This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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7.2. The Prophet

Concerning the name Islam

Perhaps the first thing we can say about Islam is that although the Prophet of Islam was named Muhammad, the religion cannot rightly be called Mohammedanism, as outsiders throughout history have occasionally named it.

To name the faith after the founder is appropriate in the case of Christianity, but not with Islam, and the reasons for this are important. For Christians, Christ was and is God. Christ is the one in Whom Christians believe and through Whom they believe salvation must be obtained. Moreover, the office of Christ is one in which all believers are permitted to participate through faith in Him. Thus, due to the fact that Christ was God Incarnate and the participatory nature of the office that Christ performed, such that all believers work to become ‘Christs’, it is entirely proper to name these people Christians.

Muslims, on the other hand, do not believe that Muhammad was the Son of God or that he was a Divine Incarnation. As we will see, the whole emphasis of Islamic doctrine runs against such an idea, insisting on the contrary that ‘there is no god but the God’. For Islam, God’s oneness is paramount. Thus, it is heretical and therefore insulting to imply that Muslims worship Muhammad in the same way that Christians worship Christ. To call Muslims ‘Muhammadans’ would be like calling Christians ‘Paulists’ on account of St. Paul, which if not entirely inaccurate, at least gives the wrong impression.

Christians do not usually consider it strange that their religion centers on a man and a historical moment, rather than on the pure and transcendent Absolute that stands outside of time. They do not realize that they are somewhat exceptional in this regard. If it be pointed out that Buddhism derives its name from its founder, we can simply respond: no, it does not. The man who taught the Buddhist way was not named ‘Buddha’ but became ‘the Buddha’, from budh, ‘awakening’, and so Buddhism is in fact named by what it cultivates, and this corresponds to an attribute that is sought by all.

Like Buddhism, Islam is named after its doctrinal point of focus, that which it seeks to cultivate in men. The word Islam is derived from roots meaning ‘peace’ and ‘surrender’ and the goal of Islam is in fact ‘the peace that comes with surrender to God’. The word Muslim means simply ‘one who submits’.

To summarize: Muhammad is not the Islamic Jesus, and although we cannot press the point here, we can remark that the Koran is also not the Islamic Bible, and that here too important distinctions will need to be made when we discuss the Koran specifically.

Allah and Elohim

The emphasis of the Islamic doctrine can be discerned even in the word it uses to refer to God. Whereas the Old Testament used an ambiguous (at best) masculine plural, Elohim, we find in Islam an unambiguous name that is not simply ‘god’ but ‘the God’, Allah.

Ancestry and origins of the Semitic religions

God created Adam, and Adam’s line came to Noah, and Noah had a son named Shem. Shem’s line came to Abraham. Abraham had a wife, Sarah, but because Sarah had no son, he took Hagar as a second wife, and she gave birth to a son, Ishmael. Sarah then conceived and bore Isaac, and the outcome of this situation was the Hagar and Ishmael were banished from the tribe. It is to Abraham, through Isaac, that the Jews trace their lineage; it is also to Abraham, but through Ishmael, that Islam traces its lineage. Since both, then, are descendants of Shem, they are both ‘Semitic’ religions, for term ‘Semite’ means simply a descendant of Shem.

According to the Koran, Ishmael eventually settled in what would be called Arabia, and became Muslims. The Hebrews remained in Palestine and were called Jews (‘tribe of Judah’).

The Seal of the Prophets

Muslims believe that Islam, much like Christianity, was developed through prophets that came before, and in this way they accept, with certain qualifications, the role and teachings of the Old Testament and even the New. With the arrival of Muhammad in the sixth century A.D., however, Islam comes into its own and we reach an end of the prophetic line: no prophets shall come after Muhammad, and this is why he is called ‘The Seal of the Prophets’.

He was born into a tribe called the Koreish, in approximately 570 A.D. He lost his father, mother, and grandfather by the time he was eight, and was adopted into and loved by his uncle’s family. He gained a reputation for his uprightness and went into the caravan business. At twenty-five he entered the service of a widow named Khadija, fifteen years his senior. Despite this discrepancy in age they formed a lasting bond and she acted as a support and a hope for him, and it is said that, “God comforted him through her, for she made his burden light.” He was married for fifteen years before he received his calling.

Muhammad’s marriage to Khadija was monogamous until her death in his fiftieth year. Their marriage produced four daughters, and the most well-known of them is Fatimah, who later married ‘Ali and is mother to all descendants of the Prophet, called sayyids or sharifs. Much can be said about this line and their influence on Islamic history. Only in the last years of his life did Muhammad take additional wives, and these mostly for the sake of unifying the tribes of the Arabic world, which is to say, for the sake of the peace he was working to establish.

The hanifs and the name Allah

At some point Muhammad began frequenting a cave that was on Mount Hira, on the outskirts of Mecca. He had by this time become one of the hanifs, contemplatives who were devoted to a deity named Allah. It should be noted that the religious landscape of the time was populated with various deities all the way down to the demonic spirits of the desert, the jinn. He might have gravitated to many other holy names, but there was only one name that called to him. Through his night vigils, Muhammad slowly came to the conviction that Allah  was what his name proclaimed him to be: not just a god, but the God, and from this realization he came upon the fundamental confession of Islam: La ilaha illa ‘llah! There is no god but God! Yet he had not been commissioned, and this development was private, not something he felt compelled to proclaim in public.

The Night of Power

Prophets become what they are by commission, and this always looks the same in the Old Testament: a voice descends from on high and they are told precisely what they must do: preach. The case of Muhammad is no exception, and follows closely with this tradition. This is why it is said that although he may have already formulated his seminal proclamation on the oneness of God through his vigils at Mount Hira, he had not yet received his commission.

This brings us approximately to the year 610 A.D. and to what would become known as Laylat al-Qadr, ‘The Night of Power’. Muhammad, after years of preparing for this moment, lay on the cave floor in a state of contemplation not unlike other hanifs, when an angel came to him in the form of a man. The angel delivered a simple command: Iqra’—Recite! Or to interpret it in a similar direction: Preach!

Muhammad, again following the tradition of many prophets before him, responded with hesitation and doubt: “I am not a preacher.” At this, the angel, to be identified later as Gabriel, “whelmed me in his embrace until he had reached the limit of my endurance. Then he released me and said again, ‘Preach!’ Again I said: ‘I am not a preacher,’ and again he whelmed me in his embrace. When again he had reached the limit of my endurance he said ‘Preach!’, and when I again protested, he whelmed me for a third time, this time saying:

Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created! Created man from a clot of blood. Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous, Who teaches by the pen; Teaches man what he knew not.”[1]

When it was over, the frightened Muhammad went home and fell into unconsciousness. He shared what had happened with his wife who, after hearing the story, believed, and became his first follower, demonstrating the hope and strength she always provided to him with her affirmation: “Rejoice, O dear husband, and be of good cheer. You will be the Prophet of this people.”

Although this was the first commission, the voice did not cease on that night, but returned again and again, saying: “…arise and warn, and glorify thy Lord.”

In the twenty-three years that remained of the life of Muhammad, now the Prophet, Messenger of God, he would labor to obey this voice and transmit to his people the words he was given, and this would become the Revelation that established the religion of Islam throughout all of Arabia.

[1] Koran 96:1-3.

Early followers and opposition

The earliest converts, after Khadija, were his cousin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (the fourth caliph and, for Shia Muslims, the first Imam), his close friend Abu Bakr (the first caliph), Umar ibn Al-Khattab (the second caliph), and Uthman ibn Affan (the third caliph).

The success of any new idea or school of thought is a threat to the established order, whether political, religious, or economic, since those who hold power in each of these do not like having to readapt themselves. To be more precise about how exactly Islam was a threat to the order of Mecca, we must first describe its role as religious center.

Mecca was the location of the Ka’bah, the ‘House of God’, which was established at the city’s center and believed to have been built originally by Adam himself and then reconstructed by Abraham. Thus it was seen as a primordial sanctuary and a destination for pilgrims far and wide. The result was of course that it also became a center for trade, and many derived power and wealth from its presence and its use by diverse groups and, more importantly, the diversity of gods worshiped by these groups, whose idols populated the sacred space of the Ka-bah.

It is not difficult to see, in the context, how the message of Muhammad, which was a denial of all gods but Allah, was met with hostility, and this opposition grew in proportion to the success of the message of Islam.

Miracles in the Islamic tradition

It is worth noting that the Prophet is further distinguished from Christ in that he did not make use of miracles and explicitly refused to perform them. “God has not sent me to work wonders; He has sent me to preach to you. My Lord; be praised! Am I more than a man sent as an apostle?”[1] “I never said that God’s treasures are in my hand, that I knew the hidden things, or that I was an angel. I am only a preacher of God’s words, the bringer of God’s message to mankind.”[2]

The central miracle of Islam, the only one acknowledged by the Prophet, is identical with the Revelation itself, and it is the Koran, since according to Muhammad, such a one as him, who could barely write his own name, could never, except by supernatural aid, produce such a magnificent work.

[1] Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 18.

[2] Ibid., p. 32.

The Migration to Yathrib

In the year 622, after much persecution in Mecca, Muhammad received a delegation from Yathrib, a city 280 miles north of Mecca. Muhammad’s teachings had gained a following there and they invited him to come and lead them. This was to them a perfect solution to internal rivalries that threated their city. After they agreed to uphold the precepts of Islam, Muhammad received a sign letting him know that he could accept their offer, and he did. There were seventy families who migrated with him.

The city would eventually come to be called Medinat al-Nabi, the City of the Prophet, known to us as Medina.

This event was called the Hijra, and would be seen as so significant that it is the point from which Muslim’s date their calendar.

Three holy cities

The sacred geography of Islam revolves around three holy cites: Medina, Mecca, and Jerusalem.

Medina, the city of the prophet, has obvious significance as the first Islamic community.

Mecca’s significance is also obvious, being the birthplace of the Prophet as well as the destination of the Pilgrimage and the direction toward which Muslims face for their daily prayer.

Jerusalem’s significance is somewhat more complicated. It has obvious significance for its role in the Old Testament, which Islam accepts as valid. However, it has the added distinction of being the point of ascent for the Prophet’s Nocturnal Journey in which he was swept up to Heaven by way of Jerusalem. Originally the prayers of the Muslim community were performed while facing Jerusalem on only later was this changed, by divine order, to Mecca. Jerusalem is, finally, the site of eschatological events according to the Koran.

Islam encompasses every aspect of human life

Without dwelling on historical details, we can observe that Muhammad performed his role as administrator of Medina masterfully: in his younger life he had established himself as a businessman, and now he found himself ruling a city.

Here he is again distinguished from the founders of Christianity and Buddhism by the integration of social life, legal administration, and economic policy into his career as Prophet. This integration is in fact a characteristic of Islam that makes it difficult for the West to grasp, since today human life is divided into ‘spheres’ and religion is to keep out of sight or at least to be pursued in private under the rule of ‘separation of Church and State’. This has never been and could not ever be possible for Islam, and it is appropriate that the Prophet demonstrated the all-encompassing nature of Islam through his own activities. He did not disdain politics but established a just political order; he did not disdain economics and trade but established a just economic policy; he did not disdain marriage but establish rules that reinforced it; and so on.

Two types of spiritual leaders

What we see in Muhammad is the exemplification of a certain spiritual type, and since this type differs from that of Christ, it is more difficult for Christians to understand.

To simplify the matter, we can place the founders of religion in two categories: those who integrate spirituality with a social norm, and those who an ascetic transcendence of worldly life altogether.

Christ is an example of the second type. When faced with practical questions he would tend to defer the answer altogether or reframe the question in such a way that a spiritual lesson becomes the focus. On the question of divorce, for example, which is a complex social matter, Christ does not recommend legal implementations that are practical in the sense of reinforcing the family but permitting exceptional situations to be handled with care. Rather, he frames the question as one of inner spiritual condition: he who looks at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery, and so on. Now while this may have profound meaning, it does not exactly translate easily into practical norms and law. Christ’s emphasis was on transcending the norms of daily life. This is shown in the way he lived: he was not a politician, nor a businessman, nor a husband. He demonstrated a profound spirituality, but by way of being an exception to the type of life that most men lead. The benefit of this type of spiritual foundation, which is appreciated by Christians, is that the spiritual teachings are easy to discern. What is more difficult, and what Christians often fail to see, is that because he never demonstrated an approach to politics and economics, that it is left for Christians to work this out for themselves, sometimes with success and sometimes not so much. It also has the downfall of permitting the followers of Christians to imagine that there is such a thing as a ‘wall of separation’ between religious life and public life, which has had disastrous consequences for Western Civilization.

When we come to Muhammad, we see a different type. As we’ve already said, he was a businessman, a warrior, a husband, an orphan, and a political leader. For him to avoid answering directly and in an immediately actionable manner to questions of divorce would have been impossible. His vocation was to integrate a spiritual message with a cultural context in such a way that a functional community could thrive on the basis of certain spiritual principles.

The difficulty here for Christians is to appreciate Muhammad without dismissing him as a man of the world, as if a man who delved into human affairs could not possibly possess a spiritual vocation.

Here again we see must recall how inappropriate it is to compare Muhammad to Christ, and say again that it only leads to confusion. It would be far more helpful, and appropriate, to say that Muhammad has a vocation similar to that of Moses, who not only had a prophetic vocation but was also the leader of a nation and who must deal with the endless variations of the human condition and be prepared to deal justice, after the fashion of King Solomon, and where it would be irresponsible to speak in those parables that, on the other hand, we rightfully esteem in the person of Christ.