His two remaining years—spent mostly at Medina—were a continuing triumph. After some minor rebellions all Arabia submitted to his authority and creed. The most famous Arabian poet of the time, Kab ibn Zuhair, who had written a diatribe against him, came in person to Medina, surrendered himself to Mohammed, proclaimed himself a convert, received pardon, and composed so eloquent a poem in honor of the Prophet that Mohammed bestowed his mantle upon him.* In return for a moderate tribute the Christians of Arabia were taken under Mohammed’s protection, and enjoyed full liberty of worship, but they were forbidden to charge interest on loans.41 We are told that he sent envoys to the Greek emperor, the Persian king, and the rulers of Hira and Ghassan, inviting them to accept the new faith; apparently there was no reply. He observed with philosophic resignation the mutual destruction in which Persia and Byzantium were engaged; but he does not seem to have entertained any thought of extending his power outside of Arabia.
His days were filled with the chores of government. He gave himself conscientiously to details of legislation, judgment, and civil, religious, and military organization. One of his least inspired acts was his regulation of the calendar. This had consisted among the Arabs, as among the Jews, of twelve lunar months, with an intercalary month every three years to renew concord with the sun. Mohammed ruled that the Moslem year should always consist of twelve lunar months, of alternately thirty and twenty-nine days; as a result the Moslem calendar lost all harmony with the seasons, and gained a year upon the Gregorian calendar every thirty-two and a half years. The Prophet was not a scientific legislator; he drew up no code or digest, had no system; he issued edicts according to the occasion; if contradictions developed he smoothed them with new revelations that sternly superseded the old.42 Even his most prosaic directives might be presented as revelations from Allah. Harassed by the necessity of adapting this lofty method to mundane affairs, his style lost something of its former eloquence and poetry; but perhaps he felt that this was small price to pay for having all his legislation bear the awesome stamp of deity. At the same time he could be charmingly modest. More than once he admitted his ignorance. He protested against being taken for more than a fallible and mortal man.43 He claimed no power to predict the future or to perform miracles. However, he was not above using the method of revelation for very human and personal ends, as when a special message from Allah44 sanctioned his desire to marry the pretty wife of Zaid, his adopted son.
His ten wives and two concubines have been a source of marvel, merriment, and envy to the Western world. We must continually remind ourselves that the high death rate of the male among the ancient and early medieval Semites lent to polygamy, in Semitic eyes, the aspect of a biological necessity, almost a moral obligation. Mohammed took polygamy for granted, and indulged himself in marriage with a clear conscience and no morbid sensuality. Aisha, in a tradition of uncertain authority, quoted him as saying that the three most precious things in this world are women, fragrant odors, and prayers.45 Some of his marriages were acts of kindness to the destitute widows of followers or friends, as in the case of Omar’s daughter Hafsa; some were diplomatic marriages, as in the case of Hafsa—to bind Omar to him—and the daughter of Abu Sufyan—to win an enemy. Some may have been due to a perpetually frustrated hope for a son. All his wives after Khadija were barren, which subjected the Prophet to much raillery. Of the children borne to him by Khadija only one survived him—Fatima. Mary, a Coptic slave presented to him by the Negus of Abyssinia, rejoiced him, in the last year of his life, with a son; but Ibrahim died after fifteen months.
His crowded harem troubled him with quarrels, jealousies, and demands for pin money.46 He refused to indulge the extravagance of his wives, but he promised them paradise; and for a time he dutifully spent a night with each of them in rotation; the master of Arabia had no apartment of his own.47 The alluring and vivacious Aisha, however, won so many attentions out of her turn that the other wives rebelled, until the matter was settled by a special revelation:
Thou canst defer whom thou wilt of them, and receive of them whom thou wilt; and whomsoever thou desirest of those whom thou hast set aside, it is no sin for thee; that is better, that they may be comforted and not grieve, and may all be pleased with what thou givest them.48
Women and power were his only indulgence; for the rest he was a man of unassuming simplicity. The apartments in which he successively dwelt were cottages of unburnt brick, twelve or fourteen feet square, eight feet high, and thatched with palm branches; the door was a screen of goat or camel hair; the furniture was a mattress and pillows spread upon the floor.49 He was often seen mending his clothes or shoes, kindling the fire, sweeping the floor, milking the family goat in his yard, or shopping for provisions in the market.50 He ate with his fingers, and licked them thriftily after each meal.51 His staple foods were dates and barley bread; milk and honey were occasional luxuries;52 and he obeyed his own interdiction of wine. Courteous to the great, affable to the humble, dignified to the presumptuous, indulgent to his aides, kindly to all but his foes—so his friends and followers describe him.53 He visited the sick, and joined any funeral procession that he met. He put on none of the pomp of power, rejected any special mark of reverence, accepted the invitation of a slave to dinner, and asked no service of a slave that he had time and strength to do for himself.54 Despite all the booty and revenue that came to him, he spent little upon his family, less upon himself, much in charity.55
But, like all men, he was vain. He gave considerable time to his personal appearance—perfumed his body, painted his eyes, dyed his hair, and wore a ring inscribed “Mohammed the Messenger of Allah”;56 perhaps this was for signing documents. His voice was hypnotically musical. His senses were painfully keen; he could not bear evil odors, jangling bells, or loud talk. “Be modest in thy bearing,” he taught, “and subdue thy voice. Lo, the harshest of all voices is that of the ass.”57 He was nervous and restless, subject to occasional melancholy, then suddenly talkative and gay. He had a sly humor. To Abu Horairah, who visited him with consuming frequency, he suggested: “O Abu Horairah! let me alone every other day, that so affection may increase.”58 He was an unscrupulous warrior, and a just judge. He could be cruel and treacherous, but his acts of mercy were numberless. He stopped many barbarous superstitions, such as blinding part of a herd to propitiate the evil eye, or tying a dead man’s camel to his grave.59 His friends loved him to idolatry. His followers collected his spittle, or his cut hair, or the water in which he had washed his hands, expecting from these objects magic cures for their infirmities.60
His own health and energy had borne up well through all the tasks of love and war. But at the age of fifty-nine he began to fail. A year previously, he thought, the people of Khaibar had served him poisonous meat; since then he had been subject to strange fevers and spells; in the dead of night, Aisha reported, he would steal from the house, visit a graveyard, ask forgiveness of the dead, pray aloud for them, and congratulate them on being dead. Now, in his sixty-third year, these fevers became more exhausting. One night Aisha complained of a headache. He complained of one also, and asked playfully would she not prefer to die first, and have the advantage of being buried by the Prophet of Allah—to which she replied, with her customary tartness, that he would doubtless, on returning from her grave, install a fresh bride in her place.61 For fourteen days thereafter the fever came and went. Three days before his death he rose from his sickbed, walked into the mosque, saw Abu Bekr leading the prayers in his stead, and humbly sat beside him during the ceremony. On June 7, 632, after a long agony, he passed away, his head on Aisha’s breast.
If we judge greatness by influence, he was one of the giants of history. He undertook to raise the spiritual and moral level of a people harassed into barbarism by heat and foodless wastes, and he succeeded more completely than any other reformer; seldom has any man so fully realized his dream. He accomplished his purpose through religion not only because he himself was religious, but because no other medium could have moved the Arabs of his time; he appealed to their imagination, their fears and hopes, and spoke in terms that they could understand. When he began, Arabia was a desert flotsam of idolatrous tribes; when he died it was a nation. He restrained fanaticism and superstition, but he used them. Upon Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and his native creed he built a religion simple and clear and strong, and a morality of ruthless courage and racial pride, which in a generation marched to a hundred victories, in a century to empire, and remains to this day a virile force through half the world.