Muhammad ibn Abd Allah (570-632) is the last of the Prophets from whose proclamation of Qur’an Islam derives. Muhammad was born in Mecca in the Year of the Elephant, or when the Assyrian army attacked Mecca. He was of the family of Banu Hishim in the tribe of Quraysh. Being born after the death of his father, he became the ward of his grandfather, Abd al-Murralib. At an early age, he experienced a visitation by two figures, later identified as angels, who “opened his chest and stirred their hands inside.” This was the first of several unusual experiences which led Muhammad increasingly to search for the truth of Allah and religion on his own.
The quest was increased when he was employed by a widow, Khadijah, to take trading caravans north to Syria, where he met Christians and Jews, especially the monk Bahier who recognized in him the signs of the promised messiah. By this time, he was under the protection of his uncle, Abu Talib, and when twenty-five he married Khadijah who was fifteen years his senior; however, the marriage proved to be both successful and happy; they had two sons who died early, and four daughters. The marriage lasted twenty-five years until Khadijah’s death, and increased Muhammad’s already considerable prestige and respect in the eyes of the Meccans. Muhammad also adopted a slave woman, Zaid ibn Harithah, who was captured in a desert raid, but he later freed her.
When at the age of forty, Muhammad began experiencing spiritual trails leading up to his divine calling. He began a habit of retreating into periods of isolation, sometimes for days or weeks, in a cave on Mount Hira outside of Mecca. Within the cave, in retrospective and contemplative periods, Muhammad began contemplating the secrets of the universe and the powers of the Divine. He did not believe in idolatry like his follow Meccans, and gradually began thinking it was more and more wrong. Also during this time, he became acquainted with the hanifs, a small group that were viewed as being mysterious. Little is known concerning them except they were exponents of pure monotheism which they traced back to Ibrahim. The group seemed more like spiritual wanderers. Some members may have been Manicheans (see Manichaenism) or orthodox Christians, like Khadijah’s cousin Waraqah.
Once when in his cave, Muhammad, while asleep, sense a mysterious presence, then he saw the figure holding a scroll covered with letters. The figure, later identified as the angel Jibril (Gabriel), ordered him to read or recite it. Muhammad replied he did not know how to read. Again the strange figure ordered him to read. “What shall I read,” asked Muhammad after the figure wrapped the scroll around the bewildered man’s neck and ordered him to read for the third time.
Read in the name of your Lord Who created; Who created man from clots of blood. Read, for your Lord is most generous Who taught by the pen. He taught man what he did not know. Man indeed transgresses if he thinks himself a law unto himself, for to your Lord all things return.
Muhammad first experienced apprehension and doubt; at first, he suspected that he had been victim of some malicious jinns, or subjected to an illusion which might destroy him. Fearing he might be insane or possessed he returned home. Khadijah kindly and lovingly accepted her husband in his confused state, giving him her full support. She told him to believe what had occurred and test the truth of it. However his depression continued until at one point it became suicidal. Again the angle appeared to him saying, “O Muhammad, verily thou art in truth the Prophet of Allah.” When hearing these words all of his doubts and depression vanished. The Revelations began coming on a more frequent basis and continued over a period of twenty-three years. Muhammad received them not only in Mecca but in Yathrib, where he was exiled, as well. All the collected Revelations eventually became the Qur’an.
From his initiating vision he saw with absolute clarity that if Allah is Allah, then there can only be what Allah is: there cannot be a God of Christians, a God of Jews, still less can there be the many deities of Mecca. It followed that the idolatry of Mecca was very wrong about Allah and must be abolished. In a sense, the whole of Islam is a footnote to this simple observation, there is only one Allah and all creation is derived from him. Therefore all humans live in corresponding unity, such as community, or umma, under Allah.
At first, during the next three years, Muhammad only conveyed the Revelations to his immediate family and friends. Then Jibril told him to begin preaching openly to the Meccans. He begun with is own clan, the Hashinites, with whom he made a few conversions. Then he expended to include all of the Quraishites. His preaching against worldliness sparked anger, resentment and finally persecution, especially among the upper classes for Muhammad was preaching against the class system with his demands for the rights of the poor. This was why many of his disciples came from among the poor, but he could not convert his uncle, Abu Talib, his former protector and guardian. Muhammad not only attacked the economic interests of Mecca, but the idolatry as well. He lashed out at such idols as Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, Manat, and the murderous Hubal hidden in the Ka’ba. He even denounced the doctrine of Jesus as the Son of Allah, saying, “Allah has taken no wife, nor has He begotten any issue.”
In 620, Muhammad experienced his most famous vision known as the Night Journey (isra) or Ascension (mi’raj) in which he was carried from the Ka’ba at Mecca to the Temple in Jerusalem on the winged horse Buraq, under the guidance of Jibril. During the vision the Prophet ascends a ladder from the Temple to the foot of the heavenly throne. Sura 17 that mentioned this event is replete with moral and practical instructions for the faithful, including the injunction to pray fives times a day. Some Muslims accept the Journey literally while others only see it as a vision; but, the event is commemorated annually.
Not surprising, his message against the upper classes was vigorously resisted in Mecca. Khadijah, Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, and his servant Zaid were the first to believe, then followed by a non-family member Ali Bakr. They all were called al-muslimun, Muslim, because of their commitment to Allah. When the crisis and persecution worsen, Muhammad was invited to Yathrib to make his way of unity a practical reconciliation between the two contesting ruling families there. He went there, the Hijar in 62, which later became the first year of the Muslim calendar, and started establishing the first community under the rule of Allah’s Revelations as the continued to be given. Such Revelations were clearly distinguished from the words which Muhammad spoke as a man, both by the change of his appearance, and through the different style of utterance-rhythmic and tied loosely by rhyme, and without exact precedent in Arabic context.
At Yathrib, now known as al-Madina, “The City,” Muhammad was joined by seventy other emigrants, the Muhajirun. The opposition from the Meccans did not cease, partly because Muhammad began raiding their caravans. It was at the battle if Badr, in 624, that a small army of Muslims defeated a much larger army of Meccans; but this defeat was reversed in 625, at the battle of Uhud, and both battles remain epitomes of faith and lack of trust. In 627, the Quraysh fail to win a siege with numbers overwhelmingly in their favor, known as the battle of the Trench, and subsequently Muhammad took the fight to his enemies, capturing Mecca in 630, and purifying it from idols. Meanwhile he had organized in Madina and relations of the new community with the surrounding tribes.
Prior to such organization there was trouble in Medina. Although a majority of Medinans accepted Islam, amany in the Jewish community refused to accept Muhammad’s actions as the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. A number of battles were waged against the Jews who combined with various tribes. The concept of “holy war,” or jihad, was born, the dead being promised “the enjoyment of Paradise” for having fought for Allah. Eventually Muhammad triumphed, and peace was established outside of Mecca. Two years later Muhammad declared idolatry illegal in Arabia and established the Ka’ba as the center of Islamic worship and the goal for Muslim pilgrimage. Feeling his death approaching, the Prophet led ninety thousand pilgrims into Mecca to perform a series of rites which are still observed. Ascending Mount Arafat, sanctified because it was where Adam and Hawa were reunited, and the Prophet Ibrahim performed his sacrifice to Allah, Muhammad preached the last time to his people exhorting them to stay united after his death; emphasizing the reciprocal rights of man and wife; restated the proscription of usury, and announced that the Islamic year would consist of twelve lunar months without solar corrected. Then the final Revelation came to him, which he uttered, Today I have made perfect that religion; I have fulfilled my Grace upon you and I am pleased that your faith should be Islam.
Muhammad died three month later in Medina. After his death in 632, there was no heir or successor. Muhammad had at various times eleven wives and at least two concubines, but no son survived. Ali, being the nearest blood relative as Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law since he had married one of his daughters, was the closest to being a male heir. However, Arab communities recognized two forms of leadership, one of hereditary, and the other by selecting the best man in a situation such as a crisis. In this instance the Muslim community selected a successor, khalifa, by the second method. Abu Bakr was chosen, but many thought the selection should have been Muhammad’s next of kin, Ali, and from this uncertainty the division of Islam between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims became an embittered fact a generation after Muhammad’s death.
From the standpoint of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad is believed to have brought the Revelation of Allah as it had been mediated through the other prophets, but before Muhammad, all communities had corrupted the Revelation for their own purposes. Therefore, after Muhammad, there can be no further prophets or Revelation because now the pure and uncorrupted Revelation exists in the world. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 662-663
Rice, Edward, Eastern Definitions: A Short Encyclopedia of Religions of the Orient, New York, Doubleday, 1978, pp, 258-265