The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito. A few things are worth noting:
- I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material. You can do that on The Great Courses website. My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
- These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course. As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
- There is no third thing. I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.
Lecture 3: Muhammad as Prophet and Statesman
Before Islam, the Middle East was a pretty rough place. The Persians and the Byzantine Empire fought over the trade routes that crisscrossed the region while the locals formed tribes that raided each other for material wealth. These raids avoided bloodshed if possible but still degenerated into open warfare from time to time.
Religion at the time was polytheistic centered on sacred objects and local Gods. Even at this time, however, the tribes already had a yearly pilgrimage to Mecca to venerate the kaaba which contained 360 idols, one for each day of the year. Even Allah was already installed as the head of the pantheon of Gods. The Christian and Jewish faiths too existed in the region.
Muhammad lived from c570-632 and was an orphan who grew up to become a business manager for caravans. It wasn’t until 610 that the angel Gabriel called to him in what has come to be known as the Night of Power. Muhammad denied Gabriel twice but on the third time he understood and complied with Gabriel’s requests. Afterwards he thought himself insane but his wife reassured him and believed him and she is said to be the first convert to Islam.
For 22 years Muhammad received the revelation of God and all that he said was first carried by oral history and then written down in the form of the Quran as we know it today. At the time, what Muhammad had to say was distinctly unpopular. He stood up against the polytheism and avarice of the times and advocated for a complete revolution of society.
In particular, he fell afoul of the Meccans themselves. They profited greatly from the influx of pilgrims each year and Muhammad stated quite clearly that these people should not be used as a vehicle to line the city’s pockets. As a consequence, the Meccans starved Muhammad out of town and bankrupted him but not before Gabriel came to Muhammad with a mystical steed. Together they traveled to Jerusalem and then to heaven where the prophets and Allah himself instructed Muhammad on how the faithful should pray five times a day. This event of revelation is known as the Night Journey and occurred in 621.
Bankrupt or not, in 622 Muhammad is invited to Medina to act as an arbiter in a dispute. Muhammad and his people travel to Medina and there start the first Muslim community. This event is known as the hijra or migration and marks the official beginning of the Muslim faith.
Having established himself in Medina, Muhammad begins to move militarily against Mecca. In 624 the Battle of Badr occurs and the Muslims rout the Meccans but the victory is only temporarily as in 625 at the Battle of Uhud the Muslims are defeated and Muhammad is wounded. Resolution is not reached until 627 at the Battle of the Ditch at which the Muslims fend off the Meccans and come to an uneasy truce.
During this time Jewish and Christian faiths are welcome in Medina and each person need only pay a small tax. However at the Battle of the Ditch the Jewish population is seen to side with the Meccans and Muhammad has them slaughtered for their treason.
The truce between the two great cities carries on until 630 when some skirmishes between neighbors escalate and eventually Muhammad conquers Mecca entirely. He is magnanimous in victory, however, and Mecca is incorporated into the Muslim community and Islamic law. By 632 at Muhammad’s death, the entire Arabian peninsula is united under the Muslim faith.
jahiliyaa – Term for pre-Muslim society in the Middle East. Also used to describe the decadence of the current age.
View back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam