World History 1 172 - 11.1.4 Muhammad’s Community

While the narrative of Islam under Muhammad’s leadership centers on Arabs and Arab society in the seventh century, many factors influenced his message, his leadership, and the growth of the community of Muslims, called the ummah. The Muslim emigration to Medina was one step in a wider process as Muhammad sought shelter for his community, an opportunity to spread the message of Islam outside his region, and ultimately the unification of Arab tribes into a confederacy the region had never seen.

Even before fleeing Mecca, some from Muhammad’s community sought refuge and support wherever they could find it as they attempted to expose more of the region to the monotheistic message of Islam. One support was found across the Red Sea, in East Africa in the Christian Kingdom of Aksum. There, the Negus—the leader of Aksum in what is modern-day Ethiopia—provided shelter for Muslims fleeing Meccan persecution and allowed them to practice their faith under his protection. Many remained there until they were able to return to Muhammad and emigrate to Medina, too. This support from the Aksumites was important to the survival of Islam, and in fact the decision by some early Muslims to seek refuge in Ethiopia is sometimes referred to as “the first hijra.

In Medina, the previously polytheist Arabs, Jewish Arabs, and Muhammad’s ummah formed an alliance for their common defense. Muhammad served first as an arbiter of disputes between the tribes and, soon after, as the city’s de facto leader. Under his guidance, the community devised the Constitution of Medina as a means to solidify the agreement between the tribes and their mutual responsibility to protect their city and its people from outside attack. Later Muslim rulers saw the constitution as a blueprint for the creation of a religious society that tolerated those of other faiths while supporting the worship of the one God, mutual defense for the community, and Muhammad’s leadership.

The constitution stated that “the believers and Muslims of [the tribe of] Quraysh and Medina and those who join them . . . form one ummah to the exclusion of others.” It goes on to explain that the Jewish Arabs of the tribe of Banu Awf “are secure from the believers [the Muslims]. The Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs.” The phrases most commonly used in the constitution to describe Muhammad’s followers are “Muslims” (“those who have submitted to God”) and “believers” (al-Mu’minun). For this reason, some historians have described the earliest ummah as a “community of believers” that was open to most monotheists. In these earliest decades of Islam, Muhammad’s new community had much in common with the monotheistic Jewish people and Christians, and we find little evidence of the distinctive Muslim identity that formed over the next several centuries.

In Their Own Words

Jewish and Christian Narratives in the Quran

The holy scripture of Islam, the Quran, is deeply intertextual, meaning it has a relationship with and is often in dialogue with other texts, namely the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible. Here in translation are excerpts from Surah (Chapter) 5 that, in part, address Muhammad’s community about where their faith fits with the other monotheistic traditions, Judaism and Christianity.

The Jews and Christians say, “We are the children of God, the ones He loves.” Say: “Then why does He punish you for your sins? No. You are mortals, of those He has created. He forgives those whom He wishes and He punishes those whom He wishes. God has sovereignty over the heavens and the earth and what is between them. To Him is the journeying.”

O people of the Scripture, Our messenger has come to you, making things clear to you after an interval between messengers, so that you cannot say, “No bearer of good tidings or warner has come to us.” A bearer of good tidings and a warner has come to you. God has power over everything.

And [recall] when Moses said to his people, “O my people, remember the blessings of God to you when He placed prophets amongst you and made you kings and gave you what He had not given to anyone [else] among created beings. O my people, Enter the holy land which God has prescribed for you. Do not turn your backs, lest you return as losers.”

And recite to them in truth, the tale of the two sons of Adam [Cain and Abel], when they offered sacrifices, and it was accepted from one of them and not from the other. [The latter, Cain] said, “I shall kill you.” [Abel] replied, “God accepts only from those who are god-fearing.

If you stretch out your hand to me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand to kill you. I fear God, Lord of created beings.

I wish you to take on both your sin and my sin and become one of the companions of the Fire. That is the recompense of evil-doers.”

Then his soul prompted him to kill his brother; so he killed him, and became one of the losers.

Then God sent a crow, which scratched into the earth to show him how he might hide the corpse of his brother. He said, “Woe on me. Am I unable to be like this crow, and hide the corpse of my brother?” And he became one of the repentant.

Because of that, We have prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul, other than in retaliation for [another] soul or for corruption in the land, will be as if he had killed all the people; and whoever saves one will be as if he had saved the life of all people.

Our messengers have come to them in the past with the clear proofs; but even after that many of them commit excesses in the land.

—Sura 5 of the Quran, verses 18–21 and 27–32, translated by Alan Jones

  • Who is the “messenger” referenced here, and what is their goal on earth?
  • What lessons do you think are being communicated to believers in this reading?
  • What might the references to Moses and Cain and Abel tell us about Quran’s early audience?

The even-handed approach to members of this new ummah was critical to the ultimate success of Muhammad and his community. Much of the last ten years of Muhammad’s life was spent with this new Muslim community in Medina, engaged in conflict with their former brethren in Mecca. Fighting between the two sides was fierce, and there were also tensions within Medina and the early ummah as Muhammad’s followers grew in number and prominence at the expense of other Arabs in the city, in particular, the Jewish contingent. Many on both sides were related by blood even if their religious beliefs had altered. Muhammad’s community continued to grow and win more supporters until, on the eve of battle outside Mecca in 630, his former tribe of Quraysh surrendered, and the population of the city converted to Islam. Muhammad and his followers were then able to return to Mecca, where he entered the holy sanctuary of the Kaaba, now filled with the polytheist idols worshipped by the Arabs, and smashed them all, echoing a famous story about the biblical prophet Abraham (Figure 11.12). From the perspective of Muslims, the original house of Abraham, which had always been dedicated to the worship of the one God, was now cleansed.

A faded picture of a two paneled drawing is shown which depicts one scene. In the lower half of the panel on the right twenty-five men are seated on various colored horses riding toward the left on a greenish background. They all wear hats of various colors and shapes, long colorful coats with designs, belts, and many have beards. Above them a white horse walks alone with a red saddle and beaded reins followed by a brown camel with a red and black embroidered saddle. Fifteen men in colorful long coats and hats stand behind and above the animals with their hands in front of them. Across the top there are four arched panels depicting statues of men sitting cross legged with pants and crowns. They are in knocked over and some are in pieces. The left panel is a continuation of the right panel, depicting twenty-five men dressed as in solid colored long coats and various hats walking toward the left, some with bats, some with swords, and some with their fists in front of them. Toward the top there are statues of idols in pieces on the floor. Seven arched panels run along the left side of the drawing and three across the top depicting statues of men in pants and crowns in pieces. Some are knocked off of pedestals. There is a brown, pear shaped item in front of the second panel from the left which is shown on fire.
Figure 11.12 In this early nineteenth-century depiction from Kashmir, India, the Muslim army triumphantly enters the sanctuary of Mecca to destroy the idols kept there, which are shown on the top and left edges of the scene. Muhammad is not himself depicted in the image, though the National Library of France, which holds this work, indicates he is depicted as a flame. (credit: “Muhammad destroying idols” by Histoire Geographie 5ieme Nathan/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Muhammad had succeeded in uniting the majority of Arab tribes of western Arabia under his leadership. He spent the next two years continuing to expand his community and spreading the message of Islam, until his death from natural causes in the year 632.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax