from Chapter 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.” 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 Hirā’ 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,” 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 me 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 man what he knew not.’”
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.”’ 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 halfway 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 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!” he said to Khadījah 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 hand is the soul of Waraqah, there hath come unto Muhammad the greatest Nāmūs, even he that would come unto Moses. Verily Muhammad is the Prophet of this people. Bid him rest assured.” So Khadījah 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 Khadījah. But this time he added: “Thou wilt be called a liar, and ill-treated, and they will cast thee out and make war upon thee; and if I live to see that day, God knoweth I will help His cause.” Then he leaned towards him and kissed his forehead, and the Prophet returned to his home.