15 – The First Revelations

It was not long after this outward sign of his authority and his mission that he began to experience powerful inward signs, in addition to those of which he had already been conscious. When asked about these he spoke of “true visions” which came to him in his sleep and he said that they were “like the breaking of the light of dawn.”[1] The immediate result of these visions was that solitude became dear to him, and he would go for spiritual retreats to a cave in Mount Hira’ not far from the outskirts of Mecca. There was nothing in this that would have struck Quraysh as particularly strange, for retreat had been a traditional practice amongst the descendants of Ishmael, and in each generation there had been one or two who would withdraw to a solitary place from time to time so that they might have a period that was uncontaminated by the world of men. In accordance with this age-old practice, Muhammad would take with him provisions and consecrate a certain number of nights to the worship of God. Then he would return to his family, and sometimes on his return he took more provisions and went again to the mountain. During these few years it often happened that after he had left the town and was approaching his hermitage he would hear clearly the words “Peace be on thee, O Messenger of God”,[2] and he would turn and look for the speaker but no one was in sight, and it was as if the words had come from a tree or a stone.

Ramadan was the traditional month of retreat, and it was one night towards the end of Ramadan, in his fortieth year, when he was alone in the cave, that there came to him an Angel in the form of a man .The Angel said to him: “Recite!” and he said: “I am not a reciter,” whereupon, as he himself told it, “the Angel took me and whelmed me in his embrace until he had reached the limit of mine endurance. Then he released me and said: ‘Recite!’ I said: ‘I am not a reciter,’ and again he took me and whelmed me in his embrace, and again when he had reached the limit of mine endurance he released me and said: ‘Recite!’, and again I said ‘I am not a reciter.’ Then a third time he whelmed he as before, then released me and said:

Recite in the name of thy Lord who created!
He createth man from a clot of blood.
Recite; and thy Lord is the Most Bountiful,
He who hath taught by the pen,
taught men what he knew not.'[3]”[4]

He recited these words after the Angel, who thereupon left him; and he said: “It was as though the words were written on my heart.”[5] But he feared that this might mean he had become a jinn-inspired poet or a man possessed. So he fled from the cave, and when he was half-way down the slope of the mountain he heard a voice above him saying: “O Muhammad, thou art the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.” He raised his eyes heavenwards and there was his visitant, still recognizable but now clearly an Angel, filling the whole horizon, and again he said: “O Muhammad, thou art the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.” The Prophet stood gazing at the Angel; then he turned away from him, but whichever way he looked the Angel was always there, astride to the horizon, whether it was to the north, to the south, to the east or to the west. Finally the Angel turned away, and the Prophet descended the slope and went to his house. “Cover me! Cover me!”[6]  he said to Khadijah as with still quaking heart he laid himself on his couch. Alarmed, yet not daring to question him, she quickly brought a cloak and spread it over him. But when the intensity of his awe had abated he told her what he had seen and heard; and having spoken to him words of reassurance she went to tell her cousin Waraqah, who was now an old man and blind. “Holy! Holy!”, he said. “By Him in whose hands is the soul of Waraqah, there hath come unto Muhammad the greatest Namus,[7] even he that would come unto Moses. Verily Muhammad is the Prophet of this people. Bid him rest assured.” So Khadijah went home and repeated these words to the Prophet, who now returned in peace of mind to the cave, that he might fulfill the number of days he had dedicated to God for his retreat. When this was completed, he went straight to the Ka’bah, according to his wont, and performed the rite of the rounds, after which he greeted the old and the blind Waraqah whom he had noticed amongst those who were sitting in the Mosque; and Waraqah said to him: “Tell me, O son of my brother, what thou hast seen and heard.” The Prophet told him, and the old man said again what he had said to Khadijah. But this time he added: “Thou wilt be called a liar, and ill-treated, and they cast thee out and make war upon thee; and if I live to see that day, God knoweth I will help His cause.”[8] Then he leaned towards him and kissed his forehead, and the Prophet returned to his home.

The reassurances of Khadijah and Waraqah were followed by a reassurance from Heaven in the form of a second Revelation. The manner of its coming is not recorded, but when asked how Revelation came to him the Prophet mentioned two ways: “Soemtimes it cometh unto me like the reverberations of a bell, and that is the hardest upon me; the reverberations abate when I am aware of their message. And sometimes the Angel taketh the form of a man and speaketh unto me, and I am aware of what he saith.”[9]

The Revelation, this second time, began with a single letter, the earliest instance of those cryptic letters with which several of the Qur’anic messages begin. The letter was followed by a Divine oath, sworn by the pen which had already been mentioned in the first Revelation as the primary means of God’s teaching men His wisdom. When questioned about the pen, the Prophet said: “The first thing God created was the pen. He created the tablet and said to the pen: “Write!” and the pen answered: “What shall I write?” He said: “Write My knowledge of My creation till the day of resurrection.” Then the pen traced what had been ordained.”[10] The oath by the pen is followed by a second oath, by that which they write; and amongst what they, that is the Angels, write in Heaven with lesser pens on lesser tablets is the Qur’an’s celestial archetype, which subsequent Revelations refer to as a glorious recitation (Qur’an)[11] on an inviolable tablet[12] and as the mother of the book.[13] The two oaths are followed by the Divine reassurance:

Nûn. By the pen, and by that which they write, no madman art thou, through the grace of thy Lord unto thee, and thine shall be a meed unfailing, and verily of an immense magnitude is thy nature.[14]

After the first Messages had come there was a period of silence, until the Prophet began to fear that he had incurred in some way the displeasure of Heaven, though Khadijah continually told him that this was not possible. Then at last the silence was broken, and there came a further reassurance, and with it the first command directly related to his mission:

By the morning brightness, and by the night when it is still, thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor doth He hate thee, and the last shall be better for thee than the first, and thy Lord shall give and give unto thee, and thou shalt be satisfied. Hath He not found thee an orphan and sheltered thee, and found thee astray and guided thee, and found thee needy and enriched thee? So for the orphan, oppress him not, and for the beggar, repel him not, and for the bountiful grace of thy Lord, proclaim it![15]

[1] B. I, 3
[2] I.I. 151
[3] K. XCVI, 1 – 5
[4] B. I,3
[5] I.I. 153
[6] B. I, 3
[7] The Greek Nomos, in the sense of Divine Law or Scripture, here identified with the Angel of Revelation
[8] I.I. 153-4
[9] B. I, 3
[10] Tirmidhi 44
[11] It is from this that the Divine Revelation on which Islam is based takes its name
[12] Qur’an 85 : 21 – 22
[13] Qur’an 8 : 39
[14] Qur’an 68 : 1 – 4
[15] Qur’an 93

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