Muhammad (Arabic محمد, also transliterated Mohammad, Mohammed, and formerly Mahomet, following the Latin) is revered by Muslims as the final prophet of God. According to his traditional Muslim biographies (called sirah in Arabic), he was born c. 570 in Mecca (or "Makkah") and died June 8, 632 in Medina (Madinah), both cities in northern Arabia.
Pious Muslims consider that his work merely clarified and finalized the true religion, building on the work of other prophets of monotheism, and believe Islam to have existed before Muhammad. They will often give him the title Rasul'ullah, "messenger of God", and follow his name in speech and in writing with the phrase sallallahu aleyhi wasallam, or, if using English, "peace be upon him".
Muhammad is said to have been a merchant who travelled widely. Early Muslim sources report that in 610, at about the age of 40, he experienced a vision. He described it to those close to him as a visit from the Angel Gabriel, who commanded him to memorize and recite the verses later collected as the Qur'an. He eventually expanded his mission, publicly preaching a strict monotheism and predicting a Day of Judgement for sinners and idol-worshippers — such as his tribesmen and neighbors in Mecca. He did not completely reject Judaism and Christianity, two other monotheistic faiths known to the Arabs; he only claimed to complete and perfect their teachings. He soon acquired both a following and the hatred of his neighbors. In 622 he was forced to flee Mecca and settle in Medina with his followers, where he established legal authority as leader of the first avowedly Muslim community. War between Mecca and Medina followed, in which Muhammad and his followers were eventually victorious. The military organization honed in this struggle was then set to conquering the other pagan tribes of Arabia. By the time of Muhammad's death, he had unified Arabia and launched a few expeditions to the north, towards Syria and Palestine.
Under Muhammad's immediate successors the Islamic empire expanded into Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. Later conquests, commercial contact between Muslims and non-Muslims, and missionary activity spread his faith over much of the globe.
How do we know about Muhammad?
The sources available to us for information about Muhammad are the Qur'an, the sira biographies, and the hadith collections. While the Qur'an is not a biography of Muhammad, it does provide some information about his life. The earliest surviving biographies are the Life of the Apostle of God, by Ibn Ishaq (d. 768), edited by Ibn Hisham (d. 833); and al-Waqidi's (d. 822) biography of Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq wrote his biography some 120 to 130 years after Muhammad's death. The third source, the hadith collections, like the Qur'an, are not a biography per se. They are stories of the words and actions of Muhammad and his companions.
Some skeptical scholars (Goldziher, Schacht, Wansbrough, Cook, Crone, Rippin, Berg, and others) have raised doubts about the reliability of these sources, especially the hadith collections. They argue that by the time the oral traditions were being collected, the Muslim community had fractured into rival sects and schools of thought. Each sect and school had its own sometimes conflicting traditions of what Muhammad and his companions had done and said. Traditions multiplied, and Muslim scholars made a strenuous effort to weed out what they felt were spurious stories. Traditionalists rely on their efforts; the skeptics feel that the question must be revisited, using modern methods.
Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike agree that there are many inauthentic traditions concerning the life of Muhammad in the hadith collections. (Indeed, most of these traditions are acknowledged by Muslim clerical authorities to be weak; only a few hadith collections are considered sahih, or reliable.)
However, even a skeptic would be likely to accept the historicity of the biographical material about Muhammad presented in the Summary above. Traditionalists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, paint a much more detailed picture of Muhammad's life, as described below.
Muhammad's life according to Sira
According to tradition, Muhammad traced his genealogy back as far as Adnan, the traditional ancestor of the northern Arabs, as follows:
Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib (Shaiba) ibn Hashim (Amr) ibn Abd Munaf (al-Mughira) ibn Qusai (Zaid) ibn Kilab ibn Murra ibn Ka`b ibn Lu'ay ibn Ghalib ibn Fahr (Quraish) ibn Malik ibn an-Nadr (Qais) ibn Kinana ibn Khuzaiman ibn Mudrikah (Amir) ibn Ilyas ibn Mudar ibn Nizar ibn Ma'ad ibn Adnan. (ibn = "son of" in Arabic; alternate names of people with two names are given in brackets.)
Muhammad was born into a well-to-do family settled in the northern Arabian town of Mecca. Some calculate his birthdate as April 20, 570; tradition places it in the Year of the Elephant. Muhammad's father, Abd Allah, had died before he was born and the young boy was brought up by his paternal grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, of the tribe of Quraysh. Following Meccan customs, his mother sent him to the desert to be wet nursed by a Bedouin Mother. The desert air was fresher than Mecca’s, and it was felt that in this climate, a city boy would have a sturdier start in life. At the age of six Muhammad lost his mother Amina, and at the age of eight his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib. Muhammad now came under care of his uncle Abu Talib, the new leader of the Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe, the most powerful in Mecca.
Mecca was a thriving commercial center, due in great part to a stone temple called the Ka'aba that housed many different idols. Merchants from different tribes would visit Mecca during the pilgrimage season, when all inter-tribal warfare was forbidden and they could trade in safety.
As a teenager Muhammad began accompanying his uncle on trading journeys to Syria. He thus became well-travelled and knowledgeable as to foreign ways.
One of Muhammad's employers was Khadijah, a rich widow then 40 years old. The young 25-year old Muhammad so impressed Khadijah that she offered him marriage about 595. He became a wealthy man by this marriage. By Arab custom minors did not inherit, so Muhammad had received no inheritance from either his father or his grandfather.
The sira records that Khadijah bore Muhammad five children, one son and four daughters. Some historians argue that some of the daughters were by her second husband, whereas others insist that all were her daughters by Muhammad. All five children were born before Muhammad started preaching about Islam. His son Qasim died at the age of two. Muhammad was nicknamed Abul Qasim, meaning the father of Qasim. The four daughters were Zainab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum, and Fatimah.
Beginning of his prophetic career
Muhammad had a reflective turn of mind and routinely spent nights in a cave near Mecca in meditation and thought. Around the year 610, while meditating, Muhammad had a vision of the angel Gabriel and heard a voice saying to him in rough translation "Read in the name of your Lord the Creator. He created man from something which clings. Read and your Lord is the Most Honored. He taught man with the pen; taught him all that he knew not." (See surat Al-Alaq for a fuller account.)
The first vision of Gabriel disturbed Muhammad, but his wife Khadijah reassured him that it was a true vision and became his first follower. She was soon followed by his ten-year-old cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib and his closest friend Abu Bakr.
Until his death, Muhammad received frequent revelations, although there was a relatively long gap after the first revelation. This silence worried him, until he received surat ad-Dhuha, whose words provided comfort and reassurance.
Around 613, Muhammad began preaching in public. Most of those who heard his message ignored it. A few mocked him. Some, however, believed and joined his small flock.
As the ranks of Muhammad's followers swelled, he became a threat to the local tribes and the rulers of the city. Their wealth, after all, rested on the Ka'aba, the temple of the idols. If they threw out their idols, as Muhammad preached, there would be no more pilgrims, no more trade, and no more wealth. Muhammad's own tribe, the Quraysh, was the most incensed, as they were the guardians of the Ka'aba. Muhammad and his followers were persecuted. Some of them fled to Abyssinia and founded a small colony there.
Several suras and parts of suras are said to date from this time, and reflect its circumstances: see eg al-Masadd, al-Humaza, parts of Maryam and al-Anbiya, al-Kafirun, and Abasa. It was during this period that the episode known as The Satanic Verses may have happened. It is said that Muhammad was briefly tempted to relax his condemnation of Meccan polytheism and buy peace with his neighbors, but repented and recanted his words (see the article on The Satanic Verses). The incident is reported in only a few sources, and many Muslims do not accept it as fact.
In 619, both Muhammad's wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib died; it was known as "the year of mourning." Muhammad's own clan withdrew their protection of him. Muslims patiently endured hunger and persecution. It was a bleak time.
About 620, he announced that he had gone on a heavenly journey - the Isra and Miraj - further alienating his enemies.
In 622, facing renewed persecution and death threats, Muhammad and his Meccan followers left Mecca for Medina, where he had gained many converts. By breaking the link with his own tribe Muhammad demonstrated that tribal and family loyalties were insignificant compared to the bonds of Islam, a revolutionary idea in the tribal society of Arabia. This Hijra or emigration (traditionally translated into English as "flight") marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The Muslim calendar counts dates from the Hijra, which is why Muslim dates have the suffix AH (After Hijra).
People in Medina hoped that Muhammad would unite their faction-ridden city. Muhammad is said to have drafted a document now known as the Constitution of Medina (circa 622-623), which laid out the terms on which the different factions could co-exist. This early tradition of toleration was one reason for the stability of the later Muslim empire.
Relations between Mecca and Medina rapidly worsened (see surat al-Baqara.) Meccans confiscated all the property that the Muslims had left in Mecca. In Medina, Muhammad signed treaties of alliance and mutual help with neighboring tribes.
In March of 624, Muhammad led some 300 warriors in a raid on a Meccan merchant caravan. The Meccans successfully defended the caravan and then decided to teach the Medinans a lesson. They sent a small army against Medina.
On March 15, 624 near a place called Badr, the Meccans and the Muslims clashed. Though outnumbered 800 to 300 in the battle, the Muslims met with success, killing at least 45 Meccans and taking 70 prisoners for ransom; only 14 Muslims died.
Muhammad's rule consolidated
To the Muslims, the victory in Badr appeared as a divine vindication of Muhammad's prophethood, and he and all the Muslims rejoiced greatly. Following this victory, after minor skirmishes, the victors expelled a local Jewish clan, the Banu Qainuqa. Virtually all the remaining Medinans converted and Muhammad became de facto ruler of the city.
After Khadija's death, Muhammad had married again, to Aisha daughter of his friend Abu Bakr (who would later emerge as the first leader of the Muslims after Muhammad's death). In Medina, he married Hafsah, daughter of Umar (who would eventually become Abu Bakr's successor). These marriages sealed relations between the prophet and his top-ranking followers.
Muhammad's two surviving daughters also married: Fatima married Ali and Umm Kulthum married Uthman. Each of these men, in later years, would emerge as successors to Muhammad as political leader of the Muslims. Thus all four of the so-called "rightly-guided" caliphs, or successors to the Prophet, were linked to Muhammad by blood, marriage, or both. (But see Caliph for more information on the controversy regarding the question of who the first Caliph was.)
In 625 the Meccan general Abu Sufyan marched on Medina with 3,000 men. The ensuing Battle of Uhud took place on March 23, ending in a stalemate. The Meccans claimed victory, but they had lost too many men to pursue the Muslims into Medina.
In April 627 Abu Sufyan led another strong force against Medina. He was aided by sympathizers among the Medinans, the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza. But Muhammad had dug a trench around Medina and successfully defended the city. This was the Battle of the Trench.
After the battle, all the Banu Qurayza adult males (including boys who had reached puberty), as well as one woman, were beheaded by the order of Saad ibn Muadh, an arbiter chosen by Banu Qurayza. The remaining women and children were taken as slaves or for ransom. All the property from the tribe was then divided among the Muslims.
Following the Battle of the Trench, the Muslims were able, through conquest and conversion, to extend their rule to many of the neighboring cities and tribes.
The conquest of Mecca
By 628, the Muslim position was strong enough that Muhammad dared to return to Mecca, this time as a peaceful pilgrim. In March 628 he set out for Mecca, followed by 1,600 men. After some negotiation, a treaty was signed at the border town of al-Hudaybiyah. Muhammad would be allowed to finish his pilgrimage. Hostilities would cease and the Muslims would have permission to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in the following year. Muhammad married Habiba, daughter of Abu Sufyan (the Meccan general) to cement the treaty.
The agreement broke down; war broke out again. In 630, Muhammad marched on Mecca with an enormous force, said to number 10,000 men. Faced with inevitable disaster, the Meccans submitted without a fight. Muhammad in turn promised a general amnesty (from which some people were specifically excluded). Most Meccans converted to Islam and Muhammad destroyed the idols in the Kaaba. Henceforth the pilgrimage would be a Muslim pilgrimage and the shrine a Muslim shrine.
Thus eight years after he had fled Mecca, Muhammad entered the city as a conqueror.
Unification of Arabia
After the return to Mecca, Muhammad defeated an alliance of enemy tribes at Hunayn. The Muslims were clearly the dominant force in Arabia, and most of the remaining tribes and states hastened to submit to Muhammad.
Muhammad as warrior
For most of the 63 years of his life, Muhammad was a merchant, then a preacher. He took up the sword late in his life. He was a warrior for only ten years.
Much criticism has been leveled at Muhammad for engaging in caravan raids and wars of conquest. Critics say that his wars went well beyond self-defense. Muslim commentators, however, argue that he fought only to defend his community against the Meccans, and that he insisted on humane rules of warfare. For further discussion, see Muhammad as warrior.
Muhammad's family life
From 605 to 619, Muhammad had only the one wife, Khadijah. After her death he married Aisha, then Hafsa. Later he was to marry yet more wives, for a total of eleven wives (nine or ten living at the time of his death). Some say that he also married Maria al-Qibtiyya, but other sources deny it.
Khadija was Muhammad's first wife and the mother of the only child to survive him, his daughter Fatima. He married his other wives after the death of Khadija. Some of these women were recent widows of battles. Others were daughters of his close allies or tribal leaders. One of the later unions resulted in a son, but the child died when he was but ten months old.
Some non-Muslims criticize his marriage to Aisha, as some traditions say that she was only nine years old when the marriage was consummated (see Aisha for a discussion of other, conflicting, traditions). Critics also question his marriage to his adopted son's ex-wife, Zaynab bint Jahsh, and his alleged violation of the Qur'anic injunction against marrying more than four wives. For further information on Muhammad's family life and consideration of these criticisms, see Muhammad's marriages.
Companions of Muhammad
- See main article Sahaba
The term companions refers to anyone who met three criteria. First, he must have been a contemporary of Muhammad. Second, he must have seen or heard Muhammad speak on at least one occasion. Third, he must have converted to Islam. Companions are responsible for the transmission of Hadith, as each Hadith must have as its first transmitter a companion. The first four companions listed below were also the first four leaders (caliph) of the Muslim community after Muhammad's death. There were many other companions in addition to the ones listed here.
The death of Muhammad
After a short illness, Muhammad died at Monday around noon of 8 June 632, in the city of Medina. He was 63 years old.
According to the Shia sect, the prophet had introduced his son-in-law Ali as his successor, in a public sermon at Ghadir Khom. But Abu Bakr and Umar intrigued to oust Ali and make Abu Bakr the leader or caliph.
The majority Sunni sect dispute this, and say that the leaders of the community conferred and freely chose Abu Bakr, who was pre-eminent among the followers of Muhammad.
However it happened, Abu Bakr became the new leader. He spent much of his short reign suppressing rebellious tribes in the Ridda Wars.
With unity restored in Arabia, the Muslims looked outward and commenced the conquests that would eventually unite the Middle East under the caliphs.
Muhammad was survived only by his daughter Fatima and her children. (Some say that his daughter Zainab had a daughter, Amma or Umama, who survived him as well.)
The Shia sect believes that Fatima's husband 'Ali and his descendants are the rightful leaders of the faithful. The Sunni do not accept this view, but they still honor the descendents of the prophet.
Descendents of Muhammad are known by many names, such as sayyids, syeds سيد, and sharifs شريف (plural: ِأشراف Ashraaf). Many rulers and notables in Muslim countries, past and present, claim such descent, with various degrees of credibility, such as the Fatimid dynasty of North Africa, the Idrisis, the current royal families of Jordan and Morocco, and the Agha Khan Imams of the Ismaili sect. In various Muslim countries, there are societies that authenticate claims of descent; some societies are more credible than others.
Muhammad's historical significance
Before his death in 632, Muhammad had established Islam as a social and political force and had unified most of Arabia. A few decades after his death, his successors had united all of Arabia, and conquered Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Armenia, and much of North Africa. By 750 C.E., the rest of north Africa came under Muslim rule, as did the southern part of Spain and much of central Asia (including Sind, in the Indus Valley). Under the Ghaznavids, in the tenth century C.E., Islam expanded into the Hindu principalities east of the Indus, in what is now northern India. Even later, Islam expanded peacefully into much of Africa and Southeast Asia. Islam is now the faith of millions all over the globe, and believed to be the second largest religion of the present day.
- Public Broadcasting System program on Muhammad (http://www.pbs.org/muhammad)
- Encarta Encyclopedia (http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761553918/Muhammad_(prophet).html/)
- 1911 Encyclopedia article of Muhammad (http://31.1911encyclopedia.org/M/MA/MAHOMET.htm)
- The Life of Muhammad (http://www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Books/MH_LM/default.htm) Muhammad Husayn Haykal Translated by Isma'il Razi A. al-Faruqi
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- The Quest for the Historical Mohammed (http://www.answering-islam.org.uk/Books/Jeffery/historical_mhd.htm)
- Trends in Biographies of Muhammad (http://debate.org.uk/topics/theo/muhbiog.htm)
- Swords of the Prophet Muhammad (http://faculty.washington.edu/wheelerb/swords/swords_index.html)
- Ibn Warraq, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, Prometheus Books, March 2000, hardback, 554 pages, ISBN 1573927872
- Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources, Inner Traditions International, Limited, 1987, paperback, 368 pages, ISBN 0892811706
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- Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, Islamic Book Service, 1995, paperback, ISBN 1577311957, translation of an Arabic original
- Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, ISBN 1565847520