Muhammad’s name appears only four times in the Qu’ran, and all the thousands of details that are known about his life in Mecca and Medina during the 6th Century were probably passed down as oral traditions before being written down in the Hadiths about 100-200 years after his death. He believed that the Islamic faith was the final and perfect revelation of God. Muhammad claimed to be only a Prophet and Messenger rather than a Messiah or Son of God. Salvation came not from believing in him but from following the moral and spiritual teachings of the Qu’ran of prayer, alms giving and fasting. Jesus is revered as a great prophet in his own right, as are Abraham and Moses, which is also why early Islam was tolerant of the two other monotheistic religions. Muhammad’s Message “formed the cornerstone upon with a vast empire, spanning from Spain to India, was founded.” 1 This occurred within a century after his death, and the Islamic religion transformed the Arabs from a nomadic and mostly illiterate people to leaders of one of the largest empires seen in history up to that time. Muhammad was successful in appealing to the common people of Arabia in part because he was always one of them. Rather than being part of the privileged elite of Mecca, he was an illiterate orphan who often tended sheep, and frequently criticized the social injustices of his time. During the early life of Muhammad most of the Arabs were still polytheists and the city of Mecca had its own cult of goddess worship. His religion proclaimed the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God, and in this sense he was indeed part of the great prophetic tradition.2 These ideas had very broad appeal outside of Arabia as well, even though the expansion of the Arab Empire had not yet begun at the time of his death. When Europe had fragmented and disintegrated into feudalism, the Islamic world was experiencing a Golden Age of science, philosophy, commerce, architecture and medicine, and also preserved much of the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge that had been lost in the West.3
No reliable historical sources about the life of Muhammad exist, and the Hadith biographies and collections of sayings were all compiled decades or centuries after his death. As is usual in the history of great religious figures, these “are a fusion of legendary and factual elements.”4 Much of this material refers to events that occurred after his death, such as the “concerns over the proliferation of wealth among the believers during the conquest period” or conflicts among the successors of Muhammad.5 It is probably true that his father died before he was born and his mother when he was age six, so he was raised by his grandfather and uncle. He did work in the family’s small merchant business, and then when he was twenty-five married Khandijah, who was fifteen years his senior. Muhammad never claimed to be anything but an ordinary mortal, rather than some type of demigod who could work miracles or command armies of angels. In the earliest extant sources, he was portrayed as a man who lived simply and “was often seen mending his own clothes” while always staying close to the common people.6 Muhammad certainly did not come from a background of great wealth or privilege, and as a boy, he had lived with the desert nomads for a time. His poverty and illiteracy made him a near-outcast in Mecca and made it possible for him to understand the everyday lives and struggles of the common people, and he often criticized the social injustices of the society of his time. His first wife was much richer and of a higher social status, however, and it was at the time of his marriage that he began receiving visions and revelations in the cave of Hira, in which God revealed himself as the all-powerful Creator of the universe.7
In about 610 AD, Muhammad claimed to have received revelations from the angel Jabril (Gabriel) and over the next ten years built up a small band of followers. His growing influence was a threat to the leaders of Mecca, and in 620 he and his supporters fled to Yathrib (Medina), which today is celebrated as the Hegira and the beginning of the Muslim calendar.8 In Medina, he became “the secular, military and religious leader of the new Islamic community or umma”, a term that is still used today.9 During the following decade, a series of wars with Mecca ensued in which Muhammad was victorious in 629. His military leadership skills in the siege of Medina and other battles were exceptional, and what he did not know about strategy he learned from advisers, such as how to dig a moat to defend the city against attackers from Mecca.10 He spent the last three years of his life in Mecca, organizing the civic, legal and religious life of the community, and in due course all of Arabia came under his control. His religion taught that all men were brothers in the eyes of God, and his message transformed all of Arabian society. Among the rules he promulgated for early Islam was tolerance of other religions and cultures, far more so than the Christian state churches of that period. For example, even though Christians and Jews were considered second-class citizens (dhimmi) subject to a special tax, they were generally not subject to persecution, oppression or forced conversion.11 Nevertheless, he regarded himself first and foremost as the Prophet to the Arabs, and the rituals and rules of the new faith “had to be Arabized so as to appeal to the latent Arab national sentiment.”12 Among these were the Friday Sabbath, to distinguish it from its Jewish and Christian counterparts, prayers said facing Mecca rather than Jerusalem, retaining the Meccan tradition of kissing the Black Stone and declaring the area around the Kaaba haram or scared.13
Muhammad’s most important influence in his time and later history was through the Qu’ran, which was written over a period of twenty-two years and edited into its final form during the rule of his four successors. Up to the present, it “remains the main source of inspiration and instruction for Muslim’sof whatever variety”, including the sharia or God-law.14 Almost all of the prophetic passages in this book do not refer to Muhammad at all, but to earlier prophets like Abraham and Moses, with hardly any attempts to predict the future. In the Qu’ran, Muhammad wrote that human beings sinned by disobeying God and were therefore cast out into a world of toil, death and suffering, but even so God does not simply abandon his beloved creatures no matter that they always fall short of expectations. Since they have used their free will to obtain the knowledge of good and evil, God allows them to continue making this choice. Thus the original human sin was pride, vanity and arrogance that led human beings to imagine they would become like God. In the Qur’an, the fall into sin through the disobedience of humanity is always linked with the opportunity for redemption, “for those who believe and do good deeds, for them shall be forgiveness and a great recompense”.15 On the other hand, the Qur’an makes clear that hell was created as a place of eternal punishment for demons (jinn) as well as any humans who follow them. For the faithful, the path to salvation lies through the Five Pillars of Islam: the conversion statement, daily prayers, alms-giving, fasting (especially during the holy month of Ramadan) and a pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken at least once in a person’s lifetime.16 Muhammad did not even consider this a new religion so much as “the final revelation of God, and hewas the final Prophet.”17
Under Islam there could never be another prophet after Muhammad since his revelation was considered to be the true and final word of God. Instead, the Arab tribal leaders elected Abu-Bakr as kalifa (caliph) on the grounds that he was one of the first converts to Islam outside of the Prophet’s family. His policy was to unite the Arabs in a jihad against the Byzantine Romans and Persian Sasanids, and in a very short time, “the mightiest empires in the Middle Eastwere humbled by the Arab warriors for Islam.”18 Arab armies were very small, often under 1,000 men, yet they benefitted from expert use of their camels and horses, and efficient exploitation of the desert climate and terrain. They fought battles of ground of their own choosing, and often surprised their enemies by attacking from behind dust storms. Many years of warfare between the Persians and Byzantines had also “depleted the resources and manpower of both”.19 Nor could they any longer afford to maintain their mercenaries, who then defected to the other side in hopes of greater opportunity for plunder and looting. In addition, Egyptian Copts and Syrian Jacobites were alienated from the Greek Orthodox Church for theological reasons, and regarded the Arabs as liberators from oppressive Byzantine rule. Indeed, the Copts handed over Egypt without a fight by 636. Since these particular sects had always had doubts about the divinity of Jesus, they found to easier to convert to Islam given its similarity to their own theological views. Within a very short period after the death of Mohammad, then, Islam had spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa and all the war to the borders of Central Asia.20
Within 100 years of the death of Muhammad, the Arab-Islamic Empire had conquered a truly vast territory, from Spain to the borders of China, and come close to taking over all of Europe. For the Arabs, this was the Golden Age of science, medicine, philosophy and mathematics, to which they still look back longingly after centuries of being humiliated and controlled by other imperial powers. Over time, though, their empire fragmented and divided, and thus left itself open to conquest by other powers. Early Islam was a highly tolerant and pluralistic religion, and acknowledged that its teachings had a great deal in common with Christianity and Judaism. According to the Qu’ran , God is omnipotent and omniscient who created the entire universe in six days simply by willing them into existence. Islam offered redemption to those who believed in God and submitted to his will, as well as eternal punishment in hell for those who chose evil. Muhammad did not live to see the creation of this great empire and global religion, and at the time of his death the new faith had not yet spread out of Arabia. His main contribution to history therefore was to establish the basic principles of the new religion such as the Five Pillars and well as composing its most important book, the Qu’ran. He did not claim to be a miracle worker or a semi-divine being, but only the final Prophet in history who transmitted the true revelation of God to humanity.
Catherwood, Christopher. A Brief History of the Middle East. Constable and Robinson, Ltd, 2011.
Emerich, Yahiya. The Life and Work of Muhammad. Pearson Education Group, 2002.
Goldschmidt, A. and L. Davidson. A Concise History of the Middle East, 9th Edition. Westview Press, 2009.
Kennedy, Hugh N. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century. Prentice Hall, 2004.
Kessler, Edward. Jews, Christians and Muslims. SCM Press, 2013.
The Qur’an. Trans M.A.S. Haleem. Oxford World Classics, 2004.
Turner, Colin. Islam: The Basics, 2nd Edition. Routledge, 2006.
Zeitlin, Irving M. The Historical Muhammad. Polity Press, 2007.