NOTE: With the memory of 9/11 still in the American collective subconscious, and the recent homicidal, horrific violence of ISIL, Islam and its greatest prophet – Muhammad – are often the subject of intense discussions. Thus, I’ve created a small “primer” on the subject, in an effort to aquatint the reader with a brief, but comprehensive introduction.
There are an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, making Islam the world’s second-largest religious tradition after Christianity, according to the December 2012 Global Religious Landscape report from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Muhammad (prophet of Islam) 570–632, the name of the Prophet of Islam.
Muhammad was the son of Abdallah ibn Abd al-Muttalib and his wife Amina, both of the Hashim clan of the dominant Kuraish (Quraysh) tribal federation. Muhammad was orphaned soon after birth, and was brought up by his uncle Abu Talib. When he was 24, he married Khadija, a wealthy widow and merchant, much his senior; his position in the community became that of a wealthy merchant. Muhammad had no other wife in Khadija’s lifetime. Khadija’s daughter Fatima was his only child to have issue.
Call to Prophecy
When he was 40, Muhammad felt himself selected by God to be the Arab prophet of true religion. The Arabs, unlike other nations, had hitherto had no prophet. In the cave of Mt. Hira, N of Mecca, he had a vision in which he was commanded to preach. Thereafter throughout his life he continued to have revelations, many of which were collected and recorded in the Qur’an. His fundamental teachings were: there is one God; people must in all things submit to Him; in this world nations have been amply punished for rejecting God’s prophets, and heaven and hell are waiting for the present generation; the world will come to an end with a great judgment. He included as religious duties frequent prayer and almsgiving, and he forbade usury.
Enemies and Converts
In his first years Muhammad made few converts but many enemies. His first converts were Khadija, Ali (who became the husband of Fatima), and Abu Bakr. From about 620, Mecca became actively hostile, since much of its revenues depended on its pagan shrine, the Kaaba, and an attack on the existing Arab religion was an attack on the prosperity of Mecca. While he was gaining only enemies at home, Muhammad’s teaching was faring little better abroad; only at Yathrib did it make any headway, and on Yathrib depended the future of Islam. In the summer of 622 Muhammad fled from Mecca as an attempt was being prepared to murder him, and he escaped in the night from the city and made his way to Yathrib. From this event, the flight, or Hegira, of the Prophet (622), the Islamic calendar begins.
Muhammad spent the rest of his life at Yathrib, henceforth called Medina, the City of the Prophet. At Medina he built his model theocratic state and from there ruled his rapidly growing empire. Muhammad’s lawgiving at Medina is at least theoretically the law of Islam, and in its evolution over the next 10 years the history of the community at Medina is seen.
Medina lies on the caravan route N of Mecca, and the Kuraishites of Mecca could not endure the thought of their outlawed relative taking vengeance on his native city by plundering their caravans. A pitched battle between Muhammad’s men and the Meccans occurred at Badr, and the victory of an inferior force from the poorer city over the men of Mecca gave Islam great prestige in SW Arabia. More than a year later the battle of Uhud was fought but with less fortunate results. By this time pagan Arabia had been converted, and the Prophet’s missionaries, or legates, were active in the Eastern Empire, in Persia, and in Ethiopia.
As he believed firmly in his position as last of the prophets and as successor of Jesus, Muhammad seems at first to have expected that the Jews and Christians would welcome him and accept his revelations, but he was soon disappointed. Medina had a large Jewish population which controlled most of the wealth of the city, and they steadfastly refused to give their new ruler any kind of religious allegiance. Muhammad, after a long quarrel, appropriated much of their property, and his first actual conquest was the oasis of Khaibar, occupied by the Jews, in 628. The failure of several missions among the Christians made him distrustful of Christians as well as Jews.
His renown increased, and in 629 he made a pilgrimage to Mecca without interference. There he won valuable converts, including Amr and Khalid (who had fought him at Uhud). In 630 he marched against Mecca, which fell without a fight. Arabia was won. Muhammad’s private life—the fact that he had nine wives—has received a vast, and perhaps disproportionate, amount of attention. His third wife, Aishah, was able and devoted; he died in her arms June 8, 632.
Legends and Veneration
The traditions concerning Muhammad’s life, deeds, and sayings are contained in the hadith. Islamic dogma stresses his exclusively human nature, while presenting him as infallible on matters of prophecy. He is considered by most Muslims to have been sinless, and is regarded as the ultimate subject of emulation. Many believe that he will intercede for the Muslim community on the day of judgment. Muhammad is probably the most common given name, with variations including the W African Mamadu and the Turkic Mehmet. He was known to medieval Christianity as Mahomet.