The Unlettered Prophet (sws) (7)

The Unlettered Prophet (sws) (7)


Khalid Masud

The Beginning of Wahi

It has been explained earlier that the issue of the first revelation of the Qur'an had been raised during the times of the companions. Some people considered these to be the first verses of Surah 'Alaq, but Jabir ibn 'Abdullah (rta) insisted that when he asked the Prophet (sws) himself, he said that the initial verses of Surah Muddaththir had been revealed first. The Prophet (sws) further explained that he had stayed in the cave of Hira for one month as usual. When this period was over, he came down to the valley and felt as if someone had called him. He looked sideways, in front and behind him but could not see anyone. Then he heard the voice again, he raised his head and saw the same angel who had come to him when he was in the cave, sitting on a throne with great dignity. The Prophet (sws) was so overcome that he started to tremble.[1] He came home and asked his wife to cover him with a blanket. Some narratives describe the event as the angel descending from the heavens and coming as close to the Prophet (sws) as a teacher is to a student. Then he bowed and revealed the verses gracefully and with full concentration.

The Qur'an has also mentioned the event when the Prophet (sws) was awarded prophet hood, and it explains that seeing the angel or experiencing the wahi was neither a hallucination nor a figment of his imagination. His wisdom and intellect was such that he immediately understood the message of the wahi. The angel communicated the message of God just as it was to be communicated,[2] and after this, the process of wahi continued with regularity.

It is difficult to be absolutely certain about the order of revelation of the verses. If we are to believe Jabir (rta), the first wahi was:

O you who covers himself [with a garment], arise and warn, and glorify your Lord and purify your apparel of the heart, and avoid the filth [of polytheism]. (74:1-5)

In our view these verses were such that they could have formed the beginning of the wahi. They include instructions to the Prophet (sws) to get up and face people with courage, preach the glory of God and stay away from the filth of polytheism, instead of shying away from responsibility and hiding under a blanket. It mentions clearly the real role of a prophet, that of bringing a warning. This means that the prophet would call people towards divine guidance and if they rejected it, he would warn them of dire consequences and instill fear of what might happen if they continued to refuse to accept his message.

The first wahi was revealed in the month of Ramadan during the night of the 27th (laylah al-qadr). This is also clear from the Qur'an, as is the fact that God has designated this night for the more significant matters regarding the universe. Since the revelation of the Qur'an was the most important event for the benefit of humanity, this night (that is more significant than 1,000 nights) was chosen to begin its revelation. Additionally, arrangements were made to set up barriers against the entry of demonic forces, including jinn that could have attempted to prevent Gabriel from reaching the Prophet (sws).

The first appearance of the angel which was for the purpose of introduction and the second one to give the news of prophethood was spaced out by a few weeks. Some people have taken this to be a break in wahi, and have considered the period to be three years. If prophethood was to be suspended for three years, why would it have been initiated to begin with? There should have been some reason which is not at all obvious. We believe that Jabir's (rta) narrative is the correct one and that when the Prophet (sws) was designated as such, the wahi started on a regular basis and he began to preach to his people.

The State of Wahi

According to various Ahadith, the Prophet (sws) would hear bells ringing or a sound similar to the buzzing of bees. When his attention was focused towards the sound, the wahi would exude from the same sounds. In such a state, he would perspire profusely and his limbs would tremble. When he calmed down, his mind would have registered the wording of the wahi fully.[3]

People around him saw the physical changes in his body, but no one could understand what was happening to his inner self. This was a matter between him and Gabriel. Only the Prophet (sws) could hear the bells or the buzzing of the bees while his companions would be unaware of the sounds. It is possible that these sounds were made to call him to attention and remained until the message of wahi was complete. As far as physical manifestations are concerned, they occurred because the Prophet (sws) was disconnected during that period from human beings and in communication with the divine world through the angel. This caused him much physical strain. Biased western historians have attributed this condition to a fit of epilepsy. They could not be more wrong in this claim. Epileptic patients faint during such fits and on gaining consciousness are unable to talk with any clarity. The Prophet (sws) not only did not faint after the wahi,but recited the verses that had just been revealed to those present, explained the same in detail, gave instructions on their implementation according to the guidance they provided and addressed the problems that were presented. The wahi was a source of strength and spiritual satisfaction for him and gave him renewed vigour for his work. He had been appointed as an emissary to deliver the message of wahi to friends and foes, supporters and enemies and waited eagerly for new revelations to arrive.

The Initiation of Preaching

When a prophet is designated within a nation, his first act is to address his people and give them the message from God to reject their wrong ways and submit themselves to their Creator. Towards this end, he makes a plea to their good nature, warns them about evil deeds, advises and exhorts them to follow the straight path according to God's instructions and guides the nation in its spiritual and intellectual development. None of this work is to be done in hiding. The responsibility of a prophet is not to cause a revolution that requires him to go underground, keeping his efforts hidden from others, creating a rebellious group of people who would set up his new proposed system by destroying the existing one within the nation. The nature of a prophet's responsibility is such that although he may wish to have all of his people hark to his call, it does not really matter how many do listen to him, and which strata of society they belong to; how many they were before, and how many they are at present. This is the reason why only a few people were followers of some prophets; the rest of their people rejected their message, yet the prophets were successful in fulfilling their responsibilities.

A prophet does not meet any need of his own when he preaches to his people to come to the faith. This responsibility is bestowed upon him by the Lord of the Universe, who also gives him a plan to deliver His message. The messenger works within the boundaries of this plan. Whenever he tends to step beyond these boundaries, God guides him and brings him back. Because this work is full of danger to life, God takes responsibility for his safety and security, protecting and consoling him in difficult times. Hence the prophet is not afraid of the reaction of his people, and has no need to keep his preaching hidden from the public eye. When Moses (sws) was in Egypt, he inadvertently killed a Coptic. The Pharaoh was resentful of the Israelites, and hence held Moses (sws) guilty of the crime of murder. When God bestowed upon him prophet hood and gave him instructions to go to the Pharaoh and give him His message to correct his ways as he had become very wayward, Moses (sws) did not prepare any secret plan, but went to the King's court openly. The Pharaoh had referred to the killing and it was likely that he may have been arrested, but God had instructed,

Fear not. Indeed, I am with you both. I hear and see. (20:46)

It is surprising how biographers of the greatest of all human beings and prophets seem to have created an impression and Muslims have accepted it that for three years after prophet hood, he preached out of the public eye, secretly. This just does not match with the ways of prophets as we know them and is also against the facts as established. If he did so for fear of repercussions from the Quraysh, did he not have the promise of safety from God that had been available to all prophets before him? The question also arises as to whether when he started preaching openly after three years, had the resentment from his tribesmen died down? Or had he grouped so many individuals during this period that he could have faced the Quraysh if necessary? History is witness to the fact that none of these reasons is a valid one. If we accept that the Prophet (sws) was slow in bringing God's message to his people, this could be considered an oversight in meeting a responsibility given by God, and this is an absolutely baseless allegation against the dignity and character of the Prophet (sws). Biographers have not been able to provide any other reason for secret preaching. In our view, no part of the Prophet's struggle remained hidden. He worked exactly according to the plan that was given to him by God, and that was to be carried out in a phased manner.

And lower the kindness of your shoulder to your relatives and those who follow you of the believers. And if they disobey you, then say: "Indeed, I am disassociated from what you are doing." And rely upon the Exalted in Might, the Merciful, Who sees you when you arise. (26:214-217)

According to this plan, the Prophet (sws) was to begin the invitation to faith with his close relatives, ie. the Quraysh. Those who would accept were to be treated with kindness and love and protected from any repression of the polytheists. In later stages, the preaching was to be carried out with full thrust, and an open declaration of action against those who would insist on remaining on the path of polytheism. Throughout this effort he was instructed to remain steadfast and trust in God who is All Powerful and has full control over His plans.

The Prophet (sws) started his work by following the principle of naturally communicating with those nearest to him. He first related his new responsibility to his wife, Khadijah (rta) who already held him with complete respect due to his purity of character and attitude. The news did not come as a surprise to her and she immediately accepted his invitation to the faith. Then it was communicated to his family, including his daughters Zaynab (rta), Ruqqayyah (rta) and freed slave and adopted son Zayd ibn Harithah (rta) who accepted Islam. The Prophet's third daughter, Umm Kulthum was too young and according to the research conducted by Qadi Sulayman Mansurpuri, Fatimah (rta) had not been born yet. 'Ali (rta) was only eight years old. In any case, the young ladies and 'Ali (rta) were brought up in the cradle of Islam and as they grew older, made Islam their purpose in life. [4]

Outside his home the Prophet (sws) had a vast network of friends, admirers and well wishers to whom he now paid attention. As they realized the truth of the Islamic teachings, not only did they accept Islam themselves, but they also brought their families and friends within its fold. The fact that they belonged to all families of the Quraysh can be seen from the lists of those who were among the firsts to accept Islam, found in authentic biographies. These names are according to the Quraysh tribes:

Banu Hashim: Ja'far ibn Abi Talib (rta) with his wife Asma' bint 'Umays (rta).

Banu Muttalib: 'Ubaydah ibn al-Harith (rta).

Banu 'Abd al-Shams: 'Uthman ibn 'Affan (rta); Khalid ibn Sa'id ibn al-'As (rta); Sulayt ibn 'Amr; Abu Hudhyafah ibn 'Utbah ibn Rabi'ah (rta).

Banu Asad: Zubayr ibn al-'Awwam (rta); Khadijah bint Khawaylid (rta).

Banu Makhzum: Abu Salamah ibn 'Abd al-Asad; 'Ayyash ibn Abi Rabi'ah with his wife Asma' bint Salamah (rta); Arqam ibn 'Abd Munaf (rta)

Banu Taym: 'Abdullah ibn Abi Qahafah (Abu Bakr (rta)); Talhah ibn 'Ubaydullah; Asma' bint Abu Bakr ('A'ishah (rta) had not reached maturity)

Banu Zahra': 'Abd al-Rahman ibn 'Awf (rta); Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, 'Umayr ibn Waqqas; Khubab ibn al-Arth (ally); 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud (rta) (ally).

Banu 'Addi: Sa'id ibn Zayd (rta) with his wife Fatimah bint Khattab (rta)

Banu Jumh: 'Uthman ibn Maz'un (rta), Qudamah ibn Maz'un (rta) and 'Abdullah ibn Maz'un (rta).

Banu Sahm: Khunays ibn Hudhafah (rta).

Banu Asad ibn Khuzaymah: 'Abdullah ibn Jahash, Abu Ahmad ibn Jahash and Zaynab bint Jahash.

Banu Harith: Abu 'Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrah.

Apart from the above, slaves are listed as 'Ammar ibn Yasir, Yasir with wife Sumayyah (rta), 'Amir ibn Fahira and Suhayb ibn Sanan (rta) among the earliest companions. According to the older biographies, the number of Muslims had reached 100-125 by the fifth year of prophethood. Was it possible that the teaching that touched the hearts and minds of the best among all tribes of the Quraysh could have been kept secret? Could the religion of so many people have remained under cover for three years that the leaders of the Quraysh had no idea so that they could make an attempt to stop it from spreading further?

Looking at it from another perspective, the Prophet (sws) was not only right in front of the Quraysh leadership, but also addressing them, because they were his tribe and people. The pace of accepting Islam by people was absolutely natural. They would come to see him, talk to him, listen to his viewpoint, and as they pondered over his invitation, there was nothing to stop them from accepting it. At the beginning, the leaders of the tribe did not create any resistance to the Prophet (sws), but tolerated what he was doing. Perhaps this is why some people believe that his preaching was conducted initially in a secretive manner. The reasons for such a response from the Quraysh are possibly the following:

Firstly, God's message was revealed to the Prophet (sws) in stages. Initially, its purpose was to awaken the inner goodness of man's nature, and create hatred for social evils. To do this, their attention was called towards gratitude to God, recognition of the rights of others, taking care of the poor and needy, kindness to orphans and attention to principles of morality. For example, note the following verses:

No! But you do not honor the orphan. And you do not encourage one another to feed the poor. And you consume inheritance, devouring [it] altogether, And you love wealth with immense love.(89:17-20)

Have We not made for him two eyes?And a tongue and two lips? And have shown him the two ways? But he has not broken through the difficult pass. And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass? It is the freeing of a slave or feeding on a day of severe hunger, an orphan of near relationship, or a needy person in misery. And then being among those who believed and advised one another to patience and advised one another to compassion. (90: 8-17)

That your endeavour is for different ends. Yet he who gives to others and fears God, and affirms goodness, We shall ease the way of fortune for him. But he who does not give and is unconcerned, and rejects goodness, for him We shall ease the way of adversity. (92:4-10)

All pious Arabs were aware of and accustomed to the high moral principles that were expounded in the Qur'an and therefore this did not disturb anyone within the Quraysh. In fact, they considered these teachings as being desirable activities of a popular and well loved reformer.

Secondly, there was already a tradition of following the faith of Abraham (sws), and worshipping one God. The number of such people may not have been large, but they proclaimed their faith openly in front of the Ka'bah and society tolerated them. The Prophet (sws) was one such person, and additionally he was also the most upright, of the highest morals, with exemplary behavior towards others, integrity and conscientiousness and mentor of his people. They valued him and had confidence in him. When he began his teachings, their nature was such as to extenuate his virtues in their eyes, and hence created no problems. This was the same situation as it was with Abraham (sws) when he had begun to warn his nation against worship of idols, they had not resisted him. Even when he had demolished the idols in the Ka'bah, the priests wondered who the culprit might have been, and instead of naming him with certainty, only expressed a vague suspicion, saying:

We heard a youth talk about them. He is called Abraham. (21:60)

In other words, the man who had been criticizing idols may have been responsible for this act. It was only when the Prophet (sws)'s teachings brought forth aspects that had a direct negative bearing on the interests of the Quraysh, and they felt that their established religious system could be impacted that they changed their response to his preaching.

Thirdly, the Arabs led a tribal life. Each family was responsible for protecting and providing for its members. Other tribes and families would be wary of causing any harm to any member of another tribe, for fear of how they would circumvent the wrath and desire for revenge of his family, and what would be the recompense. Whenever the Quraysh thought of crushing the movement for conversion to Islam among its tribes by force, they were faced by the problem of addressing the anger of affected families. The tradition of supporting their own and avenging any wrong to their members was so strong among Arabs that when the tribes of Aws and Khazraj of Yathrab accepted Islam and offered to take the Prophet (sws) with them, they took an undertaking from him first that those individuals who had already converted to Judaism would not be harmed. And so the Prophet (sws) agreed to the same rights for Jews as for the Muslims.

(Translated from Hayat-i Rasul-i Ummi by Nikhat Sattar)


[1]. Muslim, Al-Jami' al-sahih, vol. 1, 80.

[2]. The Qur'an, (53:1-10).

[3]. Al-Bukhari, Al-Jami' al-sahih, vol. 1, 4.

[4]. Qadi Sulayman Mansupuri, Rahmah li al-'Alamin, vol. 81; Ibid. 123.