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Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet

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Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet


  A Story of the Last Prophet

  Deepak Chopra


  Author’s Note


  Muhammad: A Genealogy

  Prelude: The Angel of Revelation

  One: The Water of Life


  Abdul Muttalib, “The Slave”


  Bashira, The Hermit


  Halimah, The Wet Nurse


  Waraqah, The Believer


  Barakah, The African Slave


  Khattab, The Elder


  A Wandering Mendicant

  Two: The Angel’s Embrace


  Khadijah, The Prophet’s Wife


  Jafar, A Son of Abu Talib


  Ruqayah, Muhammad’s Third Daughter


  Abu Bakr, Merchant of Mecca


  Zayd, The Adopted Son


  Ali, The First Convert

  Three: Warrior of God


  A Jewish Scribe


  Fatimah, Muhammad’s Youngest Daughter


  Ibn Ubayy, The Hypocrite


  Umar, The Close Companion


  Yasmin, The Woman at the Well


  Abu Sufyan, The Enemy

  Afterword: A Walk with Muhammad

  About the Author



  About the Publisher


  A great surprise awaited me when I began writing the story of Muhammad, the last prophet to emerge from the Middle Eastern desert—the endless, bleak, arid land that produced Moses and Jesus. Muhammad has suffered under centuries of disapproval outside the Muslim world. Ours is not the first age to react suspiciously when told by adherents that “Islam” means “peace.” That suspicion only turns darker when extremist jihadis become terrorists in Muhammad’s name.

  In his own lifetime, the Prophet fought strenuously against his opponents and led armies into battle for the new faith. I grew up in India among Muslim friends, but even there, where mingled cultures and religions are an ancient way of life, the partition of Pakistan in 1947 led to riots and mass murder on both sides. In the name of truth, believers can easily trample love and peace.

  None of that came as a surprise, however. I was determined to be fair to Muhammad and see him as he saw himself in seventh-century Arabia—we can locate his birth in 570 CE, in the middle of Europe’s Dark Ages, two centuries before Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the pope in 800, almost six hundred years before the spires of Chartres cathedral first pointed heavenward in the twelfth century. That’s where the surprise occurred, because among all the founders of the great world religions, Muhammad is the most like us.

  Muhammad saw himself as an ordinary man. His relatives and neighbors didn’t part and make way when he walked down the parched dirt streets of Mecca. He was orphaned by the age of six, but otherwise nothing exceptional stands out other than his ability to survive. Because he existed in a fiercely tribal society, Muhammad had numerous cousins and other males of the Hashim clan surrounding him as his extended family. There was no mark of divinity on him (except those invented by later chroniclers as Islam prospered and spread). He grew up to be a merchant who happened to marry well, taking a rich widow, Khadijah, as his wife, even though she was fifteen years his senior. He traveled in caravans to Syria one season and Yemen the next. Mecca owed its prosperity to the caravan trade. Even though these sojourns were beset with danger—Muhammad’s handsome, favored father, Abdullah, had died on his way home from one trip—merchants of Muhammad’s class routinely made journeys across the desert that lasted several months at a time.

  What is extraordinary is that there are so many marks of common humanity in Muhammad’s transformation. Jesus is being exalted when he is called the Son of Man; Muhammad deliberately blends in when he calls himself “a man among men.” He could neither read nor write, but that was common enough, even among the well-to-do. He had four daughters who survived birth and two sons who died in infancy. Doing without an heir was unthinkable, and so he took the unusual step of adopting a freed slave boy, Zayd, as his son. Otherwise, it is inexplicable that God should reach down into a settled husband and father’s life to speak through him. The most remarkable fact about Muhammad is that he was so much like us, until destiny provided one of the greatest shocks in history.

  In the year 610 CE, Muhammad, a forty-year-old businessman known as Al-Amin, “the trustworthy,” marched down from the mountains—or in this case a cave in the semi-verdant hills surrounding Mecca—looking shattered and frightened. After literally hiding under the covers to regain his wits, he gathered the few people he could trust and announced something unbelievable. An angel had visited him in the cave, where Muhammad regularly went to escape the corruption and distress of Mecca. He sought peace and solitude, but both were destroyed when Gabriel, the same archangel who visited Mary and guarded Eden with a flaming sword after God banished Adam and Eve, abruptly ordered Muhammad to “recite.”

  The precise word is important, because “to recite” is the root word of Koran (or Qur’an). Muhammad was thunderstruck at this angelic command. He wasn’t someone who joined in the practice of public recitation, for which the Bedouin were famous. As a boy he had been sent to live with nomadic tribes in the desert, a common practice among prosperous Meccans. It was felt that the purity and hardship of desert life was good for a child. At the very least it took him away from the foul air and depraved city ways of Mecca. Among the Arabs the Bedouin were considered to speak the purest Arabic, but for the rest of his life Muhammad would betray his sojourn among the nomads, which lasted from his birth to the age of five, by having a rustic accent. The Bedouin were also famous as storytellers. They recited long legendary tales in praise of tribal heroes who conducted daring raids to seize camels and women from their warring neighbors. But Muhammad sat on the periphery as a listener rather than a participant, and he remained mute, so far as history is concerned, up to the moment when Gabriel found him.

  The angel couldn’t persuade Muhammad easily. He had to lock him in a tight embrace three times—a mythical, mystical number—before he agreed to recite. What came out of the Prophet’s mouth were not his own words. To him and to those who began to believe his message, the fact that Muhammad had never recited in public proved that his words came from Allah. To this day, the Arabic in which the Koran is couched is singular, creating its own style and expressive world. Outside Islam, the only suitable comparison is probably the King James Bible, whose language resonates with English speakers as if spoken by either God or a chosen one who had been gifted with a divine level of utterance.

  Because Muhammad never expected to be divinely inspired, the more tragic our suspicion and fear of Islam today. The pre-Islamic world feels much farther away than even the world of the Old Testament. Slaves were kept and cruelly abused. So were women, and unwanted baby girls were routinely left to die on a mountainside after they were born. Arabs used knives to settle even petty arguments, and they thought it honorable to murder men from neighboring tribes. Revenge was something to be proud of.

  None of these ways, barbaric as they are, belong to Arabs alone. All can be found in various other early cultures. But Islam has been branded with barbarity in a unique way, in part because, in its zeal to maintain the Prophet’s world as well as his word, the customs of antiquity have been preserved into modern times. I por
tray Mecca as it really was, which means in all its harshness and brutality. To lessen the impact of our modern-day judgments, I use multiple narrators to share in telling the story. My storytellers are women and men of every caste, slaves and rich merchants, believers and skeptics, idol worshipers and eager followers of Muhammad’s message alike. The first people to hear the Koran had as many reactions to it as you or I would if our best friend collared us with a tale about a midnight visit from an archangel.

  I didn’t write this book to make Muhammad more holy. I wrote it to show that holiness was just as confusing, terrifying, and exalting in the seventh century as it would be today.

  After that, the other issues were fairly minor. Ornate Arab names can be difficult for outsiders to remember, so I have minimized the number of characters in the book, keeping it down to the most important. Spelling is doubly confusing, since the same words and names are transcribed several ways. I haven’t been consistent here. At the risk of irritating scholars, I’ve used the old, common spelling of “Koran.” I’ve reduced long tribal names to easily remembered ones like Abu Talib and Waraqah. And since the hamza (’) and ‘ayn (‘), for example, in a word like “Ka‘aba,” have no significance in English, I’ve done away with most of them, again in keeping with old, common usage. If sophisticated Arabic speakers are offended, I apologize in advance.

  Finally, this is a novel, not an official biography. A few events are told out of order. Characters drop in and out of sight as needed to keep the tale going. This could lead to confusion. To help orient readers, I have provided a chronology of the most prominent events in the story. It is followed by a simplified family tree showing Muhammad’s ancestry and extended family. The people who appear as characters in this novel are printed in boldface, for ease of recognition.

  An author has no business coaxing his readers into how they should respond. I can tell you, however, that what drew me to this story was my fascination with the way in which consciousness rises to the level of the divine. This phenomenon links Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. Higher consciousness is universal. It is held out as the ultimate goal of life on earth. Without guides who reached higher consciousness, the world would be bereft of its greatest visionaries—fatally bereft, in fact. Muhammad sensed this aching gap in the world around him. He appeals to me most because he remade the world by going inward. That’s the kind of achievement only available on the spiritual path. In the light of what the Prophet achieved, he raises my hopes that all of us who lead everyday lives can be touched by the divine. The Koran deserves its place as a song of the soul, to be celebrated wherever the soul matters.


  (Because of the lack of verified dates, the ones listed below are approximate.)

  570CE: Birth of Muhammad

  590: Muhammad’s marriage to Khadijah, which produces four daughters, and two sons who die in infancy

  610(or earlier): Muhammad’s first revelation

  613: First public preaching

  615: Immigration of some Muslims to Abyssinia

  616–619: Muhammad’s clan, the Banu Hashim, boycotted by the Quraysh tribe

  619: Deaths of Khadijah and Abu Talib

  622: Hijra (migration) to Medina

  624: Battle of Badr, Muslim victory against larger Qurayshi forces; Jewish tribes expelled from Medina

  625: Battle of Uhud, a victory for the Quraysh that is not followed up on

  627: Medina besieged by Meccan army (Battle of the Trench); Qurayza Jews of Medina massacred

  628: Treaty of Hudaybiyah, calling a truce with the Quraysh

  629: Peaceful pilgrimage to Mecca

  630: Mecca occupied by Muslims; tribal enemies defeated in other campaigns

  631: Islam accepted in many parts of Arabia

  632: Death of Muhammad




  A mule can go to Mecca, but that doesn’t make him a pilgrim.

  God didn’t put those words in my mouth. He could have; he has a sense of humor. Those are Arabs’ words. They are a people of many words, a flood that could float Noah’s ark. If you’re a stranger, you might not see that. You’d be blinded by the desert sun that bleaches bones and minds alike.

  The sun takes on other tasks. Drying up water holes that ran full just last year. Starving the whole crop of spring lambs when the grass became parched and withered. Driving nomads in desperation to seek better pastures. And when they got there, the sun glistened off fresh blood, because other tribes who would die without their pastures lay in wait to kill the nomads.

  But the Arabs refuse to give up. “Let’s turn it all into a story,” they said. “The cure for misery is a song.” There are other cures, but no one had the money to buy them.

  And so they set out to turn starvation into a heroic adventure. Thirst became a muse, the threat of murder a cause to boast of their bravery. Arabs and God had in common this love of words. So when He heard a man say, in the depth of his heart, “God loves every people on earth but the Arabs,” it was fitting that I should appear with one command.


  That’s all that I, Gabriel, was sent to say. One word, one messenger, one message. I was like a hammer knocking the bung out of a wine cask. One stroke, and wine to fill a hundred jugs spills out.

  And so they did from Muhammad, but not at first. If an angel could doubt, I would have. I spoke to the one man in Arabia who didn’t know how to recite. He sang no songs, much less an epic. He sat on the edge of the crowd when a wandering poet lifted his voice. Can you believe it? Muhammad had begged for God to speak to him, and when God answered, he was struck dumb.

  Recite! What’s wrong with you? Be filled with joy. The day that was heralded is now at hand.

  Not him.

  When I appeared, I found Muhammad in a cave on the side of a mountain.

  “What makes you go there?” his friends demanded. “A merchant of Mecca should be tending his business.”

  Muhammad replied that he went up there for solace.

  “Solace from what?” they asked. “You think your life is any harder than ours?”

  They saw only a man in a purple-trimmed robe walking through the marketplace and sitting in the inns to make trades over tea. They never saw the man with shadows in his mind. Dark thoughts hid behind a smile.

  One day Muhammad came home pale as a ghost. His wife, Khadijah, thought she would have to catch him in her arms if he fell.

  “Do not go into the street,” Muhammad ordered. He was actually trembling.

  Khadijah rushed to the window, but all she saw in the street was a maid gathering bundles to carry away. The girl was crouched in the dust packing old rags, scraps of leather, and heaps of charcoal, tying them into bundles to sell in the hill towns around Mecca.

  “Come away,” Muhammad exclaimed, but it was too late. Khadijah saw what he had seen.

  One of the bundles moved.

  She closed the shutters with tears in her eyes. It could have been a cat that needed drowning. But Khadijah knew it wasn’t. It was one more baby girl who would not grow up. One more forgotten corpse, small enough to hold in your hand, that no one would find on a remote hillside.

  Muhammad was forty, and he had seen this abomination all his life. And worse. Slaves beaten to death on a whim. Rival tribesmen bleeding in the gutter, because they spat on someone’s slipper. He did business with men who actually committed such acts and who shook their heads when Muhammad spoke of how much he loved his four daughters. Muhammad smiled at his friends and their fine grown sons. Only in his heart did he ask God why his two sons had died in the cradle. Only in his heart did he say the one thing that made a difference.

  I will not turn my face from you, Lord, even if you kill everyone I love.

  God could have whispered in return, “Why believe in me, if you also blame me for these evils?”

  Perhaps he did whisper such a thought. Or Muhammad might have stumbled up
on it on his own. He had time to think, in those long days and nights in a tiny mountain cave. He ate little, drank less. His wife worried that he might not come home again, since bandits infested the hills outside Mecca.

  She was almost right. When I appeared before Muhammad, he would not recite the word of God, he would not listen, and he wouldn’t even stay put.

  Instead he fled the cave, running up the mountain in a frenzy of alarm. The man who wished for God to notice him was terrified once he was noticed. Muhammad stole a glance over his shoulder. The ground was rocky, and he stumbled. The air was filled with strange sounds. Did he hear the mockery of demons following him? Muhammad looked at the sky for answers. He wanted a way out.

  He remembered the cliffs at the summit of Mount Hira. Shepherd boys had to be careful to keep lambs from running too close to the edge when a vulture circled overhead and frightened them.

  What is circling me now? Muhammad thought with a surge of dread.

  With a squeezing pressure in his chest, Muhammad gasped as he ran. He would jump from the cliffs and dash his body against the rocks below. He couldn’t even pray for rescue, since the same God who might save him was the God who was torturing him.

  I didn’t ask for this. Let me go. I am nothing, a man among men.

  Panting and stumbling, Muhammad clutched his robe tight against the gathering chill of Ramadan, the ninth month of the calendar. An evil month, a blessed month, a month of omens and signs. Arabs had argued over it as long as he could remember. After a few minutes the glaze of panic decreased. His mind was suddenly very clear. Muhammad looked down at his feet pounding over the ground as if they belonged to someone else. How curious—he had lost a sandal but didn’t feel the jagged stones that cut his foot and caused it to stream blood. The decision to commit suicide brought a kind of comfort.

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