In PartOne, we have narrated that, after much thought no doubt, Muhammad had decided to keep his mission secret, so that he would be able to establish a foundation without attracting unwarranted attention and opposition from the people in Makkah.
He turned to his family members and closest friends. They in turn recruited many others until his followers numbered about forty or so after a few months or a year of spreading Islam quietly and in secrecy.
Now, one often gets the impression that Muhammad’s early followers are among the weak and the poor. This, however, is not quite the case. There are no doubt the weak and the poor among his followers, but they were not in the majority. The majority of his early followers were the youth, people who were much younger than himself.
It is also to be noted that the Prophet did not make deliberate efforts to gain followers from the lower strata of the society. No doubt many of his early followers such as Bilal bin Rabah, Ammar bin Yassir, Abdullah bin Mas’ud and Khabbab bin Aratt belonged to this strata, but with the exception of Abdullah bin Mas’ud, they became Muslims mostly through the effort of his followers.
That said, whenever the opportunity comes knocking, Muhammad does not leave it unattended. This is clearly the case with Abdullah bin Mas’ud.
One day, in one of their outings, Muhammad and Abu Bakar became thirsty and they happened to come across a flock of sheep tended by a young man. He asked the young shepherd whether he can milk one of the sheep so that they can quench their thirst and filled their hunger as well.
“I cannot. These sheep belong to their owner. I am only responsible to look after them,” the young shepherd answered.
Instead of being disappointed, the Prophet was actually impressed with the young man trustworthiness. A man like this would be handy for his mission. So he tested the young shepherd further.
“Surely your employer would not know that one of his sheep has been milked.” The Prophet said.
“He doesn’t, but I do.” The young shepherd replied simply. The Prophet was impressed even further. Most narrations stop there, but there are other narrations, perhaps less authentic, indicating that the Prophet said: “But if I milk the maiden sheep that has not yet mated, then your employer would lose nothing, would he not?”
“Yes, but the maiden sheep doesn’t have milk in her fodder.” The young man replied.
“We will see. Give me one.” Said the Prophet.
The young shepherd caught one of the maiden sheep and handed her to him. The Prophet supplicated to God, and when he touched the maiden sheep’s fodder, it grew bigger and swollen with milk. This was one of the Prophet’s few miracles. Muhammad the Prophet then milked her and both of them drank from it. As soon as the Prophet finished milking her, the fodder returned to its normal state.
It was the young shepherd’s turn to be impressed.
That young man was none other than Abdullah bin Mas’ud, who, after that event, quickly went looking for the Prophet and declared his faith. It is to be noted that Abdullah bin Mas’ud had heard of the new religion being preached among the Quraysh society, but he never paid attention to it, being busy with his work tending the flock of his master outside of the city of Makkah. After that event, he became curious.
This story leading to Abdullah bin Mas’ud’s conversion serves to illustrate the point that when the opportunity knocks, the Prophet would not let it go away without “capitalizing” on it. Abdullah bin Mas’ud belonged to the weak and the poor, for he was only a shepherd to one of Quraysh chieftains, Uqbah bin Muayt, but he had some quality which would come handy to the mission.
That said, Abdullah bin Mas’ud’s case is not exactly special. Other followers of Muhammad who belonged to the same class as Ibnu Mas’ud, as he is generally called, were also people like him. They were all trustworthy and people of great forbearance. All of them persevered and remained with the faith regardless of the trials and temptations. Ibnu Mas’ud was special only in the sense that the Prophet made a deliberate moved to “convert” him.
At this point, one may ask: Why didn’t the Prophet make deliberate effort to convert the weak and the poor? Are they not easier targets, like the youth?
To answer this question, we have to remember that the Prophet did not bring social or political revolution, although his movement is revolutionary, and has changed the social and political landscapes not only in Arabia, but the whole world as well. His movement was not a class, a racial or economic struggle.
He did not incite the lower caste against the noble class, as was the case with the French Revolution. He did not incite the poor proletariat against the rich bourgeois, as was the case with the Communist Revolution. He did not incite one race or clan against the other, as were the cases with many revolutions in the modern day Africa.
His mission was simply to call people to worship the One True God, and to prefer the life in the Hereafter over the life in this world. If the mission succeeds, of course the life in this world would be better as well, but it would not necessarily be in the material, class or racial sense.
Islam is a class-less religion. The only criterion that differentiates one against the other is piety. Islam does not promise any material, social or political reward to its adherents. In fact, to the early converts, they could lose all these.
For that reason, Islam at its impetus appealed only to those who did not care for the material or worldly comfort. And where this is concerned, it matters little whether one is rich or poor.
We would be mistaken if we think that the poor do not care about material comfort. The fact is that the poor care for the material and worldly comforts as much as the rich. They just don’t have these comforts due to their poverty. And whatever little they have, they don’t want to lose these.
It is for these reasons that, contrary to the popular opinion, the majority of early followers of Muhammad were not really from the weak and the poor. Most of them were the youth, and the majority of these youth came from noble families. Only the poor who did not care for the reward in this world joined him. The majority of the poor in Makkah, whose life depended on their masters, and dreaded to lose whatever little they had, remained with the religion of their masters.
As earlier said, at its impetus, one can lose everything by being Muslim. The Prophet understood this from the beginning. Thus, only those with pure heart and steely determination would want to join the fold of Islam. It is this type of people whom the Prophet targeted in the beginning of his mission. As the hearts of the youth tend to be purer since they are not yet tainted with the trappings and temptations of the world, naturally these became the majority of the Prophet’s early followers.
As for the weak and the poor, they tend to follow the strong and the rich. The weak and the poor, therefore, would not make good followers, unless their hearts are pure and they are people of steely determination. It is for this reason that the Prophet did not make deliberate effort to convert the weak and the poor in the beginning of his mission, unless they have the required quality, because he knew that this group would eventually join Islam once the mission succeed.
To recap, once the Prophet understood that he had been chosen to be the Last Prophet to carry out the final mission of prophethood, he quickly laid the ground work intelligently and wisely.
He knew he would be opposed by his people. He knew he could not achieve his mission without a strong base of supporters. And he knew that the influential leaders among the Quraysh would oppose him. Having perceived all these, he decided that the best way to go about his mission was to keep it secret as long as he could.
Furthermore, knowing that his mission would be fought tooth and nail by the Quraysh, he went looking for the right people to be his supporters, people of pure and steely hearts, people who would withstand all kinds of oppressions and persecutions.
By keeping the faith secret, he did not attract unwarranted attention. This had enabled him to teach and train his supporters on the new religion: what it means, what it takes, and the kind of sacrifices that would come from it. He convinced them that this new faith is the Way of the Truth. Despite the hardship his followers would have to go through, he promised them nothing from this world. Their reward would be in the Hereafter, the everlasting and great reward.
This went on for the good three years without much distraction. By then, these youth of pure hearts and steely determination were filled with the right faith, and they were able to withstand whatever oppositions that came to their path. And that was exactly what happened. As we know from the seerah, the period of secrecy is followed by the period of severe persecution.
Fanciful at it may sound, the fate of his mission would have been different, and would have fared much worse, if he decided from the beginning to make his mission known to everyone. He would have been alone facing all the oppositions and persecutions, and the faith would probably not have much chance to succeed. Since he was able to establish a strong base of supporters, afforded by the brilliant strategy he adopted, the fledgling Islamic community that he established was able to withstand all sorts of persecutions thrown to them shortly thereafter.
Of course the guidance from Allah made all these possible, but for those who ponder, the hand of an intelligent man is also at work.