The Islamic World to 1600
Muhammad, whose name means "worthy of praise," was born about 570 in Mecca. His father, Abdullah, died before Muhammad was born, and his mother, Amina, died when he was six years old. His paternal grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, then cared for him until his own death two years later, after which time Muhammad spent the rest of his childhood in the care of his uncle, Abu Talib. Little is known about his early life, but he was not wealthy, and it is believed he was a shepherd. When he was 25 he married Khadija, a wealthy widow about 15 years his senior. Despite her age, Khadija would bear Muhammad six children, four of whom survived to adulthood - daughters Zaynab, Ruqayya, Fatima, and Umm Kulthum. Ruqayya later married Uthman, and Fatima married Ali, men who became the third and fourth caliphs, respectively, of the Islamic world after Muhammad's death. It is said that Khadija and Muhammad were truly in love, and that although polygamy was common in Arabia, she was his only wife until her death in 619.
Muhammad frequently retreated to Mount Hira, a place of privacy and contemplation near Mecca, to meditate and consider his spirituality. Islamic tradition relates that it was during one such trip, in 610, when he was 40 years old, that Muhammad first heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, who recited to him the word of God, today written down in the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, meaning "recitation."
It is significant that Muslims believe that what Gabriel told Muhammad came directly from God, and that Muhammad was simply God's messenger. Muslims do not believe that Muhammad himself was divine in any way, an important distinction that sets Islam apart from Christianity, which does believe in the divinity of Jesus. Muslims believe that Gabriel continued to send Muhammad messages from God until the prophet's death. Muhammad immediately began preaching the message he had received; his wife, Khadija, was his first convert, soon followed by his cousin and future successor, Ali. Islam says that the message was similar to those received by the early Hebrew prophets: that God is one, he is all-powerful, he is the creator of the universe, and that there will be a Judgement Day when those who have carried out God's commands will enjoy paradise in heaven, and those who have not will be condemned to hell. As we have seen, these ideas were also part of the Zoroastrian religion.
By 615, Muhammad had gained several converts. These early Muslims were persecuted in Mecca, mainly by wealthy merchants who controlled the city and feared that the new faith would challenge their economic monopoly. That year, about 80 Muslims fled from Mecca to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) to take refuge with Christians there, who were enemies of the polytheistic Meccans. Muhammad's daughter, Ruqayya, and her husband, Uthman, were among those who fled, although Muhammad himself stayed in Mecca. The Abyssinian Christians treated the Muslims well, helping to form Muhammad's positive view of Christians. He labelled both Jews and Christians "People of the Book," because their religion had a holy scripture. For this reason, Muhammad considered Judaism and Christianity to be superior to the polytheistic, humanist Arab religions. Islam also had several beliefs in common with the two older religions, and today calls itself the third "Abrahamic" religion because of what it sees as common roots between the three.
|The Abrahamic Religions|
Before Muhammad's wife, Khadija, and his uncle, Abu Talib, both died in 619, Muhammad experienced his famous "Night Journey." Although there are several versions of what occurred that night, Islam holds that the angel Gabriel came to Muhammad while he was sleeping near the Ka'ba one night, and escorted him first to Jerusalem, then through seven heavens - where he met Abraham, Moses, and Jesus - to the presence of God. This event later helped establish Jerusalem as the third holiest city in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. During his journey, Muslims believe that Muhammad was told of several tenets of Islam that became some of the most basic acts of the religion, such as praying five times daily.
In 620, Muhammad married A'isha, whose father, Muhammad's friend Abu Bakr, would become the first caliph after Muhammad's death 12 years later. In 622, at age 52, Muhammad finally fled persecution in Mecca, taking his followers north to the city of Yathrib. After his arrival, the name of the city was changed to Medinat un-Nabi, the City of the Prophet, or Medina. Muhammad's journey to Mecca is known as the Hijra, or emigration, and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
|The Islamic Calendar|
The Prophet's Mosque in Medina
Courtesy of IslamiCity
Medina was much more tolerant of Islam than Mecca had been, and the religion flourished among the community there. Muhammad expanded his role as a religious leader into more of a community leader in general, marking the initial partnering of religious and administrative affairs, which would become a standard practice in the future Islamic empires. He built a house there that became the model for the mosque later built on the site, the Prophet's Mosque, which has since become the second holiest shrine in Islam, after the Ka'ba in Mecca.
In 624, Muhammad decided the Medinans should intercept a camel caravan on its way from Syria to Mecca, for the purpose of disrupting Meccan economic activity and obtaining the cargo for his followers. In the resulting Battle of Badr, the Medinans won a decisive victory despite being outnumbered by the Meccans. The event served to unify the Medinans and weaken the Meccans. It was also the first significant victory in battle for a people who would soon grow into the formidable military force that would defeat long-standing empires from Persia to Egypt.
Also in 624, Muhammad decided that the qibla, or direction of prayer, should be the Ka'ba in Mecca. This strengthened Muhammad's resolve to bring Mecca under Muslim control, and several more battles were fought between the two cities. Mecca was progressively weakened by the continued Muslim tactic of interrupting caravan traffic, and by 630, the city fell to the Muslims with little resistance. Muhammad ordered a general amnesty, thus winning over Meccans who feared retaliation for past persecution of Muslims, and the faith began spreading in the city. Muhammad destroyed the polytheistic idols in the Ka'ba, and dedicated the monument to Islam. It became, and today remains, the spiritual centre of the Islamic faith.
In 631 Muhammad reached peace settlements with the leaders of local Christian and Jewish communities, thus bringing those groups under Muslim protection, as long as they paid the jizya tax demanded of all non-Muslims. In 632 he led a pilgrimage to Mecca for the first time, but 3 months later, at age 62, Muhammad unexpectedly became ill and died in Medina. He was survived by 10 wives but only one child - daughter Fatima, who would later become Ali's wife, and would also lend her name to a 10th century Islamic dynasty in Egypt.
Thus ended the life of the man Muslims believe to be the last prophet God sent to earth. Today, his influence can be gauged by the fact that more male children in the world have the name Muhammad than any other.
|Proceed to Islamic Beliefs and Practices|