According to Islamic tradition, when Muhammad, a prosperous Arabian merchant from the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, was forty years old, he was praying in a cave in the mountains near Mecca. As he passed the entire night in devotion, an angel came to him and commanded him to read and recite what he read. Muhammad replied, “I do not know how to read.”
The spiritual being, however, would brook no objections. According to a hadith recorded by Bukhari, he pressed his will upon Muhammad in a terrifying fashion, even going so far as to menace him physically:
(The Prophet added), “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and again asked me to read, and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and asked me again to read, but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or, what shall I read?).’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me and then released me and said, ‘Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists). Has created man from a clot. Read! And Your Lord is Most Generous…[unto]…that which he knew not.'” (V. 96:5)
This is the famous first revelation of the Qur’an, now found as sura 96:1-5. In the standard Islamic version of this event, it was the angel Gabriel who appeared to Muhammad, but the earliest Islamic sources present a slightly more complex picture. The ninth-century Islamic historian Ibn Sa’d records a Muslim tradition asserting that an angel named Seraphel originally visited Muhammad, and was replaced by Gabriel after three years. He also records the fact that “the learned and those versed in Sirah literature” contradicted this tradition, and maintained that only Gabriel ever appeared to Muhammad. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how anyone would have gotten the idea that another angel was involved with Muhammad if Islamic tradition had been absolutely certain from the first moment that it was Gabriel.
At the beginning Muhammad regarded his spiritual encounter with considerable agitation. According to Ibn Sa’d, he “suffered much pain and his face turned dust-coloured.” According to the eighth-century Islamic historian Ibn Ishaq, he wondered if he had been demonically possessed, and even contemplated suicide:
I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest. So I went forth to do so and then when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Muhammad! Thou art an apostle of God and I am Gabriel.” I raised my head towards heaven to see (who was speaking) and lo, Gabriel in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon, saying, “O Muhammad! Thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.”
Muhammad returned to his wife Khadija in tremendous distress. According to Aisha (via Bukhari):
“Then Allah’s Messenger returned with that (the Revelation), and his heart severely beating; (and the) muscles between his neck and shoulders were trembling till he came upon Khadija (his wife) and said, ‘Cover me!’ They covered him, till his fear was over, and after that he said, ‘O Khadija! What is wrong with me? I was afraid that something bad might happen to me.’ Then he told her all that had happened.”
Ibn Ishaq says that he repeated to her his initial fears: “Woe is me, poet or possessed.” He meant “poet” in the sense of one who received ecstatic, and possibly demonic, visions. But according to Bukhari, Khadija had more confidence in Muhammad than he did in himself. She took Muhammad to see her uncle Waraqa, a Nestorian Christian priest, who told Muhammad the identity of his angelic visitor: “This is the same one who keeps the secrets (angel Gabriel) whom Allah had sent to Moses.”
Without the care of Khadija (who remained Muhammad’s only wife until her death) and the affirmation of Waraqa, the world might never have known Islam. Soon after Waraqa identified the being who had appeared to Muhammad, the old man died. And not long after that the prophet he had effectively anointed was again plunged into a despair so intense that he again contemplated suicide. According to Bukhari:
But after a few days Waraqa died and the Divine Revelation was also paused for a while and the Prophet became so sad as we have heard that he intended several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains and every time he went up the top of a mountain in order to throw himself down, Gabriel would appear before him and say, “O Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Messenger in truth,” whereupon his heart would become quiet and he would calm down and would return home.
This scenario evidently played out again whenever Muhammad had to wait too long for Gabriel to reappear. Bukhari also records a tradition in which “whenever the period of the coming of the Revelation used to become long, [Muhammad] would do as before, but when he used to reach the top of a mountain, Gabriel would appear before him and say to him what he had said before.”
In another Bukhari hadith, Muhammad reacted to the resumption of the revelations in the same way he reacted to the first one. He explained:
The Divine Inspiration was delayed for a short period but suddenly, as I was walking, I heard a voice in the sky, and when I looked up towards the sky, to my surprise, I saw the angel who had come to me in the Hira Cave, and he was sitting on a chair in between the sky and the earth. I was so frightened by him that I fell on the ground and came to my family and said (to them), “Cover me! (with a blanket), cover me!”
The rest of the sura comes from a later date, and is preoccupied with the ingratitude of man: he thinks he is self-sufficient (v. 7) when actually he depends upon Allah (v. 8). The man who tries to prevent someone from praying (vv. 9-10) is turning his back on the truth (v. 13) but will face Allah’s punishment (vv. 15-16), and no one will aid him (v. 17). Muhammad, however, should pay no attention to him, but devote himself to the worship of Allah (v. 19). Ibn Kathir says that “all this referred to Abu Jahl, may Allah curse him. He threatened the Prophet for performing Salah [Islamic prayer] at the Ka’bah.”
(Revised June 2016)