one day, while muhammad was asleep in the cave, an angel approached with a sheet in his hand. the angel said to muhammad, "read." muhammad answered in surprise, "what shall i read?" he felt as if the angel had strangled and then released him and heard once more the command, "read." muhammad's reply was, "what shall i read?" once more he felt the angel strangling and then releasing him, and he heard him repeat the command, "read." for the third time muhammad answered, "what shall i read?" fearful that this time the strangling would be stronger. the angel replied, "read in the name of your lord, the creator, who created man of a clot of blood. read! your lord is most gracious. it is he who taught man by the pen that which he does not know” [qur'an, 96:1-5.], muhammad recited these verses, repeating them after the angel who withdrew after they were permanently carved upon his memory. thus the earliest of the biographies reported, and so did ibn ishaq. many of the muhaddithun [i.e., "reporters of the prophet's tradition"-tr.] have reported likewise. some of them have claimed that the beginning of revelation was in the hours of wakefulness, and they mention a hadith to the effect that gabriel first said words of reassurance to assuage muhammad's fear at his appearance. in his al kamil fi al tarikh, ibn kathir gave a quotation from the book, dala'il al nubuwwah by abu na'im al isbahani, in which the latter reported that `alqamah ibn qays had said, "the first revelations come to the prophets in their sleep until their hearts are reassured. thereafter, revelation comes any time of the day or night." to this report abu na'im added, "this report comes to me from `alqamah ibn qays in person. it is sound and reasonable, and it is corroborated by that which comes before and after it."
stricken with panic, muhammad arose and asked himself, "what did i see? did possession of the devil which i feared all along come to pass?" muhammad looked to his right and his left but saw nothing. for a while he stood there trembling with fear and stricken with awe. he feared the cave might be haunted and that he might run away still unable to explain what he saw. he walked in the area around the mountain asking himself who could have commanded him to read. until that day in his retreat, muhammad used to have visions of the truth dawning upon him after his meditation and filling his consciousness with great light. in these visions, muhammad was guided to the truth, his doubts were dissolved, and the darkness which had enveloped the quraysh in their idol worship was exposed. this light that illuminated the way in front of him was that of the truth which provided him with true guidance. it was the one and only god. but who was this who came to remind muhammad of him, that he had created man, and that he was the most gracious who taught man by the pen that which he does not know? pursued by his own questioning and still trembling in fear of what he had seen and heard in the cave, muhammad stopped in the middle of the road when the same voice called to him from above. mesmerized in his place, muhammad lifted his head toward heaven. he saw the angel in the form of a human giant across the sky. for a moment he sought to escape, but wherever he looked or ran, the angel stood right there before him. in his absence from the cave a messenger from khadijah looked for him and could not find him. filled with what he had seen, muhammad returned home once the angel disappeared. his state was one of extreme dread. he had literally experienced the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
khadijah, the faithful
as muhammad entered his house he asked khadijah to wrap him in blankets. she could see that her husband was shivering as if struck with high fever. when he calmed down, he cast toward his wife the glance of a man in need of rescue and said, "o khadijah, what has happened to me?" he told her of his experience and intimated to her his fear that his mind had finally betrayed him, and that he was becoming a seer or a man possessed. khadijah was still the same angel of mercy, peace, and reassurance she had always been. as she did on earlier occasions when muhammad feared possession by the devil, she now stood firm by her husband and devoid of the slightest doubt. respectfully, indeed reverently, she said to him, "joy to my cousin! be firm. by him who dominates khadijah's soul i pray and hope that you will be the prophet of this nation. by god, he will not let you down. you will be kind to your kin; your speech will all be true; you will rescue the weary; entertain the guest and help the truth to prevail."
reassured, muhammad thanked khadijah and was grateful for her faith. exhausted, he fell asleep. this sleep was to be followed by a spiritual life of utmost strength, a life whose sublimity and beauty was to confront each and every mind. his life was to be dedicated purely to god, to truth, and to humanity. he was being commissioned to convey to man the message of his lord. he was to carry out his charge not by force, but by argument yet more gentle, sound and more convincing than any man has known. despite every unbeliever, the light of god and his guidance will yet fill the world.