upon.
Muhammad’s preaching creates hostility
It was when Muhammad proceeded to attack the idols of the Arabs that contempt for his doctrines was turned to anger, and persecution began. And though Muhammad himself and his more influential followers were personally safe, owing to the clannish instinct which prevailed in such unusual force among the Arabs, yet the meaner disciples, of whom many were slaves, felt the full force of their enemies’ malice. Among these was Bilal, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, an Abysinnian Negro, who endured his sufferings with the constancy of a martyr. Others were not so brave, and when a convert denied his new faith, and spoke evil of his Prophet, came to Muhammad sobbing and making confession, Muhammad said gently, “What fault was it of thine if they forced thee?” (Sale An-Nahl 16:108 – note). He even encouraged him, if tortured again, to repeat his denial – an ill-advised concession which has been interpreted by the Shiite section of the Muslim World to justify the concealment of a man’s real belief on any occasion however trivial (this is called takkiyah).
While Muhammad’s unprotected followers sought exile in Abyssinia Muhammad, well-nigh wrecked his own pretensions and the future of his faith by interpolating into his heavenly oracles, a verse permitting supplication to be made to the Meccan idols, and promising that their intercession would avail with God. This concession was particularly acceptable to the Qurraish, who now gladly agreed to acknowledge the teaching of Muhammad. But Muhammad recovered himself in time, and retracting the admission, practically acknowledged that he had been guilty of forging the name of God to words that He had not put in his mouth.
The Qurraish thought they had been fooled, and persecution became fiercer than ever, so that some of the refugees who had returned from Abyssinia fled there again, their numbers being increased by new converts, until there was as many as 83 men and 18 women assembled there. Muhammad himself, in spite of every discouragement and disappointment, continued his preaching. His old uncle Talib continued to support him at great personal inconvenience and even danger and this courageous stand was not without its effects with the opportune conversions of Hamza, the youngest of Muhammad’s uncles, and Omar. The accession of these two influential disciples encouraged many others to declare themselves for the new faith so that the Qurraish in their perplexity accused Muhammad of being a sorcerer possessed of a charm for setting brother against brother, son against father, and husband against wife. Driven to desperation all the hostile Qurraish formed a league to boycott the family of the Hashemites which caused Muhammad, his disciples and his kinsfolk to take refuge in the quarters of Abu Talib, his aged uncle. Cut off from the rest of the nation, Muhammad could only preach to such of his relatives who were still sceptical of his claims.
At the time of the yearly pilgrimage, there was a sort of a truce and Muhammad was able to preach to the pilgrims that flocked Mecca, but his efforts even here were counteracted by the determined opposition of the Qurraish, and especially Abu Lahab.
Three years of forced inaction because of being placed under the ban was at last removed, and Muhammad was free to preach to whom he would. Ten years he had been toiling and the converts scarcely numbered hundreds. Since the conversion of Omar, no leading men had joined the little band of disciples. At this juncture Muhammad thought of breaking fresh ground by trying to win over the citizens of Tayif, a town situated some sixty miles eastwards of Mecca. This missionary effort was a most sorrowful failure. The people of Tayif showed as little respect for his teaching as the Meccans, and even the Prophet’s person was not safe from their sacrilegious hands, and Muhammad with his freedman Zeid fled from the city after a short stay, wounded and sick at heart, amid the hootings of the rabble.
But we are gravely assured that this missionary journey was not wholly fruitless, for at Nakhla, between Tayif and Mecca, the Prophet preached his glad tidings to troops of genii, who crowded round him to hear the oracles of God, and, being converted, went forth joyfully as missionaries to their less fortunate fellows. More than ever discredited, Muhammad returned to Mecca, where his life was hardly safe until a generous chief of the Qurraish gave him his protection. It was the darkest hour before the dawn.
The missionary venture to Medina
Persecuted at Mecca, foiled at Tayif, Muhammad turned his eyes towards Medina, where the state of affairs was such as to hold out some hope. The inhabitants were Arabs with a strong infusion of Jewish settlers, whose belief in the advent of the Great Prophet were well known, and had communicated itself to their Arab friends. Moreover, the Arab tribes of Aus and Khazraj, each in league with one of the Jewish clans, were too equally matched for one of them to secure the pre-eminence, and too jealous of each other to submit readily to a chieftain from either party. So, they were favourable for the reception of a leader from without.
Muhammad met with some citizens of Medina at the great annual pilgrimage to Mecca, preached to them his new doctrines, and hinted at the possibility of their receiving him at Medina, they listened with sympathy, and promised, after consulting their fellow-citizens at home, to give an answer next year. This negotiation and the subsequent one in the following year were carried on in secret, for fear of the Qurraish, at a secluded place called Akaba, near Mecca.
Next year at the appointed time came twelve representatives of the Medina tribes, and bound themselves to the first “pledge of the Akaba,” by renouncing their idols, promising not to steal, fornicate, slander or practice infanticide and promising to obey the Prophet in all reasonable things. It is a significant fact that this arrangement was afterwards called “The Women’s Oath,” because no obligation to fight was included among the provisions. This is sufficient to show what a change came over the spirit of Muhammad’s dream in the few short months that intervened between the repulse of Tayif and the entrance into Medina.
The preaching missionaries of Islam in Medina
The Pledge of Akaba was taken in 621 A.D, being the eleventh year of the Prophet’s mission, and the twelve citizens who were parties to it returned to Medina to sow the seeds of the new doctrine. They were accompanied by a disciple from Mecca, Musab ibn Omeir, who was to instruct the people of Medina in the faith, and so became one of the earliest missionaries of Islam. The result of their efforts was startling in its success. Islam appealed not only to the religious instincts of the Arabs of Medina, quickened as these had been by a long and familiar relationship with Jews, but also flattered their intense national pride. Here was the Prophet whom the Jews had ever been expecting and boasting of, and he was not a Jew, but an Arab! It is not surprising then, that they came over in large numbers.
There is an instructive passage in one of the biographers of the Prophet showing us how this wholesale conversion was effected. The missionaries of Islam, Musab and Asad (who had been sent to assist the former) entered the quarters of the Awsites and sat down by a well to expound their Scriptures to a band of believers. One of the chiefs of the tribe, hearing of their presence, made his way to the place, and, after abusing the missionaries for misleading the citizens of Medina, warned them to leave the place if they valued their lives. A courteous answer, however, induced him to listen to the new doctrines, which so charmed the listener that he straightway purified himself and embraced Islam (Muir – Life of Muhammad p. 218, note from Hishami). He then went and converted the other chief of the tribe, Sa’d ibn Muadz, who returned to his tribe and swore that he would not speak to any man or woman that did not acknowledge Muhammad. His influence was so great that by the evening every one of his tribe was converted.
After this we are not surprised to hear that soon there was scarcely a house in Medina where believers were not to be found. Within a few months all the 150 followers of Muhammad (besides this there were 60 in Abyssinia) had made their escape to Medina and the Prophet followed them during the last week of June 622. A.D. This Hejra, or Flight, of Muhammad, marks the beginning of the Muslim Era.
Muhammad was fifty-three years old, and after thirteen years of preaching he had made rather more than two hundred disciples at Mecca, and an unknown, perhaps larger, number at Medina. The Prophet had professed to be merely a preacher and a Warner to his kinsfolk, to his fellow-citizens, and to his nation, and even with an uncertain voice, to the entire world.