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By Betty Kelen

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The mountains around Mecca held many caves, and thoughtful citizens formed the habit of retiring to these secluded places for solitary meditation and prayer. This custom, called tahannuth, was a religious exercise, and it had originated, like the word which is related to the Hebrew word for certain special prayers, with the Jews of the Old Testament. But the early Christians adopted the habit during the Byzantine centuries, and now it had traveled southward to Arabia. Muhammad had a favorite cave on a barren mountain called Hira, where he would retreat for days or weeks, or as long as a month, especially the month of Ramadan, fasting and meditating in complete seclusion except for straggling groups of poor who came to beg some food from him.

He longed so hard that it finally blossomed in his mind. One day, when he was preaching at the Kaaba—his listeners perhaps somnolent or resigned to his persistent voice—suddenly and surprisingly there fell from his tongue the following verse: You remember al-Lat and al-Uzza? And Manat, the third, the other? These are swans, high-soaring ones! Surely you may ask for their favors? Surely you will not be ignored! The Quraysh were electrified, as well they might be. These goddesses, Hubal’s harem, swelled the pockets of all who had invested in their shrines.

The truth is we do not know the physiology of these strange mental adventures or how mysticism connects in the brain with epilepsy or with ordinary hallucinations, natural or drug-induced. We do not know whose voice spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, or to Christ at his baptism, or to Moses from the burning bush; or by what means Gautama Buddha received complete instruction as he sat meditating under a Bo-tree. Because such messages have reached into our highest consciousness, we call them divine and say that they came from God.

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