Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allah

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Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allah (570–632). The last of the Prophets, from whose proclamation of Qurʾān Islam derives. Muḥammad was born in Mecca in the ‘Year of the Elephant’ (i.e. when an Abyssinian army attacked Mecca). At an early age, he had an experience of a visitation by two figures (later identified as angels) who ‘opened his chest and stirred their hands inside’. It was the first of several unusual experiences which led Muḥammad increasingly to search for the truth of God and religion on his own. By now he was under the protection of his uncle, Abu Tālib, and at the age of 25 he married Khadījah; they had two sons who died and four daughters. Muḥammad was increasingly influenced by the Ḥanīfs (pl., ḥunafāʾ), those who were seeking to preserve a monotheism which they traced back to Abraham (Ibrāhīm); Arabia was an important refuge for Jews and unorthodox Christians when they came under persecution, and their beliefs are clearly reflected in the Qurʾān. Mecca was polytheistic, with revered idols, and Muḥammad recognized the contrast as extreme. He went with increasing frequency into isolation in a cave on Mount Hira in order to struggle with the truth of God lying behind the bewildering conflict of idols and religions. On one occasion, he had the strong sense of a presence (later identified with Gabriel/Jibrīl) pressing on him and insisting three times, ‘ʾIqra’, read (or recite). He resisted, but then felt words being impelled through him, the first words of what became many revelations, collected eventually in the Qurʾān; the opening words of sūra 96.

At first Muḥammad believed that he had gone insane and thought of killing himself. But Khadījah found him and told him to test the truth of what he was certain he had experienced. There followed some further revelations, but then a break which was equally testing. He began preaching, but encountered great hostility. From his initiating vision he saw with absolute clarity that if God is God, then there can only be what God is: there cannot be a God of the Christians, a God of the Jews, still less can there be the many deities of Mecca. It followed that the idolatry of Mecca was deeply wrong about God and must be abolished. In a sense, the whole of Islam is a footnote to this simple observation: there is only one God and all creation is derived from him. Therefore all humans should live in a corresponding unity (i.e. community, ʾumma); and Islam is the quest for the realization of ʾumma, under God. Not surprisingly this message was violently resisted by the Meccans. As the crisis and persecution grew worse, Muḥammad was invited to Yathrib to make his way of unity a practical reconciliation between the two contesting ruling families there. He made this move, the Hijra, in 622 (to become later the first year of the Muslim calendar) and began to establish the first community under the rule of God's revelations as they continued to be given.

At Yathrib, now to be known as al-Madīna (‘The City’), Muḥammad was joined by some seventy other emigrants, the Muhājirūn (see EMIGRANTS). The opposition from Mecca did not cease, partly because Muḥammad took to raiding their caravans. At the battle of Badr, in 624, a small army of Muslims defeated a much larger army of Meccans; but in 625, the Meccans reversed this defeat at the battle of Uhud: both battles remain epitomes of faith and lack of trust. In 627, the Quraysh failed to win a siege with numbers overwhelmingly in their favour (the battle of the Trench), and subsequently Muḥammad took the fight to his enemies, capturing Mecca in 630 and purifying it from idols. Meanwhile he had been organizing not only life in Madina, but also the relations of the new community with surrounding tribes: some of these endeavours are gathered together in the so-called Constitution of Madīna, a kind of ‘anthology’ of early treaties with different surrounding tribes. When Muḥammad died in 632, there was no obvious successor, and from this uncertainty the division of Islam between Sunni and Shīʿa became an embittered fact within a generation of Muḥammad's death.

As the Seal of the Prophets, Muḥammad has brought the revelation of God which is the same as that mediated through previous prophets, but before Muḥammad, all communities had corrupted revelation for their own purposes. After Muḥammad, there can be no further prophet or revelation, because now the pure and uncorrupted revelation exists in the world. The first connected life of Muḥammad is that of Ibn Ishaq, edited by Ibn Hisham.