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Who Was Muhammad?
It’s kind of difficult to be certain about most of the details of Muhammad’s life, because the historical sources are so late. Our earliest detailed biographical source on Muhammad’s life is Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, which was written more than a century after Muhammad died. And we don’t even have what Ibn Ishaq actually wrote. We only have an edited version by Ibn Hisham. And Muslims don’t even pay much attention to Ibn Ishaq. The sources they use to learn about Muhammad—their main Hadith collections—were written two to three centuries after he died. So we’re dealing with some very late material.
But if we take the Muslim sources at face value, the story of Muhammad’s life goes something like this.
He was born around 570 AD in a city called Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. His father, Abdullah, died before he was born, and his mother, Amina, died when he was six years old. After the death of his grandfather, Muhammad was raised by his uncle Abu Talib, leader of the Banu Hashim clan.
While he was still young, Muhammad began working in the Meccan caravan trade, which put him in contact with diverse religious traditions. When he was 25, he married a wealthy widow, Khadijah, who was 15 years older than he was. With more leisure time, Muhammad developed the habit of retreating to a cave on Mount Hira for prayer and reflection, as was common for the polytheists of the Meccan Quraish tribe. So it seems that Muhammad was very interested in religious matters long before anyone believed he was a prophet.
During one of his yearly retreats, Muhammad became convinced that a jinn or a demonic spirit had possessed him and had ordered him to recite some verses. The verses said:
Read! In the name of your Lord Who created, Who created man from a clot of blood. Read! And your Lord is Most Generous, Who taught by the pen, Taught man what he did not know.These words are now found in the Qur’an, Chapter 96, verses 1 through 5. So this is when Muhammad started receiving revelations that would eventually become the Qur’an. But again, he didn’t think that they were revelations at this point; he thought that he was possessed by some sort of poetry demon. He was 40 years old at the time, and he was so embarrassed at the thought of being possessed by a jinn or a demon that he tried to hurl himself off a cliff. But whatever it was that gave him the verses stopped him from committing suicide.
Muhammad ran home to his wife Khadijah and her cousin Waraqah, and it was Khadijah and Waraqah who persuaded him that he wasn’t possessed—he was a prophet of Allah. Muhammad soon began preaching Islam to friends and family members, and later to the public. But his messages became increasingly inflammatory. He condemned of the religious beliefs of the polytheists of Mecca, and he mocked their gods. Not surprisingly, the Meccans eventually started persecuting Muhammad and his followers, and after his wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib died, Muhammad decided to flee the city of Mecca.
His new city, Medina, was a little over 200 miles north of Mecca. After forming alliances with various non-Muslim groups, Muhammad began robbing the Meccan caravans. These attacks eventually led to a series of battles with Mecca—the Battle of Badr, the Battle of Uhud, and the Battle of the Trench. As war booty poured in, so did new converts. The growing Muslim army allowed Muhammad not only to subdue Mecca, but to subdue the rest of Arabia as well.
Unfortunately for Muhammad, after attacking a Jewish settlement at Khaybar, a Jewish woman whose family had been killed by Muslims offered to cook dinner for Muhammad and some of his companions, and the prophet of Islam accepted her offer. But the food she gave him was poisoned. Muhammad spit the food out, but according to Muslim sources, the poison caused some sort of internal damage, which led to severe pain and ongoing medical problems. Muhammad suffered an agonizing death a few years later in in 632.
So to put all of this together, we can divide Muhammad’s life into three main periods. There’s the time before he claimed to be a prophet; this would be 570-610. There’s his time in Mecca after he claimed to be a prophet; this is 610-622. And there’s his time in Medina as a prophet; this is 622 until his death in 632.