Muhammad was born about AD 570 in the city of Mecca, an important
trading center in western Arabia. He was a member of the Hashim clan of the
powerful Quraysh tribe. Because Muhammad’s father, Abd Allah, died before he was
born and his mother, Amina, when he was 6 years old, he was placed in the care
of his grandfather and, after 578, of his uncle Abu Talib, who succeeded as head
of the Hashim clan. At the age of about 25, Muhammad entered the employ of a
rich widow, Khadijah, in her commercial enterprise. They were married soon after.
Two sons, both of whom died young, and four daughters were born. One of the
daughters, Fatima, acquired special prominence in later Islamic history because
of her marriage to Muhammad’s cousin Ali.
About 610, Muhammad, while in a cave on Mount Hira outside Mecca, had a
vision in which he was called on to preach the message entrusted to him by God.
Further revelations came to him intermittently over the remaining years of his
life, and these revelations constitute the text of the Koran.At first in
private and then publicly, Muhammad began to proclaim his message: that there is
but one God and that Muhammad is his messenger sent to warn people of the
Judgment Day and to remind them of God’s goodness.
The Meccans responded with hostility to Muhammad’s monotheism and
iconoclasm. As long as Abu Talib was alive Muhammad was protected by the Hashim,
even though that clan was the object of a boycott by other Quraysh after 616.
About 619, however, Abu Talib died, and the new clan leader was unwilling to
continue the protective arrangement. At about the same time Muhammad lost
another staunch supporter, his wife Khadijah. In the face of persecution and
curtailed freedom to preach, Muhammad and about 70 followers reached the
decision to sever their ties of blood kinship in Mecca and to move to Medina, a
city about 400 km (250 mi) to the north. This move, called the hegira, or hijra,
took place in 622, the first year of the Muslim calendar.
In Medina an organized Muslim community gradually came into existence
under Muhammad’s leadership. Attacks on caravans from Mecca led to war with the
Meccans. Muhammad’s followers obtained victory at Badr but were defeated at
Uhud a year later. In 627, however, they successfully defended Medina against a
siege by 10,000 Meccans. Clashes with three Jewish clans in Medina occurred in
this same period. One of these clans, the Banu Qurayza, was accused of plotting
against Muhammad during the siege of Medina; in retaliation all of the clan’s
men were killed and the women and children sold into slavery. Two years later,
in the oasis of Khaybar, a different fate befell another Jewish group. After
defeat they were allowed to remain there for the price of half their annual
harvest of dates.
Since AD 624, the Muslims of Medina had been facing Mecca during worship
(earlier, they had apparently turned toward Jerusalem). Mecca was considered of
primary importance to the Muslim community because of the presence there of the
Kaaba. This sanctuary was then a pagan shrine, but according to the Koran, it
had been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael and had therefore to be
reintegrated in Muslim society. An attempt to go on pilgrimage to Mecca in 628
was unsuccessful, but at that time an arrangement was made allowing the Muslims
to make the pilgrimage the next year, on condition that all parties cease armed
hostilities. Incidents in 629 ended the armistice, and in January 630, Muhammad
and his men marched on Mecca. The Quraysh offer to surrender was accepted with a
promise of general amnesty, and hardly any fighting occurred. Muhammad’s
generosity to a city that had forced him out 8 years earlier is often quoted as
an example of remarkable magnanimity.
In his final years Muhammad continued his political and military
involvements, making arrangements with nomadic tribes ready to accept Islam and
sending expeditions against hostile groups. A few months after a farewell
pilgrimage to Mecca in March 632 he fell ill. Muhammad died on June 8, 632, in
the presence of his favorite wife, Aisha, whose father, Abu Bakr, became the
According to Muslim belief, God sent Muhammad as a messenger from among
the Arabs, bringing a revelation in “clear Arabic” ; thus, as other peoples had
received their messengers, so the Arabs received theirs. As one who had lived “a
lifetime” among them before his calling, however, Muhammad was