Birth and Childhood
According to tradition embedded within later Islamic sources, the Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. He was born into the Quraysh tribe but later became an orphan after losing both his parents. His father, Abdullah, died prior to his birth and his mother, Amina, passed away when he was just six years old. Muhammad was then taken in by his uncle, Abu Talib, and was raised in the mercantile business. We know very little about Muhammad’s childhood from Muslim sources, although we learn that he traveled with his uncle to Syria on a caravan trip. It is possible that Muhammad would have come into contact with some monotheistic religions on his travels, such as Christianity and Judaism, which would have seemed distinctive from the polytheistic beliefs back in his home city.
Early and Middle Adulthood
Around the age of twenty-five, Muhammad was employed by a wealthy widow named Khadijah to manage her business affairs. Khadijah soon falls in love with Muhammad, despite being fifteen years his senior. Muhammad accepts her proposition to marry, a union that lasted until Khadijah’s death many years later. Only after Khadijah’s passing did Muhammad began to practice polygamy, marrying up to eleven wives.
Tradition observes the important role that Khadijah played in Muhammad’s life, especially because it was she who reassured Muhammad of the authenticity of his first revelations in the face of great self-doubt. In one account narrated in Ibn Ishaq’s biography Sirat Rasul Allah, Muhammad had been visiting a cave outside of Mecca called Mount Hira for several years. During one visit he encountered a supernatural being, believed by Muslims to be the angel Jabril, during what seems to have been a moment of much distress. Ibn Ishaq says that during this angelic encounter Muhammad passed out and while unconscious the angel throttled him into submission, evidently so hard as to make him feel he was near the point of death. According to Islam, this was God’s first means of providing revelation to Muhammad who would soon become the messenger of Allah.
But for Muhammad, this experience was a shock. Thinking that he was possessed and also afraid of what the Quraysh would say of him in light of such an encounter, Muhammad attempted to throw himself off the top of a mountain. According to another Muslim source, Al-Tabari, Muhammad informed Khadijah of what happened to him. He was so afflicted by his experience with the angel in the cave that he feared for his life and it was ultimately Khadijah who provided him comfort. Muhammad experienced further distress over the significant gap that separated his first vision at the cave and subsequent revelations, seemingly believing that God had forsaken him. He soon again contemplated suicide; according to Sahih Al-Bukhari,
“… 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” (6982).
Finally the angel returned to Muhammad instructing him to “arise and preach” (Qur’an 74:2). At this point Muhammad took on the identity of the Prophet and Messenger of God. It was his mission to warn people of the Day of Judgment and to repent and submit in obedience to Allah.
Opposition to His Teachings and Flight to Yathrib
The early years of the Prophet’s ministry met resistance in Mecca. His teachings were first done in secret and later became more public. During the early stages they were also peaceful as he taught religious tolerance, although he maintained that the Meccans needed to accept and turn to the one true God, Allah. Unsurprisingly, this was not well-received by the population who were polytheists (believers in many gods) and did not take kindly to their beliefs being ridiculed. Although they might not have objected to adding Muhammad’s God to their pantheon, they did not view kindly his instruction for them to reject all their lesser deities and replace them with exclusive belief in Allah. Muhammad managed to assemble a handful of close followers but the majority denounced him and began persecuting the Prophet’s movement.
During this tumultuous period, Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, and his wife, Khadijah, passed away. Emotionally afflicted, the Prophet begun despairing of life in Mecca and decided to leave with his adopted son Zaid to preach in the town of Taif. His teaching was not well-received as the people tried to stone them. However, the following year he met some men from Yathrib (later renamed Medina), a town two hundred miles north of Mecca. These men received his teachings and took them back home. In less than two years seventy men in Yathrib accepted the Prophet’s message. When the Quraysh back in Mecca discovered Muhammad’s growing popularity they viewed him as a threat and strategized to assassinate him. Islamic sources claim that a man by the name Abu Jahl attempted to smash the Prophet’s head with a rock while he was prostrating in prayer.
Muhammad escaped from Mecca and hid in a cave for two days with his companion Abu Bakr before fleeing to Yathrib in 622 CE in an event that would become known as the Hijrah (“flight, migration”). In Yathrib, the Prophet’s following grew and he renamed the town Medinat al-Nabi, which means “city of the prophet”, later shortened to Medina. Muhammad’s following burgeoned as new devotees joined his movement to form the ummah (“the community”). The ummah was first and foremost loyal to Allah, his Messenger, and all true believers.
The Medinan Period
Muhammad continued to receive revelations from Allah while in Medina. These revelations increased in length and focused more on social, political, and military details associated with having to develop a growing community and its unprecedented interactions with other tribes and religions. In Medina there existed three Jewish tribes, all of whom rejected Muhammad’s claims to be God’s Messenger. The Jews criticized and ridiculed him, leading the Prophet to come down hard on them. Muhammad expelled two Jewish tribes, namely, the Qaynuqa (in 624 CE) and the Nadir (in 625 CE). The final Jewish tribe, the Quranza, upon being accused of conspiring with the Meccan coalition forces during the Battle of the Trench, were permitted by Muhammad to be massacred, which involved the beheading of some 600 to 900 men and the enslavement of the women and children.
For the years up until 630 CE, Muhammad went up against the Meccans, intending to capture the city and establish Islam as its religion. This period witnessed Muslims raiding caravans traveling to and from the city. Many of these reads were unsuccessful due to caravans managing to escape or because of not planning correctly ahead of time. In one of the successful raids, called the Nakhla Raid that occurred 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 earlier persecution of the Prophet and his followers while they were in the city. These raids allowed the ummah to grow in wealth and strength. In 627, the Quraysh and its allies retaliated by attacking the Prophet in 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 while many more Arabs converted to Islam. However, an attack from an ally of the Quraysh on an allied 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 such a force. 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. 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.
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 it is difficult to piece the narrative of this battle (the Battle of Hunain) together, however, it is clear that Muhammad landed a major victory. Muhammad was less lucky in the Siege of Ta’if. His army failed to conquer the city although 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 it seems that Muhammad later retreated 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. When he died unexpectedly so did Allah’s revelations with him, and because of Muhammad’s status as the final “seal” of the prophets, no further material was gathered into the Qur’an. The leadership of the Muslim community was assumed by the caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, collectively referred to as the Rashidun Caliphs.
Criticisms and Concerns with the Classical Account
Although the above story of the Prophet’s life and ministry is what will still be found in most university textbooks, a number of scholars in the so-called “revisionist school” have questioned many of its tenets.
We have explored this in a little more detail here, but some scholars are evidencing an increased concern with the lateness of the Muslim sources typically used to construct the classical narrative. These sources, such as the Hadith and the biographies, are far removed from the Prophet’s time of death. The first person to provide an outline of the classical narrative was Ibn Ishaq (d. 768) in the Sirat Rasul Allah (765 CE). Not only is Ibn Ishaq removed from Muhammad’s time of death by a significant 130 or so years, but historians also do not possess Ibn Ishaq’s material, which means that they are dependent on an edited version of his work provided by Ibn Hisham (d. 834). Other Muslim sources for Muhammad include: Ma’mar ibn Rashid (d. 770), Sayf ibn ‘Umar (d. 796), al-Waqidi (d. 823), al-Baladhuri (d. 829), Ibn Sa’d (d. 843), and al-Tabari (d. 923). Finally, Muhammad’s sayings were first written down by Al-Bukahri (d. 870) roughly two centuries post the Prophet’s life. These late dates, while not taken to render these sources useless for purposes of historical reconstruction, suggest that scholars cannot take them uncritically.
The theorist Dan Gibson has, for example, painstakingly analyzed qiblas which he argues, based on their direction, shows that Muhammad was probably active way up north in the city of Petra, not in Mecca where the late Islamic sources place him. Some work, notably produced by Patricia Crone, has cast doubt in the minds of some that Mecca even existed at the time Muhammad is traditionally thought to have lived. There appears to be no reference to the city of Mecca until 741 CE, as discovered by Crone on a document called the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (or Continuatio Byzantia Arabica), roughly 110 years after the Prophet’s life. Despite Mecca’s prominence as a trade destination in Muslim source, no trade route map covering Arabian trade routes ever mentions it. This includes omissions on a sixth-century map, as well as several seventh-century maps including a Byzantine and an Arabian one. The first map to mention Mecca is in 900 CE.
The Petra theory proposed by Gibson, others have noted, seems to better match the Qur’an’s own geographical references. Apparently Muhammad was in contact with three tribes: ‘Ad’ (23 times), Thamud (24 times), and Midian/Midianites (7 times). However, these tribes were located in northern Arabia, over 960 kilometers (600 miles) north of Mecca. In other Islamic sources, Mecca is said to be located in a valley (Ibn Ishaq; al-Bukhari 2:645, 2:685, 2:815, 2:820, 3:891, 4:227), with a stream (al-Bukhari 2:685), fields (al-Bukhari 9:337), has trees, grass, fruit, and loam (Sahih al-Tirmidhi 1535; al-Bukhari 4:281, 9:337; al-Tabari VI 1079, p. 6), olive trees (Qur’an 16:11, 24:35, 69:103), and grapes (al-Bukhari 2:685 4:281). However, these details do not correspond with knowledge of Mecca: the city has no valley, no stream runs through it, no grass grows there, no cultivable land exists near it, and olive trees do not grow in Arabia, but do in the Mediterranean world, over 600 miles north of Mecca.
Crone, Patricia. 1987. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Piscataway: Gorgias Press. p. 6-7.
Hazleton, Lesley. 2013. The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad. London: Atlantic Books Ltd.
Holland, Tom. 2012. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. New York: Doubleday.