Haley Jones – Prophet as Diplomat: Mohammad’s Mediation and the Rise of Islam

The Prophet Mohammad was a figure who altered the course of world history, not just by founding the religion of Islam, but for creating a political foundation that would go on to conquer the Persian Empire and much of the Byzantine Empire, forever changing civilization in the Middle East. It is difficult to overstate his importance as a religious and political leader, and his success (as well as the success of Islam) can be attributed to his exceptional character – the very model of human goodness.1 Mohammad was widely known in Mecca as an honest man; Ibn Isḥāq describes him as “the best neighbor, the most truthful, reliable, the furthest removed from filthiness and corrupt morals…so that he is known among his people as ‘the trustworthy.’”2 It is clear that Mohammad’s just nature, and its manifestation in him as a diplomat, contributes significantly to the incredible ascendancy of Islam in the 7th century.

Mohammad spent his adulthood first as a highly regarded merchant in Mecca, a crossroads of trade and pilgrimage. The most important feature of Mecca was the Ka’aba, a shrine with ancient origins containing a black stone dating back to the time of Adam and Eve. The Quraysh, the ruling tribe of Mecca and thus the principal owners of the city’s wealth, were responsible for the caretaking of this holy site – and indeed oppressing poorer clans in the process.3 When Mohammad was 35 years old, the Quraysh began the auspicious project to rebuild the Ka’aba, but encountered a long series of difficulties along the way. As the process progressed, and it was clear that the black stone needed to be moved and reset, an enormous debate broke out between the various clans of the Quraysh on who should have the right to this task. By chance, honest Mohammad was chosen to solve this problem. He ordained that a leader of each clan would each take up the corner of a cloak to lift the black stone, which Mohammad would then set in place by hand.4 Mohammad’s first act as a diplomat shows his ability to bring disparate factions together to act peacefully and cooperatively. This spirit of sharing and community togetherness permeate the teachings of Islam and served to unify the otherwise fragmented land of Arabia.

After Mohammad began to publicly spread the word of God that he received from the Angel Gabriel on Mount Ḥirā, and drew opposition from the Qurayshī  leaders, whose livelihood depended on pagan pilgrimage to Mecca.5 During this period of tension, Mohammad embarked on a journey to Jerusalem with Gabriel and the winged steed Burāq. He met with the Abrahamic prophets who came before him and was taken both to heaven and hell in order to glimpse the afterlife. Each of the seven layers of heaven were attended by a prophet, and at the seventh heaven God ordained that Mohammad must pray fifty times daily. Moses, in the sixth level of heaven, suggested that Mohammad negotiate with god to achieve a lower and more feasible number of mandatory prayers. Mohammad continued this mediation between God and Moses until at last he arrived at five daily prayers, from which he refused to negotiate further out of shame.6 To this day, Muslims are required to pray five times daily. This story from Mohammad’s life speaks to a rather profound concept of Islam: that God is an entity that can be negotiated with, whose mind is changeable, and who can interact with and make concessions to mortal beings. This perspective on the afterlife is also a radical notion compared to the pre-Islamic Arabian worldview as described in the Qur’ān: “There is nothing but our present life…we die, and we live, and nothing but Time destroys us.” (45:24).7

Another moment of Mohammad’s diplomacy came much later in his life history, after the  battles of Badr and Uḥud against the Meccans, when the Prophet had amassed significant power and resources. He decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca with a band of loyal followers, but before he could enter the city, the Quraysh met with him to try to dissuade his advance. The result of this rendezvous was a peace treaty with the following stipulations: entry was not permitted to the Muslims that year, but in subsequent years, Mohammad and his followers would be allowed three nights of pilgrimage in exchange for the return of Meccan prisoners of war. Ibn Isḥāq describes the enormous significance of this treaty: “No previous victory in Islam was greater than this…when there was armistice and war as abolished and men met in safety and consulted together none talked about Islam intelligently without entering it.”8 Beyond winning over many new converts, this event demonstrates the Prophet’s capacity for peace over meaningless warfare. It was not until two years had passed, and the Meccans had violated the terms of the treaty, that Mohammad struck back and gained control over Mecca at last.9 This is an early instance of Islamic wartime ethics that would persist for centuries, a very early concept of just warfare stemming from the Prophet’s sense of diplomacy and honesty even towards foes. In fact, the Qur’ān states that war must be avoided at all costs, and that Muslims are obligated to bring about peace as soon as it is possible.10

Above all else, Islam is a religion that promotes communal unity, with a strong emphasis on justice and equality that did not exist in pre-Islamic, pagan Arabia.11 Mohammad embodied these ideals by continually proving himself a fair, pragmatic leader who engaged in diplomacy with allies, enemies, and even God himself. The religion that he founded did not seek to usurp other monotheistic faiths, nor did it attempt to abolish the old pagan ways, but rather incorporate them – a kind of compromise of beliefs.12 Mohammad’s commitment to ethics even extended to issues like women’s rights, which Islam helped to markedly advance in light of dehumanizing pagan customs.13 Justice permeates the very fabric of Islam, and brought much-needed stability to a previously volatile landscape.14 Perhaps for this reason, it is not surprising that future caliphs shared Mohammad’s diplomatic character, and the new empire of Islam so quickly overtook its predecessors.

 

 

 

Honor Pledge: I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.

 

Notes:

Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. New York: Paragon House, 1994. pg. 186

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. pg 53.

Brown, pg. 27-28; Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000. pg. 3

4 Brown, pg 53-54

5 Brown, pg. 56-57; McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Islam. Edited by Jack Miles. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. pg. 144

Brown, pg. 58-60

Brown, pg. 25

8 Brown, pg. 66

Armstrong, pg. 23

10 Armstrong, pg. 22

11 Armstrong, pg. 8; Williams, John Alden. Themes of Islamic Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. pg. 7-8

12 Armstrong, pg. 10

13 Armstrong, pg. 16

14 Armstrong, pg. 23

 

Bibliography

 

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

 

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

 

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Islam. Edited by Jack Miles. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

 

Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. New York: Paragon House, 1994.

 

Williams, John Alden. Themes of Islamic Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.