There was nothing magical about the birth of baby boy Muhammad.
The thunderous storm and lightning did not greet him, as it would greet the birth of Malay kings in the ancient times, as the legends say.
He was not born to a virgin mother like Jesus, although his father was not there during his birth. Being a posthumous child, his father died while his mother carried him in her womb. Unlike Muhammad, however, Jesus never had father, which made his birth miraculous.
He was not born at the tip of the sword, as Moses was. When Moses was born, his mother had to hide him in a cooking pot with burning charcoal, as the tradition goes, because the army of the Pharaoh was looking for the Israelite baby boys to be executed. One of these boys would unseat his power, as the Pharaoh understood from his dream. Other baby boys would have been cooked to death, but Moses survived, just as Abraham survived the inferno more than 500 years earlier.
The birth of Muhammad was as normal as any other birth, with a few exceptions.
First, his birth was already foretold. Those with revealed scriptures, the Jews and the Christians, knew that his time was forthcoming.
Second, his mother had an easy pregnancy. His mother, Amina, was reportedly saying that when she carried Muhammad in her womb, she did not feel like being pregnant. It was light and easy, as modern man would say. When she gave birth to him, she saw light coming out of her birth canal. The birth itself was also easy, no complication, not as painful as it normally would.
Third, the fire which had been burning for a thousand years at the heart of the Persian Empire suddenly went out.
But all the three above lack historicity. They are taken as given by the Muslims, but remain points of contention by non Muslims. The historical event that suggests something extraordinary was about to take place is the abortive demolition of Kaabah by the Elephant Army of Abrahah. This event requires some deliberation.
Kaabah was built around 2000 BCE by Abraham and his son Ishmael, as we have narrated in TheUnlikely Beginning. Like angels who were wondering why Allah wanted to make human beings, as narrated in the Divine Intervention, Abraham too was wondering why would people want to visit a place like Makkah. On both accounts, Allah had His way, as always is the case.
Ever since Kaabah was built, people kept coming to Makkah every year to perform pilgrimage. But it was only the Arabs who came, imitating the tradition of their forefathers, Abraham and Ishmael. This went on forever, and was never an issue to anyone. It was considered simply as the peculiarity of the Arab people. No people or nations were bothered about it, until the 6th century CE that is.
In the 6th century, the Axum Empire of Abyssinia (Ethiopia, or Habsyah in Arabic) was a noted regional power. They occupied the southern Arabia, Yemen, with the capital in Sanaa. The Abyssinians were Christians.
Their governor in Yemen, whose name was Abrahah, had been wondering for sometime why on earth the Arabs revered the shrine in Makkah. It was just a cube like stone structure. No aesthetic value can be attached to it.
The Arabs at that time were polytheists, with the exception of a few Christians in the region called Najran, north to Yemen, and far south of Makkah. Abrahah himself was a Christian and desired that the Arabs be Christianized. So he built a great cathedral in Sanaa, and invoked all Arabs, especially those in his dominion, to come and worship in it.
The Arabs not only ignored his invocation, but was insulted by it, especially the Quraysh. Thus insulted, during one of their trading expeditions to Yemen, one of the Quraysh had answered the call of nature inside the majestic cathedral. Even supposed he was not able to do it, since all eyes would be watching, he had nevertheless smeared the sanctity of the cathedral with his feces.
Abrahah was incensed and declared to take the revenge by demolishing Kaabah. Thus decided, he rode to Makkah with his large army containing many elephants.
Now, the Arabs were united only in their reverent to Kaabah. Politically, they were independent and subservient only to their tribal chiefs. Although all Arabs revered Kaabah, many decided that it was the issue between Abrahah and the Makkans. Furthermore, many thought that the Abrahah army was too powerful to be overcome.
Thus, except for a few tribes, none resisted the ambition of Abrahah. Those who tried were easily defeated and their leaders captured. Some even helped Abrahah by guiding the army to Makkah. These were tribes envious of Quraysh high standing among the Arabs, on account of them being the custodian of the Holy Kaabah.
The news of Abrahah army coming to destroy Kaabah was a great concerned to the Quraysh. After consultation among themselves, they decided not to fight, for they were powerless to confront the army as powerful as Abrahah’s army. They decided to leave KaabahKaabah, after all, is the House of Allah.
When Abrahah and his army reached the vicinity of Makkah, they confiscated many livestock belonging to the Quraysh and sent the message that he wanted to speak to their leader. Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet, being the supreme leader of Quraysh at that time, came to see Abrahah with a few of his colleagues.
When Abrahah saw Abdul Muttablib, he was impressed with his look and his demeanor, so Abrahah went down to sit with his guest, instead of remaining to his seat. Upon inquiry, he was told by Abdul Muttalib that his army was too big for the Quraysh to withstand, so they won’t put up any fight.
“Wise choice,” said Abrahah, and continued, “and is there anything you would like to ask from me?”
“That you give back our livestock you have wrongly taken, including my 200 camels.” Abdul Muttalib answered simply.
“When I saw you, I was impressed by your look and your demeanor, but when I find out that all you care is your livestock, I respect you no more.” Said Abrahah disappointed.
“I am the owner of my camels. As for Kaabah, Allah is the owner. I protect what is mine. Allah will protect what is His.” Abdul Muttalib replied.
“Your God will not be able to withstand my army.” Abrahah retorted arrogantly.
“We will see.” Abdul Muttalib replied, with a tinge of threat in it.
That reply did not diminish Abrahah’s ambition, but he was impressed with Abdul Muttalib courage, for throughout the conversation, the latter did not show any sign that he was afraid of Abrahah.
When Abrahah and his army arrived near Kaabah, the Quraysh had left their houses and encamped at the nearby hill, watching what Abrahah and his army would do, and praying that Allah will save Kaabah. Abdul Muttalib himself had spent the night before in Kaabah, praying and invoking Allah to save it from destruction.
The elephant tasked with the job of demolishing Kaabah, called Mahmoud, refuse to obey the order. When the direction of Kaabah was pointed to her, she sit down. When other direction was pointed, she marched. These they tried a few times with similar result. Neither persuasion nor force would make Mahmoud obey the command.
Abrahah have had it enough. If Mahmoud was not willing to do the job, then his whole army would do their bits. When the Abyssinian army was about to do that, suddenly small birds came out of nowhere and dropped stones the size of peanut on Abrahah’s army. When these stones hit them, their flesh came out.
Most died because of that. Abrahah himself was hit, but he survived while at Makkah. On his way back to Sanaa, little by little of his flesh kept dropping. He died upon reaching home.
Thus the Kaabah, whose foundation was built about 2,500 years before, was saved.
This extraordinary event, to us Muslims, is a portent for the extraordinary thing to come. It was Divine intervention, not human resistant, that had saved Kaabah from the destruction. It was a prelude to the birth of the great man who will change the course of the world affairs.
Some people, however, do not quite see it that way. To take out the miraculous nature of this event, the orientalists simply say that Abrahah and his army were stricken by smallpox. Strangely, the great scholar Muhammad Abduh, also claimed the same. Sayyid Quth in his famous commentary, In the Shade of Quran, chided Muhammad Abduh for parroting what the enemies of Islam say.
As far as we are concerned, there is no need to be apologetic about the miraculous nature of this event. After all, smallpox does not cause the flesh to fall out of the body, like leaves eaten by worms, as Quran puts it.
Miracle or otherwise, the interesting part is that soon after the destruction of Abrahah’s army, Muhammad was born. It is Allah’s way of ushering the great era which was about to come.
In the same domain, Muhammad was not supposed to be born in the first place, because his father Abdullah was supposed to die before he married Amina, the prophet’s mother.
Many years back, Abdul Muttalib had vowed to sacrifice one of his sons if he were granted many sons. When at last he did, he set out to fulfill his promise. When the ballot was taken, it was Abdullah’s name on that divining arrow. Abdullah was about to be sacrificed when the Quraysh interfered and invoked Abdul Muttalib to settle the matter by referring to the soothsayer, as was their practice during those days.
The soothsayer asked them what was the ransom for blood money in their society. They replied that it is ten camels. She told them to retake the divining arrow. If the name Abdullah came out, ten camels should be sacrificed in his place. This process was to be repeated until the name camel came out.
Every time the arrow was taken, the name Abdullah came out. This happened ten times in a row. On the eleventh time, the name camel came out. After they tried again, it was camel again. After three times in a row the name camel came out, Abdul Muttalib was satisfied and considered it a divine decree, and sacrificed 100 camels in place of Abdullah.
Abdullah was married to Amina soon after. A few days into the marriage, Amina was pregnant. A few weeks later, Abdullah went to Syria in a trade expedition and died on his way back home. His life was spared long enough to plant the seed of the Seal of the Prophets. That in itself is also a wonder.
Whether it is the story of Abrahah, or the story of Abdullah, each of these is God’s way of introducing a new era. As is always the case, a great introduction is of paramount importance to everything. If we are to make a big sale, first impression matters. If we are to make important presentation, a great introduction is indispensable. To usher in a new era, God had made a great introduction with the story of Abrahah.
Kaabah was just a stone structure and was built only by men, not angels. If men can build it, they can also demolish and rebuild it, as had happened many times throughout history.
If Abrahah had demolished it, it can be rebuilt as soon as Abrahah army left. From a purely material perspective, the event is not a big deal. The Quraysh understood it. If they resisted Abrahah, they would have been destroyed. If Abrahah destroyed only the Kaabah, but the Quraysh were spared, they could build it again. It was a practical choice on their part.
Nevertheless, they prayed that Allah would protect it, since it was not the act of demolition itself which was an issue. It was the evil intention of Abrahah which they were against. Abrahah wanted to destroy the symbol of their religion. He wanted to eradicate the root of their tradition.
While steeped in idolatry, the Quraysh sincerely believed that Kaabah is the House of God. Since they could not oppose Abrahah army, they prayed for God to protect His house from Abrahah’s evil intention.
On His part, Allah had decided Kaabah to be His House. His House had been repaired and rebuilt before due to natural disasters, or worn by time. But Allah did not want His House to be insulted, as Abrahah was intent on doing. And Allah also wanted to give a memorable introduction to the new era. Thus, in the 6th century, as a way of ushering the new era, He made the fate of Abrahah’s army as a prelude for what to come afterward. He wanted to show that when He wills, nothing can stop him.
The Quraysh did not defend the Kaabah. Allah Himself did. It matters little whether it was miraculous birds with magical stones that saved the Kaabah, or whether it was smallpox. Either way, it was the army of Allah. But since Allah wanted to put a little showcase to the event, it would be preposterous to think that it was just a plague of smallpox.
The event in itself was not even important. It was just an introduction, a prelude to the greater thing that was about to come. And that was the birth of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad bin Abdullah, peace and blessing be upon him.