Early life and background of Muhammad

The role of Muhammad in Islamic faith and practice is central as he is credited with unifying Arabia under a single religious polity under Islam. Muslims and Bahá’ís believe that he was a messenger and prophet of God. The Quran, the central religious text of Islam, includes references to Muhammad’s life, which is traditionally divided into two periods: before and after his emigration from Mecca to Medina. Additionally, traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad, known as sira literature, provide further information about his life. Muhammad is widely regarded by Muslims as the final prophet sent by God and is seen as having restored the original monotheistic faith of figures such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.


Muhammad was born around the year 570 CE to the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe, one of Mecca’s prominent families. His father, Abdullah, died almost six months before Muhammad was born. According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad was sent to live with a Bedouin family in the desert, as desert life was considered healthier for infants. Muhammad stayed with his foster mother, Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb, and her husband until he was two years old. At the age of six, Muhammad lost his biological mother, Amina, to illness and was raised by his paternal grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, until he died when Muhammad was eight. He then came under the care of his uncle Abu Talib, the new leader of Banu Hashim.

Adolescence And Early Adulthood

While still in his teens, Muhammad accompanied his uncle on trading journeys to Syria, gaining experience in commercial trade, which was the only career open to him as an orphan. Islamic tradition states that when Muhammad was either nine or twelve, while accompanying a caravan to Syria he met a Christian monk or hermit named Bahira, who is said to have foreseen Muhammed’s career as a prophet of God. Little is known of Muhammad during his later youth; available information is fragmented, and it is difficult to separate history from legend. It is known that he became a merchant and “was involved in trade between the Indian ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.” Due to his upright character during this time, he acquired the nickname “al-Amin,” meaning “faithful, trustworthy,” and “al-Sadiq,” meaning “truthful.”

Muhammad worked as a trader for Khadija, a widow, until he married her in 595 CE at the age of 25. The marriage lasted for 25 years and was reported to be a happy one. Muhammad relied upon Khadija and did not enter into a marriage with another woman during his first marriage. After Khadija’s death, Khawla bint Hakim suggested that Muhammad that should marry Sawda bint Zama, a Muslim widow, or Aisha, daughter of Um Ruman and Abu Bakr of Mecca. Muhammad is said to have asked for arrangements to marry both.

As recorded by historian Ibn Ishaq, there is a well-known account of Muhammad’s involvement in the placement of the Black Stone in the wall of the Kaaba in 605 CE. The Black Stone, a sacred object, had been removed for renovations to the Kaaba and there was disagreement among the leaders of Mecca on which clan should have the honor of returning it to its place. They decided to ask the next person to enter the gate to make the decision. The individual chosen was 35-year-old Muhammad, five years before his first revelation. He requested a cloth and placed the Black Stone in the center of it. The clan leaders held the corners of the cloth and together carried the Black Stone to the correct spot, with Muhammad placing it in its proper place, pleasing all present.

It is said that on occasion, Muhammad would spend several nights alone in a cave in the mountains for solitude and prayer. According to accounts, it was during one of these retreats that he was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and received his first revelation from God.


Muhammad His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings
Muhammad His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings
Destiny Disrupted A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamin Ansary
Destiny Disrupted A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamin Ansary

Prophecy and revelation in Islam

The Qur’an lays out the fundamental beliefs that Muslims must accept as part of their faith, which include belief in the unity of God (tawhid), angels, prophecy (nubuwwah) and revelation (wahy). Muslims also believe in the concept of resurrection and judgement. The Qur’an identifies three main entities: God, who desires to guide humanity; humanity, who are unaware of God; and the prophets and messengers chosen by God to convey his message to humanity. In the Qur’an, prophets are considered to be the most significant aspect of human history and in Islam.
Muslims view prophecy as a crucial part of human history. They believe that God has always chosen certain individuals to communicate with and sends these prophets to specific communities to convey his words and will. These prophets are chosen by God as messengers (rasul), who convey a message (risalah) through various means, primarily through inspiration (wahy). There are two Arabic terms for prophet; rasul, messenger, and nabi, prophesier. Some prophets were given books (kitab) that recorded the revelation or messages proclaimed by the prophet. These books contain the teachings of the prophet and are considered the word of God. Prophets are fully human, they eat, sleep, and some marry and have children. Some are able to perform miracles, acts that defy natural laws, such as making rocks gush with water, splitting the sea or resurrecting the dead. According to Muslim belief, Muhammad split the moon into two halves and ascended to Heaven to meet God in one night.


The development of the Muslim community in Mecca

The Beginning of Muhammad’s Prophetic Journey

As per Muslim tradition, the first person to believe that Muhammad was a prophet was his wife Khadija. This was followed by others such as his cousin Ali, friend Abu Bakr, and adopted son Zaid. 

In around 613, Muhammad began to publicly preach but most people in Mecca ignored or mocked him. A few did become his followers, who were mainly made up of young brothers and sons of merchants, people who had not achieved a high social status, and weak or unprotected foreigners.

According to Ibn Saad, opposition in Mecca started when Muhammad delivered verses that condemned idol worship and the polytheism practiced by the Meccan forefathers. However, the Quranic exegesis maintains that it began as Muhammad started public preaching. As his followers increased, Muhammad became a threat to the local tribes and rulers of the city, whose wealth rested upon the Kaaba, the focal point of Meccan religious life that Muhammad threatened to overthrow.

Muhammad’s denunciation of the Meccan traditional religion was especially offensive to his own tribe, the Quraysh, as they were the guardians of the Kaaba. Powerful merchants attempted to convince Muhammad to abandon his preaching; he was offered admission to the inner circle of merchants, as well as an advantageous marriage. He refused both of these offers.

Persecution and Mistreatment of Muhammad and Early Muslim Followers

Tradition extensively documents the persecution and mistreatment towards Muhammad and his followers. Sumayyah bint Khayyat, a slave of a prominent Meccan leader Abu Jahl, is known as the first martyr of Islam, as she was killed with a spear by her master when she refused to give up her faith. Bilal, another Muslim slave, was tortured by Umayyah ibn Khalaf who placed a heavy rock on his chest to force his conversion.

In 615, some of Muhammad’s followers sought refuge in the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum and established a small colony under the protection of the Christian Ethiopian emperor Aṣḥama ibn Abjar. Ibn Sa’ad mentions two separate migrations, but other accounts only mention one migration to Ethiopia. These accounts agree that Meccan persecution played a significant role in Muhammad’s decision to suggest that some of his followers seek refuge among the Christians in Abyssinia. According to the famous letter of ʿUrwa preserved in al-Tabari, most Muslims returned to their native town as Islam gained strength and as high ranking Meccans, such as Umar and Hamzah, converted.

Another version of the story explains that the Muslims returned to Mecca because Muhammad, in an attempt to gain favor with his tribe, made a statement recognizing the Meccan goddesses as daughters of Allah. However, the next day, he recanted the statement, claiming it was whispered to him by Satan. This led to a reconciliation between Muhammad and the Meccans, and the Muslims in Ethiopia began to return home.

This story, known as “The Story of the Cranes” or “Satanic Verses,” has been heavily criticized by Islamic scholars and is not accepted as historical fact. Additionally, during this time, the leaders of two prominent Quraysh clans declared a boycott against the clan of Muhammad, but it ultimately failed in its goal. Muhammad was only able to preach during the months of pilgrimage when hostilities between Arabs were suspended.

Emigration to Medina

In 619, the year of Khadijah’s and Abu Talib’s death, known as the “Year of Sorrow”, leadership of the Banu Hashim clan passed to Abu Lahab, a fierce enemy of Muhammad. He withdrew the clan’s protection over Muhammad, putting him in danger, as it meant that anyone could kill him without consequence. Muhammad attempted to find a new protector in the city of Ta’if but was unsuccessful and had to return to Mecca. A man named Mut’im ibn Adi and the tribe of Banu Nawfal provided protection for him to enter Mecca safely.

During this time, Muhammad sought a new home for himself and his followers and found support from some men from the city of Yathrib (later called Medina). The city had a Jewish community and was familiar with monotheism, and the inhabitants hoped to gain power over Mecca through Muhammad and his new faith. Many converts from various Arab tribes in Medina joined Islam, and in the following year, 75 Muslims traveled to Mecca to meet Muhammad and make a secret pledge known as the “Second Pledge of al-‘Aqaba” or “Pledge of War”. Following this pledge, Muhammad encouraged his followers to migrate to Medina. The Quraysh tried to stop the migration, but most Muslims were able to leave.

The Hijra refers to the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. This migration happened after Muhammad received warning of a plan to assassinate him and he secretly left Mecca with his followers and settled in Medina, which is located 450 kilometers (280 miles) north of Mecca.


Muhammad's military and diplomatic campaigns

The Prophet Muhammad and the The Role of Muhamad in Islamic Faith - Muslim Army at the Battle of Uhud, from the Siyer-i Nebi, 1595

The Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim Army at the Battle of Uhud, from the Siyer-i Nebi, 1595

The migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE

known as the Hijra, was followed by the seizure of the property of the Muslim emigrants by the people of Mecca. This led to a war between the two groups, and Muhammad received revelations from God permitting Muslims to fight against the Meccans.

On 11 February 624, while praying in a mosque in Medina, Muhammad received a revelation from God to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem during prayer. This tradition of facing Mecca during prayer was adopted by his followers. Muhammad ordered several raids to capture Meccan caravans, one of which was the Battle of Badr in March 624, where the Muslims, despite being outnumbered, emerged victorious. They killed many Meccan leaders including Abu Jahl and captured booty and prisoners. The Muslims saw this victory as a confirmation of their faith and Muhammad attributed it to the assistance of angels. The verses of Quran during this period dealt with the practical issues of government and distribution of spoils.

The Battle of Badr strengthened Muhammad’s position in Medina and reduced opposition to him. Pagans who had not yet converted to Islam were bitter about the progress of Islam. Two pagans who composed verses insulting Muslims were killed by members of their own tribes, and Muhammad did not object to the killings, though some historians believe this report to be fabricated. Most members of those tribes converted to Islam and little pagan opposition remained. Muhammad expelled one of the three main Jewish tribes, Banu Qaynuqa from Medina, although some historians argue that this occurred after Muhammad’s death. After the Battle of Badr, Muhammad formed alliances with Bedouin tribes to protect his community from attacks from the northern part of Hejaz.

Conflict with Mecca

The Meccans were anxious to exact revenge for their loss. The Meccans needed to rebuild their prestige, which had been damaged at Badr, in order to maintain their economic prosperity. In the months that followed, the Meccans sent ambush parties to Medina, and Muhammad led expeditions against Mecca-aligned tribes and dispatched raiders onto a Meccan caravan. A 3,000-man army led by Abu Sufyan left for an assault on Medina.

A day later, a scout informed Muhammad of the presence and size of the Meccan army. The best way to defeat the Meccans became a point of contention at the Muslim conference of war the following morning. Muhammad and many other senior figures advised fighting inside Medina and taking advantage of the fortified strongholds. Younger Muslims claimed that huddling in the strongholds would damage Muslim prestige and that the Meccans were destroying crops. In the end, Muhammad gave in to the younger Muslims and prepared the Muslim army for combat. On March 23, 625, Muhammad took his army outside to the mountain of Uhud, which was the site of the Meccan camp. Although early battles were won by the Muslim army, a lack of discipline on the part of strategically placed archers resulted in a Muslim defeat; 75 Muslims were killed, including Hamza, Muhammad’s uncle, who became one of the most well-known martyrs in Muslim tradition. Instead of pursuing the Muslims, the Meccans marched back to Mecca triumphant. Muhammad was wounded and feared to be dead, which is probably why the announcement was made.

The Meccans left after learning that Muhammad had survived because of rumours that new forces were coming to his aid. The attack had fallen short of its goal of obliterating Muslims entirely. Following the dead people’s burial, the Muslims left for Medina that evening. As questions about the cause of the defeat grew, Muhammad revealed Quranic verses 3:152, which indicated that it was both a test of steadfastness and a punishment for disobedience.

Abu Sufyan focused his energy on launching yet another assault on Medina. He used bribery, booty promises, reminders of Quraysh prestige, propaganda about Muhammad’s frailty, and promises of booty to win the support of the nomadic tribes to the north and east of Medina. Muhammad’s new strategy was to thwart allies who would work against him.

When coalitions were formed to oppose Medina, he dispatched expeditions to dismantle them. When Muhammad learned that groups of men were assembling with the intention of attacking Medina, he reacted violently.

One instance is the murder of Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, a leader of the Banu Nadir Jewish tribe. After the Battle of Badr, Al-Ashraf travelled to Mecca and composed poems that sparked the Meccans’ grief, rage, and desire for vengeance.

A year or so later, Muhammad forced the Banu Nadir to leave Medina and migrate to Syria, allowing them to take some belongings in the process because he was unable to defeat the Banu Nadir in their strongholds. Muhammad unexpectedly outnumbered different Arab tribes one by one, inspiring them to band together to overthrow him. Muhammad was able to build up his own army and keep many tribes from joining his enemies, but he couldn’t stop a group of tribes from coming together to fight him.

Battle of the Trench

The Quraysh military leader Abu Sufyan gathered a force of 10,000 men with the aid of the exiled Banu Nadir. Muhammad assembled a group of about 3,000 men and used a defensive strategy that was unheard of in Arabia at the time: Muslims dug trenches wherever Medina was vulnerable to cavalry attack. Salman the Persian, a Persian who converted to Islam, is credited with the invention.

On March 31st, 627, the siege of Medina began, and it lasted for two weeks. The fortifications caught Abu Sufyan’s forces off guard, and after an ineffective siege, the coalition decided to withdraw. The Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, which is south of Medina, negotiated with Meccan forces to rebel against Muhammad during the battle. The Meccan forces wanted assurance in case the confederacy was unable to destroy Muhammad, despite being convinced that Muhammad would be easily defeated by them. After lengthy negotiations that included sabotage attempts by Muhammad’s scouts, no agreement was reached.

The Muslims besieged the Banu Qurayza in their forts for 25 days after the coalition withdrew, accusing them of treachery. When the Banu Qurayza finally submitted, all the men—aside from a small number of converts to Islam—were beheaded, and the women and children were sold into slavery, according to Ibn Ishaq. The veracity of Ibn Ishaq’s account has been disputed by Walid N. Arafat and Barakat Ahmad. Ibn Ishaq was regarded as an unreliable historian by his contemporary Malik ibn Anas and as a transmitter of “odd tales” by the later Ibn Hajar.

According to Arafat, Jewish sources who spoke more than 100 years after the event confused this account with memories of earlier massacres in Jewish history. According to Ahmad, some of the tribe’s fighters were merely enslaved, while others were killed. The arguments of Arafat and Ahmad have been refuted by Meir J. Kister, who finds Watt’s arguments to be “not entirely convincing.”

The Meccans used their full arsenal of force during the siege of Medina to exterminate the Muslim population. Their trade with Syria ceased as a result of the failure, which also caused a serious loss of prestige. Muhammad made two expeditions to the north after the Battle of the Trench, and both were successful. The accusation of adultery against Aisha, Muhammad’s wife, was made as she was returning from one of these journeys (or possibly a few years earlier, according to other early accounts). When Muhammad declared that he had received a revelation announcing Aisha’s innocence and directing that accusations of adultery be supported by four eyewitnesses, Aisha was freed from accusations.

Treaty of Hudaybiyyah

The Muslims under Muhammad had not performed the Hajj as commanded in the Quran due to opposition from the Quraysh. However, in Shawwal 628, Muhammad ordered his followers to prepare for a pilgrimage to Mecca, citing a promise from God in a vision. The Quraysh sent cavalry to stop them, but Muhammad and his followers were able to reach al-Hudaybiyya outside Mecca. Negotiations were conducted with emissaries traveling to and from Mecca, and a treaty was signed between the Muslims and Quraysh that included a ceasefire, a deferred pilgrimage for Muhammad, and agreement to send back any Meccan who emigrated to Medina without permission.

Many Muslims disapproved of the agreement. However, the Quranic Sura Al-Fath (The Victory) reassured them that the expedition must be deemed successful. These benefits included the Meccans’ obligation to recognise Muhammad as an equal, the cessation of military activity that allowed Medina to gain strength, and the Meccans’ admiration for the pilgrimage rituals.

Muhammad assembled an expedition against the Jewish oasis of Khaybar, which became known as the Battle of Khaybar after signing the armistice. This may have been the result of accommodating the Banu Nadir, who were inciting hostility against Muhammad, or a desire to regain prestige after the truce of Hudaybiyya’s apparent ineffectiveness. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad also wrote letters to a number of rulers, requesting that they convert to Islam. He dispatched messengers (with letters) to Heraclius of the Byzantine Empire (the eastern Roman Empire), Khosrau of Persia, the leader of Yemen, and others. Muhammad led his forces against the Arabs on Transjordanian Byzantine soil during the Battle of Mu’tah in the years following the Hudaybiyya Armistice.

Conquest of Mecca

The Hudaybiyyah treaty was in effect for two years. The Banu Khuza’a tribe had a good relationship with Muhammad, but their enemies, the Banu Bakr tribe, had allied with the Meccans. The Banu Bakr attacked the Banu Khuza’a, and the Meccans provided them with weapons and possibly even participated in the fighting.

Muhammad then sent a message to Mecca with three options for resolving the situation, but the Meccans chose to declare the treaty null. They later tried to renew the treaty, but Muhammad refused and prepared for a campaign.

In 630, he led an army of 10,000 Muslims to conquer Mecca with minimal casualties. He declared amnesty for most Meccans, but punished a few for specific crimes. Most Meccans then converted to Islam and Muhammad ordered the destruction of statues of Arabian gods in and around the Kaaba. According to different reports, Muhammad may have spared paintings or frescoes of Mary and Jesus, but all other pictures were erased. The Quran also mentions the conquest of Mecca.

Conquest of Arabia

After the capture of Mecca, Muhammad became concerned about an impending military threat from the confederate tribes of Hawazin, who were assembling an army twice the size of his own. The Banu Hawazin had a long-standing feud with the Meccans and were joined by the Banu Thaqif, who opposed the Meccans due to their declining prestige. Muhammad was able to defeat the Hawazin and Thaqif tribes in the Battle of Hunayn.

In the same year as the Battle of Hunayn, Muhammad organized an attack on northern Arabia in response to their previous defeat at the Battle of Mu’tah and reports of hostility towards Muslims. He assembled 30,000 men, but half of them left with Abd-Allah ibn Ubayy on the second day despite Muhammad’s condemnation of their actions.

Although he did not engage in battle with hostile forces at Tabuk, he received the submission of some local leaders in the region. He also ordered the destruction of any remaining pagan idols in Eastern Arabia. The city of Taif was the last to resist conversion to Islam, but Muhammad refused to accept their surrender until they agreed to convert and allowed the destruction of their goddess Al-Lat’s statue.

A year after the Battle of Tabuk, the Banu Thaqif sent emissaries to convert to Islam. Many bedouins also submitted to Muhammad to avoid attack and gain access to spoils of war, but they wanted to maintain their traditional code of virtue and customs. Muhammad required a military and political agreement in which they recognized the authority of Medina, avoided attacking Muslims and allies, and paid the Zakat, a religious levy.


Farewell Pilgrimage and Death

In 632, at the end of the tenth year since moving to Medina, Muhammad performed his first Islamic pilgrimage, which would become an annual tradition known as Hajj. On the 9th of Dhu al-Hijjah, he gave his Farewell Sermon at Mount Arafat near Mecca. In this speech, he advised his followers to abandon certain pre-Islamic customs, such as the belief in the superiority of one race over another, and instead to base superiority on piety and good deeds. He abolished old feuds and disputes based on the former tribal system and asked for old pledges to be returned in light of the new Islamic community. He also addressed the vulnerability of women in society, advising men to treat them kindly, and spoke about issues of inheritance and the sacredness of certain months of the year.

According to some interpretations, this sermon marked the completion and perfection of the Islamic faith. According to others, it refers to the appointment of Ali ibn Abi Talib as Muhammad’s successor, which happened a few days later as Muslims were returning from Mecca to Medina.


A short time after his final pilgrimage, Muhammad became ill and suffered for multiple days with symptoms such as fever, headaches, and weakness. He passed away on Monday, 8th of June 632, in Medina, at the age of 62 or 63, at the residence of his wife Aisha.


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Featured Image

Handwritten Qur’an in Kufic script, from Iran, dating to the later 11th century CE

Handwritten Qur’an in Kufic script, from Iran, dating to the later 11th century CE

Handwritten Qur’an in Kufic script, from Iran, dating to the later 11th century CE. According to Islamic-Arts.org, “This fragment contains the surah al-Fatihah (the Opening), and al-Baqarah (the Cow). The script is remarkable for its size, each line being roughly 4 cm high”;

Unknown Islamic calligrapher of Iran, later 11th century CE, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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