54 The Prophet Muhammad
VI. The Prophet Muhammad
Belief in the message of Muhammad comes second only to belief in the one God. Muhammad was born around the year 570 and was orphaned at an early age. He was eventually raised by his uncle, who had religious prominence within the main Quraysh tribe of Mecca but was of modest financial means. At age 25, Muhammad married Khadija, a well-to-do, 40-year-old woman. At age 40, during a retreat in the hills outside Mecca, Muhammad had his first experience of Islam. The angel Gabriel appeared to a fearful Muhammad and informed him that he was God’s chosen messenger. Gabriel also communicated to Muhammad the first revelation from God. Terrified and shaken, Muhammad went to his home. His wife became the first person to accept his message and convert to Islam. After receiving a series of additional revelations, Muhammad started preaching the new religion, initially to a small circle of relatives and friends, and then to the general public.
The Meccans first ignored Muhammad, then ridiculed him. As more people accepted Muhammad’s call, the Meccans became more aggressive. After failing to sway Muhammad away from the new religion they started to persecute his less prominent followers. When this approach did not work, the opposing Meccans decided to persecute Muhammad himself. By this time, two main tribes from the city of Yathrib, about 300 km (200 mi) north of Mecca, had invited Muhammad to live there. The clan leaders invited Muhammad to Yathrib as an impartial religious authority to arbitrate disputes. In return, the leaders pledged to accept Muhammad as a prophet and thus support the new religion of Islam.
In the year 622, Muhammad immigrated to Yathrib, and the name of the city was changed to Medina, meaning city of the Prophet. This date was designated by later Muslims as the beginning of the Muslim calendar, year one of hegira (Arabic hijra, “immigration”). Only two years after Muhammad’s arrival in Medina, the core community of Muslims started to expand. At Medina, in addition to preaching the religious and moral message of Islam, Muhammad organized an Islamic society and served as head of state, diplomat, military leader, and chief legislator for the growing Muslim community. Hostilities soon broke out between the Muslims in Medina and the powerful Meccans. In 630, after a series of military confrontations and diplomatic maneuvers, the Muslims in Medina extended their authority over Mecca, the most important city of Arabia at the time. Before Muhammad died in 632, the whole Arabian Peninsula was united for the first time in its history, under the banner of Islam.
B. Muhammad’s Humanity
Early accounts of Muhammad contain some stories that describe supernatural events such as his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and his subsequent ascent to heaven on the back of a supernatural winged horse. Despite such stories, the primary focus of the biographies, as well as Islamic doctrine in general, is on the humanity of Muhammad.
Like all prophets before him, Muhammad was a mortal man, commissioned by God to deliver a message to his people and to humanity. Like other prophets, Muhammad was distinguished from ordinary people by certain powers and faculties. For example, Muslims believe that the distinction of being sinless was granted to Muhammad by God to support his career as a prophet. Thus Muhammad is portrayed in the Qur’an as a person who makes mistakes but who does not sin against God. However, God corrected Muhammad’s mistakes or errors in judgment, so that his life serves as an example for future Muslims to follow. This emphasis on Muhammad’s humanity serves as a reminder that other humans can reasonably aspire to lead a good life as he did.