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News ::
Muhammad - the Most Influential Person in History (english)
07 Oct 2002
My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world's most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.

Muhammad - the Most Influential Person in History

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Muhammad - the Most Influential
Person in History

From The
100, a ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by Michael H. Hart


My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the
world's most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by
others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the
religious and secular levels.

Of humble origins, Muhammad founded and promulgated one of
the world's great religions, and became an immensely effective political leader. Today,
thirteen centuries after his death, his influence is still powerful and pervasive. The
majority of the persons in this book had the advantage of being born and raised in centers
of civilization, highly cultured or politically pivotal nations. Muhammad, however, was
born in the year 570, in the city of Mecca, in southern Arabia, at that time a backward
area of the world, far from the centers of trade, art, and learning. Orphaned at age six,
he was reared in modest surroundings. Islamic tradition tells us that he was illiterate.
His economic position improved when, at age twenty-five, he married a wealthy widow.
Nevertheless, as he approached forty, there was little outward indication that he was a
remarkable person. Most Arabs at that time were pagans, who believed in many gods. There
were, however, in Mecca, a small number of Jews and Christians; it was from them no doubt
that Muhammad first learned of a single, omnipotent God who ruled the entire universe.

When he was forty years old, Muhammad became convinced that
this one true God (Allah) was speaking to him, and had chosen him to spread the true
faith. For three years, Muhammad preached only to close friends and associates. Then,
about 613, he began preaching in public. As he slowly gained converts, the Meccan
authorities came to consider him a dangerous nuisance. In 622, fearing for his safety,
Muhammad fled to Medina (a city some 200 miles north of Mecca), where he had been offered
a position of considerable political power. This flight, called the Hegira, was the
turning point of the Prophet's life. In Mecca, he had had few followers. In Medina, he had
many more, and he soon acquired an influence that made him a virtual dictator. During the
next few years, while Muhammad s following grew rapidly, a series of battles were fought
between Medina and Mecca. This was ended in 630 with Muhammad's triumphant return to Mecca
as conqueror. The remaining two and one-half years of his life witnessed the rapid
conversion of the Arab tribes to the new religion. When Muhammad died, in 632, he was the
effective ruler of all of southern Arabia. The Bedouin tribesmen of Arabia had a
reputation as fierce warriors. But their number was small; and plagued by disunity and
internecine warfare, they had been no match for the larger armies of the kingdoms in the
settled agricultural areas to the north. However, unified by Muhammad for the first time
in history, and inspired by their fervent belief in the one true God, these small Arab
armies now embarked upon one of the most astonishing series of conquests in human history.
To the northeast of Arabia lay the large Neo-Persian Empire of the Sassanids; to the
northwest lay the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople.
Numerically, the Arabs were no match for their opponents. On the field of battle, though,
the inspired Arabs rapidly conquered all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. By 642,
Egypt had been wrested from the Byzantine Empire, while the Persian armies had been
crushed at the key battles of Qadisiya in 637, and Nehavend in 642.

But even these enormous conquests-which were made under the
leadership of Muhammad's close friends and immediate successors, Abu Bakr and 'Umar ibn
al-Khattab -did not mark the end of the Arab advance. By 711, the Arab armies had swept
completely across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean There they turned north and, crossing
the Strait of Gibraltar, overwhelmed the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. For a while, it must
have seemed that the Moslems would overwhelm all of Christian Europe. However, in 732, at
the famous Battle of Tours, a Moslem army, which had advanced into the center of France,
was at last defeated by the Franks. Nevertheless, in a scant century of fighting, these
Bedouin tribesmen, inspired by the word of the Prophet, had carved out an empire
stretching from the borders of India to the Atlantic Ocean-the largest empire that the
world had yet seen. And everywhere that the armies conquered, large-scale conversion to
the new faith eventually followed. Now, not all of these conquests proved permanent. The
Persians, though they have remained faithful to the religion of the Prophet, have since
regained their independence from the Arabs. And in Spain, more than seven centuries of
warfare finally resulted in the Christians reconquering the entire peninsula. However,
Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two cradles of ancient civilization, have remained Arab, as has
the entire coast of North Africa. The new religion, of course, continued to spread, in the
intervening centuries, far beyond the borders of the original Moslem conquests. Currently
it has tens of millions of adherents in Africa and Central Asia and even more in Pakistan
and northern India, and in Indonesia. In Indonesia, the new faith has been a unifying
factor. In the Indian subcontinent, however, the conflict between Moslems and Hindus is
still a major obstacle to unity.

How, then, is one to assess the overall impact of Muhammad
on human history? Like all religions, Islam exerts an enormous influence upon the lives of
its followers. It is for this reason that the founders of the world's great religions all
figure prominently in this book . Since there are roughly twice as many Christians as
Moslems in the world, it may initially seem strange that Muhammad has been ranked higher
than Jesus. There are two principal reasons for that decision. First, Muhammad played a
far more important role in the development of Islam than Jesus did in the development of
Christianity. Although Jesus was responsible for the main ethical and moral precepts of
Christianity (insofar as these differed from Judaism), St. Paul was the main developer of
Christian theology, its principal proselytizer, and the author of a large portion of the
New Testament. Muhammad, however, was responsible for both the theology of Islam and its
main ethical and moral principles. In addition, he played the key role in proselytizing
the new faith, and in establishing the religious practices of Islam. Moreover, he is the
author of the Moslem holy scriptures, the Koran, a collection of certain of Muhammad's
insights that he believed had been directly revealed to him by Allah. Most of these
utterances were copied more or less faithfully during Muhammad's lifetime and were
collected together in authoritative form not long after his death. The Koran therefore,
closely represents Muhammad's ideas and teachings and to a considerable extent his exact
words. No such detailed compilation of the teachings of Christ has survived. Since the
Koran is at least as important to Moslems as the Bible is to Christians, the influence of
Muhammed through the medium of the Koran has been enormous It is probable that the
relative influence of Muhammad on Islam has been larger than the combined influence of
Jesus Christ and St. Paul on Christianity. On the purely religious level, then, it seems
likely that Muhammad has been as influential in human history as Jesus. Furthermore,
Muhammad (unlike Jesus) was a secular as well as a religious leader. In fact, as the
driving force behind the Arab conquests, he may well rank as the most influential
political leader of all time. Of many important historical events, one might say that they
were inevitable and would have occurred even without the particular political leader who
guided them. For example, the South American colonies would probably have won their
independence from Spain even if Simon Bolivar had never lived. But this cannot be said of
the Arab conquests. Nothing similar had occurred before Muhammad, and there is no reason
to believe that the conquests would have been achieved without him. The only comparable
conquests in human history are those of the Mongols in the thirteenth century, which were
primarily due to the influence of Genghis Khan. These conquests, however, though more
extensive than those of the Arabs, did not prove permanent, and today the only areas
occupied by the Mongols are those that they held prior to the time of Genghis Khan. It is
far different with the conquests of the Arabs. From Iraq to Morocco, there extends a whole
chain of Arab nations united not merely by their faith in Islam, but also by their Arabic
language, history, and culture. The centrality of the Koran in the Moslem religion and the
fact that it is written in Arabic have probably prevented the Arab language from breaking
up into mutually unintelligible dialects, which might otherwise have occurred in the
intervening thirteen centuries. Differences and divisions between these Arab states exist,
of course, and they are considerable, but the partial disunity should not blind us to the
important elements of unity that have continued to exist. For instance, neither Iran nor
Indonesia, both oil-producing states and both Islamic in religion, joined in the oil
embargo of the winter of 1973-74. It is no coincidence that all of the Arab states, and
only the Arab states, participated in the embargo. We see, then, that the Arab conquests
of the seventh century have continued to play an important role in human history, down to
the present day. It is this unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence
which I feel entitles Muhammad to be considered the most influential single figure in
human history.


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