Mohammad never thought nor claimed to be inventing a new religion. He never sought power nor took advantage of his situation or status:
“I am nothing but a warner and a herald of glad tidings unto people who will believe.” (The Qur’an 7:188)
“There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” (The Qur’an 2.256),
“But if they turn away from thee, O Prophet, remember that thy only duty is a clear delivery of the message entrusted to thee.” (The Qur’an 16.82)
From the second revelation until his death he maintained a singleness of purpose as a Messenger of God to convey and carry out His wishes. He was tasked to restore the original monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham and other prophets whose messages had become misinterpreted or corrupted over time. His revelations confirmed that the God of the “People of the Book” was the one and only Allah, God of all humanity, and that people should honor Him and only Him in life and deed. The Qur’an says (42.13): “[God] has established for you the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus.”
As Reza Aslan notes, it is not surprising that: “There are striking similarities between the Christian and Qur’anic description of the Apocalypse, the Last Judgment, and the paradise awaiting those who have been saved.” But he points out that “These similarities do not contradict the Muslim belief that the Qur’an was divinely revealed, but they do indicate that the Quaranic vision of the Last Days may have been revealed to the pagan Arabs through a set of symbols and metaphors with which they were already familiar, thanks in some part to the wide spread of Christianity in the region.” (No god but God, The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan.)
Qur’an manuscript from the 7th century CE, written
on vellum in the Hijazi script.
Just as the first followers of Jesus did not consider themselves members of a new religion, neither did the initial “believers” close to Mohammad. The group included former pagans, Jews and Christians: monotheists who saw themselves as people trying to live in accordance with God’s rules and law. According to Fred Donner: “Mohammed built a movement of devout spiritualists from many faiths who shared a few core beliefs: God was one, the end of the world was near, and the truly religious had to live exemplary lives rather than merely pay lip service to God’s laws. It was almost a century after Mohammed founded his “community of believers” and launched the great Islamic conquest that his followers started to define their beliefs as a distinct religious faith.” (Muhammad and the Believers, Fred Donner.)
Mohammad was a gentle and contemplative man, he had no real status within the Quraysh and was not of the stature that the Arab world would expect for a Prophet. As Karen Armstrong and others have noted, he was not a violent man but faced a violent, barbaric, corrupt, greedy and contemptuous world that he understood would destroy itself unless it changed. “Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia. He realized that Arabia was at a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.”
Those close to Mohammad were the first to believe in his revelations. Ali, who was taken in by Mohammad when his father, Abu Talib, was in financial distress, was the first; then Zayd, who remained at his side, although he had been a Syrian slave until he was given his freedom by Mohammad; the merchant Abu Bakr was the third to join the believers. He had a reputation for kindness and honesty and once he joined Mohammad others who knew him did the same.
The Messenger’s immediate goal was to bring the message of Allah to his own tribe, and many of the revelations were extremely difficult for the Quraysh to adopt. Not only had they to reject all their idols but their conduct had to change entirely. For example, submission to Allah included that a believer should pray five times a day and: “Touch your head to the earth!” (The Qur’an 96), not exactly a posture that the arrogant Quraysh would find easy to accept!
Qur’an manuscript from the 7th century CE, written on vellum in the Hijazi script.