views updated May 21 2018


BORN: c. 570 • Mecca, Saudi Arabia

DIED: June 8, 632 • Medina, Saudi Arabia

Arabian prophet; religious leader

The world's one billion Muslims believe that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was sent to Earth by Allah (God) as his final prophet, or divine messenger. His name can also be spelled Mohammad, Mohammed, or Mahomet, but he is generally referred to as the Prophet. He was born Muhammad ibn Abdullah in the city of Mecca, in the Hejaz region of modern-day Saudi Arabia. The exact date of his birth is uncertain. Some believe he was born on April 20, but Muslims belonging to the Shiʾa sect, or division, believe the date was April 26. The year is variously given as 570 or 571 ce, although some scholars have argued for both earlier and later dates, 567 and 573, respectively.

Biographical information

Islamic scholars are uncertain of many of the details of Muhammad's life. The main sources of information on the subject include Islam's sacred scripture, the Qurʾan; the sayings of Muhammad, called the hadiths, which were written down by his closest followers; and the sira, more formally referred to as the sirat nabawiyya. The sira are the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad, written during the golden age of Islam, from about 750 to 1500.

"The merciful are shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Show mercy to those on earth, and God will show mercy to you."

Problems exist with all of these sources. The Qurʾan is not meant to be biographical, although it does contain some biographical details. During the era when the hadiths were written down, Islam was breaking into different sects and schools of thought, each with its own traditions. This leads modern Muslim scholars to agree that some of the hadiths might be unreliable. Qurʾanic Muslims, also known as "Qurʾan alone" Muslims, reject the authenticity of the hadiths entirely. The most famous compiler of hadiths, Muhammad ibn Ismaʾil Bukhari (810-870), gathered 600,000 supposed sayings of Muhammad, but he was able to confirm the authenticity of only about 2,600. Finally, some of the sira were written more than a century after Muhammad's death, so determining what is fact and what is based on possibly unreliable oral tradition is difficult.

Muhammad's early life

Muhammad was born into a relatively wealthy Meccan family. His father, Abdullah, died before he was born, and he was raised by his paternal grandfather, Abd al-Mattalib. His mother, Amina, who had continued to live with her own family after her marriage to Abdullah, died when Muhammad was six. After Muhammad's grandfather died when he was eight, responsibility for his care fell to his uncle, Abu Tālib. Abu Tālib had recently become head of the most powerful tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh.

During the sixth century Mecca was an important center on the east-west trade routes. Many merchants and traders stopped in Mecca to visit the Kaʾaba, a shrine controlled by the Quraysh in which many idols were worshipped. Idols are objects, such as statues, that are worshipped as divide, or god-like. Meccans had a financial interest in encouraging this idol worship, for it kept travelers in the city, where they made donations and spent money on food and lodging. During these pilgrimages, warfare between tribes was forbidden so merchants could visit the Kaʾaba and conduct business safely. As a result, while he was growing up Muhammad had contact with people who came from many different cultures and who practiced many different religions.

When still in his teens, Muhammad became a merchant himself. He soon gained a reputation for complete honesty, and his nickname became al-Amin, meaning "the trusted one." One of his employers was a wealthy widow, Khadijah, who may have been as much as fifteen years older than he. Khadijah offered Muhammad her hand in marriage, and the two were wed in 595. It was this marriage that made Muhammad a wealthy man, since, as a minor child, he had not been able to inherit from his father. Some stories say that Khadijah bore Muhammad four daughters and a son who died in infancy. Shiʾa Muslims, however, claim that the only daughter of this marriage was Fatima and that the others either had been born during a previous marriage or were the children of Khadijah's sister.

The seeds of Islam

Muhammad often withdrew to a nearby cave called Hira to meditate (engage in quiet and focused reflection) and pray for guidance in religious matters. After spending a night in the cave in about 610, Muhammad returned to his family with an astonishing story. He said that during the night he had been visited by the archangel Jabraʾil. He also said that he heard a voice saying, "Read in the name of your Lord the Creator. Read, and your Lord is the Most Honored. He taught man with the pen; taught him all that he knew not." Other visions and visitations like this supposedly continued until Muhammad's death. At first, Muhammad was puzzled by these revelations and was not sure that he wanted to take on the role of a prophet. With the encouragement of his wife, however, he eventually accepted his mission.

With these visitations Muhammad claimed there was only one true god, Allah, and that he, Muhammad, was the last of several prophets that Allah had communicated with. According to Muhammad, when previous prophets had failed to follow Allah's instructions to reform the religious and social beliefs of their nations, those nations had been destroyed. Khadijah became the first convert to Muhammad's new religion, which was called Islam. The second was a ten-year-old cousin, and the third was Muhammad's closest friend, Abu Bakr (c. 543–634). Beginning in about 613, Muhammad began to preach his beliefs and to recite verses from his revelations. These verses became the Qurʾan, a word that literally means "the recitation." Over time he attracted a small but growing number of followers.

Muhammad and the Kaʾaba

Most of the traditional accounts of Muhammad's life emphasize the high regard in which he was held in his community during the years before his revelations (public expressions of divine will or truth). One legend addresses his role in the renovation of the Kaʾaba, a shrine that contained idols worshipped by the people, although the story has likely been exaggerated. According to the legend, the Kaʾaba was in great need of repair, but no one wanted to perform the necessary work out of fear that the idols contained in the shrine would somehow release their supernatural powers against the people of Mecca. In addition, materials and skilled workmen were unavailable. This changed, however, when a capsized Greek ship washed ashore carrying high-quality wood and a skilled carpenter who had survived the wreck.

Work began on the Kaʾaba and proceeded quickly. In one corner of the Kaʾaba was a sacred stone called the Black Stone. During the repairs this stone had to be moved to a different location, and each of the four most powerful tribes in Mecca desired the honor of moving it. A heated argument broke out, but eventually all agreed to abide by the decision of the first man to enter the Kaʾaba. That man turned out to be Muhammad. Muhammad settled the dispute by calling for a large cloak. He placed the Black Stone in the center of the cloak, then had a representative of each of the tribes grasp one corner of the cloak and carry the stone to its new position. In this way, he preserved peace among the four tribes.

Many members of the community ridiculed Muhammad and his followers, often beating them and throwing garbage at them. They strongly disagreed with Muhammad's views about social justice, including his claim that the condition of slaves needed to be improved. Social justice is an ideal in which all people have the same rights and opportunities. They also objected to his belief that people should replace their deeply held tribal and clan loyalties with the Islamic faith. He was seen as a threat by local religious leaders, who depended on the Kaʾaba for their power and income. If the people did as Muhammad preached and stopped worshipping the idols in the shrine, the city would lose trade from traveling merchants. Making matters more difficult for Muhammad was the fact that his own tribe held the position of guardian of the Kaʾaba. Despite these pressures from the community, Abu Talib, Muhammad's uncle, continued to support him, although he did try to restrain his nephew somewhat.

In 620, a decade after Muhammad's first revelation, he reportedly made an announcement to his followers. He said that the previous night, Jabraʾil had appeared to him with a winged horse called the Buraq and had escorted him on a miraculous journey. The first part of his journey, the Isra, took him to the holy city of Jerusalem and to the Dome of the Rock on the city's Temple Mount. During the second part of the journey, the Miraj, he was taken to heaven, where he toured paradise and spoke with Allah and some previous well-known prophets. Tradition holds that Allah instructed Muhammad to tell his followers to pray fifty times each day. The Prophet Moses, however, told Muhammad that no one would agree to pray that often and that he should go back to Allah and ask if the number could be lessened. Muhammad persuaded Allah to reduce the requirement to five times each day, a practice that Muslims still follow in the early twenty-first century.

Departure from Mecca

Muhammad and his followers endured more than a decade of persecution, with life for them becoming increasingly dangerous. Persecution is when a person or persons are harassed for their beliefs. A number of the chapters of the Qurʾan, often referred to as the Meccan revelations, date from this period and document this ill treatment. In 615 Muhammad ordered a number of Islamic families to migrate to Ethiopia for their safety. Six years later, after he learned of a plot to kill him, Muhammad decided to relocate to Yathrib, some 186 miles (299 kilometers) to the north, where a number of converts to Islam lived. This city would later become called Medina. Muslims call this event the hijrah, which translates as "emigration" or "flight." The Muslim calendar begins with this event. Muslim dates include the letters ah, meaning anno hegirae, or "year of the hijrah." After Muhammad and his followers fled, the Meccans seized all the property they left behind.

Life in Yathrib was an improvement for Muhammad. He had been approached by a delegation from that city about moving there to help settle disputes between tribes. Given considerable authority, he put an end to the disagreements and absorbed the tribes into Islam, forbidding Muslims to shed the blood of other Muslims. Yathrib was also home to a number of Jewish tribes that Muhammad hoped to convert to Islam, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Around this time, tradition holds, Muslims began to turn to Mecca during prayer rather than to the Jews' historical homeland, Jerusalem.

As he established his Islamic community in and around Yathrib, Muhammad taught that tolerance should be extended to all "people of the book." This term was used to refer to Jews and Christians, and the book referred to was the Bible, including its two halves, the Old and New Testaments. In contrast to many of the region's empires, Islam was tolerant of other religious faiths, although their members were heavily taxed. Muhammad established the specific terms by which Jews and others could live in his Islamic state in a constitution written in 622-623.

Khadijah, Muhammad's first wife, had died in 619, and in Yathrib Muhammad married Aʾisha, the daughter of his friend Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr would assume the leadership of Islam as caliph, which means "successor" of Muhammad after Muhammad's death. Muhammad also took a second wife, Hafsa, the daughter of a man named Umar, who would in time become Abu Bakr's successor. Muhammad's daughter Fatima married Muhammad's cousin ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib (c. 600–661; see entry), who also became a leader of Islam after Muhammad. In this way, Muhammad created a network of family ties that not only strengthened his own position but, he believed, ensured the continuation of the religion he had founded.


Relations between the residents of Mecca and Yathrib continued to worsen. Although Muhammad strengthened his power around Yathrib by signing treaties with various other tribes, the Muslims who had relocated from Mecca had no source of income. They relied on charity and some payment they received for manual labor. Eventually they began to assault caravans headed toward Mecca and to take control of the goods being carried. In March 624 Muhammad himself led a party of three hundred followers on one such raid, but they were driven off. The Meccans then sent an army of eight hundred to eliminate the ongoing threat to the caravans. Despite being badly outnumbered, the Muslims emerged victorious in a battle that took place on March 15. This was the first in what would be a long line of military victories for Islam.

The conflict continued, and in 625 a Meccan general named Abu Sufyan led a force of eight thousand men against Yathrib. A battle took place in Uhud on March 23, ending with no winner. In 627 Abu Sufyan attacked again, but Muhammad had ordered a trench dug around the city, and the Muslims successfully repelled the Meccan invaders. By this time the surrounding tribes and cities understood that Islam was a source of strength. The religion grew rapidly as more and more people converted.

By 628 Muhammad's forces were strong enough to reclaim Mecca. Muhammad marched on the city with sixteen hundred troops. Meccan leaders met him at the border and negotiated a treaty that would bring an end to the hostilities. Just two years later, however, Mecca violated the treaty. Muhammad then marched on the city with ten thousand men. Faced with such an overwhelming force, the city leaders surrendered without a fight. Muslims took the city, cast the idols out of the Kaʾba, and converted most of the city's residents to Islam. The Kaʾba was turned into a place of Islamic worship. It remains a central part of Islam that all Muslims are expected to make a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once during their lives.

Final years

In the years that followed, Muhammad secured power over the entire Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad's authority was not the result of formal agreements or treaties. He ruled through personal relationships, and Islam was the institution that cemented the growing empire.

Late in life, Muhammad took more wives. In addition to Aʾisha and Hafsa (and the deceased Khadijah), he married eight other women, for a total of eleven wives, ten of whom were living at the time of his death. Some of these women were the widows of followers of Muhammad who had died in battle. Others were the daughters of political allies. Muhammad's marriages have been the subject of considerable debate. Some historians believe that Aʾisha was only nine years old when he married her. Others have noted that he violated Islamic law by marrying the ex-wife of one of his adopted sons and by taking more than the four wives allowed by the Qurʾan.

Muhammad died unexpectedly at about noon on June 8, 632, in Yathrib. His death touched off a disagreement about who would succeed him. According to Sunnis, who constitute the largest sect of Islam, Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph (leader successor) freely and openly by the leaders of the Islamic community. Members of the Shiʾa sect, however, dispute this, arguing that Muhammad had promised leadership to ʾAli, the husband of his daughter Fatima, and that Abu Bakr and others conspired to deny ʾAli the position. The dispute continues to divide Sunni and Shiʾa Muslims into the twenty-first century.

For More Information


Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Esposito, John L. The Oxford History of Islam. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Rogerson, Barnaby. The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden-Spring, 2003.

Sardar, Ziauddin, and Zafar Abbas Malik. Introducing Muhammad. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books, 1999.


"The Quran and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad." The Wisdom Fund. (accessed on June 2, 2006).


views updated Jun 27 2018

Muhammad c. 569-632


In the Islamic tradition, Muhammad is a messenger of God and the seal of the prophets. Muslims consider the prophethood of Muhammad as the final act of a monotheistic Gods revelations to humanity, which had earlier been transmitted through the biblical prophets, including Jesus and Moses.

According to classical Islamic sources, Muhammad was born in Mecca around 569. His family belonged to the Hashemite branch of Quraysh, the dominant tribe in Mecca, then a major site of pagan pilgrimage in Arabia as well as a major center of caravan routes. The citys dominant religion was Arab paganism, although some monotheists influenced by Abrahamic traditions also resided there. His father, Abdullah, died before Muhammad was born, so the infant was placed primarily in the care of a foster mother in addition to his grandfather and his mother, Amina, both of whom died within his eighth year, leaving the care of the orphan to his uncle.

Muhammads first forty years of life were relatively undistinguished. He reportedly made a living as a merchant and participant in Meccas long-distance caravans, and his most profitable missions were carried out on behalf of an older female employer, Khadija, whom he eventually married. While before the revelations he was never recognized as anything but an ordinary member of the community, as a merchant he developed a reputation for honesty and integrity. At age forty, following years of periodic seclusion and meditation, Muhammad received his first revelations from God through the archangel Gabriel, the medium through which, according to Muslim tradition, the entire Quran was revealed to Muhammad.

Several years of proselytizing in Mecca generated a small number of recruits to the new faith, but Muhammads claim to being a messenger of God was rejected by the citys larger pagan community. Muhammads teachings had a clear affinity to Jewish and Christian ideas permeating Arabia at that time, his main nemesis being the dominant pagan religion. Around 622 Muhammad and his band of followers, seeing no more prospects in Mecca and being subject to increasing harassment, migrated to Medina (then Yathrib), where they established the first self-governing Muslim community. That community consisted at first of two distinct groups: the Meccan Muslims who came with Muhammad, or al-muhajirun (the emigrants); and a larger group of local Medinian faithful who had been Islamized before Muhammads migration to the city, known as al-ansar (the backers). Medina became Muhammads headquarters until his death. The mosque of Medina, built around his tomb, is the second-holiest shrine for Muslims worldwide.

Muhammads migration (Hijra ) to Medina allowed him not only to establish an independent Muslim community but also to elaborate further features of such a community. In Medina it became increasingly evident that Islam was becoming a trans-tribal religion, and Muhammad frequently found himself acting as a trans-tribal statesman and arbitrator as well as prophet. Hostility to Mecca is evident in that part of his biography, since his home city had, according to the Qurʾan, rejected a faith that was intended to safeguard it from danger in the world. Many skirmishes and battles are recorded throughout that period between the Muslims of Medina and the pagans of Mecca. Under Muhammad, the Muslims, especially al-muhajirun, sought to undermine Meccas trade routes and also gain access to Meccas haram (sanctuary), which was holy to all pagan Arabs but also to Muslims, who traced its construction to Abraham and saw it as integral to the history of monotheism.

During the Medinian part of Muhammads life Islam was spreading in Arabia, but Muhammad remained focused on Mecca until he conquered the city in 630 in a bloodless campaign. He confirmed the holy status of the now-Islamized city. The originally pagan haram of Mecca was sanctified as a Muslim sanctuary and a Muslim pilgrimage site, and the pagan objects of worship within it were destroyed.

Muhammad died in Medina in 632, shortly after performing his last pilgrimage to Mecca, and at a time when Muslim communities had sprung up throughout Arabia. He left no instructions as to how the community should be ruled after him, leaving the task to the elders of the community. After deliberations they chose Abu Bakr, Muhammads close companion and one of the earliest believers, as the first caliph in Islam.

Muhammad counts as one of the most influential men in history. In the Qurʾan he is presented as a mere human person with no divine qualities and no supernatural powers, and he is not credited with miracles. His role is presented as one of bearing witness to his people and as a conveyor of Gods final and true revelation; with the teachings of Muhammad, God acquires a highly abstract character. The tradition further highlights Muhammads illiteracy, which in the context of the highly refined, poetic language of the Quran establishes all the more the books divine origin.

Muhammad combined in his career several roles prophet, statesman, warrior, legislatorand through that combination managed to establish an enduring trans-tribal community in Arabia that, after his death, became the model for a universal Muslim community. The corpus of sayings attributed to him, or hadith, along with the traditions around his life, constitute the sunnah, which is generally considered second to the Quran as source of Muslim tradition and also provides Muslims with an exemplary model of proper Muslim life and composure.

The basic teachings of Muhammad emphasized Islam as a trans-tribal fellowship, a harmonious community whose inner peace was safeguarded through regulated legal relations that closely mirrored the contractual outlook of the merchant class. Muhammad also mandated and expanded earlier techniques of wealth redistribution through elevating almsgiving to a religious duty. While presenting Islam as the last chapter in the history of monotheism, Muhammad also operated in a territory that was far removed from imperial or great power centers. Central western Arabia in Muhammads time was becoming increasingly connected to world trade routes, but being situated deep in the desert, remained independent of the great powers of the time. The context in which Muhammad operated, therefore, provided for the emergence of a new type of political community, one that was not based on imperial politics but rather on overcoming and reworking Arab tribal traditions and integrating various classes and social groups under the banner of a new religion that gave them a sense of common and universal identity, binding contractual relations, and solidaristic practices and attitudes.

SEE ALSO Islam, Shia and Sunni; Muslims


Bamyeh, Mohammed A. 1999. The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rodinson, Maxime. 1980. Muhammad. Trans. Anne Carter. New York: Pantheon.

Watt, W. Montgomery. 1980. Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman. London and New York: Oxford University Press.

Mohammed A. Bamyeh


views updated May 21 2018


Born c. 570

Died 632

Arab prophet, founder of Islam

O nly a handful of people have influenced history as much as the prophet Muhammad. Most of these people were religious teachers such as Jesus Christ, or conquerors such as Alexander the Great. Muhammad, however, was both a religious teacher and a conqueror.

He is often regarded as the founder of Islam, or the Muslim religion, and as the author of its holy book, the Koran. Muslims, however, regard Muhammad as the last in a long line of prophets who brought the truth of Allah, or God, and in their view he did not write the Koran; rather, he received it from Allah. His role as a conqueror is more clear: under his leadership, the Muslim Arabs established the foundations of an empire that would soon rule much of the world.

The world of Muhammad

At the time of Muhammad's birth, few would have suspected that Arabia would soon become the focal point of a great religion and empire. The hot, dry, Arabian Peninsula, an area about half the size of the United States, offered little to attract outsiders; it was simply a place for goods, carried by camels on caravans, to pass through on their way between Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Arabia was a tribal society, divided between the nomadic Bedouins (BED-oo-unz) of the desert and the settled peoples of the coastal areas. A dominant cultural center was Mecca, located halfway down the coast of the Red Sea that separated Arabia from Africa. Among Mecca's attractions was a shrine called the Kaaba (kuh-BAH), a cube-shaped building that housed a meteorite. The latter, according to the traditions of the Arabs, had been hurled to Earth by a god known as Allah. In addition to Allah were some 300 other gods and goddesses, whose statues filled the Kaaba; yet Allah was supreme, like the God worshiped by Jews and Christians.

The leading tribe of Mecca was called the Quraish (koo-RESH), and it was into this tribe that Muhammad was born. His father Abdullah ("servant of Allah") died a few weeks before Muhammad was born, and his mother Amina died when he was six. Muhammad lived with his grandfather until the latter died when the boy was eight. Thereafter he lived with the family of his uncle Abu Talib, leader of the Hashim clan.


When he was about twenty-five years old, Muhammad went to work for a wealthy widow named Khadijah (kah-DEE-zhah). He soon gained her trust, and she authorized him to act as her representative in a merchant business that took him to Syria. There Muhammad undoubtedly gained exposure to various ideas and traditions, including Judaism and Christianity.

Though Khadijah was nearly fifteen years his senior, Muhammad so impressed her that she proposed marriage. They married, and she bore him many children, of which only four daughters survived. Soon Muhammad was so wealthy that he could afford to take his cousin Ali, son of Abu Talib, into his household. Later Ali would marry Muhammad's daughter Fatima (FAT-uh-muh, "shining one"), the only one of his daughters to bear him grandchildren.

His first revelation

For many years, Muhammad lived the ordinary life of a prosperous merchant; but as he neared the age of forty, he became drawn to Mount Hira outside Mecca, where he spent time meditating. According to Islamic tradition, it was there that the angel Gabriel—mentioned in the Bible—appeared to him one day holding a cloth on which something was written, and demanded of him, "Recite!"

Muhammad asked "What shall I recite?" and Gabriel covered his face with the cloth, so that Muhammad thought he would suffocate. They went through this three times, until finally Gabriel began dictating words to him. This was the first of some 650 revelations, or visions, in which he received the text of the Koran or Quran (kü-RAHN), Islam's holy book.

Naturally, Muhammad doubted what had happened to him, but when he told Khadijah about his experience, she assured him that his revelation must have truly been from God. Thus she became the first convert to the Muslim (MUZ-lim) or Islamic (iz-LAHM-ik) faith. (The word Islam in Arabic means "submission to God," and Muslim "one who submits to God.")

The growth of Islam

Muhammad's next convert was Ali, followed by a former slave who Muhammad had adopted. The first convert from outside Muhammad's household was Abu Bakr (ah-BOO BAHK-ur), whose daughter Aisha (ah-EE-shah) Muhammad would marry many years later.

The "new" religion—Muslims believe that the truths of Islam are eternal, and existed long before they were revealed to Muhammad—had much in common with Judaism and Christianity. It placed great importance on figures from the Old Testament such as Abraham, father of the Jews, and even on Jesus Christ. But it taught, in the words by which Muslims are called to prayer five times a day throughout the world, that "there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet."

This faith had an important social message as well as a religious one: in place of the traditional clan loyalties of the Arab world, it taught that all men are one in the eyes of Allah. This was not a message welcomed by the leaders of Mecca, who saw in it a threat to their power. Soon Muhammad and his followers would face off against the Meccan leaders.

In 619, Khadijah died. Muhammad later took a total of eleven wives and concubines—in some cases to strengthen political ties, in other instances to provide for the widows of followers who had died in battle—but none of them ever assumed the importance of his first love. Around this time, he had a miraculous experience, the only miracle associated with Muhammad other than the revelation of the Koran. It was said that he traveled in a single night from Mecca to Jerusalem, holy city of the Old Testament, and from there ascended into heaven and met with the prophets of old; then he returned to Mecca, all in a single night.

The hegira

By 622, relations between the Muslims and the leaders of Mecca had deteriorated badly. Meanwhile the people of Yathrib (YAH-thrub), an oasis some two hundred miles to the north, invited Muhammad to come lead them. Muhammad sent most of his followers ahead, then escaped from Mecca himself, and arrived in Yathrib on September 24, 622. Henceforth Yathrib would be known as Medina (muh-DEEN-uh; "The City"). Muslims call Muhammad's flight from Mecca the hegira (heh-JY-ruh), and date their calendar from this event, just as Christians date theirs from the birth of Christ.

Over the coming years, Muhammad led his followers on several raids against trading caravans from Mecca, and this eventually led to outright warfare between Mecca and Medina. The two forces clashed at the wells of Badr (BAHDr), and though the Muslims were outnumbered three to one, they scored a significant victory. Meanwhile in Medina, Muhammad found himself in conflict with members of the Jewish community, who disputed his claim to have received a true revelation from God. In time Muhammad would become hostile toward certain Jewish groups, though not to Jews as a whole.

In March of 625, Muhammad's army suffered a defeat at the hands of the forces from Mecca, and the Meccan leaders began to grow confident. Two years later, in March of 627, they approached Medina with a large army, but Muhammad's forces dug a trench around part of the city and held off the invasion. Fearing Jewish traitors in the city, Muhammad dealt harshly with some Jews, but allowed those who offered no opposition to continue living among the Muslims and practicing their religion as before.

Conquering Mecca

Another year passed, and in March of 628, Muhammad led a large group to Mecca, not for the purposes of an invasion but to make a pilgrimage, or a visit for religious purposes. They did not gain entrance to the city, but they stayed and negotiated a truce whereby the two sides agreed to maintain peace for ten years.

Soon, however, allies of Mecca broke the truce by attacking the Muslims, and in January of 630, Muhammad set out from Medina with a large army. A number of Mecca's leaders came out to meet him, and pledged their loyalty,

whereupon he promised that he would not harm anyone who did not oppose him.

True to his word, upon entering the city he killed only his true enemies, and ordered the destruction of the idols—the statues of the gods—in the Kaaba. Thenceforth Mecca would be the holy city of Islam, so revered that Muslims consider it a sacred duty to visit the city at least once in their lifetimes if they can afford to do so; but Muhammad himself continued to live in Medina.

Muhammad's legacy

Throughout the years of his exile, Muhammad had acted as unofficial leader of Medina, advising those who held political power. An important aspect of Islam was the fact that it addressed not just spiritual matters, but everyday issues, and this, combined with followers' intense devotion to their faith, ensured that the Muslims would bring many lands under their control.

In his last two years, Muhammad concerned himself with subduing nearby communities. He spent much of his time with Aisha, some forty-four years his junior, who became his most important wife after Khadijah. In March of 632, he made a final pilgrimage to Mecca, then returned to Medina in ailing health. On June 8, he died with his head on the lap of Aisha.

There was only one prophet of Islam, and no one could take Muhammad's place after his death; still, the Muslims needed a caliph (KAL-uf), a spiritual and political leader. Muhammad had no son, and in Arab society, it was unthinkable that a woman should lead; therefore the first four caliphs were men connected to the prophet through his wives. The first caliph was Abu Bakr, followed by the father of another wife; then Uthman (üth-MAHN), who married one of Muhammad's childless daughters; and fourth was Ali.

When Muhammad died, the Muslims held only the western portion of Arabia; less than 30 years later, the caliphate stretched from Libya far in the west to Bactria or Afghanistan in the east, and from the Caspian Sea in the north to the Nile River in the south. But there were also divisions within the ranks, particularly between Aisha on one side, and Ali and Fatima on the other. This would ultimately lead to a split between the majority Sunni (SOO-nee) Muslims and the Shi'ite (SHEE-ight) Muslims, who claimed that Ali was the only rightful caliph. Nonetheless, Islam spread throughout the known world, and today claims more than 1.14 billion followers—more than any religion other than Christianity.

For More Information


Guillaume, Alfred. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

The Muslim Almanac. Detroit: Gale, 1996.

Stewart, Desmond and the Editors of Time-Life Books. Early Islam. New York: Time-Life Books, 1967.

Suskind, Richard. The Sword of the Prophet: The Story of the Moslem Empire. Illustrated by Enrico Arno. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1971.

Web Sites

"About the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS)." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Islami City in Cyberspace. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Muhammad (570–632)." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Prophet Muhammad. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).


views updated Jun 27 2018


Born: c. 570
Mecca, Arabia
Died: 632
Medina, Arabia

Arabian prophet

Muhammad was the founder of the religion of Islam and of a community at Medina that later developed into the Arab Empire.

Call to be a prophet

Muhammad was born after his father's death in Mecca, Arabia, around 570. His grandfather and mother both died when he was a child. As a child, he was unable by Arab custom to inherit anything. He was therefore relatively poor until about 595, when a wealthy woman, Khadija, asked him to go to Syria as a steward (protector, manager) of her trading supplies. After the successful accomplishment of the mission, she offered him marriage. She was a rich widow fifteen years his senior. She and Muhammad had four daughters, and several infant sons who died. From this time onward Muhammad was wealthy, but he began to spend time in solitary reflection on the problems of Mecca, where religious principles were being degraded and general unrest was in the city.

During a period of solitude around the year 610, Muhammad heard a voice as he meditated (focused his thoughts in a manner of prayer). The voice said, "You are the Messenger of God" (this being the title more frequently given to him by Muslims than that of prophet). Muhammad later decided he had heard the archangel Gabriel. He also found certain words "in his heart" (that is, his mind) as he meditated. Friends helped to convince him that he was called to convey messages from God to the Arabs as Moses (c. 1392 c. 1272 b.c.e.) and Jesus Christ (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.) had done to the Jews and Christians. He continued to receive such messages from time to time until his death. They were collected into chapters and make up the Koran (Quran). The Koran, though sent through Muhammad, is held by Muslims to come from God.

Meccan preacher

At first Muhammad told these messages only to sympathetic friends, but from 612 or 613 he stated them publicly. Many people in Mecca, especially younger men, became followers of Muhammad. These members of his new religion of Islam became known as Muslims. In the course of time, however, resistance to Muhammad appeared among the leading merchants of Mecca, and he and his followers were sometimes mistreated. Apparently to escape the mistreatment, approximately eighty of his followers traveled to Ethiopia. About 616, pressure in the form of a boycott (refusal to trade with) was placed on the clan of Hashim to make it cease protecting Muhammad. But until after the death of the head of the clan, Muhammad's uncle Abu-Talib, it was felt that to abandon him would be dishonorable.

The new head, however, found a justified way to leave Muhammad behind, and it became virtually impossible for Muhammad to continue preaching in Mecca. In September 622, after secret negotiations over the previous two years, he settled in the area of Medina, two hundred miles to the north, where seventy of his followers had already gone. This "emigration" (leaving one's living place for another) is the Hijra (Latin, hegira ), on which the Islamic era is based.

First years at Medina

The Arab clans of Medina mostly acknowledged Muhammad's prophethood and entered into association with him and the emigrants (those who leave their country) from Mecca. At first the emigrants depended on Medinese hospitality, but soon small groups of them began to attempt raids on Meccan caravans. Later the Muslims of Medina also joined in. At first the raids had little success, but in March 624 a larger band of just over three hundred, led by Muhammad himself, defeated a supporting force of perhaps eight hundred Meccans with heavy losses. This was a serious blow to Meccan reputation, and the Muslims felt that God was defending Muhammad.

To teach Muhammad a lesson, the Meccans in March 625 invaded the Medinese area with about three thousand men. Many Muslims were killed before they could regain the safety of the hill. Militarily this was not a serious loss for Muhammad, since the Meccans had also suffered casualties and retreated immediately; but the loss shook the belief that God was defending him. Confidence was only gradually restored.

The next major event was the siege of Medina by ten thousand Meccans and allies in April 627. Muhammad protected the central part of the area by a trench that tricked the cavalry. After two weeks Meccans and their allies retreated. In March 628 the Meccans settled the Treaty of al-Hudaybiya with him. The treaty was a triumph for Muhammad. In the following months many nomadic (having to do with moving from area to area) tribesmen and a few leading Meccans joined Muhammad and became Muslims. When the treaty was criticized in January 630, Muhammad was able to march on Mecca with ten thousand men. Muhammad entered Mecca in triumph. Two weeks later two thousand joined Muhammad's army in opposing a concentration of tribesmen east of Mecca and shared in the victory of Hunayn.

New religion

By 630 the religion of Islam had become firmly rooted. In the earliest parts of the Koran, it emphasized God's goodness and power and called on men to acknowledge this in worship. It also stated the reality of the Day of Judgment, when men would be assigned to paradise or hell depending on their attitude toward God, their generosity with their wealth, and similar points. These matters were significant to the tensions of Mecca, which were seen as arising from the merchants' overconfidence in their wealth and power. The Koran contained attacks on idols (symbols of objects to be worshipped) and a resolve that "there is no deity but God."

The religious practices of the Muslims included communal worship or prayers several times a day touching the ground with the forehead in acknowledgement of God's majesty. They also gave alms (money to the poor). At Medina the fast (not eating any food) from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan (sacred ninth month of the Islamic calendar) was introduced; and when circumstances made it possible, some of the ceremonies of the traditional pilgrimage (holy journey) to Mecca became a duty for Muslims.

Years of triumph

Beyond Medina a system of alliances was gradually built up with the nomadic Arab tribes. As Muhammad grew stronger, he came to insist that those wanting an association should become Muslims. After the conquest of Mecca and the victory at Hunayn in January 630, he was the strongest man in Arabia, and delegations came from tribes seeking alliance with him. When he died on June 8, 632, he was in effective control of a large part of Arabia.

Muhammad's personality and achievement

Muhammad is said to have been a fast walker, of sturdy build, with a prominent forehead, a hooked nose, large brownish-black eyes, and a pleasant smile. He showed great charm in his dealings with people and, when appropriate, gentleness and even tenderness. Medieval Europe (5001500), however, on the defensive against Arab armies and Islamic culture, came to look on him as a monster or demon.

At times Muhammad was indeed harsh to those in his power, but this was not out of keeping with the times. His marital relationsat his death he had nine wives and one concubine (a kept woman without marriage)must also be judged in the framework of the times. A political purpose can be traced in all of his marriages. For his time he was a man seeking positive change for his people.

Politically Muhammad's greatest achievement was to create the framework that made possible the uniting of the Arab tribes. He also won over his chief Meccan opponents, and their administrative skills were later invaluable in conquering and ruling many provinces. The growth of the Arab Empire, and with it the religion of Islam, was made possible by favorable circumstances; but the opportunity would not have been grasped but for Muhammad's gifts as visionary, statesman, and administrator.

For More Information

Andrae, Tor. Mohammed: The Man and His Faith. New York: Scribner, 1936. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.

Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1939. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1953.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1956.


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Circa 570-632

The prophet of islam


The Last Prophet . According to Islamic beliefs, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, also known as Prophet Muhammad, was the last prophet to receive revelation from God. He is so honored that Muslims, when they mention him, always pronounce a blessing.

Childhood . Muhammad was born into the Makkan tribe of Quraysh, as a member of the noble clan of Banu Hashim. The Makkans were custodians of the Ka’bah, a simple house of worship whose construction was attributed to the patriarch Abraham and which later was the source of the sacred status of Makkah in Arabia. The Quraysh were the traditional hosts of the annual pilgrimage to this sacred house. By the time of Muhammad, the Ka’bah had become the focus of idol worship. The Prophet’s father, ‘Abd Allah, died before Muhammad was born, and his mother, Ami-nah, died when he was a child. Muhammad was placed in the care of his grandfather ‘Abd al-Muttalib, who took great pride in his grandson and kept him by his side. The death of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, a prestigious man, a few years later was a blow to the entire clan. Muhammad was then taken into the care of his paternal uncle Abu Talib, a merchant of narrow means but broad generosity. The boy grew up with the favor of his uncle, looked after his family’s flocks for a time, and learned the caravan trade by accompanying Abu Talib on his journeys.

Marriage . The wealthy Makkan widow Khadijah contracted Muhammad to manage her caravan business. Though much older and wealthier than Muhammad, she proposed marriage to him in about 595, and he accepted. For the next twenty-five years Muhammad and Khadijah were a devoted couple with four surviving daughters and two sons who died in infancy. Muhammad was recognized in Makkah for his good character and noble bearing. He supervised the reconstruction of the Ka’bah after a flood, averting through diplomacy a feud between clans over the placing of its cornerstone. He rejected the worship of idols.

Revelation of the Qur’an . Muhammad used to withdraw to the hills around Makkah in order to meditate. During one such retreat, in the lunar month of Ramadan in 610, when he was about forty years old, Muhammad expe rienced the first revelation of the Qur’an. The angel Jibril appeared to him on all four horizons and said: “Read! In the name of thy Lord who creates, creates the human being from a clot of blood. Read! Verily, thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who teaches by the pen, teaches the human being what he does not know” (Qur’an 96: 1-5). Worried that he might be insane, Muhammad returned to Khadijah, who took him to her Christian cousin, Waraqah. Waraqah reassured Muhammad of the truthfulness of the message and its divine source. When the revelations resumed, Muhammad was ordered to arise and warn (Qur’an 74: 2) the members of his family and tribe to believe in one God alone and to accept his prophethood. For the next thirteen years, he gathered the followers who became the first Muslims, in the face of increasing persecution by the leadership of Makkah. During this period, the revelation continued, constituting the Makkan surahs, describe the nature of God, the reward and punishment of the afterlife, the obligations of worship, and exhortations to help the weak and honor parents. After the deaths of Khadijah and ‘Abu Talib in about 619, a plot by the Makkan clans to murder the Prophet caused him to flee to Yathrib, a city north of Mak kah whose leading tribes had invited him and pledged to protect him.

The Hijrah . The migration, or Hijrah, of Muhammad and his followers to Yathrib, renamed Madinat al-Nabi (City of the Prophet), marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar in 622 C.E. An agreement drawn up between the Prophet and the resident tribes granted him leadership of the city and marked his ascendancy to political authority over the nascent Muslim state. He joined the Makkan migrants (Muhajirun) to the Muslims of Madinah (Ansar) in compacts of brotherhood. The revelations he received in Madinah are characterized by attention to arrangements and commands concerning the functioning of society and its internal and external relations. During the years at Madinah, Muhammad married several women, including ‘A’isha ahd Hafsa, daughters of two prominent Companions. He also married widows and other women in order to cement alliances. Continuing to revere Khadijah’s memory, he was known as a fair and affectionate husband to all his wives. In Madinah, Muhammad faced an all-out military and political assault by Quraysh, which forced him to become a diplomat and military leader. Following several battles and the acceptance of Islam by allied tribes, Muhammad returned to Makkah and accepted the city’s surrender in about 630. The Prophet or his deputies led additional campaigns against outside threats in the Arabian peninsula. These campaigns helped to spread Islam across Arabia and brought Islam to the attention of regional powers.

Death . By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632, the revelation of the Qur’an had been completed with a farewell pilgrimage to Makkah. Muhammad was buried in Madinah in the house-masjid complex where he died. This site is now called Masjid al-Nabawi. Since his death, Muslims have sought to pattern their lives according to his example, and the Prophet has been the subject of intense study by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars over the centuries.



Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1983).

Marmaduke M. Pickthall, The Life of the Prophet Muhammad: A Brief History (Beltsville, Md.: Amana, 1998).


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The prophet (al-Nabi) and founder of Islam. Muhammad ("he who is praised") ibn AbdʾAllah ibn ʿAbd al-Muttalib al-Hashimi is thought to have been born in September 570 C.E., in Mecca, in Arabia, in the clan of Hashim of the tribe of Quraysh. In fact, his date of birth remains uncertain, situated by historians during the "year of the elephant" between 569 and 571, a period marked by an attack against Mecca led by the Christian Abyssinian viceroy of Yemen, Abraha, whose troops had a few elephants at their disposal. His father died before he was born and his mother died when he was around six.

Brought up by his uncle Abu Talib, Muhammad, as a youth, accompanied caravans to Syria, affording him the opportunity to meet Jews and Christians, among whom was the monk Bahira, in the city of Basra. The latter has been thought to have seen the future prophet in Muhammad. In 595, Muhammad married a rich widow, Khadija, fifteen years older than he was. In the night of 26 to 27 Ramadan of the year 610 (or 611) he had his first revelations in a cave on Mount Hira, near Mecca. Through the intermediary of the archangel Jibraʾil (Gabriel), God charged him with transmitting the Qurʾanic message to all of humanity, a message based on the oneness of God. The archangel asked him to be the prophet of the God of Abraham and of Moses. As soon as he started preaching, Muhammad came up against the hostility of the Quraysh, who were afraid that his words might compromise their commercial relations with the people of Mecca, who were polytheists. This hostility prompted him to emigrate to the oasis of Yathrib, a city with a large Jewish community, in July 622. He made a pact with twelve inhabitants of the city (the Oath of Aqaba), allowing him to benefit from the protection of their clan. This emigration marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar named after the emigration (hijra). It was during this epoch, in 622 or 623, that his "Night Journey" (israʾ) to Jerusalem took place, in which he rode, according to Qurʾanic tradition, on a mare that had a woman's head and a peacock's tail. When he arrived in Jerusalem he "ascended to Heaven," where he had been expected by God, who had a message for him. The relations of the first Muslims with the Meccans worsened, leading to a veritable war between the two communities, following which, on 11 January 630, the followers of Muhammad took control of Mecca, emptying the Kaʿba of its idols, leaving only the Black Stone in place. Meanwhile, the Muslims also fought with and banished or killed those who betrayed their army in the battles, in particular many members of the Jewish tribes of Yathrib (renamed Madinat al-Nabi, the "City of the Prophet," or Medina). At Medina, he founded the first Islamic city-state and the first Islamic constitution. The house of the prophet Muhammad in Medina became the first mosque, and Bilal, an emancipated black slave, was charged with calling the Muslims to prayer.

On 7 March 624, the Battle of Badr, south of Medina, marked for Muslims the end of pagan Arabia. The prophet Muhammad remained monogamous until the death of Khadija, following which he married, successively, Sauda, A'sha, Hafsa, Zaynab bint Khuzayma, Umm Salama, Zaynab bint Jahsh, Juwayriya, Umm Habiba, Safiyya, and Maymuna. He had four sons who died early: Qassim, Tayyib, Tahir, and Ibrahim, and four daughters with Khadija: Zaynab, Ruqaya, Umm Kulthum, and Fatima. On 8 June 632, Muhammad died at Medina. For Muslims, Muhammad is the last of the prophets (nabi), after, among others, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

SEE ALSO Abraham;Israʾ;Jesus;Mecca;Medina;Moses.


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Muhammad (c.570–632) Arab prophet and inspirational religious leader who was the last and chief prophet of Islam. He was born in Mecca. At the age of 25, he began working as a trading agent for Khadijah, a wealthy widow of 40, whom he married. For 25 years, she was his closest companion and gave birth to several children. Only one brought him descendants – his daughter Fatima, who married his cousin, Ali. In c.610, Muhammad had a vision while meditating alone in a cave on Mount Hira. A voice three times commanded him to ‘recite’, and he felt his body compressed until he could hardly breathe. Then he heard the words of the first of many revelations that came to him in several similar visions over the next two decades. The revelations came from Allah, or God, and Muhammad's followers believe that they were passed to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. At the core of his new religion was the doctrine that there is no God but Allah and His followers must submit to Him – the word islam means ‘submission’. Muhammad gained followers but also many enemies in Mecca. In 622 he fled to Yathrib (Medina). Muslims, later took this Hejira as initiating the first year in their calendar. Muhammad won more followers and organized rules for the proper worship of Allah and for Islam. Muhammad made war against his enemies and conquered Mecca in 630. Most of the Arab tribes allied with him. In Medina, he married Aishah, the daughter of Abu Bakr, one of his strongest supporters. Muhammad is considered an ideal man, but he never claimed supernatural powers, and is not held to be divine. His tomb is in the Holy Mosque of the Prophet, Medina.


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Muhammad (c.570–632), Arab prophet and founder of Islam. He was born in Mecca, where c.610 he received the first of a series of revelations which, as the Koran, became the doctrinal and legislative basis of Islam. His sayings (the Hadith) and the accounts of his daily practice (the Sunna) constitute the other main sources of guidance for most Muslims.

In the face of opposition to his preaching he and his small group of supporters were forced to flee to Medina in 622; this flight, known as the Hegira), is of great significance in Islam, and the Islamic calendar (which is based on lunar months) is dated from ad 622 (= 1 ah). (See also Mahomet.)

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