Leo Hochberg: The Prophet Muhammad: Seeking Social Change Through the Institution of Religion

One can hardly say where Muhammad obtained his stupendous moral character; perhaps from his adopted family, perhaps from his first wife Khadija, or maybe even from God. But whether it was his humble beginnings or the light of the divine that guided him up the fabled paths of Mount Hira and to the voice of the angel Gabriel, scholars agree that Muhammad’s actions as the Prophet of Islam were guided by an urgent desire to make Mecca and the surrounding Arabian Peninsula a place of true equality. The greatest problem facing the impoverished and oppressed of Arabia before the advent of Islam was an Ancien Régime designed to maintain power for those born into successful clans. As Karen Armstrong aptly summarizes, “Instead of looking after the weaker members of the of the tribe, as the nomadic code prescribed, the Quraysh were now intent on making money at the expense of some of the tribe’s pooper family groupings, or clans,” (Armstrong, 3). This explanation hardly begins to cover the harsh realities of pre-Islamic Arabia. Women were property with no rights, slavery was abundant, and while religious tolerance was promoted in Mecca, the entire peninsula was fractured along a multitude of sectarian fault lines. Muhammad brought about a desperately needed change; while his primary goal of spreading the word of the Qur’an demanded an end to paganism and the general tolerance of polytheism present in Arabia, the new order that began in Medina provided rights unprecedented to the oppressed and a great unity to a fractured system of clans.

To understand Muhammad’s dedication to social responsibility, one must first understand who he was as a faith leader. What the Prophet preached was hardly new material – even the Quraysh, who persecuted the Umma as far north as Medina, believed that Allah was the progenitor of the Earth and its people (Armstrong, 9). The difference between the Muslims of Arabia and the pagans concerned the other tribal deities and djinn that were worshipped throughout the peninsula. Muhammad famously preached that there is no god but God, not even the widely revered daughters of Allah. He called for a destruction of the ancient polytheistic mentality of the Ka’ba, both literally and figuratively. When the umma finally arrived in Mecca one year after the treaty of Hudaybiyyah, Muhammad ordered the destruction of all idols within the Ka’ba, leaving nothing but the black stone itself. This represented a final victory in the name of God over the false idols of Jahiliyya, and a movement towards religious unity amongst roughly two hundred and fifty polytheistic tribes.

Theism aside, this tribal unity was a major goal of Muhammad’s movement. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a militant place and time. War was a constant, whether between neighboring tribes or between the Byzantines and Sassanids. Conflict between the Christians of West and the Zoroastrians of the East had made the peninsula a major battleground; only Mecca in its great monetary strength and pluralistic attitude was able to control violence and maintain socio-political independence. This brought trade, riches, and soon enough, ideological conflict. As the Quraysh struggled to maintain their wealth amongst a city of conflicting pilgrims spanning the socio-religious spectrum, Muhammad was the first to strive for total unity under the One God. The Prophet’s dedication to unity is not to be confused as the primary purpose of his movement. Rather, the primary reason is simply that Allah was Muhammad’s truth – not a means to an end. However, Islam certainly fit within his plan for an Arabia capable of standing against the warfare that had so hobbled it for countless generations. This concept is best put by John Alden Williams, stating: “Still it is safe to say that only in Islam has the awareness of belonging to a unique, supra-national community been so strongly developed… What is most significant about the umma of Muslims in history was that it transcended national and tribal loyalties rooted in the accident of birth, and was a community of believers, bound together in a brotherhood more vital than that of blood,” (Williams, 8-9).

Truthfully, Islam was a gateway for an entirely new system of reforms that brought a whole new way of life to the Arab world. This is largely because Muhammad never saw a separation between church and state. Religion was inextricably tied to social justice. Rather than viewing Muhammad’s desire for a free Arabia as a separate extension from his dedication to Allah, it is more prudent to destroy any distinction between the two. God was both his inspiration and his motivation to uplift the oppressed. By Qur’anic teaching, one cannot be a Muslim who acts in the way of the Allah if he or she does not truly work for the betterment of the community. Even acts of self-improvement such as exercising, if they are truly done for the express purpose of betterment for oneself and one’s community, can be considered sacred. In Muhammad’s time, this concept of religion being used to uplift the poor was largely a new concept; until the Islamic movement, social stature had been strictly controlled by birth. For example, a man born to a tribe that we will call X would forever be controlled by the religious and social customs ascribed to the tribe. If X was a poor tribe, then this man and his family would be poor. And if X sparked the ire of a more powerful tribe and this led to a battle in which the more powerful tribe won, this man could be executed regardless of his role in the conflict and his family sold into slavery. Now a Prophet born to Mecca’s most powerful tribe was claiming that religion, rather than support the system of social immobility and birthright to which Arabia was accustomed, should actually demand a total reversal of that system. Ironic? Perhaps. Revolutionary? Absolutely.

As the Islamization of the Arabian Peninsula entered its final chapter once the umma conquered Mecca, it became increasingly difficult to implement the teachings of the Prophet on such a wide scale. With expansion came warfare, and more importantly, ideological conflict. This is the great tragedy of Islam in modernity. Laws that were meant originally to uplift the impoverished are viewed by many as archaic, causing outsiders to see a religion founded on social justice as one that discourages it. In keeping old law so strictly, modern regimes such as Saudi Arabia lose sight of the true purpose that those laws served in the first place. For example, Muhammad was the first to suggest that women are people too, and deserve rights such as divorce and inheritance. Now in such regimes, women are frequently permitted divorce and inheritance, but the continuation of modern feminism is blocked by the extent of those rights as they were originally afforded. Times change, and today women need different rights than they did in the seventh century. In spite of rabid misinterpretation and conflict, the modern era needs pluralism more than ever, and it is hardly within anyone’s right to say what is the ‘correct’ way to interpret the Qur’an and its teachings. But that does not change Muhammad’s original vision of Islam – one of equality, peace, and unity under God.



Williams, Johan Alden. Themes of Islamic Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2002.