Reformers, liberators and martyrs

There have been calls for unity since the early days of Islam up to the Nahda.

An extract from Sunset in Palestine by Basel Almisshal 2004 courtesy of

While Islam acted as a unifying factor for the dispersed and disparate rural and urban communities of Arabia, the vision of a singular state was never achieved.

Rifts, in-fighting, the Crusades and the push of the Mongol horde undermined hopes of solidifying the Arabs into a cohesive nation.

However, this has not stopped efforts by iconic figures in Arab history from continuing to call for the ideal of Arab unity to be realised. While the Prophet Muhammad brought the tribes of the hijaz together, it was Saladin al-Ayoubi, the legendary Kurdish military leader, who pushed for political reform within the Arab nation as he battled the foreign Crusader armies.

But Saladin died young, and by 1258, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the Arab state had been torn apart by corruption and complacence.

The principles of unity would lie dormant until the early 19th century as Europe once again pushed against the borders of the Ottoman-occupied Arab nations.

Prophet Muhammad Ibn Abdullah

The early years

Calligraphy of the name Muhammad

Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the final prophet of Islam, was born in the trading city of Mecca, Arabia, in c AD 570, to the ruling clan of Banu Hashim. His early childhood was spent in the desert, as per the tradition of the time, where he learnt to speak the pure Arabic tongue and was raised in an uncorrupted environment away from the luxuries and distractions of the city. Orphaned in his early years, he spent the rest of his childhood in the care of his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, and after that his uncle, Abu Talib, who also initiated the young Muhammad into the trading profession by taking him on his expeditions.

It was through this trade that Muhammad met his wife, Khadija bint Khuwailid, a widow who was several years his elder. She was impressed by his widespread reputation for honesty and trustworthiness. Khadija and Muhammad married when he was approximately 25 years old, and she was to prove a pillar of strength and support to him during the early years of Islam.


Muhammad developed a habit of retreating from the hustle and bustle of Mecca to the surrounding mountains and their caves, as a form of spiritual solace and meditation. On one occasion, when he was 40-years old, he experienced something which was to change the course of his life, indeed the course of history for the whole of Arabia and arguably, the world.

Muhammad received the first revelation from the Archangel Gabriel, whose first and most persistent words to him were the imperative “read!” Illiterate Muhammad was deeply shaken by the force of this experience, but gradually came to terms with the weight of the responsibility he now held. He accepted his role as prophet, and his mission to communicate God’s message – “read” – an inspiration for humans to this day to think, learn, rationalise, criticise and innovate.


During the early years of Islam, Muhammad’s followers were few – notably Khadija and his best friend Abu Bakr. Many of the early Muslims were socially weak – both in terms of their wealth and in their all-important tribal status. A number of them were slaves, such as Bilal ibn Rabah, the Abyssinian. The reaction of the Meccan leaders was to persecute these “heretics” – torturing them, abusing them and eventually imposing a social and economic boycott.

In AD 620, Muhammad experienced a miraculous night journey with the Archangel Gabriel. In the first part, the Isra, he travelled from Mecca to “the farthest mosque” (in Arabic: masjid al-aqsa), in Jerusalem. In the second, the Miraj, Muhammad visited heaven and hell, and spoke with earlier prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus.


Soon after this event, Muhammad and the Muslims received an invitation from tribal leaders in the town of Yathrib where fighting between Arab and Jewish tribes had been going on for a century. The people of Yathrib had heard of Muhammad’s reputation as a just and trustworthy character, and requested that he act as arbitrator in their disputes, offering him and his followers sanctuary. Muhammad’s followers began to emigrate, and by 622, Muhammad, accompanied by Abu Bakr, made the journey himself. Welcomed by those who were awaiting him, Yathrib was renamed Madinat ul-Nabi (City of the Prophet) in his honour. Today it is known as Medina for short.

In Medina, Muhammad is recorded as having established peace among the tribes, notably through the Sahifa – what was roughly a constitution for Medina. In the ensuing years, Medina was forced to turn its attention towards battle with external enemies, in the form of Mecca and her allies. Most prominent among these being the Battle of Badr – a victory for Muhammad and his followers, and the Battle of Uhud, initiated by the Meccans in the form of revenge for Badr and where complacency and a lack of discipline after initially gaining the upper hand, eventually led to a defeat for the Muslims.

Truce of Hudaybiya and the conquest of Mecca

In 628, Muhammad and his followers began a journey towards Mecca as pilgrims. There was still enmity between them and the Quraysh of Mecca and the pilgrims were stopped. Just outside Mecca, at Hudaybiya, talks took place and an agreement was reached. Muhammad and his followers did not perform their pilgrimage, but came back with a form of truce and the promise of passage for pilgrimage the following year.

Two years later, the leaders of Mecca were considered to have broken the truce by assisting another tribe in an attack against a Muslim. Muhammad mobilised to enter Mecca and, in a historic manner, was able to do so without shedding a drop of blood, while offering amnesty to all in the city who did not choose to accept Islam.

Muhammad died in 632 in Medina where he is buried. Today, more than one billion people across the world profess to the faith of Islam and hold Muhammad in reverence as a unique, powerful yet very human personal role model.

Further outstanding figures in the Arab heritage:

Sati’ al-Husari: A brilliant scholar, educationalist and mentor for pan-Arab parties.

Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi: Imprisoned and exiled for his views on the Ottoman empire, the journalist fought for Arab nationalism.

Saladin: A towering military figure remembered for his success in repelling the Crusader forces.

Nasif al-Yaziji: The writer formed the Arab world’s first literary society in 1847. His son, Ibrahim, simplified the Arabic script enabling it to be used on a typewriter.

Butros al-Bustani: Translated the Bible into Arabic and worked on the first Arabic encyclopaedia.

Source: Al Jazeera

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