The Last Prophet

An Arabian orphan becomes an unlikely messenger of god.

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When the angel withdrew, Muhammad darted home. Trembling with fright, he asked Khadija to cover him with a blanket. Then he again heard Gabriel's voice. "You that are wrapped up in your vestment, arise and give warning."

Khadija believed her husband indeed was hearing God's word. But Muhammad worried that he had lost his mind. He returned to the cave. For two years, he heard nothing. In despair, a biographer wrote, he pondered jumping off the mountain. As he was about to leap, he heard Gabriel: "Muhammad! Thou art the messenger of God." From that moment, says the medieval source, "the Prophet never again faltered. Revelations thereafter steadily increased."

Soon the illiterate herdsman who sounded like a poet was preaching on the streets. He spoke of the end of the world, a warning that convinced many he was a driveling stargazer. Their amused indulgence turned to hostility when he told Kaaba visitors to forsake their idols and make Allah the center of their lives or burn in Hell. Suddenly he was not a harmless kook but a menacing revolutionary. The controlling Quraysh feared he might wreck their pilgrimage trade. Nor were they pleased when he said the poor would enter heaven before the rich.

The Quraysh told Meccans not to trade or associate with Muhammad's followers. Some of the Muslims, as they would be called, nearly starved. In two years, the ban ended, but persecution continued. Believers were beaten and stoned. Mu-hammad was pelted with garbage and a sheep's uterus. In 619, he lost his most loyal supporter when his wife died. Although many men in the seventh century practiced polygamy, Khadija had been his lone mate for 25 years.

About that time, in his darkest hour, Muham-mad had the supreme mystical experience of his life. The event, revered by Muslims as the Night Journey, is said to have opened with Gabriel's awakening Muhammad one evening and telling him to mount a winged mule. Together they flew from Mecca to Jerusalem. From there, legend has Muhammad rising into heaven and being greeted by past prophets—Abraham, David, Moses, and Jesus. He reached Allah's throne and heard a command that Muslims observe ritual prayers 50 times a day. On the way down, he again saw Moses, who told him people were too weak to do 50 prayers a day. Muhammad went back to Allah and got the number cut to five.

The next morning, Muhammad told people he had been to Jerusalem and back overnight. "Madman!" they shouted. The legend of the flight would make Jerusalem one of Is-lam's holy cities. But years went by before Muhammad publicly added that his trip included a stop in heaven.

A year after Khadija died, Muhammad's housekeeper told him he should marry again. As prospects, she named Sawdah, a homeless widow, and Aisha, a daughter of one of his strongest supporters. He decided to marry both. Right away, he wed the widow. But Aisha, not yet 10, remained with her parents for two or three years before Muhammad consummated their union.

Outside his home, the Prophet struggled to protect his followers from a host of hardships, including torture and loss of property. Some were even murdered, it is said, and the Quraysh were plotting to kill Muhammad, too. Then came a fateful invitation.

Several men from Medina, an oasis 250 miles north of Mecca, heard and liked Muhammad's message. They asked him to arbitrate a deadly tribal feud in their city. What followed was the seminal event in Islamic history, the migration, or hegira, of the Prophet and 70 fellow Muslims from Mecca to Medina. It was the Christian year 622. Muslims call it the Year One.

The men from Medina hoped that one of Muhammad's main themes—faith supplants tribal ties—would bring people together. "If that ever happened," one man told him, "you would be the strongest man in Arabia." Sure enough, Medina's Arabs quit feuding and accepted Islam, and Muhammad emerged as a political as well as religious leader. He collected taxes, dispensed justice, and raised an army—acts that established Islam, from its beginning, as a political religion.