Sources For the Life of the Prophet Muhammad

Unlike that of, for example, Jesus Christ, the life of the Prophet Muhammad is well recorded and its details are widely accepted and understood as historically accurate.

Again, unlike Jesus, there is no academic discussion about whether Muhammad existed.  Muslims regard him as the most senior prophet of God (Allah), who brought the final revelation to humanity and he is also accepted as a real historical character who lived and died in sixth and seventh-century Arabia.

There are good sources for his life.  However, the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, only mentions Muhammad’s name four times.  What we know of Muhammad comes from a series of biographies written after his death, and from the hadiths, collected accounts of Muhammad’s sayings and lessons from those who had known him, which are texts of very great importance to Muslims, only secondary to the Qur’an.

The Prophet Muhammad’s Early Life

The Prophet Muhammad was born in the year 570, six months after the death of his father. His mother died when he was six. As a child, he was raised among various relatives in his own family, which was educated and involved in trade.

He became a trader of high reputation so much so that at 25, he was offered marriage by Khadijah, a 40-year-old widow with a large trading business of her own. Whether this was initially primarily a business arrangement or not, the marriage appears to have been very happy.

Despite polygamy being common in Arabia (and Muhammad practised it after Khadijah’s death), he took no other wives during her lifetime. They had a number of children but almost all of them died in infancy. Muhammad’s next most famous wife, Aisha, was allegedly jealous of his enduring love for Khadijah long after her death.

Muhammad appears to have always been interested in spiritual matters. According to tradition, Muhammad was involved in the setting the Black Stone in place in the wall of the Kaaba in Mecca. This event took place long before Muhammad developed his religious ideas. The Stone of the Kaaba is still huge important in Islam, as the site of pilgrimage during the hajj.

Like many Arabs of the time, Muhammad would have been familiar with Judaism and Christianity.  Arabia had large Christian and Jewish minorities but the main religion before Islam was a pagan system of hundreds of tribal gods focused on an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the concept of which survives in Islam. Scholars of the Qur’an believe that the book was written with an assumption that its readers would share that understanding too.

Many of the stories, parables and prophets in the Qur’an are directly borrowed from earlier Judeo-Christian tradition. Muhammad fully acknowledged this and saw himself in an unbroken heritage of prophets from the earliest Jewish times.

610 The Birth of Islam

As part of his spirituality, Muhammad began a process of going to pray and meditate out in the desert near Mecca for several weeks every year.

According to Islamic tradition, it was on such a retreat in 610 that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad, when he was 40 years old, and began the revelation of the Qur’an to him.

After a gap of three years, the revelations are said to have resumed. Khadijah was the first to believe that Muhammad was a prophet, and soon a band of believers gathered around him. However, at first, most Meccans ignored the new religion.

It was not until Muhammad criticised polytheism (worshipping many gods) and idol worship – key parts of the Arabian pagan system – that Meccans began to take notice of and then to persecute the Muslims. Life in Mecca became more and more perilous by the time of the death of his beloved wife Khadijah in 620.

But by this time, the new religion was starting to spread, offering a monotheistic religion tailored specifically for Arab culture and values. Converts emerged in other cities, most notably in the city of Yathrib (soon renamed Medina).

622 The Hijrah (Flight to Medina)

An offer was made to Muhammad to move to Medina – then called Yathrib – and he ordered his followers to settle with him there. This caused alarm in Mecca that trade might be disrupted, and a plot emerged to kill Muhammad, who slipped away without being harmed.

This flight (hijrah in Arabic) has great mystical significance in Islam, and became the name of the month that marks it. Muhammad soon assumed control of and renamed Medina  (Arabic for “the City”), as Muslim converts flocked to the city, where Muslims were now free to worship in their own community.

According to tradition, in 624, Muhammad received revelations that he should be facing Mecca rather than Jerusalem during prayer, which emphasised the centrality of Mecca to the religion and established that it was not just a sect of Judaism or Christianity.

War with Mecca broke out, after the Muslims raided Meccan trading caravans (a common practice in ancient Arabia). A number of battles and an unsuccessful siege of Medina followed before an uneasy truce was declared.

630 Islam Comes to Dominate Arabia

The rise of Islam as both a political and religious force was fast. Towards the end of his life, Muhammad emerged as one of the most powerful leaders in Arabia, conquering other oases and opening contact with countries beyond the peninsula.

In 630, Muhammad marched on Mecca with 10,000 Muslim converts and captured the city. Most Meccans soon converted to Islam and Muhammad destroyed all the statues of the old Arabian gods in and around the Kaaba stone he had set 25 years earlier.

Before his death in 632, Muhammad went on to conquer large parts of Arabia and to effect the conversion of most of the Arabian population to Islam. In his last months, he was particularly active giving guidance to his followers.

Muhammad united the tribes of Arabia and managed to get them to convert to the religion which had only been revealed to him a little over twenty years before.

In the years immediately after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, Islam’s spread gathered astonishing speed, with the Arabs invading Syria and Palestine within a few years and taking over much of North Africa and the Middle East during the 640s. Within a few generations, Islam became one of the largest religions in the world.

All of Muhammad’s sons had died in childhood (in fact, only one of his children, Fatima, outlived him). Eventually his friend and supporter, Abu Bakr, was confirmed as the first caliph but the lack of a clear heir would become a major issue in the early history of the religion, creating a split which would survive until today. We will be publishing a post on the history of the Sunni-Shi’i split soon.

Subsequent Views of Muhammad

Islamic Views

Muslims accept Muhammad as the last and greatest prophet from God, following other prophets. Belief in Muhammad’s prophethood is a fundamental aspect of the Islamic faith as expressed in the statement of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is a Messenger of God.”

Muslims, and in particular Arabs, trace their unity back to Muhammad, and the process he began of unifying desert peoples both religiously and politically. He is held in the highest-possible reverence and is regarded as the holiest man to have ever lived.

Muhammad was opposed to the worship of idols. As such, Muslims generally avoid visual depictions of Muhammad, hence the focus on calligraphy and geometric patterns in Islamic art.

Muslims do not believe that Muhammad is related to God except as his prophet and do not believe he is God’s son, as Christians believe about Jesus.

Christian And Jewish Views

The sudden success of Islam, in attracting converts and then in its military expansion, brought Muhammad to world attention shortly after his death. He is first mentioned in Byzantine sources when the Arabs unexpectedly conquered Syria in 636.

Unsurprisingly, Christian sources are hostile. Early Byzantine sources cite Muhammad as a false prophet. Medieval Europeans saw him as someone who performed a schism with the Christian world, for which Dante damned him to hell in the Divine Comedy.

Other medieval Christians often misunderstood Islam and thought Muhammad was actually the Muslim god. Not until the 17th century did positive views of Muhammad emerge in Europe.

During the Enlightenment, he was often viewed as a just and thorough lawgiver who provided a system for all. By the 19th century, he was recognised as one of the “great men of history”, a remarkable figure who in a few years had changed the history of much of the world.

Medieval Jewish thought did not discuss Muhammad much but when it did, it saw him mainly as a false prophet, as it did Jesus Christ.  Some medieval Jewish writers such as Maimonides wrote very critically about Muhammad yet it should be noted that they were living in Muslim states at the time, demonstrating the relative intellectual tolerance of medieval Islam.

Some Jewish thinkers, notably in Yemen, had more relaxed views about Muhammad, believing that the Muslims could have different prophets to Jews, which interestingly reflected Muhammad’s own views about the People of the Book (which stated the Christians and Jews could have their own revelation traditions).

This post is an extract from our recently published A Quick History of Islam, which can be downloaded here.

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