When Muhammad and other Muslims from Mecca first rode their camels into Medina, men and women lined the route crying “Come is the Prophet of God! Come is the Prophet of God!” At least that’s the story that entered Islamic tradition in the centuries after Muhammad’s death. Its spirit lives on in popular western accounts of Islam’s birth. In this telling, the tribal chiefs of Medina, fed up with mutual strife, ask Muhammad to come quell the infighting, vowing to abide by his arbitration. He shows up, is warmly welcomed, and calmly assumes his ordained role of leadership.
But that story about Muhammad’s welcome in Medina is no more reliable than the stories about Jesus in the gospels, also written well after the fact. The Koran itself, a more immediate witness to events, paints a different picture.
Consider that simple refrain first uttered in one of the earliest Medinan suras: “Obey God then and obey the apostle.” Apparently people couldn’t be counted on to obey Muhammad without the occasional reminder. And maybe not even then; the next line in this sura is a disclaimer: “but if ye turn away, our apostle is not to blame, for he is only charged with plain preaching.”
Indeed, suras from Medina suggest that there, as in Mecca, Muhammad was still nurturing a movement, trying to win converts. In one early Medinan sura, God gives Muhammad recruiting instructions, employing the same formula used by Paul to recruit Christians half a millennium earlier: “Say: If ye love God, then follow me: God will love you, and forgive your sins, for God is Forgiving, Merciful.” And there is the flip side of the incentive structure: “Say: Obey God and the Apostle; but if ye turn away, then verily, God loveth not the unbelievers.”
If the standard account of Muhammad’s entry into Medina is too simple, what is the real story? It’s almost certainly true, as early Islamic tradition holds, that while in Mecca he had cultivated a group of supporters in Medina. When he and his Meccan coterie settled in Medina they had a base of support and more security than they’d known before. You might even say, as some scholars have put it, that Muhammad had created a new Medinan “tribe”—a tribe based on common belief, not common ancestry, but still a tribe, a tribe that would now grow to dominate the city and then the region.
To be sure, Islam wouldn’t replace existing tribes; it was a tribe you could join even while preserving your kin-based ties. Still, the Medinan suras suggest that Muhammad was asking for a commitment that could strain traditional lines of devotion. “O ye who believe! Verily, in your wives and your children ye have an enemy: wherefore beware of them.”
This line from a Medinan sura is quite like an utterance attributed to Jesus in the gospels: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
However jarring these passages from the Koran and the gospels, both make sense. If Muhammad’s movement in Medina was to succeed, and if the Jesus movement in the Roman Empire was to succeed, they had to inspire a devotion that transcended existing allegiance. Both religions were engaged in re-engineering, creating a new kind of social organization. And if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.
In fact, the births of all three Abrahamic religions were exercises in large-scale social engineering. With ancient Israel, once-autonomous tribes drew together, first into a confederacy and then into a state. The birth of Christianity saw a second kind of social consolidation, not of tribes but of whole ethnicities. There was “no longer Jew or Greek”—or Roman or Egyptian—for all believers were “one in Christ Jesus.” The Roman Empire within which Christianity spread was a multinational empire, and Christianity became a multinational religion.
With the birth of Islam both of these thresholds—the conglomeration of tribes and of national ethnicities—would be crossed in short order. When Muhammad made the hijra, the migration from Mecca to Medina, there was no centralized governance of the tribes in Medina, much less in the Arabian Peninsula writ large. By the time he died in 632, tribes in Medina, Mecca, and much of surrounding Arabia acknowledged his authority. Five years later, Islamic rule would encompass not just the Arabs, but Syrians—people whom we now consider Arabs but who didn’t speak the Arabic language before they came into Islam’s fold. And, as Muslim armies were taking Syria from the Byzantine Empire, they were also taking Iraq from the Persian Empire. Next came Egypt and Palestine; within a decade of the Prophet’s death, both had passed from Byzantine to Islamic hands, and the conquest of Iran, heart of the Persian Empire, had begun. In the quarter century after Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, possessing less power than the mayor of a small town, an Islamic state formed and became a multinational empire.
This expansion is all the more amazing when you look at the unpromising social fabric that awaited Muhammad upon his arrival in Medina. The town’s Arab tribes, in addition to being heavily polytheist, had a history of feuding. There was a further complication that apparently hadn’t existed in Mecca: whole tribes of Jews. And there seem to have been an appreciable number of Christians. A religious and ethnic landscape this diverse wasn’t naturally amenable to centralized political control. Mobilizing and unifying these constituencies was a job of nearly superhuman proportions.
And Muhammad didn’t succeed at it. To judge by the Koran, his political domination of Medina, then Mecca, then lands beyond, proceeded without many Jews and Christians buying into the project. In fact, that may be putting it mildly. According to Islamic scripture and oral tradition, and to the western histories based on these sources, Muhammad’s relations with Christians and Jews grew hostile and, in some cases, violent.
What was the source of the hostility? Some of Muhammad’s Koranic utterances suggest that theology was the problem: both Christians and Jews fell short of the pure monotheism of Islam, said Muhammad, and so were disturbingly reminiscent of polytheists. They “imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. God’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!”
The idea that theological differences were the prime mover of intra-Abrahamic conflict has natural appeal today, when dogmatic certainty pervades tensions among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. But the truth is more complicated. A close look at the Koran suggests that the issues Muhammad had with Christians and Jews weren’t only, or even mainly, theological. What’s more, as we’ll see, the depth of the tensions, including the intensity of Muhammad’s famous “break with the Jews,” may have been exaggerated in Islamic tradition and in history books. In any event, to think of Muhammad as clinging to a rigid creed is to misunderstand who he was and how he built Islam into a force that has been with the world ever since.…