The Life of the Historical Muhammad [The Traditional Narrative]

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This post examines briefly the “traditional” account of the life of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic religion. It is important to note that much of the traditional account is historically uncertain and based on limited historical evidence often removed by two centuries of Muhammad’s life.

These sources are known as the ahadith, an enormous body of literature consisting of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad in oral circulation for two centuries prior to them being put into written form and collected. The first full biography on Muhammad’s life authored by Ibn Ishaq, a respected Islamic historian and Quranic exegete, and was penned over a century later. Additionally, the Quran itself is limited as a biographical account of Muhammad simply because it does not act as a biography. Thus, although some of the details within these accounts are likely historical and probably true of Muhammad, the traditional narrative does indeed face strong challenges. Nonetheless, the events of the prophet’s life presented below will be based on the traditional narrative as found in a wide array of Islamic sources.

Meccan Period

According to the traditional narrative Muhammad lived in the city of Mecca for 52 years, and was born into the Quraysh clan during the 6th century AD. He also only had one parent at the time of his birth. His dad, Abdullah, died before he was born, and his mom, Amina, died when he was about six years old. For much of his childhood he was looked after by his uncle, Abu Talib, and he probably worked in a business with his uncle. By the age of 25, Muhammad was working in the business of a woman by the name Khadijah, and despite being 15 years his senior, Khadijah fell in love with him and they eventually married. Beyond this not much more is known about Muhammad’s earlier years prior to his experience at Hira. In respect to Hira, in 610 AD and at about the age of 40, Muhammad was on a retreat in a cave near Mecca when he claimed to have seen the angel Gabriel. Muhammad fainted in the angel’s presence, and while he was unconscious it instructed him to read. According to Ibn Ishaq,

‘[The angel said:] ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it so tightly that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said, ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it again so that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it the third time so that I thought it was death and said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What then shall I read?’ – and this I said only to deliver myself from him, lest he should do the same to me again. He said: ‘Read in the name of thy Lord who created, Who created man of blood coagulated. Read! Thy Lord is the most beneficent, Who taught by the pen, Taught that which they knew not unto men.’ 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.”

Islamic sources affirm that Muhammad became suicidal after this encounter (either due to him believing he had encountered a demon or because he became depressed due to the angel Gabriel’s absence). Evidently distressed, Muhammad returned home to his wife Khadijah and explained what had happened to him. However, Khadijah, and her cousin Waraqah, managed to convince him that he was a prophet of God, and that he had actually met the angel Gabriel in the cave. This moment marked the beginning of his prophethood and although some Meccans rejected his teachings others embraced them. Muhammad then begun receiving further revelations from God and spent several years preaching in the city. His teachings were firstly done in secret, and later in public. During the early stages they were also peaceful as he taught religious tolerance. Despite this he still maintained that the Meccans needed to accept and turn to the one true God, Allah. Unsurprisingly, with such a message, Muhammad upset the Meccans. They were polytheists (believers in many gods) and evidently did not agree with his teachings. He also provoked the Meccans by ridiculing and insulting their beliefs. Muhammad thus experienced persecution and eventually fled, moving to Medina with his followers. The Meccans seized what property he and his fellow Muslim emigrants left behind in the city.

Medinan Period

Muhammad was invited to Medina to act as an arbitrator because of internal conflict between the Arab and Jewish communities, and soon many Medinans, with the exception of the Jewish tribes, accepted his teachings and converted to Islam. However, when Muhammad accrued power he soon began demanding the political loyalty of the Jews and that should they be loyal he would give them their religious and cultural freedom. This was was likely the time Muhammad first begun viewing the Jews (people he referred to as the “People of the Book,” and of whom he viewed favorably during the Meccan Period) negatively because he was experiencing ridicule and rejection from them. Like the Quraysh in Mecca, they did not accept him as a true prophet of God.

Muhammad expelled two Jewish tribes from Medina, namely, the the Qaynuqa (in 624 AD) and the Nadir (in 625 AD). The final Jewish tribe, the Quranza, upon being accused of conspiring with the Meccan coalition forces during the Battle of the Trench, Muhammad permitted the massacring of the tribe, beheading between 600-900 of the men while enslaving the women and children. Also during this time the Muslims begun raiding caravans traveling to and from the city Mecca. There were a series of such raids. Many of them were unsuccessful due to caravans managing to escape or for an inability on the Muslims’ part to find them. In one of the successful raids, the Nakhla Raid, occurring during a holy month in which everyone agreed not to fight, a man was killed and this led to war between the Muslims and Mecca. Muhammad then began revealing Quranic verses that justified the Muslim attack on the Meccans for their persecution. Through these raids the Muslim community grew in wealth and strength which brought closer to reality Muhammad’s goal of conquering Mecca and converting its population to Islam. In 627, the Quraysh and its allies retaliated by attacking Medina. However, their efforts were futile as they were blocked by an impassable trench the Muslims had dug along the north of the town. This battle lasted for several weeks before the Quraysh retreated.

The Battle of the Trench was followed by a truce between the Meccans and Muhammad, and Muhammad used the time to strengthen his position and many more Arabs converted to Islam. However, an attack from an ally of the Quraysh on an ally group of the Muslims effectively ended the truce, and although a Meccan leader by the name Abu Sufyan made an effort to reinstate the truce Muhammad refused. In 630, a slightly more elderly Muhammad marched on Mecca with a 10 000 strong army and by this time the Meccans were no match for his forces. The army practically walked into the city in what ultimately, minus an exception or two, turned out to be a bloodless encounter. Muhammad advanced on the Ka’aba and destroyed the religious artifacts and idols the pagan polytheists had there. There was then a call to prayer and Mecca had been won to Islam, party due to the fact that the inhabitants and their sacred shrine were spared from destruction. Not everyone was so lucky, however, as Muhammad executed several of his enemies which included a poetess, apostates, and a Meccan who had assaulted his daughter Zaynab as she fled Mecca for Medina.

Post Mecca

Just a few short weeks after his capture of Mecca, Muhammad marched his army against the Bedouin tribe of Hawazin. Islamic sources are contradictory and its it is difficult to piece the narrative of this battle (Battle of Hunain) together, however, it is clear that Muhammad landed a major victory. Muhammad was less lucky in the Siege of Ta’if he and his army failed to conquer the city although the city of Taif would later hand itself over to the Muslims. According to Islamic sources, Muhammad marched his army against the Byzantines in the Battle of Tabouk. It is uncertain if this battle ever took place and its seems that Muhammad later retreated with his forces after being unable to find the Byzantines. In 632, roughly two years after his capturing of Mecca, Muhammad became ill after being poisoned. He died at the age of 62 or 63 in the house of his wife Aisha, and after his death, Islam, under control of his successors, spread throughout the Middle East and into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

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