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  • In Cairo, a muezzin calls faithful Muslims to prayer.

  • It's the same call that sounds five times a day, every day,

  • in cities across the world.

  • Nearly a quarter of the people on earth respond to it,

  • 'God is most great' the muezzin calls.

  • 'I testify there is no other god but God.'

  • 'I testify Muhammad is the messenger of God.

  • 'Come and pray. Come and flourish.

  • 'God is most great.

  • 'There is no god but God.'

  • In the unfolding of history,

  • Islamic civilisation has been one of humanity's grandest achievements.

  • A worldwide power founded simply on faith.

  • A spiritual revolution that would shape the nations of three continets

  • and launch an empire.

  • For the West, much of the history of Islam has been obscured

  • behind a veil of fear and misunderstanding.

  • Yet Islam's hidden history is deeply, and surprisingly,

  • interwoven with Western civilisation.

  • It was Muslim scholars who reclaimed the ancient wisdom of Greeks.

  • While Europe languished in the Dark Ages.

  • It was they who sowed the seeds of the Renaissance,

  • 600 years before the birth of Leonardo da Vinci.

  • From the way we heal the sick...

  • to the numerals we use for counting...

  • cultures across the globe have been shaped by Islamic civilisation.

  • But all this, began with the life of a single, ordinary man,

  • and the profound message he proclaimed would change the world forever.

  • His name was Muhammad.

  • To Muslims, the life of Muhammad is a story revered.

  • In its mysteries as much as its certainties,

  • there are beliefs held sacred.

  • Whatever we can tell about the Prophet, of course,

  • is screened through the filter of what has been preserved over the centuries

  • and what people have wanted to preserve.

  • It's very difficult to pull out,

  • from all these different sources that are very adoring,

  • the ordinary human being...

  • We do know that Muhammad was born in or around 570 AD

  • in the sun-blasted Arabian peninsula.

  • A land of savage scarcity

  • whose Bedouin tribes were locked in a constant state of tribal war.

  • While still an infant,

  • Muhammad's parents gave him his first taste of life in the desert.

  • Muhammad was from a town, Mecca,

  • but he was sent off to live with the Bedouin

  • because the peopl lived in the town of Mecca

  • felt that the Bedouin were the holders of the deeper cultural Arab values.

  • And the Bedouin view the towns people

  • as having lost their really authentic roots in Arab culture

  • and the poetry and animal husbandry

  • and all the things that they do so well.

  • By the time Muhammad was six, both of his parents had died

  • and he was taken under the protection of his uncle, chief of his clan.

  • Being an outsider gave him a singular perspective.

  • He'd been orphaned early

  • and developed very early on a passionate sense of concern

  • for those who are left out of society.

  • To be orphaned in a tribal society

  • where clan and family relationships are your keys to everything...

  • success, status, honour, dignity...

  • is to face what it really feels like to be marginalised.

  • That obviously had a very deep impression on him as a young man.

  • In some ways, it was detrimental, of course, to grow up without parents.

  • But in other ways he was so adaptable.

  • He had many parents. He had many fathers.

  • He had many mothers. So it made him a child of everybody.

  • Muhammad's clan, like Arabs all across the Arabian peninsula,

  • would share the stories that had been told and retold for generations.

  • Pre Islamic Arabian civilisation was largely an oral culture

  • and there was tremendous respect and admiration

  • for people who could express themselves orally,

  • especially those who could recite poetry almost at the drop of a hat.

  • Some of the most important people in a tribe were the poets.

  • They sang of the glory of the tribe. They told the story of the tribe.

  • To the Bedouin, the word had a mystical importance.

  • Poets linked the tribe to its ancestors and celebrated values older than memory.

  • Poetry was the sinew that bound the Bedouin together,

  • celebrating their victories, lamenting their defeats.

  • The poems themselves, like the poems of Homer,

  • both celebrate this great heroic ethos

  • and yet intimate, in the deepest way,

  • the tragedy that, um...

  • this war... this ethos of constant tribal warfare brings to people.

  • Warfare and conflict were the grim realities of a dangerous time.

  • Muhammad's uncle taught him the skills he'd need to survive

  • in a world where even a prophet would wield a bow and arrow.

  • In a wilderness punished by the elements and bereft of water,

  • rivalry over a single well could provoke a blood feud for generations.

  • A real rivalry. Real battles, and sometimes quite bloody.

  • So the allegiance of individuals was to the family, immidiately,

  • and, a larger extent, to the tribe.

  • Without the tribe's protection, no one could endure.

  • Scattered across the peninsula were countless factions,

  • all embroiled in bitter struggles,

  • each defending its precious grazing lands, trade routes

  • and most importantly, its wells.

  • You have to understand that most of the lands are dry.

  • So, water is something that everyone always considers precious.

  • For those of us in climates that are more heavily watered

  • it's difficult to understand the depth and the centrality of the symbol of water

  • in societies that are desert

  • and in which it only rains once or twice a year

  • and in which a little water makes the difference between life and death.

  • Each clan had its own separate gods and totems.

  • To water and wind, fire and night.

  • They were kept in the caravan town of Mecca,

  • in a shrine of wood, stone and cloth.

  • It was called the Kaaba, the Arabic word for 'cube'.

  • Pre Islamic Arabs worshipped a number of spirits.

  • They were generally nature-oriented spirits sometimes associated with natural features.

  • Like trees or rocks or springs.

  • And the Kaaba in Mecca was one of a number of these sanctuaries

  • centred around a particular cluster of deities.

  • It was said the Hebrew patriarch Abraham himself

  • built the Kaaba centuries before

  • and that a sacred black stone it held within had fallen from the sky.

  • In these turbulent times, the Kaaba provided a rare place of peace.

  • Only here would the Bedouin submit to a temporary truce

  • before returning to their conflicts of the open sands.

  • There was this one place in the middle, around the Kaaba,

  • which was, from even pre Islamic times, a place of... a sacred enclosure

  • where all people had to put down their arms.

  • This, of course, facilitated trading

  • because it meant that you couldn't carry on your feuds, when you were doing your buying and selling

  • The spiritual and economic importance of the Kaaba and Mecca

  • are pretty hard to seperate as far as the pre-Islamic Arabs are concerned.

  • The Kaaba made Mecca a vibrant centre for trade.

  • Here were found Arabian incense, exotic perfumes and Indian spices,

  • Chinese silks and Egyptian linens.

  • But perhaps the greatest treasure to be found at Mecca

  • was the rich mixture of cultures.

  • They were people who came through town

  • who had all kinds of interesting experiences to relate of faraway places.

  • The local religion was mixed. There were Christians, there were Jews.

  • There were also the Arabs of the desert who followed an animist type of religion.

  • Muhammad's world was a centre of trade,

  • connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean,

  • linking the ageing empires of Byzantium and Persia

  • to the great bazaars of India and China.

  • Muhammad became a merchant.

  • In fact, he had a great flair for trade.

  • At the age of 25, while leading a caravan northward to Syria,

  • his talents caught the eye of the shipment's owner,

  • a wealth widow named Khadijah.

  • She was so taken with Muhammad, she proposed marriage.

  • Ah, Khadijah. Well, I think she was a mentor as well as a wife.

  • A very strong lady who had her own business

  • and Muhammad was helping her out.

  • So, it was a wonderful partnership and I'm sure he learned a lot from her.

  • He had a tremendous amount of contact

  • with merchants coming from different parts of the world,

  • passing through the Arabian peninsula.

  • I think he was a very intelligent man, very open minded,

  • and he was able to communicate with a great variety of people.

  • He must have had great charisma as well.

  • Muhammad had a way with people, and with resolving their disputes.

  • Once, when the Kaaba fell into disrepair,

  • the clan chieftains quarrelled over who would have the honour

  • of putting the sacred black stone back where it belonged.

  • Before violence could erupt, Muhammad proposed an equitable solution.

  • United in the effort, the four leaders shared the weight...

  • and the honour.

  • In gratitude, they invited Muhammad himself to replace the secret stone.

  • He became known as Al Amin, 'The Trusted One'.

  • There are all kinds of indications

  • that he was tremendously interested in religious questions.

  • This is obviously not something

  • that an ordinary person probably was interested in in those days.

  • He talked to... sages, Arab sages.

  • He talked to Jewish and Christian sages who lived in the area.

  • He used to go up into the rock hills around Mecca

  • and meditate, think about things.

  • And at some point he had this extraordinary vision

  • which is spoken about very evocatively and allusively.

  • In a cave above Mecca,

  • Muhammad had an experience that would be the defining moment of his life.

  • An angel was said to appear before him in the form of a man,

  • instructing him to recite in the name of God, the Almighty.

  • For Muhammad, it was an encounter as profound as it was deeply disturbing.

  • You get a sense of what it would be like

  • to be a normal person in society...

  • perhaps unusual in the sense of your intensity for things

  • like social justice and finding out what the meaning of life is,

  • but not being endowed with anything that would seem miraculous by your friends.

  • And all of a sudden having this voice come to you

  • and then come OUT of you as you speak it and recite it to other people.

  • And that is the beginning of the prophetic career of Muhammad.

  • The months to come would bring more revelations...

  • powerful words of a lyrical quality,

  • more beautiful than the most exquisite Arabic poetry.

  • Above all, Muhammad was to bear one message to his people,

  • a simple yet radical proclamation.

  • That there is only one God.

  • The central tenet of Islam is the oneness, the indivisible unity of God.

  • Not something that is simply... that one pays lip service to

  • but something that is absolutely the most important concept.

  • Divine unity is more than saying there's only one God

  • and there are no other deities.

  • It's only thinking about one thing.

  • So, to be thinking about possessions, to be thinking about status,

  • to be thinking about power,

  • are all intellectual idols.

  • The implications were staggering.

  • One God meant one people.

  • No more tribal divisions.

  • To the poor and unprotected, the prospect was revolutionary.

  • Seems to me that one of the most important things

  • in his early teaching that isn't often talked about

  • is the strong social justice message that he delivered.

  • In Mecca at the time

  • there was an increasing separation between the haves and the have nots.

  • He insisted that this was not to be and that we should share the wealth.

  • It was this social justice message that, i think,

  • really got him a hearing among many of the folks.

  • So coming with Islam it was a new order, a new way of life,

  • and it was a beautiful way of life

  • because everybody was equal... black, white, men, women, children.

  • So it had that type of universal appeal

  • which I think was the reason why Islam spread so rapidly.

  • Many were moved by Muhammad's message

  • as he began to speak out in the community.

  • It had the suppleness and symbolic depth of the great pre-Islamic poems

  • that had been created by this people

  • and that had given these people in Arabia

  • such an Extraordinary ear for verbal expression,

  • where verbal expression was the commanding cultural force.

  • Some people called him a poet.

  • There's a Qur'anic sura basically saying...

  • Muhammad is not a poet.

  • Poets speak through desire.

  • This is not the voice of desire, this is the voice of God.

  • Muhammad's following began to grow.

  • They called themselves 'Muslims', for those who surrender to God.

  • They set out to preserve the message Muhammad had brought.

  • This was the beginning of the Qur'an.

  • The Qur'an was revealed orally

  • but very soon people realised it had to be written down

  • in order to make sure it wasn't corrupted

  • and the original message was maintained.

  • From a very early date, and it's very unclear when that date was

  • because no early manuscripts of the Qur'an survive,

  • people began copying it down.

  • The Qur'an is a revelation of spiritual teaching,

  • of both ethical and social guidance.

  • It was revealed, and remains, in Arabic.

  • What's so extraordinary about the Qur'an is its naturalness,