(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Through Muhammad, the Koran was recited and propagated as the revealed word of Allah; through his teachings and leadership, Islam was established as a religious system and a way of life which has possessed extraordinary influence and persuasive powers in many parts of the world.

Early Life

Muhammad ibn ʿAbdallah was the only child of his parents’ marriage. His father, ʿAbdallah ibn ʿAbd al-Muttalib, from the tribe of Quraysh, was a merchant who transported goods on camel caravans along routes into Syria and Palestine. The boy’s mother, Aminah bint Wahb, was from another clan of the same tribe. It is known that Muhammad was born, probably during the year 570, in the city of Mecca, which at that time was important as a commercial outpost as well as a religious center. At about that time, or shortly thereafter, his father died; the family’s means were so modest, according to one account, that apart from personal possessions they were left with little more than five camels and a few sheep. Muhammad’s mother died when he was about six years old; he was then reared in turn by a grandfather and an uncle.

Relatively little is known with certainty about his early years. It would seem that for quite some time he lived in relative poverty. It is probable, however, that his intelligence and tact gained some recognition for him among local traders. When he was about twenty-five, he married Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a wealthy widow with several children. According to tradition, though she was about fifteen years older than he, four daughters were born to them, as well as sons who died in early childhood. Throughout their life together, he was devoted to her.

Muhammad was subject to periods of introspection and abstraction, and at times he would meditate alone among the hills and caves north of Mecca. His own recollections and the verses recorded as the holy writ of Islam furnished an account of the divine inspiration which he maintained had appointed his destiny for him. Probably during the year 610, he received some definite indications of the mission he was to assume.

One day, Muhammad heard a voice from on high declare that he was the messenger of Allah. Subsequent revelations seemed to confirm this calling. Further manifestations appeared, sometimes in the form of visions, and as forms could be discerned more clearly, Muhammad came to believe that the powerful being appearing to him was the archangel Gabriel (Jibril). An encounter which took place on what was later called “the night of destiny” began with the mighty spirit calling upon him to recite; inquiring about what he should recite, Muhammad struggled three times with the great being before uttering the lines which would be placed at the very beginning of the Koran.

By this time, because of the intensity of his mystical experiences, Muhammad determined to consult others. He confided in his wife, and she referred him to one of her cousins, an elderly religious scholar; he suggested that Muhammad had received guidance of the sort which had been instrumental in the development of Judaism and Christianity. Other revelations, at times accompanied by images of an angel, seemed to confirm further Muhammad’s growing conviction that he had been chosen to convey Allah’s tidings to the world. Increasingly, he was given to recitations that would eventually be incorporated in the Koran (though not always in chronological sequence). As the means of transmission seemingly became more regular and certain, Muhammad also felt moved to convey his message to those around him.

At that time, several different gods and goddesses were worshipped in Arabia; one of them resembled the Allah of Muhammad’s prophecies. In Mecca, a celebrated black stone shrine, known from its shape as the Kaʿbah, or Cube, served as the centerpiece for religious practices. In the beginning, there were relatively few converts to Muhammad’s message that there was only one God, who would not countenance idolatry. Khadijah and others in the prophet’s household were the first to accept the new faith; also prominent among the early Muslims was Abu Bakr, a moderately successful local merchant whose dauntless loyalty and resolute good sense were to prove invaluable in many ways.

Others who accepted Islam included some younger members of influential clans, men from outlying families or tribes, and former slaves. Most local people, however, preferred to remain with their ancestral beliefs; some of them claimed that Muhammad was mad or possessed by spirits. Wealthy citizens were no doubt put off by his statements condemning distinctions of riches and poverty.

In about 615, some Muslims emigrated for a time to Abyssinia, in the hope that there they might find a more congenial reception. It was probably during this period that Muhammad delivered some of the ringing denunciations of unbelief that were subsequently recorded in the Koran; graphic descriptions of Hell probably were meant to illustrate the fate of those who rejected him. Still, though there was little overt persecution beyond throwing stones and casting thorns in the prophet’s path, the Meccans by and large rejected the new religion; indeed, for some time a boycott was organized against the small Muslim community. Muhammad’s fortunes as a religious leader seemed to have reached their nadir; in 619 he was further saddened by the death of his wife and of his uncle Abu Talib, who had encouraged his efforts without actually embracing Islam.

Life’s Work

Somewhat more favorable prospects presented themselves in other Arabian cities. Although little progress was made in Taif, southeast of Mecca, Muhammad had reason to believe that Medina (Yathrib) would prove more receptive to his preaching. In 622, the celebrated emigration or departure (hijrah) took place: Muhammad and many of his disciples removed themselves to Medina. The year 622 later was adopted as the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina, Muhammad confronted many problems essentially of a political order; a compact he reached with residents of the city recognized the interests of the Muslims as a separate group and established that his authority as the messenger of Allah would be binding for the settlement of their disputes.

Military expeditions also became important to the new Muslim polity, and raids were mounted to harass Meccan caravans. The first outbreak of major violence, which occurred near Nakhlah, between Mecca and Taif, took place during a month which Arabian tradition had held holy. The Muslims insisted that combating unbelief served a greater good than the observance of time-honored truce periods. In 624, in a major battle fought at Badr, southwest of Medina, a party of Muslims defeated a larger force of their opponents; relatively few men were killed on either side, but the Meccans lost their commander. Engagements of this sort undoubtedly had the effect of strengthening solidarity and morale among the various groups that had embraced Islam. The doctrine of jihad, or war for the faith, arose during this period. Some setbacks were encountered; north of Medina, at Uhud, in March, 625, the prophet for the first time took part personally in combat; he was struck by a stone and wounded, and he may have killed one of his opponents. The Muslims were compelled to retreat, however, when their adversaries launched a successful flank attack. Hamzah ibn ʿAbd al-Muttalib, the prophet’s uncle, was acclaimed a martyr for the faith after he was killed by an enemy’s javelin. Their pagan opponents attempted to follow up their victory with a full-scale expedition against Medina. Although they raised an army of about ten thousand men, they were unable to penetrate the entrenchments Muhammad’s forces had dug about the city. In the spring of 627, after some desultory skirmishes, the Meccans abandoned their siege, leaving the Muslims victorious in the Campaign of the Ditch (al-Khandaq).

Some portions of the Koran were revealed...

(The entire section is 3300 words.)