For Muslims worldwide, the Prophet Muhammad is a messenger of God and a paradigm of the life of faith. As a result, he and his family are deeply loved and respected. Born in the city of Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula in 570 CE, he was raised an orphan in his uncle’s house. He married an older woman, the widow Khadijah, a businesswoman for whom he had worked in the caravan trade. As a merchant, he was known by reputation as al-Amīn, the trusted one. Muslims believe that when Muhammad was forty years old, he was selected by God to receive revelation that ultimately established the Muslim faith.
Muhammad would retreat each year to the cave of Ḥirā’ in a mountain outside of Mecca for periods of quiet reflection. Muslims believe that one night during the lunar month of Ramadan, while Muhammad was in the cave, he was overwhelmed by the presence of the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel commanded him, “Recite!” and twice Muhammad, whom the angel embraced and squeezed until he could bear it no more, said, “I cannot recite.” The third time the angel declared: “Recite! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Recite! And your Lord is the Most Bountiful, who taught by the pen, who taught man what he did not know” (Quran, 96:1-5).2 Muslims believe that Muhammad recited this, feeling from that time on “as though the words were written on my heart.”3 He ran down the mountain, but heard a voice from the sky: “Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.” Looking up, Muhammad saw an angelic form standing astride the horizon, repeating the message.
Muslims believe that, for some twenty years, Muhammad continued to receive revelations, which he first recited to his wife and followers as a small group of believers began to grow in Mecca. The message he received was a warning of divine judgment and an invitation to return to the monotheism of the earlier prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. These revelations challenged the foundations of seventh-century Meccan society. Although Mecca was the center of pilgrimage for the polytheistic Arabian religion, the region was also home to Christians and large communities of Jews. At the center of Mecca was the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure believed to have been first built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham as the house of the one God, but which had been turned into a house of numerous idols. In this polytheistic world, Muhammad spoke of tawḥīd, the unity and oneness of God. Where tribal bonds and blood feuds pervaded the social structure, the Prophet spoke of a universal community, or ummah. The revelation the Prophet Muhammad received demanded social justice and reform; alongside exhortations to prayer and the remembrance of God, believers are reminded of the need to care for the poor and the weak.
Muhammad and the growing number of individuals who followed him met with harsh and continual persecution from the Meccan aristocracy because they were perceived as a threat. In 622 CE, the Prophet and his followers emigrated north from Mecca to the city of Yathrib. This event, known as the hijrah, marks the establishment of the model Islamic community and thus the beginning of the Muslim hijri calendar. On the basis of the general consensus of the leading tribes of Yathrib, the Prophet became the leader of the town, establishing order and unity in a town suffering from political turmoil. The name of Yathrib was later changed to Medina, short for Madīnat an-Nabī “the City of the Prophet.” Muslims believe that Muhammad continued to receive revelations from God in Medina, and the message spread. In 630 CE, after a series of military battles and negotiations with enemies in Mecca, Muhammad returned to the city victorious, pardoning those who had oppressed the early Muslims and who had waged war against them. Many Meccans embraced his teachings and he rededicated the Kaaba to the worship of the one God. By the time of the Prophet’s death in 632 CE, much of the Arabian Peninsula had embraced his message.
After Muhammad died, his community preserved the memory of what he did and said as the best example of how to live in accord with God’s will. The records of the Prophet’s words were later collected in books of tradition, or ḥadīth; these are a part of the Sunnah—the “custom”—of the Prophet, which include his words and practice. The Sunnah serves as a guide for Muslims to follow God’s will in daily life. Most Muslims are careful to insist, however, that “Muhammad is only a messenger” (Quran, 3:144), and not a divine being. When Muslims refer to the Prophet Muhammad, to show reverence, his name is often followed in Arabic or English by the salutation, “Peace and blessings of God be upon him.” They recite similar salutations after the names of other Prophets including Moses and Jesus.
2. Ibid., p. 428.
3. Herbert Berg, The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, ed. Andrew Rippin (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 187–204.
Miniature of the Prophet Muhammed. Turkish, 16th Century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston