Encyclopedia > Mohammed

  Article Content


Redirected from Mohammed

Muhammad (various spellings including Mohammad, Mohammed, Mahomet, now generally deprecated) was born circa 570 in Mecca and died June 8 632 in Medina. In full his name was Abu Al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd Al-Muttalib ibn Hashim. He was the founder of Islam, unifier of the Arabian tribes and founder of the Islamic Caliphate[?].

Table of contents

Early Life

Muhammad was born after his father Abd Allah had died. April 20, 570 is sometimes given as his birthdate. He was first placed under the care of his paternal grandfather Abd al-Muttalib[?] who was a former leader of the prestigious Hashim clan (which was part of the tribe to Quraysh[?]). Because the climate of Mecca was considered unhealthy Muhammad was given as an infant to a wet nurse from a nomadic tribe and spent some time in the desert. (This was a common practice among the Meccan upper class.) When he was 6 Muhammad's mother Amina died and when he was 8 his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib also died. Muhammad now came under care of his uncle Abu Talib[?] the new leader of the Hashim clan, of the Quraysh tribe - the most powerful in Mecca.

Mecca was a desert city-state whose main distinction was the Ka'aba[?], reputedly built by Abraham, the traditional patriarch of the Jews. Most of Mecca's inhabitants were idol worshippers. It was a commercial centre with no natural resources of its own, visited by many foreign traders.

As a teenager Muhammad began accompanying his uncle on trading journeys to Syria. He was thus well travelled and familiar with many foreign ways.

By all accounts Muhammad played a very active role in the civic life of his city. His uncle Zubair founded the order of chivalry known as the Hilf al-fudul[?], which assisted the oppressed of the city, local inhabitants and foreign visitors. Muhammad was an enthusiastic member. He assisted in some dispute resolution, most notably when the Ka'aba caught fire and burned to the ground, and the Meccan leaders all wanted the honour of fixing the sacred Black Stone in place when it was rebuilt. Muhammad was the judge chosen to solve the problem; His solution was to spread a white sheet on the ground, place the Black Stone in the middle, and ask the tribal leaders to carry it to its site by holding the corners of the sheet. Muhammad himself then fixed the stone in its place.

About 595 on a trading journey he meet Khadijah[?] a rich widow then 40 years old. Khadijah was so impressed by the young Muhammad (then 25) that she offered him marriage. The marriage was an important turning point in Muhammad's life. By Arab custom minors did not inherit so Muhammad had received no inheritance from either father or grandfather but by his marriage he obtained a large fortune.

Founding of Islam

Muhammad was of a reflective turn of mind and routinely spent nights in a cave near Mecca in mediation and thought. About 611 while meditating Muhammad had a vision of the angel Gabriel and heard a voice saying to him "You are the Messenger of God." (From this time until his death Muhammad frequently received revelations. Sometimes while receiving these messages Muhammad would sweat and enter a trance state.) Muhammad was disturbed by this vision of Gabriel but was reassured by his wife Khadijah. After several such revelations Muhammad met with Khadijah's Christian cousin Waraqah[?]. With the help of Waraqah he came to interpreted these messages as essentially identical to those sent by God to the Jews and Christians.

From this point onward Muhammad began to regard himself as a prophet. He quickly gathered sympathetic friends who accepted his claim to be a prophet and joined him in common worship and prayers. In about 613 Muhammad began preaching publicly. By proclaiming this message publicly Muhammad gained followers that included the sons and brothers of the richest men in Mecca.


Tradition holds that some Meccans launched vigorous and brutal attempts to persecute the new Muslims: forcing them to lie on burning sand, placing huge boulders on their chests, pour red-hot iron over them. Many died but none renounced their new faith. Muhammad himself was not the target of this oppression since his family was simply too powerful. However the environment became intolerable, and Muhammad advised his followers to go to Abyssinia.

The Meccans tried to tempt Muhammad to give up his mission by offering him political power. As Muhammad's following grew attempts were made to get him to disband or modify his religion. He was offered a large share in trade and marriage with some of wealthiest families but he rejected all such offers.

Meccans ultimately demanded that Abu Talib hand over his nephew to be killed. When he refused, commercial pressure was brought against Muhammad's tribe and his supporters. After the death of his uncle and of Khadija, Muhammad's own clan withdrew their protection of him. He was abused, stoned, thorns and rubbish were thrown on him. However, no serious attempt was made on his life.


In 622 Muhammad and his Meccan followers left Mecca for Medina where he had gained many converts. The Medinans apparently hoped that Muhammad would united them and prevent instances such as the 618 Medinan Civil War[?] in which many lives had been lost. A document known as the Constitution of Medina[?] (circa 622-623) established a confederation between Muhammad's Meccan follower and the 8 Arab clans of Mecca. Muhammad was referred to as "the Prophet" but was not given any political authority.


In Medina a few emigrant Muslim Meccans with the approval of Muhammad set out in normal Arab fashion on razzias[?] ("raids") hoping to loot Meccan on their way to Syria. About the same time Muhammad changed the direction of Qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca. In March 624 Muhammad lead about 300 men on a razzia to attack a Meccan caravan led by Abu Sufyan[?] the head of the Umayyah clan. The caravan managed to escape but Abu Jahl[?] (the head of the Makhzum clan), who had previously opposed Muhammad and organized a boycott against Muhammad's Hashim clan, was leading a supporting force of around 800 men and wanted to teach Muhammad a lesson.

On March 15 624 near a place called Badr (see Battle of Badr[?]) the two forces clashed. Despite being outnumbered 800 to 300 in the battle the Muslims were successful: at least 45 Meccans including Abu Jahl were killed and 70 were taken prisoner whereas only 14 Muslims died. To the Muslims this appeared to be a divine vindication of his Muhammad's prophethood and he and all the Muslims were greatly elated. Following this victory Medinans who had satirized Muhammad were assassinated and a hostile Jewish clan was expelled. Virtually all the remaining Medinans were converted and Muhammad became de facto ruler.

Several important marriage alliances were also made. Of Muhammad's daughters Fatima was married to Ali[?] (later fourth caliph) and Umm Kulthum to Uthman (the third caliph). Muhammad already married to Aisha daughter of Abu Bakr (first caliph) and was now married also to Hafsah daughter of Umar (second caliph). On March 21, 625 Abu Sufyan[?] hoping for revenge entered the Medina with 3,000 men. On the morning of March 23 battle began (see Battle of Uhud[?]). The battle produced no obvious winner or looser. For two years after Uhud both sides prepared for a decisive encounter. In April 627 Abu Sufyan led a great confederacy of 10,000 men against Medina. For a fortnight the confederates besieged Medina but attempts to cross the trench, which Muhammad had ordered built, failed and the army retreated. Following the victory Muhammad confronted the so-called hypocrites (munafiquin[?]) nominal Muslims who opposed Muhammad. The munafiquin quickly crumbled and their leader Abd Allah ibn Ubayy[?] pledged alligance to Muhammad. Muhammad also attacked the remaining Jewish clan of Qurayzah which had been intriguing against him. When they surrendered the men were executed and the women and children sold as slaves.


Muhammad put economic pressure on Mecca; but his main aim was to gain their willing adherence to Islam. In March 628 he set out to perform a pilgrimage in Mecca with 1,600 men accompanying him. The Meccans however halted Muhammad at al-Hudaybiyah on the edge of their territory. After some days the Meccans made a treaty with Muhammad. Hostilities were to cease and the Muslims were allowed to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in the following year. The treaty was further cemented by Muhammad's marriage to Habiba daughter of Abu Sufyan (Muhammad's former enemy). In November 629 however allies of the Meccans attacked an ally of Muhammad leading Muhammad to denounced of the treaty of al-Hudaybiyah. After secret planning Muhammad marched on Mecca in January 630 with 10,000 men. Abu Sufyan and other leading Meccans formally submitted. Muhammad promised a general amnesty with some people specifically excluded. When he entered Mecca there was virtually no resistance. Though he did not insist on their becoming Muslims most Meccans converted. In Mecca Muhammad destroyed the idols in the Kabah[?] and various small shrines.

Unification of Arabia

Ever since the hijrah Muhammad began alliances with nomadic tribes. At first these were probably nonaggression pacts but as his strength grew he made a condition that the allied tribe should become Muslim. While Muhammad was in Mecca he received word of a large concentration of hostile tribes and he set out to confront them. A battle took place at Hunayn in which the enemy was defeated. Muhammad was now the strongest man in Arabia and most tribes sent delegations to Medina seeking alliance. Before his death rebellions occurred in one or two parts of Arabia but the Islamic state was strong enough to deal with this. Although he was ill for some time Muhammad had made no arrangement for his succession. His death in June 632 at Medina, at 63, provoked a major crisis among his followers. Indeed this dispute eventually lead into the division of the Islam into Shia and Sunni sects.


Although Muhammad is and has been one of the most studied figures in history (see isnah and hadith) certain commonly made statements about him are at best doubtful. Notably according to most Islamic sources Muhammad was illiterate. However given the other details of his life this seems unlikely. Despite his early orphanage Muhammad was raised as a member of the Meccan upper class (both his Uncle and Grandfather had been head of the Hashim clan which was among the most prestigious). He would therefore have had access to the best education available. Furthermore his career as a merchant (at which he was successful) would have required at least rudimentary reading and writing ability.

Another problematic but commonly stated claim involves Muhammadís marriages. According to Islamic sources Khadijah was 40 at the time of her marriage to Muhammad but bore him 6 children. Adding to the puzzle none of Muhammadís other wives (estimated at 15-22 in number) ever became pregnant. One possible explanation is that Muhammad himself was infertile and that Khadijahís children were in fact from previous marriages (as she had been married before). It is also possible that Khadijah was in fact younger than 40 and that Muhammadís other marriages (some of which were to widows or young children) were of a nonsexual nature. A few scholars have claimed that Muhammad never intended for his religion to spread beyond the Arabs. This however is contradicted by Muhammadís designation of Jerusalem as the fist Qibla.


Muhammadís participation in razzias and his execution of a Medinan Jewish clan are well established historical fact. We also know however that Muhammad was extremely courageous and resolute. He was thoughtful and prudent yet inspiring and charming.

Historically Muhammadís greatest contribution was as the first unifier of the Arab peoples, and as the founder of the Caliphate. Follwing directly inhis tradition of seeking knowledge with disciplined methods, Muslims revived and also challenged Greek philosophy (see early Muslim philosophy).

As a direct result, they also instituted what we now call the scientific method and formal citation (see ijtihad, isnah) and a science of history. All of this was reasonably a direct outcome of Muhammad's focus on truth, literacy, knowledge and documentation - and ethics as basis of education. This led ultimately to the legal practice of fiqh.

Muslims also introduced a vast array of innovations[?], of which the most notable may be anatomy, algebra, the decimal number system and papermaking, to Europe and the Middle East.

Despite some military and marital behaviour troubling to modern minds, any negative influences may be largely due to Muslims copying behaviors that Muhammad himself disavowed, often due to hadith that are discredited by at least some sources. These impacts are certainly more difficult to assess. To what extent the current state of the Islamic World can be attributed to Muhammad as a person or leader is highly debatable, and probably even more absurd then blaming Napoleon for the current state of the European Union. One might say that Muhammad's influence was like that of Napoleon, Marx and Confucius in combination, and not be too far wrong.

Although his political and historical influence is and remains profound, the most lasting legacy of Muhammad is of course as the prophet of Islam. He was careful to separate his role as prophet from that as political leader - the Quran is not in any way confused with his own sayings (hadith) or actions (sira). His failings, as he himself said, were his own, and his achievements, he credited to Allah. He consistently discouraged anyone from seeing him as divine. In the words of Abu Bakr, his life-long companion, who addressed the crowd outside the mosque in Medina immediately after his death:

"O people, verily, whosoever worshiped Muhammad know that Muhammad is dead. But whosoever worshipped Allah, know that Allah is alive."

And in a hadith (like all such) attributed to Muhammad himself:

"When a person dies, his deeds come to an end, except in respect of three matters which he leaves behind: a continuing charity, knowledge from which benefit could be derived and righteous offspring who pray for him."

By his own standards, the continuing traditions of social justice in the Islamic World, methods and knowledge of science, history and medicine as they evolved in the modern world (thanks to his profound influence driving Muslims to literacy and inquiry[?]), and the prayers of over one billion Muslims, many of whom pray for him five times a day (or attach "peace be upon him[?]" after each mention of his name), render Muhammad arguably the most influential man in all history. Even among historians who deplored his influence and considered it to have retarded the growth of its chief rival faith, Christianity, there is grudging admiration for the man.

Many have groped to name a more influential man, and simply failed to do so - Jesus being ruled out because his followers claim him as more than a man.


  • Martin Lings[?], Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources (Allen and Unwin, London)
  • Muhammad Husayn Haykal[?], The Life of Muhammad (American Islamic Trust, Indianapolos), translation of an Arabic original

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
Class Warfare

... Warfare is a book of interviews with Noam Chomsky conducted by David Barsamian[?]. It was first published in the UK by Pluto Press[?] in 1996. The contents runs as ...

This page was created in 27.9 ms