If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astounding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad?Alphonse de Lamartine1
Few men have had a greater impact on faith and world events than Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Today, 1.6 billion Muslims around the world view him not only as the seal of the prophets, but as the perfect example of an honest, just, merciful, and compassionate human being. Viewed by followers of Islam as the “Living Qur’an,” his life is considered an example to be emulated by all.2
But Muhammad was not just a religious leader; he was a politician and statesman who united the warring tribes of Arabia and organized a community around belief in the “oneness” of God. His impact on the region of Arabia was so profound that the time prior to his calling as “God’s messenger” is referred to as the Time of Ignorance.3
A Tragic Childhood
Muhammad was born in 570 C.E. in the city of Mecca in Arabia. His early childhood was filled with tragedy. His father, Abdullah, was a trader who died before he was born. In accordance with local tradition, Muhammad’s mother gave over the infant Muhammad to the care of Halimah, a Bedouin wet-nurse, to be raised in the desert of Arabia until he was five years old. However, Halimah returned him to his mother when he was only two because her husband was afraid that Muhammad was possessed by an evil spirit.4
More tragedy followed. When Muhammad was six, his mother, Aminah, died and left him in the care of his paternal grandfather, Abdul Muttalib. Two years later, his grandfather died and Muhammad was given into the care of his uncle, Abu Talib, who raised him and played a prominent role in his life.
A Successful Businessman
As a young boy under the care of his uncle, Muhammad worked as a shepherd in Mecca. As he grew older, he began traveling with caravans in the harsh conditions of sixth-century Arabia. Despite the dangers of traveling in a land filled with mercenaries, marauders, and bandits, Muhammad was able to make a name for himself as a capable caravan leader. He was particularly known for being honest and trustworthy.
In his early twenties Muhammad became a business manager for the caravans of a wealthy widow named Khadijah. Impressed with his character and shrewd business savvy, she proposed marriage when he was twenty-five and she was forty.5 During their marriage, they had six children—two sons (both died in infancy) and four daughters. Though he would eventually take twelve more wives, throughout their twenty-five-year marriage he remained monogamous and they enjoyed a very close relationship.6
After his marriage to the wealthy Khadijah, Muhammad became a successful member of Meccan society. He no longer needed to work, which gave him time for spiritual contemplation.7
In the days of Muhammad, Arabia was full of polytheists and idolaters. His hometown of Mecca had become a prosperous center of trade and commerce. It was home to the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building that housed 360 pagan idols. As the central shrine to the tribal gods of Arabia, it was the site of a great annual pilgrimage and festival.8
He began to spend a lot of time talking with the Christians and Jews of Arabia, asking questions and learning their stories. He would frequently retreat to a cave on Mount Hira, a few miles north of Mecca, where he would contemplate life and the problems of Arabian society.9
A Reluctant Messenger
It was on one of these retreats when he was forty years old that Muhammad the merchant became Muhammad the Messenger of God. Muhammad claimed that he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who commanded him to recite. Terrified, Muhammad responded that he had nothing to recite. The angel twice more commanded him to recite with the same result until finally the first words of the Qur’an were revealed to him and he spoke.10
For the next twenty-two years Muhammad claimed to receive divine revelations, which he would pass on to his followers. The messages, known today as the Qur’an or “recitation” were memorized and passed around by the faithful. Believed to be the very words of God revealed to Muhammad, they would eventually be collected and written down.
Initially, fearing that he might be possessed or going mad, Muhammad was reluctant to share this experience with anyone other than Khadijah. She reassured him that he was neither mad nor possessed and that the revelations were truly from God. Unconvinced, he decided to throw himself off a mountain. But he was stopped halfway up when he was once again visited by the angel Gabriel, who assured him that he was indeed the messenger of God.11
The message that Muhammad received was both social and religious. He claimed to be a herald sent to the people of Arabia. He admonished them, encouraging them to abandon their idolatry and worship the one true God. He denounced corrupt business practices and the exploitation of widows and orphans. He defended the rights of the poor and oppressed and told his listeners to repent because the final judgment was near.12
Muhammad’s message was not well received in Mecca because it threatened the social, economic, and political interests of the establishment. For ten years Muhammad met with resistance and rejection from his own people. It was only through the protection of his uncle that he was able to survive his first several years as the Messenger of God.
A Political Leader
During those years Muhammad gained a small but faithful following in Mecca. But in 619 C.E., the deaths of Khadijah and Abu Talib made life in Mecca almost unbearable. Gone were his confidant and his protector, and opposition to his message was escalating into all-out persecution. Finally, in 622 C.E., Muhammad and about two hundred followers left Mecca and emigrated about two hundred miles north to the city of Yathrib, which was later renamed Medina.
In Medina, Muhammad went from being a reformer to a political leader. Having been rejected by his own tribe in Mecca, he founded a new tribe based not on blood relation but on submission to the one true God. His followers became known as Muslims—that is, those who submit to God.
Islam, the name of his fledgling movement in Mecca, became a distinct society in Medina. As his status in Medina grew more secure and the majority of the Arab tribes in the region came to embrace Islam, Muhammad turned his attention once again to Mecca.
Muhammad initiated a series of raids against Meccan caravans, which eventually led to several battles between the Muslims of Medina and the polytheists of Mecca. As Muhammad grew in power and influence, his methods seemed to grow more aggressive and more violent. For thirteen years he had peacefully invited others to accept Islam, but as his power and influence grew, he turned to the sword.13
Finally Muhammad marched on Mecca in 630 C.E. with an army of ten thousand men. As his forces approached, Mecca capitulated. Muhammad entered the city unopposed and marched straight to the Kaaba. He ordered the removal of all the false idols and dedicated the Kaaba to the worship of Allah, the one true God.14
Muhammad invited the people of Mecca to embrace Islam by granting them amnesty. These people in turn converted to Islam and accepted Muhammad’s leadership. Over the next two years Muhammad established his control over all the peoples of Arabia. Those who resisted were defeated, and many converted to Islam. In the spring of 632 C.E. Muhammad led the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he preached his last sermon. When he died three months later, all the tribes of Arabia were united under the banner of Islam.
The movement Muhammad started 1,400 years ago on the Arabian Peninsula has spread across the world. Today Islam is the second-largest and one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. Muslims can be found on every continent and in every culture. From a humble and tragic beginning, Muhammad grew to be a man who changed the world.
- Alphonse de Lamartine, History of Turkey (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1857).
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization (San Francisco: Harper, 2003), 46.
- Paul Grieve, Islam: History, Faith, and Politics: The Complete Introduction (New York: Carrol and Graf Publishers, 2006), 42.
- Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1983), 27.
- Ibid., 34–36.
- John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 16–18.
- Nabia Abbot, “Women and the state in Early Islam,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 1, no. 1(1942), 121.
- Ibid., 3.
- Esposito, Islam, 6.
- Qur’an 96:1–5.
- Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106.
- Esposito, Islam, 8–9.
- Most Muslims attribute the increased use of violent methods later in Muhammad’s life as a necessary defensive posture against an increase in persecution and resistance to the growth of Islam in Medina.
- Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 59, Hadith 584.
- Photo Credit: David Mckee / Shutterstock.com.