Before his call to prophethood as the messenger of Allah, Muhammad (570-632 CE) was on a retreat in a cave near Mecca where he encountered the angel Gabriel. This was an encounter, according to the earliest biography of Muhammad’s life by Quranic exegete and historian Ibn Ishaq (704-767 CE), that caused great distress for the prophet.
According to Ibn Ishaq, during this angelic encounter Muhammad passed out. While unconscious, the angel throttled Muhammad into submission and evidently so hard as to make him feel he was near the point of death. This was Allah’s first revelation to Muhammad.
A disconcerting detail in this story was Muhammad’s desire to kill himself. Information for this detail is provided by three important Islamic texts that convey this information: Ibn Ishaq, Al-Tabari 839-923 CE), and Al-Bukhari (810-870 CE). According to Ibn Ishaq’s biography Sirat Rasul Allah (Biography of the Prophet of Allah),
‘[Muhammad said,] “So I read it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart. Now none of God’s creatures was more hateful to me than an (ecstatic) poet or a man possessed: I could not even look at them. I thought, Woe is me poet or possessed—Never shall Quraysh say this of me! I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest. So I went forth to do so and then) when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, “O Muhammad! thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel”’ (p. 106, emphasis added).
The historian Al-Tabari, in his expansive Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (The History of the Prophets and Kings), writes,
‘He (Muhammad) said: I had been thinking of hurling myself down from a mountain crag, but he appeared to me, as I was thinking about this, and said, “Muhammad, I am Gabriel and you are the Messenger of God.” Then he said, “Recite!” I said, “What shall I recite?” He took me and pressed me three times tightly until I was nearly stifled and was utterly exhausted; then he said: “Recite in the name of your Lord who created,” and I recited it. Then I went to Khadijah and said, “I have been in fear for my life.” (Volume VI, p. 68, emphasis added)
Sahih al-Bukhari, compiled by Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Bukhar (810-870 CE), is considered by the majority of Muslims as the most reliable and trustworthy hadith tradition. According to this text,
“…after a few days Waraqa died and the Divine Revelation was also paused for a while and the Prophet became so sad as we have heard that he intended several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains and everytime he went up to the top of a mountain in order to throw himself down, Jibril would appear before him and say, “O Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Messenger in truth”, whereupon his heart would become quiet and he would calm down and would return home. And whenever the period of the coming of the Revelation used to become long, he would do as before, but when he used to reach the top of a mountain, Jibril would appear before him and say to him what he had said before.’ (Vol. 9, Book 87, Hadith 111)
As noticeable, these three sources are important for answering the question as to why Muhammad wished to kill himself.
Three reasons are apparent. The death of Waraqah ibn Nawfal (d. 610 CE), the cousin of Muhammad’s wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (556-619 CE), was painful to him. Waraqah’S death coupled with the halting of divine revelation was enough to make the prophet so upset as to want to hurl himself from a mountain.
From Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad attempted to carry out his plan multiple times but was stopped by the angel Gabriel. Muhammad wished to act upon his impulse to throw himself from the mountain.
Al-Tabari says that Muhammad was so afflicted by his experience with the angel Gabriel that he feared for his life, which is why he went to his wife Khadijah for comfort. According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad tried to kill himself because he believed he was possessed by an evil spirit and feared how this would destroy his reputation.