by Louay Fatoohi
Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 CE (Common Era) in the city of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, part of modern day Saudi Arabia. As his father had died shortly after marriage, his grandfather 'Abd al-Muttalib became his guardian. 'Abd al-Muttalib was the respected head of the clan of Hashim and the tribe of Quraysh, to which his clan belonged. With the Quraysh being the biggest and most influential tribe in Mecca, 'Abd al-Muttalib was seen as the master of all of Mecca. The Quraysh had a special status in Mecca because they used to be in charge of the sacred Ka'ba. The Qur'an tells us that this holy edifice was built by Prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael:
And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House [Abraham prayed]: "Our Lord! Accept from us; surely You are the Hearing, the Knowing (2.127). Our Lord! Make us Muslims and raise from our offspring a nation of Muslims. Show us our ways of worship, and relent toward us. Surely, Your are the Relenting, the Merciful" (2.128).
This means that the Ka'ba was built around 1900 BCE, which is when Abraham is thought to have lived. The Ka'ba maintained its venerable status as the destination of pilgrimage in the eyes of the pilgrims and the Arab population of the Arabian Peninsula down the centuries. 'Abd al-Muttalib was personally in charge of the Ka'ba.
The Prophet was only about five to six years old when he lost his mother. Orphan Muhammad then lost his grandfather and custodian 'Abd al-Muttalib at the age of eight. Now one of 'Abd al-Muttalib's sons, Abu Talib, became the guardian of his orphan nephew. Though respected by the clan of Hashim and the people of Mecca in general, Abu Talib did not possess the high status and influence of his father. Had he been more fortunate financially, he might have aspired to acquire that special leadership status.
When Muhammad was twenty five years old, he was hired by a woman called Khadija to take her merchandize to Syria. Khadija, a widow fifteen years Muhammad's senior, later proposed marriage to him, which he agreed to. They lived together for almost a quarter of a century, until the death of Khadija about 8-9 years after the revelation of the Qur'an.
It is interesting to note that Muhammad did not get married to any other woman during Khadija's life, despite the fact that polygamy was common practice in that society. Living out his youth with only one woman in that highly polygamous environment contradicts Muhammad's lecherous image in the Western mind.
Muhammad was deeply interested in matters beyond this mundane life. He used to frequent a cave that became known as "Hira'" on the Mountain of "Nur" (light) for contemplation. The cave itself, which survived the times, gives a very vivid image of Muhammad's spiritual inclinations. Resting on the top of one of the mountains north of Mecca, the cave is completely isolated from the rest of the world. In fact, it is not easy to find at all even if one knew it existed. After visiting the cave, I found myself concluding that Muhammad must have been divinely guided to that hideaway, even if he had chosen it consciously. Once inside the cave, it is a total isolation. Nothing can be seen other than the clear, beautiful sky above and the many surrounding mountains. Very little of this world can be seen or heard from inside the cave. The inhabitant of that cave was obviously interested in things beyond this world and its material riches.
It was in that cave in 610 CE, i.e. at the age of forty, that Prophet Muhammad received from Allah the first verses of the Qur'an. Then and there, history changed.
The Qur'an continued to be revealed in fragments to Prophet Muhammad over the following twenty two years. The last words of the Book were revealed to the Prophet shortly before his death in 632 CE. We will read more about the Qur'an in section 2.2.
In the first two to three years after the revelation, the Prophet preached Islam secretly to individuals whom he trusted. When he started calling people to Islam publicly, the new religion gradually attracted more people but, not surprisingly, also increasing hostility from the idol worshipping population of Mecca. The Prophet was subjected to harassment and abuse. However, armed with patience, resilience, and determination, and protected by his uncle Abu Talib and the clan of Hashim, the Prophet was able to carry on preaching the new faith to people.
Converts to Islam, some of whom were slaves, had to suffer all kinds of persecution, including brutal torture and murder, at the hands of the enemies of the new religion in Mecca. In 614 CE, the Prophet had to instruct a group of Muslims to escape the persecution to Abyssinia and seek the protection of its just Christian king. The Quraysh then sent a delegation to the king, carrying precious gifts, to secure the extradition of the Muslim refugees. The king, however, rejected the bribe and let the Muslims stay in Abyssinia.
One year later, the Quraysh imposed economic and social sanctions on the Prophet, his followers, and his clan. As a result, the Muslims withdrew to a mountain in Mecca. The sanctions lasted about three years before collapsing in 618/619 CE without achieving their goals.
Soon afterward, the Prophet lost his wife Khadija. Matters got worse quickly with the death of his uncle and protector. Prophet Muhammad started to suffer more from the disbelievers' relentless attempts to uproot Islam and destroy its followers. During the pilgrimage season in 622 CE, Muhammad met in Mecca with a number of chiefs from the city of Yathrib, where he had previously sent some Muslims to settle in. Having converted to Islam, the chiefs made a secret pledge to protect the Prophet should the Quraysh try to kill him.
However, the Quraysh learned about the agreement, so the people from Yathrib had to return quickly to their city. Sensing that the danger to Muslims has increased, Muhammad instructed them to immigrate individually or in small groups to Yathrib. The Qurayshites tried to prevent Muslims from fleeing Mecca to Yathrib, but the converts continued to sneak out gradually.
The continuing immigration of Muslims to Yathrib where they had allies was already very bad news for the Qurayshites. This could yet get much worse if Muhammad also would move to that city. They decided that they had no other option but to kill him.
The various clans of the tribe of Quraysh agreed to act as one and assassinate the Prophet while asleep. The idea behind acting collectively was that no one party could be blamed for the killing and become embroiled in a war of vengeance with the clan of Hashim.
The assassination plan, however, was sabotaged by divine intervention. The night the murder was planned to take place, Allah informed His Prophet of the danger and ordered him to secretly leave Mecca and head to the city of Yathrib. The latter became known as "al-Madina al-Munawwara" (the illuminated city), or "al-Madina" for brief, after the arrival of the Prophet.
This famous event, known as the "Hijra " (immigration), occurred in 622 CE, about twelve years after the revelation of the first verses of the Qur'an. This flight was destined to have far-reaching consequences in establishing the Islamic community, strengthening the position of Islam, and spreading its message.
The Prophet lived in al-Madina for about ten years. By the time of his departure from this world in 632 CE, Islam had become well established as the religion of the Arabian Peninsula and had made inroads in neighboring regions; Muslims had become a major force to be reckoned with in the area.
There are a number of good, detailed English biographies of Prophet Muhammad. One biography written by a non-Muslim is Karen Armstrong's Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (London: Phoenix Press, 2001). Another one written by a Muslim is Martin Lings' Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Inner Traditions Intl Ltd, 1987).