My Friend the Prophet
A Life of Muhammad
"Some will find it strange, even controversial, that a Jewish Zionist should undertake a life of the Apostle of Islam. Fifteen years before I began this book I took a character from another novel ('The Persian Fire') on a mediaeval journey through the Moslem lands of north Africa, and learned that Islam isn't quite what the propaganda would insist: an evil empire bent on holy war against the Infidel, whether in the Crusades of the Middle Ages or the contemporary conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and Afghanistan. I discovered a religion rooted in the same values and ethics as Judaism and Christianity, and a civilisation whose contributions to science, mathematics, astrology, architecture, medicine, art and poetry were amongst the greatest in the history of the world. A far cry from Osama bin Laden and Boko Haram and the Taliban. It seemed to me imperative, precisely because I am a Jewish Zionist, to learn more, and to try to understand more deeply. This novel, told through the voice of one of the first converts to Islam, takes as its primary source material the earliest surviving written sira - biographies of Muhammad - those of Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham and Al-Tabari, as well as later hadith, or traditions."
Excerpt: From Part Two: The Wisdom of the Prophet
The time had come. Muhammad was forty years old, the age at which, according to the Jews, it is acceptable to begin studying the mysteries. Whether of the visible or the invisible worlds. Whether those of God, or of mankind. The time had come.
It came, to be as precise as possible within the vastness of eternity, on the night of Laylat al-Qadr, "The Night of Power" which is also known as Shab-e-Qadr, "The Night of Decree" or "The Night of Measures". By whatever name, it occurred during the last ten days of the holy month of Ramadan, the month when pilgrims came to Mecca to circumambulate the Ka'aba, the month of fasting between the hours of sunrise and sunset, a month, in short, when merchants turn their thoughts away from business, away from the profane, towards the sacred. So Muhammad turned his thoughts the same way, and if the direction of turning was less extreme for him than many others, this was because his thoughts were always partially turned that way, whether or not the month was Ramadan.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
Lo! We revealed it on the Night that was predestined.
Ah, would that you knew what the Night of Power is!
The Night of Power is better than a thousand other months.
The angels and spirits descend then,
by permission of their Lord,
bringing all the Lord's decrees.
This night is Peace until the rising of the dawn.
As precise as possible within the vastness of eternity. Should we not know, to the exact millisecond? A moment of such historical importance, should we not be able to commemorate it, at the exact minute, of the exact hour, of the exact day? But precisely which of the last nights of Ramadan it was remains disputed, and many say it was one of the odd-numbered nights, and others that it must have been an even-numbered night, and many others, like myself, laugh at the theologians, amateur and professional, who spend so much time worrying about trivialities like these that they forget what was revealed, which after all is more important. Because time too is a superstition. Worship al-Lah at every minute, every hour, every day, Muhammad would have said. Honor the first revelation as you honor every other revelation, throughout eternity, not at specific milliseconds. Truly, it doesn’t matter when it happened, only that it happened.
Except that – nothing was revealed. The declaration of the day, yes. And the night. The significance of the day and night forever after, yes. The intensification of i'tikaaf, the act of prayer, yes. But nothing actually was revealed. Or perhaps the fact of revelation. The calling of the Prophet to his continuing uncertainty. Who can say? On this night, Islam was born into the world. Through the mouth of the Prophet Muhammad. Though he didn't yet call it Islam.
It happened like this. Every year since he had become a married man, and with it a wealthy man, with obligations to his community as well as to his family, Muhammad had spent a month at Hira praying, feeding the poor who came to him, and meditating. The cave was tiny, barely thirteen feet in length and less than a tall man wide. It was located on Jabal an-Nur, the Mountain of Light, a strangely cube-shaped summit just two miles from Mecca, the cave-mouth made of grey-stone rocks as flat and rectangular as the tablets on which Abu Mousa once carved the Jewish law. In truth it wasn't only in the month of Ramadan that he retreated there. Whenever he wished to meditate, or be alone, this was the place he chose, providing himself with nothing more to eat than sawiq, a kind of barley porridge, and even this he barely touched, preferring to invite wayfarers to share his paltry meal.
That year, his fortieth, Muhammad went as usual to the Cave of Hira in the month of Ramadan, but this time his family accompanied him, though there was scarcely enough room to sleep them all. Strange to be here and not be on his own. At night especially. Sounds of his children, moving in their sleep, kept him awake, or reawoke him when he did manage to get some rest. Every sound seemed more intense than usual, as though the very snakes and spiders were performing namaz. Thought came sporadically, inarticulate, sometimes in dreams that took place so close to consciousness it was as though he were sleeping and awake at the same time, able to watch the dream with one part of his mind, while the other simply did the dreaming. So he saw again the men with whom he traded, fat men, venal men, con men, greedy men, who would sell you a swindle in the morning, and then kneel down beside you in the evening to say prayers, and give a portion of their hypocrisy to feed the poor, so all men would know them to be righteous and upstanding, true pillars of the community. Why did it have to be this way, when there was a straight path, to an honest goal, a better life? So he saw again the analphabetic tribesmen, listening raptly to the teachings of the priests or the tales of the storytellers, waiting to hear them say the magic words that proved their authenticity: "the angel Jibril told me to say this to you." Why? Why couldn't men accept that wisdom grew in human minds, nurtured in thought, composted in meditation? Why did they need three hundred and sixty gods, one for each day of the year, and angels, demons, spirits, djinns as well? Why was he so scared to challenge the merchants openly, to denounce the priests and soothsayers when he saw and heard deceit upon their lips and in their actions? And why, why did so many look at him, and claim they could see signs, that he, Muhammad, was the Prophet, the one who would bring men to the straight path? Why him, who had no clue where the straight path lay, who had never even seen his father, let alone an angel? Yet someone must assume responsibility. Someone – but why him? So thought and fear inhabited his mind, even when at last he fell asleep.
So, in the night, in dream, in waking fantasy, in half-conscious thought, it was indeed the angel Jibril who came to him, bearing the command of al-Lah. And dreaming this, he also dreamed the moment he would report it to those who would become his followers, the dream simultaneous with the conscious thought that every insight must be written down, even if men can't read and write, these insights must be written down, men must be taught to read and write, it is simply insufficient just to speak them.
"He came while I was asleep," the form of telling fashioned itself at still another level of his mind, "with a cloth of brocade on which there was writing, and he said to me: 'Read it.' But I replied: 'I can't read it.'"
The weight of the lie oppressed him, left him turning in his half-sleep. Until that weight transformed itself back into dream, and became manifest.
"He pressed the cloth against my body, so hard I thought I must be dying. Then he released his hold and said again: 'Read it.' And again I replied: 'I can't read it.'"
Why was his dream lying? Was it that fear of arrogance again, the need to pretend he was as stupid and illiterate as all the others so no one would mark him out as different, and hate him for it? Or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps what he couldn't read wasn't the words, which were entirely clear to him, but the true meaning of the words. Spiritual illiteracy. And if that were the case, then it was no lie. Yet the weight of it continued to oppress him. And once again it manifested itself in dream.
"He pressed me again with it, until I truly thought that I was dying. Then he loosed his hold on me and said: 'Read it.' And for a third time I replied: 'I can’t read it.'"
And now he knew that it was true. He could read the words, but not the meanings of the words. Even when the conscious part of his mind recited them, explained them to himself, he couldn't read the meanings of the meanings. Merciful. Compassionate. What were they? Not in the everyday, but ultimately, absolutely. Truly, he couldn't read them.
"Once more he pressed the cloth against my body and said: 'Read it.' But this time I answered differently. 'What shall I read?' I asked. Because I feared he would press me again, and I knew I couldn't take that pressure, that I would feint from it. Then he said: 'Read in the name of the Lord your creator, who made Man from a drop of blood. Read, the Lord is the most bountiful, who teaches by means of the pen, who teaches Man what he doesn’t know.' Yes, the pen, the pen. The implement to abolish ignorance. So I read those words, on dream-paper in the confusion of my mind. 'And now you must take the pen and write them down, as I recite them.'"
By the time he had finished reading, Jibril was gone, vanished from dream and fantasy. But still present in thought. Muhammad awoke, feeling as if those words had been engraved upon his heart. He needed to go outside, to rediscover solitude, to absorb what had taken place, to find his balance once again. Such pressure in his head, as though the brocade cloth were tied there even now, suffocating him. I mustn't feint, he told himself. But his legs were buckling. Even as he climbed, high above the cave towards the centre of the mountain, the muscles in his legs resisted, desperate to drag him to the horizontal. Sleep, rest, stop all this thinking. But that was only one voice in his head. Fully awake now, creating his own waking dream, he summoned Jibril once more, equally yearning to receive new visions and to rid himself of prophecy for ever. But the voice of yearning was the stronger. Someone must take on the burden of responsibility. And if not you, Muhammad, who will do it? You, Muhammad – echoing in his head as though he had shouted it out loud, and it was reverberating now, echoing through the rocks. You, Muhammad. You, Muhammad. You.
Raising his head to look up at the sky, a wave of dizziness almost overwhelmed him. Darkness, grey stone lit up by a waning moon half-hidden behind cloud, and lights from stars that dizziness had twisted out of focus, so that he was seeing rainbow colors on his own pupils, yellows, greens and purples, blurred to a point that nothing in the world was recognizable. So he closed his eyes, holding on to a rock for support. And in the yellow, green and purple darkness of the mind's dream-cloudiness, a figure shaped like a man, with what could have been extended wings, standing in the firmament, his feet touching the ground.
You, Muhammad. There is no one else.
I cannot be the apostle of al-Lah, and you cannot be Jibril.
Perhaps it was just a side-effect of fasting.
But the vision was inexorable.
You, Muhammad. There is no one else. A table of values, a path that runs straight, a book in which wisdom is written coherently, so that all men may read, the words, the meanings of the words, the meanings of the meanings. You – Muhammad.
I can't read.
His eyes still closed, the rainbow colors still refracting on his inner pupils, Muhammad continued to gaze at the imaginary figure, neither advancing nor retreating. Then he opened his eyes once more, turned his face now to this part of the sky, now to another, but no matter in which direction he looked, that blur that seemed to be an angel, that out-of-focus manifestation of his inner dream, continued to appear before him, wrapped in a cloth of brocade, the features of his face made up entirely of words he couldn't read. Merciful. Compassionate. Bountiful. Almighty. What did they mean? Abu Mousa stammered, Jonah ran away, Isa doubted, and I am spiritually illiterate. You, Muhammad. What do they mean? You, Muhammad. I. You.
In the end he yielded to the need to feint.
Khadijah too had woken, wondering where her husband could have gone. To meditate or to relieve himself. Knowing Muhammad, both. But when he didn't come back for several hours, she sent out messengers to search for him.
They went down the mountain, crossed the plain, climbed to the highest parts of Mecca, even roused his uncles; but they couldn't find him. Had they simply gone upwards from the cave, instead of down, it would have taken minutes, for he was still standing at the same spot where he'd feinted, and come to at last, watching what was not of course an angel but the retreating stars, as dawn rose over the Hejaz. It was time to go back to his family.
"Smile, Mahmoud," Khadijah consoled him, when he told her what had taken place. "Smile. Be happy."
"You believe me?"
"Of course I believe you. You are my husband. Why should it not be this way?"
"Someone must take the responsibility."
"Mahmoud, I hope you will indeed prove to be the Prophet of this nation. God knows we need one. But do one thing for me. Don't tell anyone what happened here tonight."
Khadijah was scared. Not believing a single word of all this nonsense put her in a somewhat invidious position. But if her husband was indeed a Prophet, then life was about to undergo significant change, and this needed addressing. Yet what if he were simply sick, a man whose mind had shattered, whose south pole still focused on his work and family, but whose north pole was now seeing shooting stars, and thinking that their lights were aimed at him? What if he were demented, or deluded, or a charlatan, a fraud? Khadijah had mocked soothsayers and rejected priests throughout her life. She had witnessed sickness too, including sickness of the mind. And now here was her husband, displaying all the classic symptoms. She needed guidance. And when Khadijah needed guidance, she went to Waraqa.
But Waraqa didn't give her the guidance she had hoped for. "The man's crazy," she had expected. "If he goes round telling people he's the Apostle of al-Lah and has received instruction from the angel Gabriel, your family will be ruined. You'll be a laughing-stock. No one will ever trade with you again. You'll become destitute. They'll throw you out of Mecca. The Quraysh will abandon you. Like Hajira and Ishmail you'll end up wandering through the desert, searching for a well and an asylum. Divorce him now. Send him away. Do anything, but save yourself and your children from this inevitable tragedy." So she had been thinking all the way from Hira to Mecca. So she expected Waraqa to say. But Waraqa simply listened, and never for a moment ceased to smile.
And when finally she sat down on a cushion, exhausted by her own hysteria, Waraqa leaned over, and took her hands in his.
"The laws of God," he said, "are not given only once, because men must receive them in every generation. They were given to Noah after the Flood, and to Abu Mousa on Mount Sinai, and to Isa Christ in Galilee. The time has come for a Prophet to arise, who will give these same laws to our people. Why shouldn't it be Muhammad?"
"What should I do?"
"How can I believe that my husband is the Prophet of a God in whom I don't believe?"
"Khadijah, you believed in him when you sent him to Bozrah that first time. You believed in him when you sent him to Eden. You believed in him when you offered him marriage. You believed in him each time you bore another child for him. Isn't he the same Mahmoud today? The revelation frightens you. Don't you think he's just as terrified? He's your husband. You have no choice but to believe in him, and to assist him. Even if you can't."
"What should I do?"
"Tell him to stand firm. I shall go and speak to him. Where is he now?"
"At the Ka'aba."
Where else, at such a moment?
Waraqa waited till he had completed his circumambulations of the shrine.
"Do you understand what this will mean for you, and for your family?" he asked him. "You will be accused of falsehood. Persecuted. Exiled. Even attacked."
Muhammad simply nodded. As if to say: "I know."
"Then may the blessing of al-Lah be upon you," Waraqa made the sign of the Cross, somewhat self-consciously, but it was what he had been taught to do.
Then he bent over the Apostle, and kissed him on the forehead, and Muhammad went home to Khadijah.