Muhammad and the First Muslim Ummah: The Beginning of a New Society and Culture
Conventional historiography describes pre-Islamic Arabia as consisting of a loose confederation of tribes and clans of nomadic Bedouins and their more sedentary counterparts who lived in small cities or maintained agricultural settlements near oases. The Prophet Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca around 570 CE, a member of the Banū Hāshim clan of the Quraysh tribe. At the time of Muhammad’s birth, Mecca was a center of commerce and trade situated in the western region of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Hijāz. In addition to being located at the crossroads of several caravan routes, Mecca’s commercial activity was also linked to the sacredness of its principal religious shrine, the Ka‘bah, which in pre-Islamic times was a site for the veneration and worship of pagan deities – or so it had become by the time of the Prophet (Islamic tradition maintains that the Ka‘bah was constructed originally by Adam and then rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael). Due to the presence of the Ka‘bah, fighting in Mecca and its vicinity was forbidden throughout the year, which allowed commercial activities to proceed without interference from feuding clans and tribes.
The revelation of the Qur’ān to Muhammad commenced in 610 CE and continued intermittently until his death in 632. The Qur’ān presents Muhammad as the “seal of the prophets” (Q: 33:40), the last in a prophetic line that can be traced backward through Jesus, Moses, Abraham, and Noah to Adam, the first human being. How does this lineage inform a Muslim’s understanding of Muhammad’s mission? In describing God’s relationship to human beings, the Qur’ān mentions a primordial event when the “progeny of Adam” – i.e. all future generations of human beings – formed an eternal covenant (mīthāq) with God, collectively testifying that they would obey God and live according to Divine Will (Q 7:172). While human beings are not inherently sinful, they are forgetful, and according to Islamic tradition, they failed repeatedly to observe the divine compact they had made. Communicating through prophetic intermediaries, God intervenes in history to remind human beings of the covenant. As the “seal of the prophets,” Muhammad is the bearer of God’s final message, and he is calling for humankind to fulfill its promise and return to the sacred mīthāq through islām, which can be translated as “commitment to live according to God’s Will” (the related Arabic word muslim is someone who has professed this commitment).
Over the course of several years of preaching in Mecca, Muhammad attracted only a small group of followers. Because he called for the complete moral reformation of Meccan society, most members of the Quraysh considered Muhammad to be a dangerous insurrectionist whose message undermined their total way of life. In 622 CE, after enduring years of persecution, the Prophet and his followers relocated to Medina, an oasis city approximately 200 miles north of Mecca. The year in which this migration (hijrah) occurred was designated the first year of the Islamic lunar calendar. It marks the founding of the ummah, the Muslim community, in Medina and the beginning of the Islamic era.
Initially, Muhammad had been invited by some of Medina’s inhabitants to serve as an impartial arbitrator in a local dispute. Within a few years of his arrival, Muhammad had become not only the city’s judge but also its foremost statesman and military commander. As the ummah grew, it began to pose a serious challenge to the regional hegemony of the Quraysh. In 630, after eight years of open hostilities, a force of some 10,000 Muslims returned to Mecca, compelling the Quraysh to recognize Muslim suzerainty in the Hijāz. Upon taking control of sacred city, Muhammad performed pilgrimage to the Ka‘bah, rid the shrine of its pagan idols, accepted the Meccans conversion to Islam, and absorbed them into his new polity. By the time Muhammad died in 632 CE, several tribes and clans of the Arabian Peninsula had either been incorporated into the expanding ummah or were clients of the Muslim state.
For contemporary Muslims, the community based in Medina under the leadership of Muhammad represents a utopian ideal where social and political authority are manifested in a person who receives communications from God. In other words, the ummah in Muhammad’s time fuses state and religion, a perfect synthesis of secular and divine sovereignty. The Qur’ān repeatedly reminds the ummah to “obey God and His messenger,” (Q: 3:32, 132; 4:59; 5:92, etc.) confirming the legitimacy and sacral nature of Muhammad’s earthly authority. In interpreting this directive, the prophetic phenomenon is so persuasive that the non-revelatory actions of Muhammad (his words and deeds apart from receiving and reciting the Qur’ān) emerge as a secondary corpus of authoritative truths.
With Muhammad in place as leader, conformity to sharī‘ah, God’s divine ordering of the universe, which necessarily encompasses the proper conduct of human beings, occurs organically. In such a community, a Muslim recognizing the Prophet’s leadership and abiding by his decisions means that he or she necessarily complies with Divine Will. In visualizing its structure, it is perhaps useful to conceive of the utopian Medinan community as consisting of three concentric circles. The inner-most circle represents the state and it is entirely encompassed within a larger society, which determines its membership through adherence to a particular religious tradition (Islam).
The Muslim victory over the Quraysh completed a reconstitution of the pre-Islamic way of life in the Hijāz based on new conceptions of humankind’s place in history and a new normative ethics derived from the Qur’ān and the moral example set by the Prophet. As the founding figures of a new community, Muhammad and his companions transformed notions of personal moral responsibility and the ideal qualifications for political leadership. Kinship status continued to be an important factor in constructing the social hierarchy, and within the ummah it was based primarily on two criteria: the time at which one became a Muslim (those who were among the first converts to Islam garnered higher prestige) andfamilial connection to the Prophet Muhammad. In the decades and centuries following the Prophet’s death there was considerable disagreement over which carried greater importance in determining Muhammad’s legitimate successors.
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. What are the two kinds of rulership identified above that are critical to understanding Islamic civilization from the classical period to the fall of the Ottoman empire? Where or from whom do leaders derive their authority in each model?
2. What was the significance of the Muslim victory over the Quraysh?
3. What caused the split between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions?