One night, near the end of the month of Ramadan, Muhammad ﷺ was praying and meditating when he felt another presence in the cave. “Read!” commanded a voice. “I cannot read,” Prophet Muhammadﷺ responded honestly, for he could not like most Arabs of the time. Three times the voice ordered him to read aloud, and each time he replied he could not do so. Something seized his body, gripping him tightly. The voice recited the following words:
“Read in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is most generous. He taught by means of the pen. He taught man what he did not know.”
It was clear that he was being told to repeat what he had heard, and he complied fully. Muhammad ﷺ ran home from the cave he looked up and saw the angel’s face, filling the space between the Earth and the sky. “Muhammad, you are the messenger of God,” the angel said, “and I am Gabriel.” When Prophet Muhammad ﷺ burst in through the front door, he frantically called to his wife, “Cover me! Cover me!”
While her husband shivered feverishly through the night, Khadijah went to consult her old Christian cousin, Waraqa. When the aged blind man heard what had happened, he told her that if Muhammad’s ﷺ story was really true, then that was the same angel who had talked to Moses.
The first revelation in the cave indicated that the new Prophet ﷺ was going to be taught certain things directly from his Creator, reestablishing the connection between God and man. Other verses were inspired to him commanding him to pray throughout the night. Prayer would help him to build up the strength he needed to fulfill that mission
Islam taught monotheism in a society that depended on idolatry for its financial health. But the change that Islam was asking of people ran far deeper than mere theology. The Arabs did not believe in an afterlife or in a Day of Judgment, and the Quran was proposing both. In addition, the concept of accountability for one’s own actions before God was unnerving. The moral and ethical codes of Islam emphasized honesty, charity, mercy, respect for others’ rights, and an elevated conception of the female gender. Muhammad ﷺ was even pronouncing that animals had rights and could not be beaten or overworked.
When Muhammad ﷺ began to preach his message publicly, the Meccans didn’t know how to respond at first. Muhammad was a member of the clan of Hashim, a poor but respected arm of the Quraysh tribe. When relatives of powerful people starting converting, the Meccan leaders decided to respond.
The angry Meccans began to harass any Muslims who came near the Ka’ba to pray. Thugs would attack converts who had few family connections, bullying and beating them in the streets; and the citizenry would turn a blind eye. Slaves who accepted Islam were tortured by their masters mercilessly.
Their first tactic was to try to bribe Muhammad ﷺ, offering him money, a beautiful girl of his choosing, or even a prominent seat in the tribal council of Mecca, but he refused all offers. Next, they called upon the venerable Abu Talib to convince his nephew to stop his newfound occupation. Muhammad ﷺ gave this famous reply in answer to his uncle’s entreaties, “Uncle, by God, if they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, and asked me to give up my mission, I wouldn’t do it until either Allah made His way succeed or I died trying.”
Asylum in Africa
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was heartbroken to see such violence directed against his followers. In the fifth year of prophethood, he recommended that some of the most vulnerable members of his community migrate across the Red Sea into the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. Over a dozen Muslims, both men and women, migrated, even the Prophet’s own daughter, Ruqayya, with her husband Uthman. Soon thereafter, he sent a larger group of about 80 men and women. Such a large departure was not without notice, however; and the Meccans, concerned that Muhammad ﷺ was trying to open up a new base of strength, sent two of their most skilled ambassadors to petition the Abyssinian king to return the refugees as criminals.
The wise king brought the representatives of the Muslims before him and asked to know more about Islam. The Muslim leader explained the details of the faith. After a heated exchange with the Meccan ambassadors involving the Muslim conception of Jesus, the king decided to allow the Muslims to stay in his country.
Year of Sadness
After several years, the Meccans decided to expel Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ entire clan to a barren valley a few miles outside the city. Hundreds of men, women, and children were rounded up by Meccan warriors and marched into a steep-walled valley with nothing but the clothes on their backs. This was the Muslim “Trail of Tears.” The ban lasted for three years.
Shortly thereafter, Abu Talib became chronically ill and died, removing the last pillar of family support. The hostile uncle of the Prophet ﷺ, Abu Lahab, took this opportunity to target his nephew. He forced his two sons to divorce their wives, both of whom were the daughters of the Prophet ﷺ. Only a few months later, the Prophet ﷺ lost his beloved wife Khadijah as well.
The Great Migration
After unsuccessfully petitioning the leaders of the nearby city of Ta’if to accept his message, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ chanced to run into a group of people visiting from the city of Madina. He explained Islam to them over a campfire outside the city, and they accepted it! Two years later a larger group of 70 people, representing the Auws and Khazraj tribes, pledged their belief in Islam. Before leaving, they invited Muhammad ﷺ to rule their war-prone city.