With steadfastness and forbearance, the Prophet had gathered around him a solid core of trustworthy women and men. How exactly did he build up this community?
After recovering from the distress caused by the initial experience of Revelation, and as he began to receive the subsequent Revelations, the Prophet began to share the message with those closest to him.
He had not yet received instructions on how to present the message to his people, but he anticipated fierce opposition, as had been foretold by Waraqah ibn Nawfal.
The First Conversions
After Khadijah, his wife and the first convert to Islam, the circle of those who accepted the message was to widen to include members of his close family, then his friends. `Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was the young cousin in his charge; Zayd, his adopted son; Urn Ayman, the nursemaid who had cared for him after he returned to Mecca at age four; and his lifelong friend Abu Bakr were thus among the first to recognize the truth of the message and to pronounce the profession of faith (Ash-Shahadah) expressing their adherence to Islam:
“I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His Messenger.”
The number of converts slowly grew as a result of the Prophet’s own discreet preaching and the very determined involvement of Abu Bakr, who was always ready to speak about the new faith and take action for its sake: he would buy slaves from their masters and set them free in the name of Islam’s principles stressing the equality of all human beings.
During those years, Muhammad’s presence in Mecca, his action, and his example were to attract a large number of women and men who were gradually to embrace the new faith.
The number of conversions nevertheless remained small during the first few months. Tradition reports that during the first three years, only thirty to forty Quraysh became Muslims. They would meet with the Prophet at the home of one of the converts, Al-Arqam ibn Abi Al-Arqam, and learn the basics of their religion while new Revelations kept arriving.
The surrounding atmosphere was becoming more and more hostile as the inhabitants of Mecca learned about the essentials of this new message and took stock of its impact on the poor and the young.
The Prophet, aware of those upheavals and of the dangers ahead, decided to concentrate on discreetly giving a solid education to a small group, who he knew would face criticism, rejection, and most probably exclusion.
It was this very group who were later, thanks to the quality of their spiritual education and the sincerity of their involvement, to remain steadfast in the face of difficulties and persecution.
From the beginning, the Prophet had given priority to quality over quantity, and preferred to concern himself with the nature of the hearts and minds he addressed than their number.
For three years, he quietly built up the first community of believers, whose particular feature was that it gathered, without distinction, women and men of all clans and all social categories (although the bulk were young or poor).
The Public Call
After those years, Muhammad (peace be upon him) received a Revelation enjoining him to make his call public:
And admonish your nearest kinsmen. (Ash-Shu`araa’ 26:214)
The Prophet understood that he now had to convey his message to the members of the clans to which he was linked by kinship ties. He began to call them to Islam. One day, he climbed up Mount As-Safa and called the tribal chiefs one by one.
Thinking he had an urgent or important announcement to make, they gathered at the foot of the hill to listen to him. From where they stood, they could not look into the valley, whereas Muhammad was facing it. He called out to them:
”If I warned you that down in this valley, armed horsemen are closing in to attack you, would you believe me?” They answered, almost with one voice: “Certainly- you are trustworthy and we have never heard you tell lies!”
The Prophet then went on:
“Well, I am here to forewarn you of violent torments! God has ordered me to admonish my nearest kinsmen. I have no power to protect you from anything in this life, nor to grant you blessings in the life to come, unless you believe in the Oneness of God.”
He added: “My position is like that of he who sees the enemy and runs to his people to warn them before they are taken by surprise, shouting as he runs: ‘Beware! Beware!’” (Ibn Hisham, As-Sirah An-Nabawiyah)
His uncle Abu Lahab’s response was immediate and scathing: “Woe to you (taban laka)! Is this why you have gathered us?” He turned away instantly, taking the assembled chiefs with him: he was thus to come to epitomize those who rejected Muhammad’s message and opposed him most fiercely.
Because of this status, the Quran answered him in a later Revelation, using the same formula with the additional aesthetic power of assonance and consonance in the Arabic words: “Tabat yada Abi Lahabin watab” (let the hands of Abu Lahab perish, let him perish). (Al-Masad 111:1)
Later on, When the Prophet organized two meals to present the same message, the first was a failure because Abu Lahab again intervened to prevent his nephew from speaking.
During the second meal, Muhammad was able to convey the substance of his message, which was heard and secretly accepted by some members of the clans he had invited.
His kinsmen and the tribe’s elders had reacted in a rather cold and distant manner because they understood that the nature of Muhammad’s message threatened the age-old balance in their society. Both their gods and their power could be challenged, and the danger was serious.
Muhammad continued to speak to his kinsfolk until he received another Revelation ordering a forthright, determined attitude:
Therefore expound openly what you are commanded, and turn away from those who join false gods with God. (Al-Hijr 15:94)
The prophetic mission was entering a new phase. Now the message was addressed to all and required a clear-cut distinction between tawheed, faith in one God, and the polytheism of the Quraysh.
The Prophet had gathered around him a solid core of trustworthy women and men; some were his relatives, bur many came from different social categories and tribes, and he had been providing them spiritual and religious education for the previous three years.
With steadfastness and forbearance, they were to face rejection, persecution, and exclusion in a Meccan society that was beginning to split apart.
The article is an excerpt from the author’s “In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press (2007).