About Mohammed II: Debunking Three Myths

February 4, 2021 Category: Religion

The Farcical Persecution of Mohammed

It is sometimes suggested that MoM was somehow persecuted in pre-Hijra Mecca.  As the story goes, the self-proclaimed “rasul allah” endured incredible hardship after having valiantly taken a righteous stand.  But is this true?

Starting c. 613 when he began preaching, almost nobody in Mecca believed MoM’s grandiose claims about having received communiques from the Abrahamic deity.  As might be expected, his fellow Meccans chastised him–sometimes vituperatively–for his audacious evangelism; and reproached him for berating the gods of their forefathers.  Naturally, he was rebuked.  In romanticized historiography, said rebuke is characterized as persecution.

The aspiring prophet was most likely mocked–and perhaps even aggressively shunned–by most Meccans for touting such brazen assertions.  Be that as it may, MoM was never punished–or harmed in any way–for his pronouncements.  The most we hear in the Hadith is passing mention of MoM having things thrown as him in the street…and, as we shall see, once having viscera placed on his back during morning prayer.

It is no newsflash that, in the medieval world, some people sometimes threw things at other people–a gesture that often occurred when there was vociferous disagreement between them.

A popular tale is about a visit MoM’s once made to Ta’if.  After having no success in his hometown, the aspiring prophet–along with his adopted son, Zayd ibn Harithah–tried his hand in this nearby Hijazi settlement.  As the story goes, the chieftains of Ta’if initially welcomed MoM.  However, they–along with virtually everyone else in town–paid little heed to his preachments.  As it turned out, it was street urchins who ended up giving MoM and Zayd grief–mocking them, and even throwing stones at them.  Hence we are expected to believe that MoM was driven out by hordes of homeless children.

The verisimilitude of this account becomes even more tenuous when we hear that, immediately after having left the edge of town (bleeding, we’re told, from having been hit by stones), MoM and his companion were taken in by the Christian owners of a nearby orchard–illustrating that there did not exist any widespread animus directed toward MoM.  He had insulted them, yet was still given hospitality by locals.

Calling a situation in which people simply rejected MoM’s proselytization “persecution” is a disingenuous use of the term.  The aspiring prophet incurred no such thing.  In the nine-plus years he conducted his (early) ministry in Mecca, he was never imprisoned.  He was never even fined.  There was never, at any point, severe battery–at least none that caused injury.

It should come as little surprise that the aspiring prophet was ostracized by Meccan pagans, as he was actively flouting their most hallowed religious traditions.  MoM had made himself a pariah; not a martyr.

So we might inquire: If we seek answers in Islamic sources, what DID MoM supposedly endure?  According to Ibn Ishaq (the earliest biographer of MoM), “the worst attack seen by the Quraysh” on the self-proclaimed “rasul” was as follows:

According to the testimony of a prominent Meccan named Abdullah ibn Amr al-As: “I was with him when their nobles assembled one day in the Hijr [town square] and discussed [MoM].  They said, ‘We have never seen the likes of what we have encountered from this man. He has derided our traditional values, abused our [fore]fathers, reviled our religion, caused division among us, and insulted our gods.  We have endured a great deal from him.’  Or words to that effect.

“While they were saying this, [MoM] himself appeared.  He walked up and kissed al-hajar al-aswad [the sacred black stone].  He then passed by them while performing the tawaf [circumambulation]; and as he did so, they made slanderous remarks about him.”

Note that this was a significant enough event to have been recorded for posterity.

So what was MoM’s response to being chastised?  As it turns out, it was to threaten his audience with violence. (Surprise.)  On his third time around the Kaaba, he stopped and proclaimed to those insulting him: “Hear me, men of the Quraysh.  By he in whose hands my soul rests, I shall bring you slaughter.”

Even after this threat, the Qurashi nobles (“even those who had urged the most severe measures against MoM”) spoke in a conciliatory way to MoM; and still “used the most polite expressions they could”; and then simply bid him to “depart in true guidance”.

MoM then departed.

So even those who were MOST hostile to MoM were deferential.  This was as bad as it got.  But wait.  The story isn’t quite over.  Ibn Ishaq continues the account of Abdullah ibn Amr al-As:

“The next day, they gathered in the Hijr, and I was again present.  They said to each other, ‘You were talking about the unpleasantness that you have endured and the things that [MoM] has done to you; but when he openly said something antagonistic, you shrank from him.’  As they said this, [MoM] appeared, and they came upon him as one man, and surrounded him, saying: ‘Is it you who says this and that?’ repeating what they had heard of his denunciation of their gods and their religion.  [MoM] replied, ‘Yes, I am the one who says that.’  Then I saw one of them grab his cloak.  But Abu Bakr stood in front of him weeping and pleading, ‘Woe upon you all!  Would you begrudge a man because he says, my lord is god?’  They then departed.  And that is the worst thing I ever saw the Quraysh do to him.” {1}

Suffice to say: Being repudiated is not the same as being tormented.  MoM was persona non grata, not a victim of persecution.

What else tells us of THE WORST that the pagan Meccans did to MoM for his Abrahamic proselytizing?  In Islamic lore, we are told that the derided “Abu Jahl” (a snide re-naming of a prominent Qurayshi named Amr ibn Hisham) confronted the self-proclaimed prophet, saying: “You have forsaken the religion of your father who was better than you. {2}  We will brand you as a fool, and destroy your reputation.”  According to this account, if a follower of MoM was a merchant, Abu Jahl called for those in the marketplace to not buy the man’s goods.  In other words: Cursing Mecca’s pagan gods was met with a boycott.  Far from violent aggression, the response was peaceable protestation. {3}

Here’s the thing.  The Quraysh had no grievances about MoM’s personal theology PER SE; it was only his public–outspoken–desecration of their gods that they found objectionable.  Ibn Ishaq recounts: “[MoM] proclaimed god’s message openly and declared Islam publicly to his fellow tribesmen.  When he did so, they did not withdraw from him or rebuff him in any way, as far as I have heard, UNTIL he spoke of their gods and denounced them.  When he did this, they took umbrage with it and united in opposition to him, except for those whom god had protected from error.”  

So what did the nobles do to address this grievance?  Did they seek to doll out lashings in the public square?  Nope.  Did they seek to imprison him?  Nope.  They went to MoM’s uncle (his foster father, Abu Talib), and said: “Your nephew has reviled our gods, denounced our religion, derided our traditional values, and told us that our [fore]fathers were misguided. {4}  Either curb his attacks on us or give us a free hand to deal with him, for you are just as opposed to him as we are, and we will deal with him for you.”

Abu Talib demurred.  So the aspiring prophet persisted in his ministry, and with his slander.  After a while, the nobles returned: “Abu Talib, you are our elder and our chief, so give us justice against your nephew; and order him to desist from reviling our gods; and we will leave him to his god.” {5}

Contrast this conciliatory attitude to MoM’s tendentious posturing.  The self-proclaimed messenger-of-god routinely berated the Qurayshi leadership, including his own paternal uncle–who was dubiously referred to as “Abd al-Uzza” [slave of the pagan goddess, al-Uzza]; and later dubbed “Abu Lahab” [Father of the Flame].  This uncle was a prominent figure in the community–as HIS father (MoM’s grandfather) was chief of the Hashim clan.  The authors of the Koran even saw fit to devote an entire chapter of the Koran (Surah 111) to the excoriation of this particular man: “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish!  May he himself perish!  His wealth and gains shall avail him of nothing.  He shall be burned in a flaming fire, and his wife–laden with firewood–shall have a rope around her neck.”


Keep in mind, per Mohammedan lore, MoM himself would have announced this as a revelation.  That is to say: He would have PERSONALLY–and publicly–leveled this threat; as he was the source of the “Recitations”.

What were the reprisals for these threats to this man and his wife?  Nothing.

It is important to note how incredibly easy it would have been, in those early days, for the Qurayshi nobles to imprison–or even assassinate–MoM for his offensive behavior; and to do so without fear of repercussion.  Yet at no point in the his pre-Hijra ministry were Mecca’s leaders moved to do either.  The point cannot be emphasized enough: MoM was engaged in his feather-ruffling proselytization for almost a DECADE before he finally emigrated to Yathrib (the settlement a fortnight’s camel-ride to the north, later re-christened “Medina”).

To put it plainly: If the Meccan leadership would have wanted MoM incarcerated or eliminated, they could have–and would have–done so.  They didn’t.  But why not?

As the above testimony shows, freedom of religion was the norm in pre-Islamic Mecca.  MoM was an apostate with regards to the prevailing Faith, yet he was not IN ANY WAY persecuted for this impertinence (barring, perhaps, a boycott on his goods in the market). {6}  It is ironic that those who did the same in Islam were executed for it.

MoM openly insulted the Quraysh’s pagan gods year after year after year, IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE, inciting all his followers to do the same; and yet he was STILL was not punished–even once–by the city’s nobles.

It is a fiction that MoM would have been persecuted for preaching Abrahamic monotheism in Mecca, as others had been promoting BOTH Judaism and Christianity long before he undertook his ministry.  Most notable was the cousin of MoM’s first wife, Khadijah: Waraka ibn Nawfal.  Waraka was a well-respected Nestorian preacher in area, who ministered to willing audiences years before MoM claimed to have received his first revelation (ref. Ibn Ishaq’s “Sirat Rasul Allah”).  In fact, MoM may well have gotten the idea to undertake his own ministry after having had numerous dialogues with Waraka.

Another important point: MoM was never exiled.  Indeed, he left the city of his own accord; and did so for purely opportunistic reasons.  An acolyte had scouted the town of Yathrib to the north, and returned with the news that it held better promise.  Naturally, upon hearing of the possibility of a more receptive audience, MoM was moved to try his luck elsewhere.  And so he did.

The aspiring prophet was not fleeing persecution, he was seeking greener pastures.  The fact that he was harassed tells us nothing other than precisely what we would expect when a street-preacher decries the Faith of his townsfolk.  Surely, throughout the Dark Ages, anywhere in the world, harangues were a daily occurrence wherever disagreement occurred–regardless of who it may have been.  Recrimination is not persecution.

An indication that farcical accounts were constructed to make it appear as though MoM was escaping immanent doom is the obviously-contrived tale about the day he finally opted to leave Mecca.  As the story goes, MoM fled at nighttime…just in the nick of time!  For he managed to sneak away minutes–nay, SECONDS–before a band of assassins burst into his home to kill him.  (Queue suspenseful music.)

Such a riveting account is, of course, preposterous.  Had the Qurayshi leaders wanted MoM dead, they could have easily made it so at any point, on any day, over the course of the previous DECADE.  (MoM’s pre-Hijra ministry lasted from 613 to 622.)  It strains credulity to suppose that they finally decided to assassinate MoM only moments after his (covert) departure.

And so it went: MoM decided to re-locate to Yathrib based on the prescient council of some of his followers.  Deciding to move on to greener pastures is not the same as escaping with one’s life in the darkness of night.

A final anecdote is worth mentioning–versions of which can be found in various places (most notably in Bukhari’s Hadith 1/4/241).  A Qurayshi bystander once said to his cohorts: “Who amongst you will bring entrails of a camel and put it on the back of Mohammed while he prostrates?”  It is unclear who the volunteer for the act may have been.  Some say it was Uqba ibn Abu Muayt; some even say it was MoM’s own despised uncle, Abu Lahab; and others say it was Abu Jahl.  Whoever the culprit was, he waited until MoM did his morning prayer, and then placed the entrails on his back “between his shoulders.”  The onlookers then laughed.  MoM continued praying, and “did not lift his head until Fatima came and wiped the entrails off his back.”  How does the story end?  MoM stood up and exclaimed three times: “O god! Punish the Quraysh!”  He was livid at having been slighted…and laughed at.

So what, then, did the self-proclaimed prophet do years later when he took over Mecca?  He had the culprit EXECUTED.  To be clear: A man was killed for having committed a prank.  MoM then had all of those who’d been present (including Abu Jahl, Utba ibn Rabia, Shaiba ibn Rabia, Al-Walid ibn Utba, Umaiyah ibn Khalaf, and Uqba ibn Abi Muayt) severely punished…for having stood idly by; and–even worse–for having laughed at him.  (Abu Jahl had already been killed at the wells of Badr.)  Here, the asymmetry in reprisal is striking, and tells us all we need to know about who was persecuting whom.

MoM had Uqba ibn Abi Muayt beheaded after he was apprehended at Badr.  Another of his transgressions?  He once spat at MoM’s face after being egged on by his friend, Ubay ibn Khalaf (Umaiyah’s brother).

THESE are incidents of legendary proportions. (!)

In sum: MoM was hardly a victim of anything remotely resembling persecution.  Having married a successful businesswoman (yes, Meccan females could own their own businesses prior to Islam), the aspiring prophet found himself enjoying a relatively privileged merchant life in Mecca.  Once he began his program of contemptuous preachments, the worst thing the Quraysh did to him was throw things at him…and sternly rebuke him.

Ironically, it was MoM HIMSELF who would eventually set the standard for the aggressive persecution of dissidents and apostates.  To suggest that he was at some point a VICTIM OF persecution is therefore disingenuous in the extreme.

In sum: Having one’s brazen claims rejected (and being chastised for making slanderous statements about others’ Faith) is not tantamount to enduring persecution.  There WAS a pathologically vindictive character in this story. {6}  In Islamic lore, he came to be known as “Mu-H-M-D”.

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