Rebecca Posner: The Strengths of the Prophet Muhammad as a Religious and Political Leader

When the prophet Muhammad received his first revelations about Islam, few would have thought that it would grow to be one of the world’s most important religions.  However, Muslims were able to increase their following and conquer a large portion of the Middle East within a relatively short time after Muhammad passed away.  One of the most important factors in the initial success of Islam was encapsulated in the personality and abilities of Muhammad himself.  He combined innovative ideas about religion with political and military acumen to further the cause of Islam throughout his life.  As a result, he was able to lay the cultural foundation for the continued growth of the religion after his death.  He also had natural talents as a mediator, diplomat, and military leader.  His patience and sense of timing served him well in a variety of political situations.  The fundamental concepts behind Islam felt both familiar and new to its followers, because Muhammad’s teachings combined elements of Arab culture, other monotheistic religions, and relatively novel ideas about equality and the structures of religious communities.

Although Muhammad was introducing an entirely new religion to his peers, several of its most important elements were similar to those already present in other, preexisting religions.  The main common element was monotheism, or the exclusive worship of a single God (as opposed to worshipping multiple deities).  Muslims worshipped the same God as Jews and Christians, and they held a great deal of respect for various prophets and leaders who appeared in the Torah and the New Testament.  In addition, one of the most important religious monuments in Mecca was the Kaaba, which was a cube-shaped building that was said to have been built by Adam and later rebuilt by Abraham and Ismail.[1]  It was important to polytheistic worshippers as well, who used it as a pilgrimage site.  Therefore, Muhammad was able to take advantage of people’s familiarity with and respect for monotheistic religions and their sacred sites in order to increase the appeal of his message.  The fundamental idea behind Islam that Muhammad delivered to people was that “people must accept God’s sovereignty over them and mend their ways…and give God the worship that was his due.”[2]  This message was not particularly difficult to understand on its surface, and it was similar to what many people had heard before in other contexts.  Its meaning was something that Muhammad’s audience “had always known but somehow stopped taking seriously.”[3]  Perhaps they would have continued to avoid taking it seriously, if Muhammad’s character had not already been highly respected throughout the community.

From a relatively young age, Muhammad was known to be exceptionally virtuous, and he soon gained the epithet “the trustworthy.”[4]  He gained a reputation as a skilled mediator even before he became a religious leader, and this talent served him well later on.  One of the most well-known examples of his mediation skills, which occurred before his first revelations, happened when the leaders of Mecca were rebuilding the Kaaba.  Meccan society (as well as Arab society in general) was divided into various clans or tribes.  The clan leaders could not agree on which one of them should have the honor of putting the sacred black stone in its resting place.  Muhammad came up with the solution of setting the stone on a cloth and then having the leaders take hold of the corners of the cloth and carry it together.  This prevented further strife and won him additional respect.  This incident was also an indication of further ones to come, where Muhammad used his understanding of people to strengthen his community and triumph over those who had formerly opposed his mission.

Muhammad applied his skill in bringing people together in a larger sense when he built the Islamic community.  He encouraged the concept of equality before God, where it was virtuous to ignore class hierarchy and “create a society where the weak and vulnerable were treated with respect.”[5]  People from all sorts of backgrounds worshipped together, and especially after the hijra (which is the name for the Muslim migration to Medina), they lived in the same place as well.  He also brought members of different tribes into the same social group, which was almost unheard of in Arab culture.  Traditionally, tribes were very tightly knit- the act of belonging to a particular tribe was an essential part of an Arab person’s identity.[6]  The Muslim religious community founded by Muhammad was called the ummah.  Its existence and overall wellbeing came to serve as a sort of barometer for the success of Islam as a whole.  In other words, if there were divisions or strife within the ummah, then it needed to be addressed immediately by community members, who attempted to ensure continued peace and submission to God.  Muhammad was able to use his peers’ culturally engrained need for a group identity by creating what was essentially an entirely new tribe, which gained new members at a rapidly increasing rate.

The continued growth of the ummah meant that Muslims would inevitably come into conflict with the inhabitants of Mecca who continued to follow polytheistic religions.  Muhammad dealt with the hostility in a variety of ways.  Initially he and his few followers were relatively peaceful in the face of derision and sometimes violence.  Eventually, they fled to Medina, where they developed further and started making raids on Meccan caravans to obtain resources.[7]  These raids soon developed into a series of conflicts with the Meccans, beginning with the Battle of Badr and ending with the bloodless conquest of Mecca after the Quraysh (the ruling tribe of Mecca) broke the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, where Muhammad had peacefully negotiated for Muslims to be allowed to make the hajj.  Throughout these years, Muhammad’s innovative military strategies, such as digging trenches and having his men fight in a single unit, played a large role both in wearing down the resistance of the Quraysh and in impressing members of the populace so much that they converted to Islam.

Muhammad’s greatest strength, in both political and religious contexts, may have been his ability to innovate.  He was able to see diplomatic solutions to conflicts that no one else could solve, and he came up with military tactics that broke with Arab tradition.  In terms of religious ideas, he created a more egalitarian social group whose reinforced people’s faith in each other and in God, and he brought new life to ancient ideas about monotheism.  His forward-thinking temperament helped ensure the success of Islam for centuries to come.

Notes:

[1] Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print. Page 27.

[2] Murata, Sachiko, and William Chittick C. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul: Paragon House, 1994. Print. Page xxi.

[3] Murata, page xxii.

[4] Brown, Page 53.

[5] Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. N.p.: Modern Library, 2000. Print. Page 4.

[6] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/02/2016

[7] Armstrong, Page 19.

 

 

Bibliography

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. N.p.: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/02/2016.

Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul: Paragon House, 1994. Print.