When Muhammad was 40 years old, he was commanded by God, through His angel, Gabriel, to declare His Oneness to the idolaters and polytheists of the whole world, and to deliver the message of peace to an embattled humanity. In response to this command of Heaven, Muhammad launched the momentous program called Islam which was to change the destiny of mankind forever.
Before the Call came to him to declare the Unity of the Creator, Muhammad was in the habit of spending much time in meditation and reflection. To be free from interference and extraneous distractions, he frequently went to a mountain cave called Hira, three miles in the north-east of Makkah, and spent the long summer days there. He was in Hira when one day the Archangel Gabriel appeared before him, and brought to him the tidings that God had chosen him to be His Last Messenger to this world, and had imposed upon him the duty of leading mankind out of the welter of sin, error and ignorance into the light of Guidance, Truth and Knowledge. Gabriel then bade Muhammad to “read” the following verses:
|“Read in the name of thy lord and cherisher who created: Created man out of a clot of congealed blood. Read! And thy lord is most bountiful, He who taught the use of pen; Taught man that which he knew not”.|
These five verses were the earliest revelation, and they came to Muhammad on the “Night of Power” or the “Blessed Night” in the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar) of the 40th year of the Elephant. They are at the beginning of the 96th chapter of Al-Qur’an al-Majid. The name of the chapter is Iqraa (Read) or ‘Alaq (the Clot of Congealed Blood).
The Night of Power or the Blessed Night occurs, according to tradition, during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan, and could be the 21st or 23rd or 25th or 27th of the month.
In their respective accounts of the reception by Muhammad of the First Revelation, the Sunni and the Shia Muslims are not in agreement. According to the Sunni tradition, the appearance of Gabriel surprised Muhammad, and when the former ordered him to read, he said, “I cannot read.” This happened thrice, and each time when Muhammad declared his inability to read, the angel pressed him hard to his bosom. Eventually, he was able to repeat the five verses whereupon the angel released him and disappeared
When Archangel Gabriel disappeared, Muhammad, who was now “ordained” the Messenger of Allah, descended from the cliffs of Hira, and repaired to his home in a state of great trepidation. He was shivering with cold, and when he entered his house, he asked his wife, Khadija, to cover him with a blanket which she did. When he had sufficiently recovered from the shock, he recounted to her the story of his strange encounter with Archangel Gabriel in the cave of Hira.
The traditional Sunni account of this incident is given in an article written by Shaykh Ahmad Zaki Hammad, Ph.D., captioned Be Hopeful, published in the monthly magazine, Islamic Horizons, of the Islamic Society of North America, Plainfield, Indiana, May-June 1987, as follows:
|“The Prophet (pbuh) in the early stages in Makkah, feared that the revelation experience was an evil touch preying upon him, playing with him mentally, upsetting his tranquility and peace of mind. He was afraid that one of the jinn had touched him. He expressed this to Khadija. His fear increased to the point that – and please don’t be surprised by an authentic report in Bukhari – the Prophet (pbuh) preferred to take his own life rather than to be touched by evil, to be tampered with, corrupted, or polluted.”|
But according to the accounts of the Shia Muslims, Muhammad Mustafa, far from being surprised or frightened by the appearance of Gabriel, welcomed him as if he had been expecting him. Gabriel brought the tidings that Allah had chosen him to be His Last Messenger to Mankind, and congratulated him on being selected to become the recipient of the greatest of all honors for a mortal in this world.
Muhammad had no hesitation in accepting the mission of prophethood nor he had any difficulty in repeating the verses of the First Revelation. He read them or repeated them effortlessly, spontaneously. Gabriel, in fact, was no stranger to him, and he also knew that his own raison d’tre was to carry out the mission imposed upon him by God as His Messenger. He was “mission-oriented" even before Gabriel’s visit. Gabriel only gave him the signal to begin.
The Shia Muslims also say that one thing that Gabriel didn’t have to do, was to apply physical pressure on Muhammad to read. If he did, it would truly be a bizarre mode of imparting to Muhammad the ability to read – by squeezing him or choking him. They further maintain that Muhammad Mustafa did not contemplate suicide at any time in his life, not even in its most desolate moments; and that it never occurred to him that he could ever be touched by “evil” or that he could be “corrupted” or “polluted.”
Nevertheless, Muhammad felt alarm at the magnitude of the task ahead of him. He realized that in the execution of his duty, he would be confronted by the massive, formidable and determined opposition of the pagans of the whole world. The state of his anxiety was almost palpable. He was, therefore, in a somber frame of mind as he left the cave to return home. And he did ask Khadija to drape him in a blanket as he sat down to recapitulate the events in Hira to her.
When Khadija heard the story that Muhammad told her, she comforted him and reassured him by saying: “O son of my uncle, be of good cheer. Allah has chosen you to be His messenger. You are always kind to your neighbors, helpful to your kinsfolk, generous to the orphans, the widows and the poor, and friendly to the strangers. Allah will never forsake you.”
It is possible that Muhammad was momentarily overweighed by the thought of his accountability to Allah in carrying the enormous burden of his new responsibilities, but when he heard Khadija’s soothing words, he immediately felt the tensions within him decompressing. She reassured him and convinced him that with God’s Hand on his shoulder, he would rise equal to his duties and would overcome all obstacles.
After a brief interval, Gabriel appeared once again before Muhammad when the latter was in the cave of Hira, and presented to him the second Revelation which reads as follows:
O Thou wrapped up (in a mantle)! Arise and deliver thy warning! And thy lord do thou magnify. (Chapter 74; verses 1,2,3)
The commandment from Heaven to “arise and warn” was the signal to Muhammad (the wrapped up in a blanket) to begin his work. Gabriel expounded to him his new duties the foremost of which was to destroy the worship of false gods, and to plant the banner of tawheed – the doctrine of the Unity of the Creator – in the world; and he had to invite mankind to the True Faith – Islam. Islam means to surrender to Allah, and to acknowledge Muhammad as His slave and His messenger.
That evening Muhammad returned home conscious and conscientious of his new duty that he had to preach Islam, and that he had to begin from his own home – by preaching it to his wife.
Muhammad told Khadija about the second visit of Gabriel, and the duty imposed upon him by Allah to invite her to Islam. For Khadija, the antecedents and the moral integrity of her husband were an incontrovertible attestation that he was a divine messenger, and she readily accepted Islam. In fact, between her and Islam, an “ideological affinity” had pre-existed. Therefore, when Muhammad Mustafa presented Islam to her, she at once “recognized” it, and rosily embraced it. She believed that the Creator was One, and that Muhammad was His messenger, and she declared:
|I bear witness that there is no god but Allah; and I bear witness that Muhammad is His slave and His Messenger.|
Muhammad, the new messenger of God, had won his first convert – Khadija – his wife. She was the first one, the very first to affirm her faith in tawheed (Oneness of the Creator), and she was the very first to acknowledge Muhammad as God’s messenger to all mankind. She was the first Muslima.
Muhammad “introduced” Islam to Khadija. He explained to her its meaning, and he initiated her into it.
The honor to be the first individual in the whole world to bear witness to God’s unity and to acknowledge Muhammad’s prophethood, belongs to Khadija for all time.
F. E. Peters
She (Khadija) was the first to accept the truth of his (Muhammad’s) revelation, the premier Muslim after the Prophet himself. She encouraged and supported Muhammad during the first difficult years of his public preaching, and during the twenty-five years of their marriage he took no other wife. Theirs was, by any reasonable standard of judgment, a love match as well as a corporate partnership. (Allah’s Commonwealth, New York)
As noted before, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was living at this time with his foster-parents, Muhammad and Khadija. The two sons of Muhammad and Khadija – Qasim and Abdullah had died in their infancy. After their death, they had adopted Ali as their son. Ali was five years old when he came into their house, and he was ten years old when Muhammad was ordained messenger of God. Muhammad and Khadija brought him up and educated him. In the years to come, he showed himself a most splendid “product” of the upbringing and education that Muhammad and Khadija gave him.
Sir William Muir
Shortly after the rebuilding of the Kaaba, Mohammed comforted himself for the loss of his infant son Casim by adopting Ali, the child of his friend and former guardian, Abu Talib. Ali, at this time not above five or six years of age, remained ever after with Mohammed, and they exhibited towards each other the mutual attachment of parent and child. (The Life of Mohammed, London, 1877)
Since Ali was a member of the Prophet’s own family, he was inevitably the first, among males, to receive the message of Islam. He testified that God was One, and that Muhammad was His messenger. And he was very eager to stand behind Muhammad Mustafa to offer prayers. Since then Muhammad was never seen at prayer except when Ali was with him. The boy also memorized the verses of Al-Qur’an al-Majid as and when they were revealed to Muhammad. In this manner, he literally grew up with Qur’an. In fact, Ali and Qur’an “grew up” together as “twins” in the house of Muhammad Mustafa and Khadija-tul-Kubra. Muhammad Mustafa, the Messenger of Allah, had found the first Muslima in Khadija, and the first Muslim in Ali ibn Abi Talib.
Muhammad ibn Ishaq
Ali was the first male to believe in the Apostle of God, to pray with him and to believe in his divine message, when he was a boy of ten. God favored him in that he was brought up in the care of the Apostle before Islam began. (The Life of the Messenger of God)
Muhammad Husayn Haykal
Ali was then the first youth to enter Islam. He was followed by Zayd ibn Harithah, Muhammad’s client. Islam remained confined to the four walls of one house. Besides Muhammad himself, the converts of the new faith were his wife, his cousin, and his client. (The Life of Muhammad, Cairo, 1935)
The first of all his (Muhammad’s) converts was his wife, Khadija; the second his first cousin Ali, whom he had adopted; the third his servant Zeyd, a former slave. (Introduction to the Translation of Holy Qur’an, Lahore, Pakistan, 1975)
The third “witness” who accepted Islam, was Zayd ibn Haritha, the freedman of Muhammad, and a member of his household.
Zaid was one of the first to accept Islam, in fact the third, after Khadija and Ali. (Mohammed, the Man and his Faith, 1960)
Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first male to accept Islam, and his precedence is beyond any question. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher of Indo-Pakistan, calls him, not the first, but “the foremost Muslim.”
From Yahya b. al-Ash’ath b. Qays al-Kindi from his father, from his grandfather Afiif: Al-Abbas b. Abdul Muttalib was a friend of mine who used to go often to the Yaman to buy aromatics and sell them during the fairs. While I was with him in Mina, there came a man in the prime of life and performed the full rites of ablution and then stood up and prayed. Then a woman came out and did her ablution and stood up and prayed. Then out came a youth just approaching manhood, did his ablutions, then stood up and prayed by his side. When I asked Al-Abbas what was going on, and he said that it was his nephew Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Abdul Muttalib, who alleges that Allah has sent him as an Apostle; the other is my brother’s son, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who has followed him in his religion; the third is his wife, Khadija daughter of Khuwaylid who also follows him in his religion. Afiif said after he had become a Muslim and Islam firmly established in his heart, ‘Would that I had been a fourth.!’ (The Life of the Messenger of God)
The fourth witness who accepted Islam, was Abu Bakr, a merchant of Makkah. In the beginning, Muhammad preached Islam secretly for fear of arousing the hostility of the idolaters. He invited only those people to Islam who were known to him personally. It is said that through the efforts of Abu Bakr, the fourth Muslim, a few other Makkans also accepted Islam. Among them were Uthman bin Affan, a futurekhalifa of the Muslims; Talha, Zubayr, Abdur Rahman bin Auf, Saad bin Abi Waqqas, and Obaidullah ibn al-Jarrah.
For a long time the Muslims were very few in number and they did not dare to say their prayers in public. One of the early converts to Islam was Arqam bin Abi al-Arqam, a young man of the clan of Makhzoom. He was well-to-do and lived in a spacious house in the valley of Safa. Muslims gathered in his house to offer their congregational prayers. Three years passed in this manner. Then in the fourth year, Muhammad was commanded by God to invite his own folks to Islam openly.
|And admonish thy nearest kinsmen. (Chapter 26; verse 214)|
Muhammad’s folks included all members of Banu Hashim and Banu al-Muttalib. He ordered his young cousin, Ali, to invite all their chief men to a banquet – forty of them.
When all the guests had gathered in a hall in the house of Abu Talib, and had partaken of their repast, Muhammad, the Messenger of God, rose to address them. One of the guests was Abu Lahab, an uncle of the Prophet on his father’s side. He must have heard rumors of what his nephew was doing in Makkah secretly, and probably guessed the reason why he had invited Banu Hashim to a feast. The Prophet had just begun to speak when he stood up; rudely interrupted him, and himself addressed the assembly, saying:
“Uncles, brothers and cousins! Do not listen to this “renegade,” and do not abandon your ancestral religion if he invites you to adopt a new one. If you do, then remember that you will rouse the anger of all Arabs against you. You do not have the strength to fight against all of them. After all, we are a mere handful. Therefore, it is in your own interest to be steadfast in your traditional religion.”
Abu Lahab, by his speech, succeeded in throwing confusion and disorder into the meeting so that everyone stood up milling around and jostling against each other. Then they began to leave, and soon the hall was empty.
Muhammad’s first attempt to convert his own tribe to Islam had failed. But unfazed by this initial setback, he ordered his cousin, Ali, to invite the same guests a second time.
A few days later the guests came, and when they had eaten supper, Muhammad rose and spoke to them as follows:
“I offerthanks to Allah for His mercies. I praise Allah, and I seek His guidance. I believe in Him and I put my trust in Him. I bear witness that there is no god except Allah; He has no partners; and I am His messenger. Allah has commanded me to invite you to His religion by saying: And warn thy nearest kinsfolk. I, therefore, warn you, and call upon you to testify that there is no god but Allah, and that I am His messenger. O ye sons of Abdul Muttalib, no one ever came to you before with anything better than what I have brought to you. By accepting it, your welfare will be assured in this world and in the Hereafter. Who among you will support me in carrying out this momentous duty? Who will share the burden of this work with me? Who will respond to my call? Who will become my vicegerent, my deputy and my wazir?”
There were forty guests in the hall. Muhammad paused to let the effect of his words sink into their minds but no one among them responded. At last when the silence became too oppressive, young Ali stood up and said that he would support the Messenger of God; would share the burden of his work; and would become his vicegerent, his deputy and his wazir. But Muhammad beckoned him to sit down, and said: “Wait! Perhaps someone older than you might respond to my call.”
Muhammad renewed his invitation but still no one seemed to stir, and he was greeted only by an uneasy silence. Once again, Ali offered his services but the Apostle still wishing that some senior member of the clan would accept his invitation, asked him to wait. He then appealed to the clan a third time to consider his invitation, and the same thing happened again. No one in the assembly showed any interest. He surveyed the crowd and transfixed everyone in it with his gaze but no one moved. At length he beheld the solitary figure of Ali rising above the assembly of silent men, to volunteer his services to him.
This time Mohammed accepted Ali’s offer. He drew him close, pressed him to his heart, and said to the assembly: “This is my wazir, my successor and my vicegerent. Listen to him and obey his commands.”
Three years were silently employed in the conversion of fourteen proselytes, the first fruits of his (Mohammed’s) mission; but in the fourth year he assumed the prophetic office, and resolving to impart to his family the light of divine truth, he prepared a banquet for the entertainment of forty guests of the race of Hashim. ‘Friends and kinsmen,’ Mohammed said to the assembly, ‘I offer you, and I alone can offer, the most precious gifts, the treasures of this world and of the world to come. God has commanded me to call you to His service. Who among you will support my burden? Who among you will be my companion and my vizir? No answer was returned, till the silence of astonishment and doubt, and contempt was at length broken by the impatient courage of Ali, a youth in the fourteenth year of his age. ‘O Prophet,’ he said, ‘I am the man. Whosoever rises against thee, I will dash out his teeth, tear out his eyes, break his legs, rip up his belly. O Prophet, I will be thy vizir over them.’ Mohammed accepted his offer with transport, and Abu Talib was ironically exhorted to respect the superior dignity of his son. (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)
‘O children of Abd al-Muttalib,’ cried he (Mohammed) with enthusiasm, ‘to you, of all men, has Allah vouchsafed these most precious gifts. In his name I offer you the blessings of this world, and endless joys hereafter. Who among you will share the burden of my offer? Who will be my brother, my lieutenant, my vizir?’ All remained silent; some wondering; others smiling with incredulity and derision. At length Ali, starting up with youthful zeal, offered himself to the service of the Prophet though modestly acknowledging his youth and physical weakness. Mohammed threw up his arms around the generous youth, and pressed him to his bosom. ‘Behold my brother, my vizir, my vicegerent,’ exclaimed he, “Let all listen to his words, and obey him.” (The Life of Mohammed)
Sir Richard Burton
After a long course of meditation, fired with anger by the absurd fanaticism of the Jews, the superstitions of the Syrian and Arab Christians, and the horrid idolatries of his unbelieving countrymen, an enthusiast too – and what great soul has not been an enthusiast? – he (Mohammed) determined to reform those abuses which rendered revelation contemptible to the learned and prejudicial to the vulgar. He introduced himself as one inspired to a body of his relations and fellow-clansmen. The step was a failure, except that it won for him a proselyte worth a thousand sabers in the person of Ali, son of Abu Talib. (The Jew the Gypsy and El Islam, San Francisco, 1898)
Ali had offered his services to Muhammad, the Messenger of God, and the latter had accepted them. To the elders of the tribe, Ali’s conduct might have appeared rash and brazen but he soon proved that he had the grit to accomplish far more than others had the courage even to dream. The Messenger of God, on his part, accepted the offer not only with expressions of gratitude and joy but also declared that Ali was, from that moment, his vicegerent. Muhammad’s declaration was forthright and unequivocal. It is foolish to quibble, as some people do, that Ali’s vicegerency of Muhammad, was confined to the tribe of Banu Hashim. But Muhammad himself did not restrict Ali’s vicegerency to Banu Hashim. Ali was his vicegerent for all Muslims and for all time.
The banquet at which Muhammad, the Messenger of God, declared Ali to be his successor, is famous in history as “the banquet of Dhul-‘Asheera.” This name comes from Al-Qur’an al-Majid itself (chapter 26; verse 214). Strangely, Sir William Muir has called this historic event “apocryphal.” But what is “apocryphal” or so improbable about it? Could anything be more logical for the Messenger of God than to begin his work of propagating Islam at his own home, and with members of his own family and his own clan, especially after being expressly commanded by God to warn his nearest kinsmen?
The feast of Dhul-‘Asheera at which Muhammad, the Apostle of God, designated Ali ibn Abi Talib, as his successor, is a historical event, and its authenticity has been affirmed, among others, by the following Arab historians:
1. Tabari, History, Vol. II,p. 217
2. Kamil ibn Atheer, History, Vol. II, p. 22
3. Abul Fida,History, Vol. I, p. 116
Sir William Muir
His (Mohammed’s) cousin, Ali, now 13 or 14 years of age, already gave tokens of the wisdom and judgment which distinguished him in after life. Though possessed of indomitable courage, he lacked the stirring energy which would have rendered him an effective propagator of Islam. He grew up from a child in the faith of Mohammed, and his earliest associations strengthened the convictions of maturer years. (The life of Mohammed, London, 1877)
We have many reservations about Sir William Muir’s statement that Ali “lacked the stirring energy that would have made him an effective propagator of Islam.” Ali did not lack energy or anything else. In all the crises of Islam, he was selected to carry out the most dangerous missions, and he invariably accomplished them.
As a missionary also, Ali was peerless. There was no one among all the companions of the Prophet who was a more effective propagator of Islam than he. He promulgated the first 40 verses of the Surah Bara’a (Immunity), the Ninth chapter of Al-Qur’an al-Majid, to the pagans at Makkah, as the first missionary of Islam, and as one representing the Apostle of God himself. And it was Ali who brought all the tribes of Yemen into the fold of Islam.
Muhammad, the Messenger of God, had brought up Ali as his own child, and if the latter had lacked anything, he would have known it. He declared Ali to be his wazir, his successor and his vicegerent at a time when no one could have foreseen the future of Islam. This only points up the unbounded confidence that the Prophet of Islam had in this stripling of fourteen years.
Ali symbolized the hopes and aspirations of Islam. In the great revolution which Muhammad, the Apostle of God, had launched at the feast of Dhul-‘Asheera, he had mobilized the dynamism, and idealism, and the fervor and vigor of youth; Ali personified them all.
Two things had happened at the Feast. One was that the Prophet had brought Islam out in the open. Islam was no longer an “under-ground” movement; it had “surfaced.” At the feast of his kinsfolk, Muhammad had “crossed the Rubicon” and now there could be no turning back. Time had come for him to carry the message of Islam beyond his own clan, first to the Quraysh of Makkah, then to all the Arabs, and finally, to the rest of the world. The other was that he had found Ali who was the embodiment of courage, devotion and resolution, and was worth far more than a thousand sabers.
It is reported that some days after the second banquet of Dhul-‘Asheera, Muhammad climbed up the hill of Safa near Kaaba, and called out: “O sons of Fehr, O sons of Loi, O sons of Adi, and all the rest of Quraysh! Come hither, and listen to me. I have something very important to tell you.”
Many of those Makkans who heard his voice, came to listen to him. Addressing them, he said: “Will you believe me if I were to tell you that an army was hidden behind yonder hills, and was watching you to attack you as soon as it found you off-guard?” They said they would believe him because they had never heard him tell a lie.
“If that’s so,” said Muhammad, “then listen to this with attention. The Lord of the Heavens and earth has commanded me to warn you of the dreadful time that is coming. But if you pay heed, you can save yourselves from perdition…” He had gone only as far as this when Abu Lahab, who was present among the listeners, interrupted him again by saying: “Death to you. Did you waste our time to tell us only this? We do not want to hear you. Do not call us again.”
Thenceforth Abu Lahab made it a practice to shadow the Prophet wherever the latter went. If he started to read the Qur’an or to say something else, he (Abu Lahab) interrupted him or started heckling him. Abu Lahab’s hatred of Muhammad and Islam was shared by his wife, Umm Jameel. Both of them were the recipients of the curse of God in Al-Qur’an al-Majid (chapter 111).