Who Is Muhammad?
Muhammad (محمد, also Arabic transliterated Mohammad, Mohammed, Muhammed, and Mahomet), is the founder of Islam — the world’s second-largest religion.
According to traditional Muslim biographers, Muhammad was born c. 570 C.E. in Mecca (Makkah) and died June 8, 632 in Medina (Madinah). Both Mecca and Medina are cities in the Hejaz region of present-day Saudi Arabia. He was a merchant in Mecca when, in 610 C.E. at about the age of 40, while meditating in a cave, Muhammad experienced a vision from the angel Gabriel, who commanded him to memorize and recite the verses subsequently collected as the Qur’an. Gabriel told him that God (Allah in Arabic) had chosen him as the last of the prophets to mankind. He began publicly preaching a strict monotheism and predicting a Qiyamah (Day of Judgement) for sinners and idol-worshippers, such as his tribe and neighbors in Mecca. For this was persecuted and ostracized by the Meccan establishment, who depended on income from pilgrims to its polytheistic shrine, the Kaaba. In 622 Muhammad accepted an invitation from believers in the city of Yathrib, where he became the leader of the first avowedly Muslim community (Yathrib ever after become known as Medina-al-Naby, City of the Prophet, or Medina for short). This journey is known as the Hijra, or migration; the event marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The 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. Although there were many battles against the pagans, some of whom became Muslim, the primary method by which Islam as a faith spread around much of the globe was commercial contact between Muslims and non-Muslims, and missionary activity. Islamic rule, on the other hand, was extended by conquest. Many people did not convert but lived as subject of Islamic rule, although as time passed the majority did embrace Islam. As Muhammad taught the unity of all aspects of life, a whole civilization developed from his teaching, with its own art, literature, philosophy, science, and theology, but also governmental and legal systems.
Muhammad’s legacy lives on in the minds and hearts of billions of Muslims throughout the world, for whom he represents the best model of human conduct. Non-Muslim opinion on Muhammad has often been less favorable—however, few disagree that his life must be numbered among one of the most influential and significant ever lived, as one of the greatest and geographically widespread civilizations in the world owes its existence to him. Islam, as a religio-cultural-social-political system or way of life, represents God’s ideal or will for billions of people. This way of life stresses that all life must be lived in harmony with God, holds all aspects of life—sacred and secular—in balance and encourages people to live as if God sees everything they do. Islam teaches the equality of all people and anticipates that day when the whole world will be obedient to God, when peace (salam, from which the word islam is derived) will exist in the vertical (between all people and God) and in the horizontal (among all people) and when the earth, given humanity as a trust from God, will be properly valued and respected. Above all, Muhammad taught that without inner piety, external displays of devotion are worthless. From the point of view of those who see God’s hand within history, Muhammad’s life cannot be understood in other than positive terms.
Sources for Muhammad’s Life
The sources available to us for information about Muhammad are the Qur’an, sira biographies, and the hadith (sayings and deeds of Muhammad) collections. Technically hadith refers to a single saying (the plural is ahadith) but in English it is customary to use the singular. While the Qur’an is not a biography of Muhammad, it does provide some information about his life; on the other hand, knowledge of Muhammad’s life provides Muslims with the ‘situation of revelation’ (Asbab al-nuzul, or reasons of revelation) without which understanding the Qur’an becomes problematical. Zakaria (1991) suggests that “it is impossible for even Muslims, let alone non-Muslims, to understand the Qur’an without an acquaintance with the circumstances in which each revelation descended on Muhammad” (tanzir, or descent, is used to describe the ‘sending down’ of the Qur’an, together with the term wahy, or revelation). The Qur’an does refer to incidents in Muhammad’s life, including both public and private circumstances, so it does contain information about him.
The Sira: Biographical Literature
The earliest surviving biographies are the Life of the Apostle of God, by Ibn Ishaq (d. 768) (see Guillaume 1955), edited by Ibn Hisham (d. 833); and al-Waqidi’s (d. 822) biography (sira) 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. In the Sunni belief, they are the accounts of the words and actions of Muhammad and his companions. In the Shi’a belief, they are the accounts of the words and actions of Muhammad, of the Household of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt) and their companions, the sahabah (see below). Lings (1983) gives us a modern sira, based on the above.
The Hadith Literature
Six collections of hadith are recognized by most Sunni as especially trustworthy: those by Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 875) (referred to above by Cook and Crone), Tirmidhi (d. 892), Nasa’i (d. 915), Ibn Majah (d. 885), and Abu Da’ud (d. 888). Together these are called the “six books” (al-kutub al-sitta). Shi’a use the above but also have their own collections, which include sayings of the Imams (male descendants of Muhammad); the collections of al-Kulayni (d. 940), Ibn Babuya (d. 991), and Al Tusi (d. 1058) who authored two collections (making four) have special status.
Many Muslims believe that the whole of Bukhari is authentic, although even in that collection the various hadith are given different categories depending on the reliability of their transmitter, ranging from the highest, sahih, to the lowest, da`îf (weak). Rules concerning hadith include that all transmitters (the isnad, or chain of transmission must trace back to a close companion of Muhammad) must be pious, their content (matn) must not contradict the Qur’an or what was commonly accepted to have been Muhammad’s opinion, any penalty prescribed must not be disproportionate to the offense or crime involved, and they must not depict Muhammad as predicting the future or performing miracles. With reference to the latter, many hadith do depict Muhammad predicting the future and performing miracles (see Bennett 1998, 49-54). On the latter point, several Qur’anic verses, such as Q29:50 and Q2:23 suggest that Muhammad did not perform miracles, since the Qur’an alone was the only confirmation needed of the genuineness of his mission. However, Q13:38 can be understood to imply that Muhammad could perform miracles “by Allah’s leave.”
Critical scholarship regarding the sources for Muhammad’s life
Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike agree that there are many inauthentic traditions concerning the life of Muhammad in the hadith collections. Muslims have always been free to question the authenticity of hadith, even of those contained in the above-mentioned collections. A very small minority called the “Quran Alone Muslims” considers all hadith as unreliable.
Non-Muslim scholars, though, are much more skeptical about the reliability of hadith literature. Joseph Schacht, John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, and others argue that by the time the oral traditions were being collected, the Muslim community had fractured into rival 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. While later Muslim compilers of the hadith collections made strenuous efforts to weed out what they felt were spurious stories, and traditionalists rely on their efforts; the skeptics feel that the question must be revisited, using modern methods.
Schacht (1964) argued that in the years after Muhammad’s death, competing factions invented hadith to justify their own claims and also to accuse anyone who disagreed with their views of illegitimacy, even apostasy or heresy. However from an Islamic standpoint, Muhammad M al-Azami (1996) has systematically repudiated Schacht’s scholarship of the hadith. Sir William Muir (1894) believed that “pious fraud” and “perverted tradition” was the “chief instrument employed to accomplish” different parties’ goals, thus “traditions were colored, distorted and fabricated.” He believed that the tendency was to idealize Muhammad by surrounding him with mystique and by attributing miracles and futuristic predictions to him, hence material that reflects less favorably on Muhammad (his supposed moral failings) was more likely to be authentic. Bennett (1998) suggested that the issue is not whether Muslims attributed Muhammad with mystique but whether he deserved this reverence or not, thus:
Admitting that ‘myths’ were created, I am interested in why. Was it to surround Muhammad with a mystique he neither had nor deserved, or was it to depict metaphorically (and in the idiom of the day) a mystique he really had? If the former, we may impute insincerity to the compilers; if the latter, this seems to be an inappropriate judgment, however far fetched, by today’s standards, the myths seem to be. (54)
Material on miracles surrounding Muhammad’s birth may be examples of back-projection, although scholars have pointed out similarity between this material and stories associated with the births of other religious teachers and founders including Jesus and the Buddha.
The historicity of the biographical material about Muhammad presented in the summary above is less contested than legal material of the hadith. However, Cook and Crone doubt the chronology of Muhammad’s life as presented in the Sira, which they regard as a post-638 fabrication—a heilgeschichte invented after the conquest of Jerusalem to lend religious sanction to Arab territorial expansion. Many non-Muslim scholars think that 570 C.E. as Muhammad’s birth is a back-projection to make him 40 years old when he received his first revelation, emphasizing the parallel with Moses (Bennett 1998, 18). Most think that 622 C.E. for the hijrah is a safe date. Other dates and the sequence of some events are also contested.
Muhammad’s life according to Sira
Main article: Names and titles of Muhammad
According to tradition, Muhammad traced his genealogy back as far as Adnan, whom the northern Arabs believed to be their common ancestor. Adnan in turn is said to be a descendant of Ismail (Ishmael), son of Ibrahim (Abraham) though the exact genealogy is disputed. Muhammad’s genealogy up to Adnan is as follows:
Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib (Shaiba) ibn Hashim (Amr) ibn Abd Manaf (al-Mughira) ibn Qusai (Zaid) ibn Kilab ibn Murra ibn Ka`b ibn Lu’ay ibn Ghalib ibn Fahr (Quraysh) ibn Malik ibn an-Nadr (Qais) ibn Kinana ibn Khuzaimah ibn Mudrikah (Amir) ibn Ilyas ibn Mudar ibn Nizar ibn Ma`ad ibn Adnan.
His nickname was Abul-Qasim, “father of Qasim,” after his short-lived first son.
Muhammad was born into a well-to-do family settled in the northern Arabian town of Mecca. Some calculate his birth date as April 20, 570 (Shi’a Muslims believe it to be April 26), and some as 571; tradition places it in the Year of the Elephant. Muhammad’s father, Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib, 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 (or Quraish). Tradition says that as an infant, he was placed with a Bedouin wet nurse, Halima, as desert life was believed to be safer and healthier for children. 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’bah that housed many different idols, possibly numbering 365. 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-traveled and gained some knowledge of life beyond Mecca. He earned a reputation for honesty and the nickname, al-amin (“the trustworthy”). During the rebuilding of the Ka’bah after a flood (some sources say fire), a fight almost broke out over whom would have the honor of putting the Black Stone back in its place. Abu Umayyah, Makkah’s oldest man, suggested that the first man to enter the gate of the mosque the next morning would decide the matter. That man was Muhammad. The Makkans were ecstatic. “This is the trustworthy one (al-amin),” they shouted in a chorus, “this is Muhammad.”
He came to them and they asked him to decide on the matter.
Muhammad proposed a solution that all agreed to—putting the Black Stone on a cloak, the elders of each of the clans held on to one edge of the cloak and carried the stone to its place. The Prophet then picked up the stone and placed it on the wall of the Ka’ba. The precise date of this incident is not known.
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 in the year 595 C.E. He became a wealthy man through this marriage. By Arab custom minors did not inherit, so Muhammad had received no inheritance from either his father or his grandfather.
Ibn Ishaq records that Khadijah bore Muhammad five children, one son and four daughters. All of Khadija’s children were born before Muhammad started preaching about Islam. His son Qasim died at the age of two. The four daughters are said to be Zainab bint Muhammad, Ruqayyah bint Muhammad, Umm Kulthum bint Muhammad, and Fatima Zahra.
The Shi’a say that Muhammad had only the one daughter, Fatima, and that the other daughters were either children of Khadijah by her previous marriage, or children of her sister.
|Timeline of Muhammad’s Life|
|Important dates and locations in the life of Muhammad|
|c. 569||Death of his father, Abdullah|
|c. 570||Possible date of birth: 12 or 17 Rabi al Awal: in MeccaArabia|
|c. 577||Death of his mother, Amina|
|c. 583||His grandfather transfers him to Syria|
|c. 595||Meets and marries Khadijah|
|597||Birth of Zainab, his first daughter, followed by: Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum, and Fatima Zahra|
|610||Qur’anic revelation begins in the Cave of Hira on the Jabaal an Nur the “Mountain of Light” near Mecca|
|610||At age 40, Angel Jebreel (Gabriel) was said to appear to Muhammad on the mountain and call him “the Prophet of Allah”|
|610||Begins in secret to gather followers in Mecca|
|c. 613||Begins spreading message of Islam publicly to all Meccans|
|c. 614||Heavy persecution of Muslims begins|
|c. 615||Emigration of a group of Muslims to Ethiopia|
|616||Banu Hashim clan boycott begins|
|619||The year of sorrows: Khadija (his wife) and Abu Talib (his uncle) die|
|619||Banu Hashim clan boycott ends|
|c. 620||Isra and Mi’raj (reported ascension to heaven to meet God)|
|622||Hijra, emigration to Medina (called Yathrib)|
|623||Battle of Badr|
|625||Battle of Uhud|
|627||Battle of the Trench (also known as the siege of Medina)|
|628||The Meccan tribe of Quraysh and the Muslim community in Medina signed a 10-year truce called the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah|
|629||Conquest of Mecca|
|632||Farewell pilgrimage, event of Ghadir Khumm, and death, in what is now Saudi Arabia|
The first revelations
Muhammad routinely spent nights in a cave (Hira) near Mecca in meditation and thought. Muslims believe that 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 that 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, Q96). Muslims stress that Muhammad had never taken part in idol worship (just as Abraham kept himself apart from idolatry in Ur; see Q6:79). This experience took place on what became known as the “Night of Power and Excellence,” (the night worth a thousand months, Q97:1-5) in the month of Ramadan (the month of the fast). It was his unhappiness with the ethics and religious practices of his peers that compelled him to seek spiritual retreat in the cave.
The first vision of Gabriel disturbed Muhammad, but Khadijah reassured him that it was a true vision and became his first follower. She is said to have consulted her relative, Warakah, renowned for his knowledge of scripture (Christian scripture), who was also convinced that God was choosing Muhammad as a Prophet. She was soon followed by Muhammad’s ten-year-old cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Abu Bakr, whom Sunnis assert to have been Muhammad’s closest friend. Some sources reverse the order of their conversion.
Muhammad’s experience of revelation
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. The hadith tell us more about how Muhammad experienced revelation. Often, he saw Gabriel. Sometimes, revelation was preceded by what sounded like the ringing of a bell. The words seemed as if they were burnt into his heart, and he had no choice but to proclaim them. Even on bitterly cold nights, the experience left him dripping with sweat. Tradition says that before Muhammad died, Gabriel recited the whole of the Qur’an again to ensure that no content was lost and that all the verses were correctly remembered. He often wrapped himself in his cloak during the experience of receiving revelation.
According to tradition, Muhammad was unlettered. He is described as the al-nabiyy-al-ummiy (Q7:157; 62:2), which is usually understood to mean that he was illiterate. This safeguards the Qur’an’s integrity for Muslims as completely divine, containing no human content. Non-Muslims, who often claim that Muhammad wrote the Qur’an, dispute this—but Muslims argue that even if Muhammad was not entirely illiterate, no human could have composed the Qur’an, which is a miracle of language and incomparable as a work in Arabic. Muslims often dislike calling the Qur’an a ‘text,’ since this compares it with human creations while it has no human author. S. H. Nasr (1994) compares the unletteredness of Muhammad with Mary’s virginity:
The human vehicle of a Divine Message must be pure and untainted … If this word is in the form of flesh, the purity is symbolized by the virginity of the mother … if it is in the form of a book this purity is symbolized by the unlettered nature of the person who is chosen to announce this word (44).
Around 613, Muhammad began to spread his message amongst the people. Most of those who heard his message ignored it. A few mocked him, calling him a magician, a soothsayer, a poet (the Qur’an is rhymed prose but Muhammad always rejected the accusation that he was a poet). Some, however, believed—and joined his small following of companions (called the believers, al-mu’minum). Many of these supporters were from the poorest and most oppressed classes, although some were powerful and influential.
As the ranks of Muhammad’s followers swelled, he became a threat to the local tribes and the rulers of the city. Their wealth rested on the Ka’bah, a sacred house of idols and the focal point of Meccan religious life. If they threw out their idols, as Muhammad preached, there would be no more pilgrims, no more trade, and no more wealth. Muhammad’s denunciation of polytheism was especially offensive to his own tribe, the Quraysh, as they were the guardians of the Ka’bah. Muhammad and his followers were persecuted. Muhammad’s enemies boycotted his supporters’ businesses and sometimes attacked them in the streets. Poets denounced him. His own prestigious pedigree protected him from physical harm. Concerned for the safety of his small following, Muhammad sent a group to Abyssinia and founded a small colony there. The Christian ruler received them with courtesy.
Muhammad’s message in Mecca
The one just God, Allah, whose existence Muhammad proclaimed was incomparable, could not be represented and, unlike the gods and goddesses surrounding the Ka’bah, Allah (God in Arabic, a masculine form) has neither partners nor offspring. The Arabs did revere Allah but thought him remote and aloof, while impersonal and arbitrary time (zaman) controlled human destiny.
As well as fearing that their income stream was under threat, the polytheists were also alarmed by the egalitarian message that Muhammad proclaimed. The nobility controlled justice, to their own advantage, and they had no desire to relinquish their elite privileges. Several suras (chapters) and parts of suras are said to date from this time, and reflect its circumstances: see for example 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 occurred. Some non-Muslims think that Muhammad was briefly tempted to relax his condemnation of Meccan polytheism and buy peace with his neighbors, but later recanted his words and repented (see Q53:19-22 and also Q22:52-3 which says that whenever Muhammad received revelation, Satan tried to substitute his words for the divine words. The incident is reported in only a few sources (see Guillaume 1955, 146-148), and Muslims disagree as to its authenticity.
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.
Isra and Miraj
Main article: Isra and Mi’raj
About 620, Muhammad went on the Isra and Miraj (night journey and ascension), a two-part journey he took in one night. Isra is the Arabic word referring to what it regarded as Muhammad’s miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, specifically, to the site of the Masjid al-Aqsa, the al-Aqsa Mosque. It is believed to have been followed by the Miraj, his ascension to heaven, where he toured heaven and hell, and spoke with Allah and earlier prophets (including Moses, Abraham and Jesus) and received the instruction that his followers should pray five times daily. Non-Muslims are skeptical about the authenticity of this event, while some Muslims suggest that it was a spiritual and not a physical experience (see Asad 1981, 187). Certainly, this experience gave Muhammad great encouragement and comfort at a critical period in his career.
Main article: (Hegira or Hijrah)
|Timeline of Muhammad in Medina|
|c. 622||Emigrates to Medina (Hijra)|
|623||Caravan Raids begin|
|623||Al Kudr Invasion|
|623||Battle of Badr: Muslims defeat Meccans|
|624||Battle of Sawiq, Abu Sufyan captured|
|624||Expulsion of Banu Qaynuqa|
|624||Invasion of Thi Amr, Muhammad raids Ghatafan tribes|
|624||Assassination of Khaled b. Sufyan & Abu Rafi|
|624||Battle of Uhud: Meccans defeat Muslims|
|625||Tragedy of Bir Maona and Al Raji|
|625||Invasion of Hamra al-Asad, successfully terrifies enemy to cause retreat|
|625||Banu Nadir expelled after Invasion|
|625||Invasion of Nejd, Badr and Dumatul Jandal|
|627||Battle of the Trench|
|627||Invasion of Banu Qurayza, successful siege|
|628||Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, gains access to Kaaba|
|628||Conquest of the Khaybar oasis|
|629||First hajj pilgrimage|
|629||Attack on Byzantine Empire fails: Battle of Mu’tah|
|629||Bloodless conquest of Mecca|
|629||Battle of Hunayn|
|630||Siege of Ta’if|
|631||Rules most of the Arabian peninsula|
|632||Attacks the Ghassanids: Tabuk|
|632||Farewell hajj pilgrimage|
|632||Death, on June 8 in Medina|
By 622, life in the small Muslim community of Mecca was becoming not only difficult but also dangerous. Muslim traditions say that there were several attempts to assassinate Muhammad. Muhammad then resolved to emigrate to Medina, then known as Yathrib, a large agricultural oasis where there were a number of Muslim 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 A.H. (After Hijra). Only after the Hijrah were the believers called Muslims, the religion Islam (Q5:3) and the five daily prayers established. There has been some speculation about whether the migration was voluntary or forced. Not all of Muhammad’s followers fled, though those who stayed behind may have been compelled to remain by the Quraysh. Others belonged to split families (which had Muslim and non-Muslim members) and could not freely leave.
Muhammad came to Medina as a mediator, invited to resolve the feud between the Arab factions of Aws and Khazraj. He ultimately did so by absorbing both factions into his Muslim community, and forbidding bloodshed among Muslims. However, Medina was also home to a number of Jewish tribes (whether they were ethnically as well as religiously Jewish is an open question, as is the depth of their “Jewishness”). Muhammad had hoped that they would recognize him as a prophet, but they did not do so. Some academic historians suggest that Muhammad abandoned hope of recruiting Jews as allies or followers at this time, and thus the qibla, the Muslim direction of prayer, was changed from the site of the former Temple of Jerusalem to the Ka’bah in Mecca. Muhammad built a mosque, which also contained his living quarters and those of his wives. Later, he would teach, preach, receive diplomatic delegations and adjudicate disputes in the mosque, where he was also buried.
While at Mecca, the Qur’anic revelations had in the main preached justice, fair treatment of the poor, and worship of the one God and condemnation of idolatry. Now, more detailed legal content was revealed The Muslim community (ummah) was to be the best community (Q3:110) and Muslims were to be a people who forbid the wrong and invite goodness (Q3:104). The primacy of God’s will over human will and the need to submit the whole of one’s life to God are dominant themes. The unity (tawhid) of the ummah should reflect that of Allah, holding different qualities in balance— leisure, work and prayer, for example—in equal measure. Inner piety must accompany outward conformity to religious ritual. The created world is beloved of God; the sun, the moon, the trees and the hills praise God (Q22:18), thus Islam recognizes no absolute ownership of property and regards human domination of the planet as a sacred trust (amana). All is eventually to be returned to the true owner (Q23:115). The rich must care for the less fortunate, thus zakat (a tithe given to the disadvantaged) is one of a Muslim’s obligations (fard, duties).
Muhammad and followers of other monotheistic faiths
Muhammad did not completely reject Judaism and Christianity, the two other monotheistic faiths that were known to the Arabs and which are referred to in the Qur’an; he said to have been sent by God in order to complete and perfect their teachings. He soon acquired a following by some and rejection and hatred by others in the region.
In contrast to the pagans who were given the stark choice to convert or be expelled, Jewish and Christian settlements within Muslim territories were tolerated and taxed. Muhammad drafted a document now known as the Constitution of Medina (c. 622-623), which laid out the terms on which the different factions, specifically the Jews, could exist within the new state. In this system, the Jews and other “Peoples of the Book” were allowed to keep their religions as long as they paid tribute. This system would come to typify Muslim relations with their non-believing subjects and that tradition was one reason for the stability of the later Muslim caliphate. In this, the Islamic empire was more tolerant than the other great powers of the area, the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, which were actively hostile to any religions or sects other than the state-sponsored religions (Orthodox Christianity and Zoroastrianism).
Although Islam supercedes or completes the earlier religions of Judaism and Christianity (see Q3:1-2), Muslims recognize a family relationship between all three Abrahamic faiths. Abraham is an important character in the Qur’an, which describes him as neither a Jew nor a Christian but a Muslim (see Q2:134). Christians and Jews are criticized for claiming that only they are saved (Q2:111) and for corrupting the originally pure messages they had received. Christians are wrong to make Jesus into God (or God’s son) since he had pointed to God, not to himself (Q3:51). The category of protected minority (dhimmi) established by Muhammad was permitted to retain their faith in return for relinquishing arms and payment of a tax (Muhammad stipulated that they should not be taxed too heavily). Muhammad said that whoever harms a dhimmi, harmed him. On one occasion, when a Christian delegation from Najran visited him in Medina, he allowed them to pray in his own mosque, as there was no church available (see Guillaume 1955, 271).
Relations between Mecca and Medina rapidly worsened (see surat al-Baqara). Meccans confiscated all the property that the Muslims had left in Mecca. From Medina, Muhammad signed treaties of alliance and mutual help with neighboring tribes.
At a certain point, Muhammad began to engage in the old Arabian practice of raiding caravans bound for Mecca. Some have criticized this decision and practice, but others insist that it is justified by the circumstances. Meccan-Muslim relations had degenerated virtually to a state of war. As such it is argued that Islam’s very survival depended on such action. Muslims owned no land in Medina and absent such raids they would have to live on charity and on sparse chances for wage labor.
In March of 624, Muhammad led some three hundred 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 eight hundred to three hundred in the battle, the Muslims met with success, killing at least 45 Meccans and taking 70 prisoners for ransom; only 14 Muslims died. This marked the real beginning of Muslim military achievement and followed from a verse of the Qur’an that gave them permission to fight against persecution (Q 22:39). Previously, all resistance to oppression had been non-violent.
The verse that allowed Muslim men to marry, in certain circumstances, up to four wives (Q4:3) is widely believed to have been revealed shortly after this battle, which left some widows without protection. Other revelations became known as the “sword verses,” such as Q9:5 and Q2:216. Muslim rulers subsequently used these verses to justify aggressive war to extend the borders of the Islamic empire; however when these verses were first revealed the Muslim community was already engaged in a war for Islam’s very survival. Defenders of these verses’ subsequent use to justify conquest remark that it was a time when many empires were competing for supremacy and used force to do so.
Islam, while no different from other contemporary powers in using force to spread its empire, nonetheless set out strict rules for the conduct of war that protected civilians, places of worship, crops and animals from harm. The accusation that Islam spread by means of the sword, forcing to convert at the point of a sword, is hotly contested by Muslims who argue that what spread was Muslim rule, while embracing the faith was voluntary. Evidence is that large portions of the empire remained non-Muslim for centuries, although over time the non-Muslims became minorities in many regions. It is, however, documented that overzealous Muslim conquerors sometimes did use force to convert the vanquished but this should not be taken as the norm.
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, and the breaking of a treaty that risked the security of the city-state, 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. Alongside the Qur’an, his own edicts (sunnah) became part of the sacred regulations that governed the life of the community. Many Muslims regard this as the ideal for all human society—to be governed by an individual whose life is centered on God and who has no self-interest. Others suggest that Muhammad’s temporal or political authority resulted from the particular circumstances in which he found himself.
While measures promulgated during the war with Mecca and the consolidation of Islamic rule helped to ensure Islam’s survival, they may not necessary represent precedents for all times and places. Muslims are careful to ascertain whether Muhammad intended a particular edict to be universally binding, before they deem it to be mandatory for all Muslims. The most important tool here is what is called the “circumstance of revelation” although the technical term also carries the meaning of “reason” (to reason). Knowledge or information about the context in which a verse of the Qur’an or a saying of Muhammad was first uttered depends on the witness statements of Muhammad’s companions. These accounts describe the context and whether or not the revelation addressed a general situation, or responded to a particular question asked by someone, or to a specific issue. If the former, the verse or saying becomes universally binding. If either of the latter, the witness (who must be a close companion or relative of Muhammad) will detail whether, in their view, the verse was only intended to speak to the specific situation, or applies to all Muslims. Some debate, clearly, can result and there is a strong tradition in Islam that all such rulings are tentative. However, the ijma or consensus rule, based on Muhammad’s advice that his people would not agree in error, often results in agreement.
The commonly accepted view is that any material that “attaches solely to the historical event” must be distinguished from that which “although attached to the historical event, also has wider implications” (Denffer 1989, 103). For example, Q5:41, which says that the penalty for theft is amputation, was revealed “concerning a specific person who had stolen a piece of armor, and had been punished accordingly” is taken to be universally binding, although some Muslims understand this hudud (extreme) punishment to be translatable into an alternative but equally stern penalty. Others insist that any Muslim state that substitutes an alternative penalty departs from true Islam.
Some sayings of Muhammad are taken as mandatory, others as only advisory but major difference in practice and consequences for policing Islamic faithfulness may result. For example, Muslims who believe that men must wear beards (that it is haram, prohibited to shave) and also that beards must be long not short may enforce this rule by publicly humiliating shaved men. Similarly, dispute about whether the head covering for women is optional or mandatory also leads to disciplinary action in parts of the Muslim world. Other Muslims strongly reject such actions as petty and obscurantist, totally contrary to Islam’s concern for human betterment, charity and godliness.
In 625 the Meccan general Abu Sufyan marched on Medina with three thousand 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 (whose wife, Hind, was among Muhammad’s most vocal and bitter opponents) led another strong force against Medina. But Muhammad had dug a trench around Medina and successfully defended the city in the Battle of the Trench.
Many of the Muslims believed that Abu Sufyan had been aided by sympathizers among Jewish residents of Medina of the clan Banu Qurayza. As soon as the battle was over, reprisals commenced against the Banu Qurayza. After the Banu Qurayza were defeated, all the adult men and one woman were beheaded by the order of Saad ibn Muadh, head of the Aws clan, an arbiter chosen by the Banu Qurayza. The remaining women and children were taken as slaves or for ransom. Some critics of Islam feel that this was unjust; Muslims believe that this was necessary. Reeves (2000) states that ibn Muadh applied “the law of Moses to the followers of Moses (Deuteronomy, 20:12-14)” (38).
Following the Battle of the Trench, the Muslims were able, through conversion and conquest, 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 decided to return to Mecca, this time as a pilgrim. In March of that year, he set out for Mecca, followed by 1,600 men. After some negotiation, a treaty was signed at the border town of al-Hudaybiyah. While Muhammad would not be allowed to finish his pilgrimage that year, hostilities would cease and the Muslims would have permission to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in the following year. The same year, correspondence occurred between Muhammad, who described himself as the ‘slave of Allah’ and the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius (610–641 C.E.) who had met Abu Sufyan and questioned him about the prophet. Reportedly, Abu Sufyan converted following this encounter, since he was convinced that if even the Byzantine emperor feared Muhammad, he would soon conquer all.
The agreement lasted only two years, however, as war broke out again in 630. Muhammad marched on Mecca with an enormous force, said to number ten thousand men. Eager to placate the powerful Muslims and anxious to regain their lucrative tribal alliances, the Meccans submitted without a fight. Muhammad, in turn, promised a general amnesty (from which a small number of people were specifically excluded). Hind begged forgiveness, and was pardoned. Most Meccans converted to Islam and Muhammad destroyed the idols in the Ka’bah. Henceforth the pilgrimage would be a Muslim pilgrimage and the shrine a Muslim shrine.
Unification of Arabia
The capitulation of Mecca and the defeat of an alliance of enemy tribes at Hunayn effectively brought the greater part of the Arabian world under Muhammad’s authority. This authority was not enforced by any formal governments, however, as he chose instead to rule through personal relationships and tribal treaties. For his followers, Muhammad combined temporal and spiritual leadership and recognized no distinction between the sacred and the secular. Islam aims to bring the whole of life into harmony with God’s will and regards the live centered on God, the life of taqwa (God-consciousness) as the ideal. Muhammad once described the whole earth as a mosque, and in its widest sense any permitted act is a form of worship. Even at the height of his power, Muhammad only ever used the title ‘messenger’ (rasul) or prophet (naby) and always lived very modesty (when he died he left almost no personal property). He recited, “I am just a human being like you,” except “to me is given the revelation that your God is God alone” (Q18:110). He dressed modestly and disliked ostentatious clothes.
The Muslims were clearly the dominant force in Arabia, and most of the remaining tribes and states hastened to submit to Muhammad.
Muhammad’s family life
From 595 to 619, Muhammad had only one wife, Khadijah. She was Muhammad’s first wife and the mother of the only child to survive him, his daughter Fatima.
After Khadija’s death, Muhammad married again, to Aisha, daughter of his friend Abu Bakr (who later emerged 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). Later he was to marry more wives, for a total of 11 (nine or ten living at the time of his death). Some of these women were recent widows of warriors in battle. Others were daughters of his close allies or tribal leaders. These marriages sealed relations between Muhammad and his top-ranking followers. These men played important roles, advising Muhammad, who always consulted on important matters.
Some say that he also married his slave girl Maria al-Qibtiyya, but other sources speak to the contrary. She bore him a son, Ibrahim, who died in infancy.
Muhammad’s daughter Fatima married Ali, Muhammad’s cousin. According to the Sunni, another daughter, Umm Kulthum, married Uthman. Each of these men, in later years, would emerge as successors to Muhammad and political leaders of the Muslims. Thus all four of the first four caliphs were linked to Muhammad by blood, marriage, or both. Sunni Muslims regard these caliphs as the Rashidun, or “Rightly Guided.”
His marriage to Aisha is often criticized today, citing traditional sources that state she was only nine years old when he consummated the marriage. 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 alleging that he fabricated the verses that allowed this, which also abolished adoption (Q33:4-5; 37). Such criticism is almost exclusively non-Muslim. Muslims take a different view, believing that Muhammad was protected as a prophet from any major error and that his life represents the highest standard of human behavior. It is a noble (hasan) sunnah (Q33:21).
Muhammad’s multiple marriages do not match some understandings of the ideal family as one husband and one wife. However, special conditions may apply (as Muslims argue) given the circumstances. The relationship between Muhammad’s wives was sometimes strained (see Q66) but they are all known as ‘mothers of the believers’ and gave Muhammad great comfort and support in his domestic life, enabling him to perform his public functions.
Muslim feminists contend that Muhammad was a champion of women’s rights but that most of his male followers were unprepared to accept this aspect of his teaching, and subsequently altered it. Mernissi (1991) described her The Veil and the Male Elite as
…a vessel journeying back in time in order to find a fabulous wind that will swell our sails and send us gliding towards new worlds, towards the time both far away and near the beginning of the Hejira, when the Prophet could be a lover and a leader hostile to all hierarchies, when women had their place as unquestioned partners in a revolution that made the mosque as open place and the household a temple of debate. (10)
Muslims are not embarrassed by the fact that Muhammad liked women or indeed sex, regarding this as healthy and also as providing guidance on how men should treat women, indeed on how they should engage in intimacy (praying before doing so). Muslims point out in response to Christian criticism that Jesus does not provide them with any advice in this area. One Muslim woman comments that Jesus “never married, so he could not become an ideal husband and father,” and he “did not rise to power,” so cannot serve “as a model of a benevolent just ruler and judge”—indeed unlike Muhammad, “his life and character are shrouded in mystery” (Ulfat Aziz Us-Samad 1979, 26). By contrast, Muhammad’s life “offers us the perfect example in all walks of life…[He gives us] “the picture of an ideally happy and pious married life and of a wise, just and benevolent ruler working for the material and moral amelioration of his people” (ibid). Reeves (2000) refers to Muhammad’s love of children and says that his household was “a model husband—gentle, generous, considerate and courteous” (49). His wives were “precious companions” with whom he “could talk and on whom he could rely for frank opinions and wise advice” (49). Aisha, certainly, felt free to speak her mind, even in criticism.
Companions of Muhammad
The term companions (sahabah) 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. There were many other companions in addition to the ones listed here.
List in alphabetic order:
- Abdullah ibn Abbas
- Abu Bakr
- Ali ibn Abi Talib
- Sad Ibn Abi Waqqas
- Salman the Persian
- Umar ibn al-Khattab
- Uthman ibn Affan
The death of Muhammad
After a short illness, Muhammad died around noon on Monday, June 8, 632, in the city of Medina at the age of 63.
According to Shi’a Islam, Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law Ali as his successor, in a public sermon at Ghadir Khumm. But Abu Bakr and Umar intrigued to oust Ali and make Abu Bakr the leader or caliph. The majority, the Sunni, disputes 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 he had a daughter, Zainab bint Muhammad, who had borne a daughter, Amma or Umama, who survived him as well).
In Shi’a Islam, it is believed 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 Muhammad’s descendents.
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 branch of Islam. 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, Islam had emerged as the spiritual counterpart to the two great monotheistic belief systems, Judaism and Christianity, and as the geopolitical successor to the Roman Empire. The rest of North Africa had come under Muslim rule, as had the southern part of Spain and much of Central Asia (including Sind, in the Indus Valley).
Under the Ghaznavids, in the tenth century, Islam was spread to the Hindu principalities east of the Indus by conquering armies in what is now northern India. Even later, Islam expanded peacefully into much of Africa and Southeast Asia, where today Indonesia has the largest Muslim population. Islam is now the faith of well over a billion people all over the globe, and believed to be the second-largest religion of the present day.
Main article: Early social changes under Islam
Muslim reverence for Muhammad
For all Muslims, Muhammad is the final prophet or the khatm (seal of prophecy, Q33: 40) after whom there are no more prophets. However, they regard him as the successor of numerous prophets (tradition says between 124,000 and 125,000 are named in the Qur’an). All prophets are equal but Muhammad is distinguished from all others by the nature of his message, which was universal whereas their messages were limited to particular places or people.
Because his example was understood to represent the highest ideal for human conduct, many details of his life, his likes and dislikes were preserved so that a great deal of information is available to anyone who is interested to know what his opinions were on a range of topics. We know that he loved cats and horses, hated bad smells, disliked music and loved the color green (hence it is the color for Islam). Muslims believe that he was inspired when acting in his capacity as prophet but that when he was not fulfilling that role he did so as a fallible human, so for example when he advised on farming he might not necessarily have given sound advice. Asked what Muhammad was like, his wife Aisha once said, “read the Qur’an,” suggesting that Muhammad lived by what he preached.
Most Muslims feel a great love and reverence for Muhammad, and express this in many ways, although no Muslim worships him or regards him as other than human.
- When speaking or writing, Muhammad’s name is preceded by the title “prophet” and is followed by the phrase, “Peace be upon him,” or “Peace be upon him and his descendents” by Shi’a; in English often abbreviated as “pbuh” and “pbuh&hd,” or just simply as “p.”
- Concerts of Muslim and especially Sufi devotional music include songs praising Muhammad, known as Qawwali).
- Some Muslims celebrate the birthday of Muhammad (Mawlid) with elaborate festivities. Others do not, believing that such festivities are modern innovations, including the dominant school in Saudi Arabia.
- Criticism of Muhammad is often equated with blasphemy, which is punishable by death in some Muslim states.
- Muhammad is often referenced with titles of praise.
- Muhammad’s relics, such as his grave, his sword, his clothing, even strands of his hair, are revered by some.
- Even non-iconic representations of Muhammad are traditionally discouraged. From the sixteenth century, however, Persian and Ottoman art frequently represented Muhammad in miniatures, albeit with his face either veiled, or emanating radiance.
- Beyond the stories accepted as canonical by Islamic scholars of hadith, or oral traditions, there are many folktales praising Muhammad and recounting miraculous stories of his birth, upbringing and life.
Traditional Western animus
See also: Medieval Christian views on Muhammad
Few non-Muslims doubt Muhammad’s achievement in terms of uniting Arabia, establishing an embryonic empire and leaving behind him a faith tradition that developed into the second largest religion in the world. They have been less inclined to accept the religious claims made about him. For Muslims, Muhammad is the perfect man and there is no question that he was sincere, moral, righteous and God revealed that Islam to him. Indeed, Muslims believe that God guided and directed the birth of Islam and the affairs of the early community. God is intimately involved in His creation, sustaining it daily (Q13:17, 15:16-23, 20:50, 30:40, 43:11, 56:63-74). Non-Muslims have often taken a much more critical view, and many have regarded Muhammad as self-serving, insincere, immoral, the inventor of Islam. Christians have long accused Muhammad of making up his religion based on borrowed material. Early accounts report meetings between Muhammad and a Christian monk, Bahira (see Guillaume, 79-82), while Q16:103 may respond to the charge that he was coached by a young Christian called Jabr (see Guillaume, 180). He has been called a fake prophet, a charlatan and worse. Some have attributed his “revelations” to epilepsy or some form of mental illness. Early writers even portrayed him as an idol worshiped by Muslims. His name was invariably misspelled.
Many Europeans, though critical of his motives, nonetheless credited Muhammad with political and military success. Even in this there have been skepics, notably Aloys Sprenger (1951), who depicted him as a tool in the hands of greater men such as Abu Bakr and Umar. However, William Muir (1894), whose biography of Muhammad is one of the earliest and most detailed biographies by a non-Muslim based on the best sources, while he echoed many of the above criticisms (indeed, as a Christian he suggests a satanic origin for Muhammad’s inspiration), concluded that Muhammad, not those around him, “formed Islam” (lxxxvi).
Minou Reeves’ Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Mythmaking (2000) traces the story of how non-Muslims in Europe have depicted, misunderstood, insulted, mythologized and demonized the life and character of Muhammad:
In the works of an overwhelming majority of European writers Muhammad was portrayed as a man of deep moral faults. Churchmen, historians, Orientalists, biographers, dramatists, poets and politicians alike had sought to attribute to Islam and especially to Muhammad fanatical and disreputable, even demonic characteristics. (x)
Western appreciation for Muhammad
Main article: Quotes About Prophet Muhammad
Reeves’ book, however, also uncovers another tradition—that of such writers as Roger Bacon and William Montgomery Watt—who have tried to “understand Muhammad’s cause, Muhammad’s message, Muhammad’s social and political reforms, Muhammad’s personality and character in the context of his times and with an open mind, [seeking to] “dispel the myths and the stereotypes and to show how Islam embraces values dear to religions that have regarded it as their sworn enemy” (300).
Muir followed others in seeing Muhammad at Mecca as sincerely searching for the truth but alleged a moral decline at Medina where worldly ambition mingled with his original goal, and robbed him of any virtue he may have had at Mecca. Muir singles out many events in Muhammad’s life for moral censure yet even he praises his simple life-style, his “urbanity and kindness of disposition [and] magnanimity towards his enemies” (although he accuses him of murdering some of his critics, such as the poet Ka’b ibn Ashraf (see Lings, 160 for a Muslim explanation) (see Muir 1858, vol. 4, 304-310).
In recent years, Christian writers Kenneth Cragg (1984), William Montgomery Watt (1961) and Clinton Bennett (1998) have attempted to find ways of affirming that he was a prophet of God while remaining loyally Christian. Watt, asking whether Muhammad was a prophet, concluded:
…not all the ideas he preached [from Watt’s Christian perspective] are true and sound, but by God’s grace he has been enabled to provide billions of men [and women] with a better religion than they had before they testified that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God (240).
In today’s interfaith climate, more and more non-Muslims have come to resonate with these views; they accept that God stands behind Islam, thus recognizing with Muslims the genuineness of Muhammad’s spiritual experiences and leadership. Although they do not accept every aspect of Muslim belief, they reject the view that Muhammad was insincere or that he invented Islam.
For secular historians, the question of Muhammad’s sincerity or authorship of Islam is irrelevant. His legacy in terms of a worldwide civilization is sufficient. For those who believe in God as the prime mover behind and within history, the issue of whether Muhammad was really inspired by God cannot be avoided. Either he was not, and despite political success he was a charlatan, or he was inspired and so was used by God to spread faith in him and to teach the importance of obedience to God. Islam is either Muhammad’s creation, or God’s. If God’s, then the binding of people together in a common faith across race and nationality, with a single hope in God’s ultimate perfecting of the world, is providential not accidental. Muslims are the first to admit that they have not always lived up to the ideal. The ummah has not remained united yet Muslims aspire towards unity, and all know that equality, justice and fairness are of the essence of Islam.
- The Wisdom In Islam: In Muhammad’s Words
- The Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants of Protection to Christians
- Muhammad Quotes
- List of Islamic Texts
- Islamic Holy Books
- Islam’s Holy Books
- History of Hadith
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia