Editor’s Note: Ibn Ishaq was an eighth-century scholar who wrote the first full biography of Muhammad’s life. He lived over a century after Muhammad. This article is largely based on the account originally gathered from Ibn Ishaq’s biography and retold in Daniel W. Brown’s, A New Introduction to Islam.
The Birth of the Final Prophet
“You are pregnant with the Lord of this people.”
Amina, a young widow pregnant with her recently deceased husband’s child, paused to listen to this mysterious prophecy. The voice also instructed her to call her son “Muhammad.”
Under the shadow of this prophecy, she bore a son named Muhammad. He came from the lineage of Noah and Abraham and was born into the respected Quraysh tribe, one of the leading families of sixth-century Mecca, Arabia—a wealthy center of commercial activity.
From the start, people noticed something different about this child. His Bedouin nurse, who struggled to produce milk for her own baby, experienced an overflow of milk the day she took the baby Muhammad into her arms. As he grew, others also remarked that the boy would have a great future.
Muhammad’s childhood, however, wasn’t without grief. When he was six years old, his mother died. His grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, cared for the young boy, but when he also died, the responsibility of Muhammad’s care passed to his uncle, Abu Talib.
As Muhammad matured into a young man, people in Mecca called him “the trustworthy,” saying he was “the finest of his people in manliness, the best in character, the most noble in lineage, the best neighbor, the most kind, truthful, reliable, [and] the furthest removed from filthiness and corrupt morals” (Brown, p. 59).
In his twenties, Muhammad began to trade on behalf of a businesswoman in Mecca named Khadija, the richest woman of the Quraysh tribe. Khadija, a widow almost fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, was impressed by her young employee and proposed marriage. They wed and Muhammad continued to grow in favor with the people of Mecca.
A Revelation from Allah
Muhammad often retreated to meditate outside Mecca at Mount Hira. Tradition states that during one of those retreats, the angel Gabriel appeared to forty-year-old Muhammad with a revelation. Gabriel proclaimed three times, “Read!” After that, the first words of what would become qur’anic revelation came to Muhammad, recorded in Qur’an 96.
Recite: In the Name of thy Lord who created,
Created Man of a blood-clot.
Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous,
who taught by the Pen,
taught Man that he knew not.
Muhammad, distraught over this experience, left the mountain, unsure of what to do. Over the following months, tradition states that Gabriel continued to visit Muhammad with visions. He taught Muhammad ritual worship and prayer, and that Allah is One, thereby sharply opposing the predominant polytheism of Mecca. The revelations frightened Muhammad, but his wife, Khadija, encouraged him not to fear. He slowly shared these revelations with his closest friends. Over time, the number of his supporters grew.
A Plan to Kill
Muhammad began to broadcast his message after he received an order from Allah to “proclaim what you have been ordered and turn aside from the polytheists,” (Qur’an 15:94). He summoned the Quraysh tribal leaders to introduce his message of Allah’s impending punishment if they did not worship the one, true God. As a sign, he performed a miracle in front of them—multiplying their food and drink. Even so, all but one of his kinsmen rejected his message.
The people of Mecca felt threatened by Muhammad’s monotheistic teachings and the implication it could have on their thriving economy. The Quraysh began to form alliances against Muhammad. When they made plans to kill him, Muhammad’s guardian-uncle intervened and saved him.
The tribesmen tried various tactics to rid themselves of Muhammad’s teaching. They offered bribes to Muhammad if he would stop. They told him they would believe him if he performed miracles or if he could solve religious riddles. His followers began to face persecution and forced-apostasy.
The Move to Mecca
Amid the persecution, a miraculous trip to Jerusalem established Muhammad’s place in Islam among the prophets in heaven. It is said that while in Jerusalem, he had a vision in which he was given a tour of hell and the seven heavens. In his vision of heaven, he saw all the prophets, including Adam, Jesus, John, Moses, and Abraham.
During this supernatural experience, he negotiated an agreement between Moses and Allah about the number of daily ritual Islamic prayers—originally set at fifty but negotiated down to five. Muhammad told his disciples, “He of you who performs them in faith and trust will have the reward of fifty prayers” (Guillaume, p. 187).
“He of you who performs [a daily prayer] in faith and trust will have the reward of fifty prayers.”
Yet the threat against Muhammad persisted. When Khadija and his uncle-guardian passed away in the same year, Muhammad realized he needed to expand the number of those who would support and protect him. He began to recruit outside Mecca, and his band of followers steadily grew. Around this time, Muhammed reported that Allah gave permission for Muslims to fight back against those who opposed them. Allah told Muhammad, “Leave is given to those who fight because they were wronged” (Qur’an 22:40).
Because of intense persecution, Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca to a city named Yathrib, later named Medina. The supporters in Medina soon grew into a force ready to offer military support to protect their leader. This escape to Medina, called the Hijra, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The year 622 CE became the year 1 AH: Anno Hegirae, “in the year of the Hijra.”
A Religious and Political Leader
Once in Medina, Muhammad embraced his role as a political leader. He built a mosque for a place of prayer, but also as a station for military planning against those who rejected his message of one Allah.
Muhammad began to lead skirmishes around Mecca. He once prayed, “Oh God, here come the Quraysh in their vanity and pride, contending with Thee and calling Thy apostle a liar. O God, grant the help which Thou didst promise me. Destroy them this morning!” (Guillaume, p. 297). These skirmishes led to a full-out battle between a Meccan caravan and Muslims in the Battle of Badr, where it is said angels in white turbans fought alongside the Muslims.
Rooting out those not truly loyal to Islam filled Muhammad’s time when he returned to Medina, the hub of Islamic activity. He conquered a group of Jews who had turned against him, and more than six hundred were beheaded. Muhammad also ordered the killing of a poet who wrote against him and Islam.
After six years in Medina, Muhammad returned to Mecca to seek peace. Through a series of peaceful meetings, a ten-year treaty was forged between Muhammad and the Meccan leaders. The agreement stipulated that Muslims would not enter Mecca that year, but in subsequent years they could come for three-night pilgrimages. However, when the treaty agreement was broken, Muhammad entered the city and took it peacefully. The city of economic wealth and intelligence was finally under his control.
Muhammad continued to overtake towns and summon surrounding nations to follow Islam. Only ten years after he first fled Mecca, Muhammad died after an illness at the age of sixty-two or sixty-three. His body is entombed under the green dome at his mosque in Medina.
After Muhammad’s death, Muslims spread Islam throughout Arabia by both missionary activity and military action against rebellious tribes. The surrounding empires—the Sasanian empire and the Byzantine empire—were weak and vulnerable to the invading Muslims. Iraq fell quickly when the Muslim army entered.
Within thirty years, the Arabs had conquered the entire Near Eastern world. Within a hundred years, Islam stretched from China to France. One Persian reported that the invading Arab commander announced, “God has sent us and has brought us here so that we may extricate those who so desire from servitude to the people [here on earth] and make them servants of God” (Brown, p. 128).
Madeline Arthington is a writer with the IMB serving in Central Asia.
A New Introduction to Islam, 3rd Edition by Daniel W. Brown (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017)
The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah by A. Guillaume (Oxford University Press; reprint edition, July 18, 2002)
Mohammedanism: An Historical Survey by H. A. R. Gibb (A Galaxy Book, 1962)
“The Prophet Muhammad and the Origins of Islam”
“Timeline of Islam”