Due to the way in which influential biography’s on Muhammad’s life, sayings and movements were written centuries after his death, it is difficult to ascertain many certainties about his life. Some elements however can be taken as historical fact and inferences came be made from the vast number of texts and oral histories surrounding his life and the early days of Islam.
Muhammad’s Birth and Early Life
Muhammad was born around 570 CE in Mecca, which was an important site for pagan festivals and traditions. Certain elements of the town’s religious traditions became absorbed into Islam, as Muslims perceived the previous paganistic rituals as corrupted versions of the monotheism preached by prophets such as Adam, Abraham and Moses.
When Muhammad was orphaned as a child he was adopted by his uncle Abu Talib and became a member of the Quraish tribe. This tribe was very important and powerful, in large part because it dominated the local holy shrine believed to have been built by Abraham near to the site where he offered to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to God.
Muhammad’s Marriage and Religious Experiences
Muhammad entered into the service of a wealthy widow called Khadija when he was a young man. He impressed her by making several successful trading journeys to Syria on her behalf. Khadija married Muhammad and is thought to have born him seven children despite her being 40 when they married. Whilst in Syria Muhammad met a monk called Bahira who recognised him as a prophet.
At 40 Muhammad began to go on religious retreats to a cave near Mt. Hira. It was here around the year 610 CE that after a long period of meditation he began to receive revelations from God through the arch-angel Gabriel.
At first it was only Muhammad’s close family that converted to Islam as he refrained from preaching the revelations in public. The message however spread quickly throughout the town and after a short period of time Muhammad began to openly preach the revelations he had received.
An important early vision involves Muhammad travelling to heaven on a mythical beast known as a Buraq. After this several key facets of Islam were introduced into the religion, including the requirement to pray five times a day as well as the idea that mortal life was only a step towards getting into heaven.
Muhammad quickly becomes a very powerful figure as more and more people convert to Islam, however the more powerful he grew, the more enemies he encountered. Abu Talib provided Muhammad and his close family with protection, but when both he and Muhammad’s wife and uncle died he was very exposed to criticism and persecution from both inside and outside of his tribe.
When the condemnation became too intense Muhammad and his followers migrated to the town of Medina in the year 622 CE. This migration is known as the Hijra and it represents year 0 in the Muslim dating system. The people who travelled with Muhammad were known as the Muhajirun, a name often utilised by modern Muslim groups due to its connotations.
When Muhammad entered Medina he served as an arbiter to quell the town’s fractional tribal fighting. This service earns him many supporters in Medina which come to be known as the Ansar.
Victorious Battles and the Development of the Islamic State
After Muhammad was secure in Medina a series of battles followed which swept him into power in Medina. This period in Islamic history saw the introduction of many Islamic symbols which would extend into the modern age. The successful military leader Khalid ibn al-Walid came to be known as the Sword of Islam, and the sword became an early image of Islam along with the colour green and the crescent moon symbol.
Muhammad’s rise to power put him in a good position to develop the Islamic state in which the zakat (a tax paid by all Muslims) and jizya (a tax paid by other monotheistic religious members) tax systems were introduced. It was also at this stage that Muhammad began to heavily condemn all paganism and destroyed key pagan temples and idols. Muhammad began to send emissaries to other countries which indicated that early on he wanted to expand Islam into other states.
This earliest part of the Islamic state was known as the umma, and from this position the Islamic faith would come to dominate the rule of vast swathes of the middle east, north Africa, Asia and Europe within a very short space of time.
- A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Warner Books, 1992)
- A History of Islamic Societies by Ira Lapidus (Cambridge University Press, 2002)