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17. Understanding Islam

2.1. His Childhood

Mohammed’s father was from the wealthy and well-respected Hashimite clan in Mecca on the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, members of the ruling Quraysh tribe, and his mother was from the tribe of Banu Zahra in the city of Madina, a few hundred kilometres north. Upon marriage, according to tradition his mother left her hometown and moved to Mecca to join her husband and his family. Although Mohammed’s father had died by the time he was born, he was nonetheless considered part of his father’s tribe.

For his time and social status, Mohammed’s childhood wasn’t particularly unusual. Like most Meccan children of his class at the time, he was sent to live with a wet nurse. Thus he spent most of his formative years away from Meccan aristocracy, living for about six years with his wet-nurse Halimah al-Saʽdiah from the tribe of Bani Sa‘d in Madina. Living in Madina, he would have had daily contact with Jews, as at that time there were only two large Arab (pagan) tribes in Madina, but three large Jewish tribes who had migrated from the Levant a few centuries previously, and had established themselves around Arabia working mostly in trade or jewellery making. So although he was young at the time, he would probably have been familiar with some Jewish traditions which may explain the eventual similarity between certain Jewish and Islamic practices.

Muslims tell stories of how angels purified his heart during this time. Bukhari and Muslim (the two collectors of Hadith – the sayings of Mohammed – considered the most reliable by Sunni Muslims) report Mohammed describing how the angel Gabriel (known as Jibreel in Islam) cleansed his heart in the waters of Zamzam. Zamzam was (and still is) a well in Mohammed’s hometown of Mecca, notably a significant distance from Madina where he was living with his wet-nurse, which is considered holy by Muslims.

“The roof of the house was opened when I was in Makkah, and Jibreel came down and split open my chest, then he washed it with Zamzam water. Then he brought a golden basin filled with wisdom and faith and emptied it into my chest. Then he sealed it …” (narrated by both Bukhari and Muslim).

Others tell the story differently. One of his close companions Anas ibn Malik, for example, relates that Jibreel came to the Messenger of Allah when he was playing with the other boys. He took hold of him and threw him to the ground, then he opened his chest and took out his heart, from which he took a clot of blood and said: “This was the Shaytaan’s (Satan’s) share of you.” Then he washed it in a vessel of gold that was filled with water from Zamzam. Then he put it back together and returned it to its place. The boys went running to his mother – meaning his nurse – and said “Muhammad has been killed!” They went to him and his colour had changed. Anas said: “I used to see the mark of that stitching on his chest.” (this version is also included in Sahih Muslim).

Still other records say that it wasn’t Jibreel but two other angels. Whether these are different accounts of the same incident, or reports of different incidents, Muslim historians say that Mohammed’s foster mother (his wet nurse Halimah) was so scared by this that she returned him to his family in Mecca where his mother looked after him until her death less than a year later on her way back from visiting her extended family in Madinah. After his mother’s death, Mohammed’s care passed to his grandfather, who himself died two years later. Mohammed then became part of the household of his paternal uncle, Abu Taleb, who raised him alongside his own eight children.

Abu Taleb was the leader of the Hashimite clan, the branch of the Meccan Qurayshi tribe to which Mohammed’s father belonged. He was a trader by profession, and though not financially well-off (in fact there were times in his later life where he had significant money difficulties and could not afford to raise his younger children), he and his clan were well-respected in his community and he occupied a position of considerable status. At the age of twelve, Mohammed accompanied Abu Taleb on a trading expedition to the Levant. This is when Mohammed – according to Muslim tradition – had his first recorded interaction with a Christian. There he met a monk called Bahira, who may have been Ebionite, Nestorian or even Gnostic Nasorean (accounts differ). Bahira is said to have predicted the young Mohammed’s future as a prophet based on a birthmark he noticed between Mohammed’s shoulders. Some Muslims refer to this birthmark as the seal of the prophethood.

What can we learn, then, from these stories of Mohammed’s early life? Firstly, we know that he was at least to a certain extent familiar with some Christian and Jewish traditions, though it must be remembered that Christians living in the region at the time were mainly considered heretics. This most probably explains why early Islamic teaching is very similar to the teachings of Judaism (and also why reference to Christian beliefs in the Qur’an is rather inaccurate). And secondly, regardless of the accuracy of these stories, it seems clear that Mohammed saw himself as set apart from an early age, destined for greatness.

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