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17. Understanding Islam

2.2. Mohammed’s first marriage and the call to prophethood

Islamic sources are almost completely silent about the years of Mohammed’s life between the ages of twelve and forty, though we do have information about two key events during this period: firstly, his marriage to Khadija, and secondly his apparent call to prophethood.

As a young man, Mohammed was employed by a wealthy widow from another family of his tribe to take over responsibility for her trading caravan. Khadija was her name; she had been previously married three times and had children from each of her earlier marriages. We do not know why Mohammed was given this responsibility at such a young age, or why Khadijah then decided to marry Mohammed. She proposed to him when he was twenty-five years old and she was forty years old. According to some Islamic sources Khadijah made some food and drink, and she called her father and some other men of the tribe, and they ate and drank until they got drunk. Then Khadijah said to her father: “Mohammed bin Abdullah wants to marry me; give me in marriage to him”. So he gave her in marriage to him. She put some perfume on him (her father) and dressed him in the traditional hullah (a special cloak adorned in gold worn on special occasions) as per Meccan tradition. When he sobered up, he found himself wearing perfume and a hullah. “What happened to me? What is this?” he asked. Khadijah replied: “You gave me in marriage to Mohammed bin Abdullah.” “I gave you in marriage to the orphan of Abu Taleb?” exclaimed her father, “No. never!” “Wouldn’t you feel ashamed to look like a fool in front of Quraish and tell the people that you were drunk?” asked Khadijah, and she kept on at him until he gave in, despite his unwillingness for his daughter to marry a poor man with no parents and no financial prospects (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad).

Marrying Khadijah allowed Mohammed to have more time for his mental exercise and spiritual search. After a short while, Mohammed started to see visions. Worried that he might be possessed by an evil spirit, he shared his concerns with his wife who took him to her cousin, Waraqa who was a Christian of sorts, though one who held some heretical beliefs. As someone knowledgeable about monotheistic religion, and not a pagan, Khadijah knew that he was more likely to understand Mohammed’s experiences. Waraqa told Mohammed that his visions meant he was a prophet like Moses, and thus the seeds were sown and watered in Mohammed’s mind.

Waraqa died shortly afterwards, and Mohammed’s visions stopped for a while. As a result of the cessation of his visions, Mohammed fell into such self-doubt and depression that he tried several times to throw himself off the top of a mountain; every time Gabriel would appear to him and say “you are indeed Allah’s messenger” (Bukhari, Sahih). By all accounts Mohammed was not yet convinced, and needed some persuading. We have several stories relating how Khadijah had to convince Mohammed that what he saw was an angel and not an evil spirit. One such story is told by Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Mohammed:

“On Khadija's authority, she said to the apostle of Allah, ‘O son of my uncle, are you able to tell me about your visitor, when he comes to you?’ He replied that he could, and she asked him to tell her when he came. So when Gabriel came to him, as he was wont, the apostle said to Khadija, ‘This is Gabriel who has just come to me.’ ‘Get up, O son of my uncle,’ she said, ‘and sit by my left thigh.’ The apostle did so, and she said, ‘Can you see him?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. She said, ‘Then turn round and sit on my right thigh.’ He did so, and she said, ‘Can you see him?’ When he said that he could, she asked him to move and sit in her lap. When he had done this she again asked if he could see him, and when he said yes, she disclosed her form and cast aside her veil while the apostle was sitting in her lap. Then she said, ‘Can you see him?’ And he replied, ‘No.’ She said, ‘O son of my uncle, rejoice and be of good heart, by Allah he is an angel and not a satan.’ ” (Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad).

Thus by showing that the visitor showed her respect and disappearing when she uncovered her hair, she demonstrated to Mohammed that he must have been an angel rather than an evil spirit who wouldn't have shown such respect.

And so Khadijah and Waraqa ‒ according to Islamic historians ‒ were the first to believe Mohammed to be a prophet and to convince Mohammed of the same.

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