Sacred Texts  Classics  Gibbon  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 5, by Edward Gibbon, [1788], at

Chapter L: Description Of Arabia And Its Inhabitants. Part V.

The people of Mecca were hardened in their unbelief by superstition and envy. The elders of the city, the uncles of the prophet, affected to despise the presumption of an orphan, the reformer of his country: the pious orations of Mahomet in the Caaba were answered by the clamors of Abu Taleb. "Citizens and pilgrims, listen not to the tempter, hearken not to his impious novelties. Stand fast in the worship of Al Lata and Al Uzzah." Yet the son of Abdallah was ever dear to the aged chief: and he protected the fame and person of his nephew against the assaults of the Koreishites, who had long been jealous of the preeminence of the family of Hashem. Their malice was colored with the pretence of religion: in the age of Job, the crime of impiety was punished by the Arabian magistrate;  116 and Mahomet was guilty of deserting and denying the national deities. But so loose was the policy of Mecca, that the leaders of the Koreish, instead of accusing a criminal, were compelled to employ the measures of persuasion or violence. They repeatedly addressed Abu Taleb in the style of reproach and menace. "Thy nephew reviles our religion; he accuses our wise forefathers of ignorance and folly; silence him quickly, lest he kindle tumult and discord in the city. If he persevere, we shall draw our swords against him and his adherents, and thou wilt be responsible for the blood of thy fellow-citizens." The weight and moderation of Abu Taleb eluded the violence of religious faction; the most helpless or timid of the disciples retired to Aethiopia, and the prophet withdrew himself to various places of strength in the town and country. As he was still supported by his family, the rest of the tribe of Koreish engaged themselves to renounce all intercourse with the children of Hashem, neither to buy nor sell, neither to marry not to give in marriage, but to pursue them with implacable enmity, till they should deliver the person of Mahomet to the justice of the gods. The decree was suspended in the Caaba before the eyes of the nation; the messengers of the Koreish pursued the Mussulman exiles in the heart of Africa: they besieged the prophet and his most faithful followers, intercepted their water, and inflamed their mutual animosity by the retaliation of injuries and insults. A doubtful truce restored the appearances of concord till the death of Abu Taleb abandoned Mahomet to the power of his enemies, at the moment when he was deprived of his domestic comforts by the loss of his faithful and generous Cadijah. Abu Sophian, the chief of the branch of Ommiyah, succeeded to the principality of the republic of Mecca. A zealous votary of the idols, a mortal foe of the line of Hashem, he convened an assembly of the Koreishites and their allies, to decide the fate of the apostle. His imprisonment might provoke the despair of his enthusiasm; and the exile of an eloquent and popular fanatic would diffuse the mischief through the provinces of Arabia. His death was resolved; and they agreed that a sword from each tribe should be buried in his heart, to divide the guilt of his blood, and baffle the vengeance of the Hashemites. An angel or a spy revealed their conspiracy; and flight was the only resource of Mahomet.  117 At the dead of night, accompanied by his friend Abubeker, he silently escaped from his house: the assassins watched at the door; but they were deceived by the figure of Ali, who reposed on the bed, and was covered with the green vestment of the apostle. The Koreish respected the piety of the heroic youth; but some verses of Ali, which are still extant, exhibit an interesting picture of his anxiety, his tenderness, and his religious confidence. Three days Mahomet and his companion were concealed in the cave of Thor, at the distance of a league from Mecca; and in the close of each evening, they received from the son and daughter of Abubeker a secret supply of intelligence and food. The diligence of the Koreish explored every haunt in the neighborhood of the city: they arrived at the entrance of the cavern; but the providential deceit of a spider's web and a pigeon's nest is supposed to convince them that the place was solitary and inviolate. "We are only two," said the trembling Abubeker. "There is a third," replied the prophet; "it is God himself." No sooner was the pursuit abated than the two fugitives issued from the rock, and mounted their camels: on the road to Medina, they were overtaken by the emissaries of the Koreish; they redeemed themselves with prayers and promises from their hands. In this eventful moment, the lance of an Arab might have changed the history of the world. The flight of the prophet from Mecca to Medina has fixed the memorable aera of the Hegira,  118 which, at the end of twelve centuries, still discriminates the lunar years of the Mahometan nations.  119

The religion of the Koran might have perished in its cradle, had not Medina embraced with faith and reverence the holy outcasts of Mecca. Medina, or the city, known under the name of Yathreb, before it was sanctified by the throne of the prophet, was divided between the tribes of the Charegites and the Awsites, whose hereditary feud was rekindled by the slightest provocations: two colonies of Jews, who boasted a sacerdotal race, were their humble allies, and without converting the Arabs, they introduced the taste of science and religion, which distinguished Medina as the city of the Book. Some of her noblest citizens, in a pilgrimage to the Canaba, were converted by the preaching of Mahomet; on their return, they diffused the belief of God and his prophet, and the new alliance was ratified by their deputies in two secret and nocturnal interviews on a hill in the suburbs of Mecca. In the first, ten Charegites and two Awsites united in faith and love, protested, in the name of their wives, their children, and their absent brethren, that they would forever profess the creed, and observe the precepts, of the Koran. The second was a political association, the first vital spark of the empire of the Saracens.  120 Seventy-three men and two women of Medina held a solemn conference with Mahomet, his kinsman, and his disciples; and pledged themselves to each other by a mutual oath of fidelity. They promised, in the name of the city, that if he should be banished, they would receive him as a confederate, obey him as a leader, and defend him to the last extremity, like their wives and children. "But if you are recalled by your country," they asked with a flattering anxiety, "will you not abandon your new allies?" "All things," replied Mahomet with a smile, "are now common between us your blood is as my blood, your ruin as my ruin. We are bound to each other by the ties of honor and interest. I am your friend, and the enemy of your foes." "But if we are killed in your service, what," exclaimed the deputies of Medina, "will be our reward?" "Paradise," replied the prophet. "Stretch forth thy hand." He stretched it forth, and they reiterated the oath of allegiance and fidelity. Their treaty was ratified by the people, who unanimously embraced the profession of Islam; they rejoiced in the exile of the apostle, but they trembled for his safety, and impatiently expected his arrival. After a perilous and rapid journey along the sea-coast, he halted at Koba, two miles from the city, and made his public entry into Medina, sixteen days after his flight from Mecca. Five hundred of the citizens advanced to meet him; he was hailed with acclamations of loyalty and devotion; Mahomet was mounted on a she-camel, an umbrella shaded his head, and a turban was unfurled before him to supply the deficiency of a standard. His bravest disciples, who had been scattered by the storm, assembled round his person; and the equal, though various, merit of the Moslems was distinguished by the names of Mohagerians and Ansars, the fugitives of Mecca, and the auxiliaries of Medina. To eradicate the seeds of jealousy, Mahomet judiciously coupled his principal followers with the rights and obligations of brethren; and when Ali found himself without a peer, the prophet tenderly declared, that he would be the companion and brother of the noble youth. The expedient was crowned with success; the holy fraternity was respected in peace and war, and the two parties vied with each other in a generous emulation of courage and fidelity. Once only the concord was slightly ruffled by an accidental quarrel: a patriot of Medina arraigned the insolence of the strangers, but the hint of their expulsion was heard with abhorrence; and his own son most eagerly offered to lay at the apostle's feet the head of his father.

From his establishment at Medina, Mahomet assumed the exercise of the regal and sacerdotal office; and it was impious to appeal from a judge whose decrees were inspired by the divine wisdom. A small portion of ground, the patrimony of two orphans, was acquired by gift or purchase;  121 on that chosen spot he built a house and a mosch, more venerable in their rude simplicity than the palaces and temples of the Assyrian caliphs. His seal of gold, or silver, was inscribed with the apostolic title; when he prayed and preached in the weekly assembly, he leaned against the trunk of a palm-tree; and it was long before he indulged himself in the use of a chair or pulpit of rough timber.  122 After a reign of six years, fifteen hundred Moslems, in arms and in the field, renewed their oath of allegiance; and their chief repeated the assurance of protection till the death of the last member, or the final dissolution of the party. It was in the same camp that the deputy of Mecca was astonished by the attention of the faithful to the words and looks of the prophet, by the eagerness with which they collected his spittle, a hair that dropped on the ground, the refuse water of his lustrations, as if they participated in some degree of the prophetic virtue. "I have seen," said he, "the Chosroes of Persia and the Caesar of Rome, but never did I behold a king among his subjects like Mahomet among his companions." The devout fervor of enthusiasm acts with more energy and truth than the cold and formal servility of courts.

In the state of nature, every man has a right to defend, by force of arms, his person and his possessions; to repel, or even to prevent, the violence of his enemies, and to extend his hostilities to a reasonable measure of satisfaction and retaliation. In the free society of the Arabs, the duties of subject and citizen imposed a feeble restraint; and Mahomet, in the exercise of a peaceful and benevolent mission, had been despoiled and banished by the injustice of his countrymen. The choice of an independent people had exalted the fugitive of Mecca to the rank of a sovereign; and he was invested with the just prerogative of forming alliances, and of waging offensive or defensive war. The imperfection of human rights was supplied and armed by the plenitude of divine power: the prophet of Medina assumed, in his new revelations, a fiercer and more sanguinary tone, which proves that his former moderation was the effect of weakness:  123 the means of persuasion had been tried, the season of forbearance was elapsed, and he was now commanded to propagate his religion by the sword, to destroy the monuments of idolatry, and, without regarding the sanctity of days or months, to pursue the unbelieving nations of the earth. The same bloody precepts, so repeatedly inculcated in the Koran, are ascribed by the author to the Pentateuch and the Gospel. But the mild tenor of the evangelic style may explain an ambiguous text, that Jesus did not bring peace on the earth, but a sword: his patient and humble virtues should not be confounded with the intolerant zeal of princes and bishops, who have disgraced the name of his disciples. In the prosecution of religious war, Mahomet might appeal with more propriety to the example of Moses, of the Judges, and the kings of Israel. The military laws of the Hebrews are still more rigid than those of the Arabian legislator.  124 The Lord of hosts marched in person before the Jews: if a city resisted their summons, the males, without distinction, were put to the sword: the seven nations of Canaan were devoted to destruction; and neither repentance nor conversion, could shield them from the inevitable doom, that no creature within their precincts should be left alive.  *_0013 The fair option of friendship, or submission, or battle, was proposed to the enemies of Mahomet. If they professed the creed of Islam, they were admitted to all the temporal and spiritual benefits of his primitive disciples, and marched under the same banner to extend the religion which they had embraced. The clemency of the prophet was decided by his interest: yet he seldom trampled on a prostrate enemy; and he seems to promise, that on the payment of a tribute, the least guilty of his unbelieving subjects might be indulged in their worship, or at least in their imperfect faith. In the first months of his reign he practised the lessons of holy warfare, and displayed his white banner before the gates of Medina: the martial apostle fought in person at nine battles or sieges;  125 and fifty enterprises of war were achieved in ten years by himself or his lieutenants. The Arab continued to unite the professions of a merchant and a robber; and his petty excursions for the defence or the attack of a caravan insensibly prepared his troops for the conquest of Arabia. The distribution of the spoil was regulated by a divine law:  126 the whole was faithfully collected in one common mass: a fifth of the gold and silver, the prisoners and cattle, the movables and immovables, was reserved by the prophet for pious and charitable uses; the remainder was shared in adequate portions by the soldiers who had obtained the victory or guarded the camp: the rewards of the slain devolved to their widows and orphans; and the increase of cavalry was encouraged by the allotment of a double share to the horse and to the man. From all sides the roving Arabs were allured to the standard of religion and plunder: the apostle sanctified the license of embracing the female captives as their wives or concubines, and the enjoyment of wealth and beauty was a feeble type of the joys of paradise prepared for the valiant martyrs of the faith. "The sword," says Mahomet, "is the key of heaven and of hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven: at the day of judgment his wounds shall be resplendent as vermilion, and odoriferous as musk; and the loss of his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim." The intrepid souls of the Arabs were fired with enthusiasm: the picture of the invisible world was strongly painted on their imagination; and the death which they had always despised became an object of hope and desire. The Koran inculcates, in the most absolute sense, the tenets of fate and predestination, which would extinguish both industry and virtue, if the actions of man were governed by his speculative belief. Yet their influence in every age has exalted the courage of the Saracens and Turks. The first companions of Mahomet advanced to battle with a fearless confidence: there is no danger where there is no chance: they were ordained to perish in their beds; or they were safe and invulnerable amidst the darts of the enemy.  127

Perhaps the Koreish would have been content with the dight of Mahomet, had they not been provoked and alarmed by the vengeance of an enemy, who could intercept their Syrian trade as it passed and repassed through the territory of Medina. Abu Sophian himself, with only thirty or forty followers, conducted a wealthy caravan of a thousand camels; the fortune or dexterity of his march escaped the vigilance of Mahomet; but the chief of the Koreish was informed that the holy robbers were placed in ambush to await his return. He despatched a messenger to his brethren of Mecca, and they were roused, by the fear of losing their merchandise and their provisions, unless they hastened to his relief with the military force of the city. The sacred band of Mahomet was formed of three hundred and thirteen Moslems, of whom seventy-seven were fugitives, and the rest auxiliaries; they mounted by turns a train of seventy camels, (the camels of Yathreb were formidable in war;) but such was the poverty of his first disciples, that only two could appear on horseback in the field.  128 In the fertile and famous vale of Beder,  129 three stations from Medina, he was informed by his scouts of the caravan that approached on one side; of the Koreish, one hundred horse, eight hundred and fifty foot, who advanced on the other. After a short debate, he sacrificed the prospect of wealth to the pursuit of glory and revenge, and a slight intrenchment was formed, to cover his troops, and a stream of fresh water, that glided through the valley. "O God," he exclaimed, as the numbers of the Koreish descended from the hills, "O God, if these are destroyed, by whom wilt thou be worshipped on the earth? - Courage, my children; close your ranks; discharge your arrows, and the day is your own." At these words he placed himself, with Abubeker, on a throne or pulpit,  130 and instantly demanded the succor of Gabriel and three thousand angels. His eye was fixed on the field of battle: the Mussulmans fainted and were pressed: in that decisive moment the prophet started from his throne, mounted his horse, and cast a handful of sand into the air: "Let their faces be covered with confusion." Both armies heard the thunder of his voice: their fancy beheld the angelic warriors:  131 the Koreish trembled and fled: seventy of the bravest were slain; and seventy captives adorned the first victory of the faithful. The dead bodies of the Koreish were despoiled and insulted: two of the most obnoxious prisoners were punished with death; and the ransom of the others, four thousand drams of silver, compensated in some degree the escape of the caravan. But it was in vain that the camels of Abu Sophian explored a new road through the desert and along the Euphrates: they were overtaken by the diligence of the Mussulmans; and wealthy must have been the prize, if twenty thousand drams could be set apart for the fifth of the apostle. The resentment of the public and private loss stimulated Abu Sophian to collect a body of three thousand men, seven hundred of whom were armed with cuirasses, and two hundred were mounted on horseback; three thousand camels attended his march; and his wife Henda, with fifteen matrons of Mecca, incessantly sounded their timbrels to animate the troops, and to magnify the greatness of Hobal, the most popular deity of the Caaba. The standard of God and Mahomet was upheld by nine hundred and fifty believers: the disproportion of numbers was not more alarming than in the field of Beder; and their presumption of victory prevailed against the divine and human sense of the apostle. The second battle was fought on Mount Ohud, six miles to the north of Medina;  132 the Koreish advanced in the form of a crescent; and the right wing of cavalry was led by Caled, the fiercest and most successful of the Arabian warriors. The troops of Mahomet were skilfully posted on the declivity of the hill; and their rear was guarded by a detachment of fifty archers. The weight of their charge impelled and broke the centre of the idolaters: but in the pursuit they lost the advantage of their ground: the archers deserted their station: the Mussulmans were tempted by the spoil, disobeyed their general, and disordered their ranks. The intrepid Caled, wheeling his cavalry on their flank and rear, exclaimed, with a loud voice, that Mahomet was slain. He was indeed wounded in the face with a javelin: two of his teeth were shattered with a stone; yet, in the midst of tumult and dismay, he reproached the infidels with the murder of a prophet; and blessed the friendly hand that stanched his blood, and conveyed him to a place of safety Seventy martyrs died for the sins of the people; they fell, said the apostle, in pairs, each brother embracing his lifeless companion;  133 their bodies were mangled by the inhuman females of Mecca; and the wife of Abu Sophian tasted the entrails of Hamza, the uncle of Mahomet. They might applaud their superstition, and satiate their fury; but the Mussulmans soon rallied in the field, and the Koreish wanted strength or courage to undertake the siege of Medina. It was attacked the ensuing year by an army of ten thousand enemies; and this third expedition is variously named from the nations, which marched under the banner of Abu Sophian, from the ditch which was drawn before the city, and a camp of three thousand Mussulmans. The prudence of Mahomet declined a general engagement: the valor of Ali was signalized in single combat; and the war was protracted twenty days, till the final separation of the confederates. A tempest of wind, rain, and hail, overturned their tents: their private quarrels were fomented by an insidious adversary; and the Koreish, deserted by their allies, no longer hoped to subvert the throne, or to check the conquests, of their invincible exile.  134


116 In the time of Job, the crime of impiety was punished by the Arabian magistrate, (c. 21, v. 26, 27, 28.) I blush for a respectable prelate (de Poesi Hebraeorum, p. 650, 651, edit. Michaelis; and letter of a late professor in the university of Oxford, p. 15 - 53,) who justifies and applauds this patriarchal inquisition.

117 D'Herbelot, Bibliot. Orient. p. 445. He quotes a particular history of the flight of Mahomet.

118 The Hegira was instituted by Omar, the second caliph, in imitation of the aera of the martyrs of the Christians, (D'Herbelot, p. 444;) and properly commenced sixty-eight days before the flight of Mahomet, with the first of Moharren, or first day of that Arabian year which coincides with Friday, July 16th, A.D. 622, (Abulfeda, Vit Moham, c. 22, 23, p. 45 - 50; and Greaves's edition of Ullug Beg's Epochae Arabum, &c., c. 1, p. 8, 10, &c.) Note: Chronologists dispute between the 15th and 16th of July. St. Martin inclines to the 8th, ch. xi. p. 70. - M.

119 Mahomet's life, from his mission to the Hegira, may be found in Abulfeda (p. 14 - 45) and Gagnier, (tom. i. p. 134 - 251, 342 - 383.) The legend from p. 187 - 234 is vouched by Al Jannabi, and disdained by Abulfeda.

120 The triple inauguration of Mahomet is described by Abulfeda (p. 30, 33, 40, 86) and Gagnier, (tom. i. p. 342, &c., 349, &c., tom. ii. p. 223 &c.)

121 Prideaux (Life of Mahomet, p. 44) reviles the wickedness of the impostor, who despoiled two poor orphans, the sons of a carpenter; a reproach which he drew from the Disputatio contra Saracenos, composed in Arabic before the year 1130; but the honest Gagnier (ad Abulfed. p. 53) has shown that they were deceived by the word Al Nagjar, which signifies, in this place, not an obscure trade, but a noble tribe of Arabs. The desolate state of the ground is described by Abulfeda; and his worthy interpreter has proved, from Al Bochari, the offer of a price; from Al Jannabi, the fair purchase; and from Ahmeq Ben Joseph, the payment of the money by the generous Abubeker On these grounds the prophet must be honorably acquitted.

122 Al Jannabi (apud Gagnier, tom. ii. p. 246, 324) describes the seal and pulpit, as two venerable relics of the apostle of God; and the portrait of his court is taken from Abulfeda, (c. 44, p. 85.)

123 The viiith and ixth chapters of the Koran are the loudest and most vehement; and Maracci (Prodromus, part iv. p. 59 - 64) has inveighed with more justice than discretion against the double dealing of the impostor.

124 The xth and xxth chapters of Deuteronomy, with the practical comments of Joshua, David, &c., are read with more awe than satisfaction by the pious Christians of the present age. But the bishops, as well as the rabbis of former times, have beat the drum-ecclesiastic with pleasure and success. (Sale's Preliminary Discourse, p. 142, 143.)

*_0013 The editor's opinions on this subject may be read in the History of the Jews vol. i. p. 137. - M

125 Abulfeda, in Vit. Moham. p. 156. The private arsenal of the apostle consisted of nine swords, three lances, seven pikes or half-pikes, a quiver and three bows, seven cuirasses, three shields, and two helmets, (Gagnier, tom. iii. p. 328 - 334,) with a large white standard, a black banner, (p. 335,) twenty horses, (p. 322, &c.) Two of his martial sayings are recorded by tradition, (Gagnier, tom. ii. p. 88, 334.)

126 The whole subject de jure belli Mohammedanorum is exhausted in a separate dissertation by the learned Reland, (Dissertationes Miscellaneae, tom. iii. Dissertat. x. p. 3 - 53.)

127 The doctrine of absolute predestination, on which few religions can reproach each other, is sternly exposed in the Koran, (c. 3, p. 52, 53, c. 4, p. 70, &c., with the notes of Sale, and c. 17, p. 413, with those of Maracci.) Reland (de Relig. Moham. p. 61 - 64) and Sale (Prelim. Discourse, p. 103) represent the opinions of the doctors, and our modern travellers the confidence, the fading confidence, of the Turks

128 Al Jannabi (apud Gagnier, tom. ii. p. 9) allows him seventy or eighty horse; and on two other occasions, prior to the battle of Ohud, he enlists a body of thirty (p. 10) and of 500 (p. 66) troopers. Yet the Mussulmans, in the field of Ohud, had no more than two horses, according to the better sense of Abulfeda, (in Vit. Moham. c. xxxi. p. 65.) In the Stony province, the camels were numerous; but the horse appears to have been less numerous than in the Happy or the Desert Arabia.

129 Bedder Houneene, twenty miles from Medina, and forty from Mecca, is on the high road of the caravan of Egypt; and the pilgrims annually commemorate the prophet's victory by illuminations, rockets, &c. Shaw's Travels, p. 477.

130 The place to which Mahomet retired during the action is styled by Gagnier (in Abulfeda, c. 27, p. 58. Vie de Mahomet, tom. ii. p. 30, 33) Umbraculum, une loge de bois avec une porte. The same Arabic word is rendered by Reiske (Annales Moslemici Abulfedae, p. 23) by Solium, Suggestus editior; and the difference is of the utmost moment for the honor both of the interpreter and of the hero. I am sorry to observe the pride and acrimony with which Reiske chastises his fellow-laborer. Saepi sic vertit, ut integrae paginae nequeant nisi una litura corrigi Arabice non satis callebat, et carebat judicio critico. J. J. Reiske, Prodidagmata ad Hagji Chalisae Tabulas, p. 228, ad calcero Abulfedae Syriae Tabulae; Lipsiae, 1766, in 4to.

131 The loose expressions of the Koran (c. 3, p. 124, 125, c. 8, p. 9) allow the commentators to fluctuate between the numbers of 1000, 3000, or 9000 angels; and the smallest of these might suffice for the slaughter of seventy of the Koreish, (Maracci, Alcoran, tom. ii. p. 131.) Yet the same scholiasts confess that this angelic band was not visible to any mortal eye, (Maracci, p. 297.) They refine on the words (c. 8, 16) "not thou, but God," &c. (D'Herbelot. Bibliot. Orientale p. 600, 601.)

132 Geograph. Nubiensis, p. 47.

133 In the iiid chapter of the Koran, (p. 50 - 53, with Sale's notes, the prophet alleges some poor excuses for the defeat of Ohud. Note: Dr. Weil has added some curious circumstances, which he gives as on good traditional authority, on the rescue of Mahomet. The prophet was attacked by Ubeijj Ibn Challaf, whom he struck on the neck with a mortal wound. This was the only time, it is added, that Mahomet personally engaged in battle. (p. 128.) - M. 1845.

134 For the detail of the three Koreish wars, of Beder, of Ohud, and of the ditch, peruse Abulfeda, (p. 56 - 61, 64 - 69, 73 - 77,) Gagnier (tom. i. p. 23 - 45, 70 - 96, 120 - 139,) with the proper articles of D'Herbelot, and the abridgments of Elmacin (Hist. Saracen. p. 6, 7) and Abulpharagius, (Dynast. p. 102.)

Next: Chapter L: Description Of Arabia And Its Inhabitants. Part VI.