The Birth and Childhood of Muhammad

The first of a series on the life of Muhammad by Sir William Muir.

Ancient fond veneration of Mecca

Although Mecca was barren and unpromising, the Arabs looked on it with fondness and superstitious reverence as the cradle of their destiny, and the arena of the remote events which gave birth to their faith. Here Hagar came with Ishmael, and in search of water hurried to and fro between the little hill of Safa. Here the Bani Jorham established themselves upon the failing fortunes of the ancestors of the Qurraish.

They too were expelled by the Bani Khozaa, the new invaders from the south. It was in this valley that Cossai nourished his ambitious plans and in the neighbouring area of Mina he asserted these plans by a bloody encounter with his rivals. Here he established the Qurraish in their supremacy, here Hashim exhibited his princely liberality; and it was here that Abd al Muttalib toiled with his solitary son till he discovered the ancient well of Zamzam.

Thousands of such association’s crowd upon the mind of the weary pilgrim, as the Kaaba appears before him and in the long ages reaching even back to Adam his imagination pictures multitudes of pious devotees making their seven circuits of the holy house, kissing the mysterious stone, and drinking of the sacred water. Well then may the Arab regard the Mecca and its surrounding rocks, with awe and admiration.

Abdullah (born AD 545 marries Amina).

At the period of Abraha’s retreat from Mecca, Abd al Muttalib, now above seventy years of age, enjoyed the rank and consideration of the foremost chief of Mecca. Some months previous to that event, he had taken his youngest son Abdallah then about twenty four years of age, to the house of Wuheib, a distant kinsman descended from Zohra brother of the famous Cossai; and there he became engaged to Amina, the niece of Wuheib, under whose guardianship she lived. At the same time Abd al Muttalib, notwithstanding his advanced age, entered a matrimonial alliance on his own account, and married Halah the cousin of Amina and daughter of Wuheib; of this late marriage, the famous Hamza was the first-born.

Death of Abdallah

As was customary in a marriage at the home of the bride, Abdallah remained with her there for three days. Not long after, he left his wife and set out on a mercantile expedition to Gaza in the south of Syria. On his way back he became sick at Medina, and was left behind by the caravan with his father’s maternal relatives. Abd al Muttalib, learning of Abdallah’s sickness from his comrades, dispatched his son Harith to take care of him. On reaching Medina, Harith found that his brother had died about a month after the departure of the caravan. He returned with this news and his father and brothers mourned for Abdallah. He was but twenty-five years of age at his death, and Amina was pregnant. He left behind him five camels, a flock of goats, and Omm Ayman, a slave-girl who cared for the infant borne by his widow. This little house and property were all the inheritance Muhammad received from his father; but simple as it was, the simple habits of the Arab required no more, and instead of being evidence of poverty, the possession of a female slave is rather an indication of prosperity and comfort.

The birth of Muhammad

Passing over, as fabulous and unworthy of credit, the marvellous incidents related of the gestation of the infant boy, it is sufficient to state that the widowed Amina gave birth to a son in the autumn of the year 570. The materials are too vague and discrepant for any close calculation. But we are told that the event occurred about fifty-five days after the attack of Abraha; and we may accept, as an approximation, the date carefully computed by Caussin de Perceval, namely, the 20th of August 570.

The Joy of Abd al Muttalib

As soon as the infant was born, Amina sent to tell Abd al Muttalib. The messenger carrying the good news, reached the chief as he sat in the sacred enclosure of the Kaaba, in the midst of his sons and the principal men of his tribe; and he was glad (so the simple tradition runs), and went along with those that were with him, and visited Amina. Then he took the young child in his arms, and went to the Kaaba; and as he stood beside the holy house, he gave thanks to God. The child was called Muhammad.

Derivation of the Name Muhammad

This name was rare among the Arab – but not unknown. It is derived from the root Hamd and signifies ‘The Praised.’ Another form is Ahmad, which having been erroneously used as a translation of ’The Paraclete’ in some Arabic version of the New Testament. This became a favourite term with Muslims, for it was (they said) the title under which the Prophet had been in their books predicted.

The child was not nursed by his mother but by Thuiba

It was not the custom for the better class of women at Mecca to nurse their children. They procured nurses for them, or gave them out to nurse among the neighbouring Bedouin tribes, where was gained the double advantage of a robust frame, and the pure speech and free manners of the desert.

The infant Muhammad, shortly after his birth, was handed over to Thueiba, a slave woman of Abu Lahab who had lately nursed Hamza. Though suckled by her for a very few days he retained in later life a lively sense of the connection with her. Both Muhammad and Khadijah expressed in grateful terms their respect for her. Muhammad used to send her periodically clothes and other presents until the seventh year of the Hegaira, when news was brought of her death. Then he enquired after her son, his foster-brother; but he too was dead, and she had left no relatives.

Muhammad entrusted to Halima

After Thueiba had suckled the child for several days, a party of the Bani Sa’d (a tribe of the Bani Hawazin) arrived at Mecca with ten women who offered themselves as nurses. They were soon provided with children, excepting Halima who was at last with difficulty persuaded to take the infant Muhammad, for it was to the father that, the nurses looked for reward. Later legends have encircled Halima’s journey home with a halo of the miraculous, but this does not lie within the range of my subject.

Muhammad remains amongst the Bani Sa’d until he is five years old

The infancy and part of the childhood of Muhammad were spent with Halima among the Bani Sa’d. At two years of age she weaned him and took him to his home. Amina was so delighted with the healthy and robust appearance of her infant, who looked like a child of double the age that she said: ‘ Take him with thee back again to the desert; for I fear the unhealthy air of Mecca.’ So Halima returned with him to her tribe. When another two years were ended, some strange event occurred to the boy which greatly alarmed his nurse. It was possibly a fit of epilepsy; but Muslim legends have invested it with so many marvellous features that it is difficult to discover the real facts. It is certain that the apprehensions of Halima and her husband were aroused; for Arab superstition tended to regard the subject of such ailments as under the influence of an evil spirit. They resolved to rid their responsibility of their charge, and Halima carried the child back to its mother. With some difficulty, Amina obtained from her an account of what had happened, calmed her fears, and entreated her to resume the care of her boy. Halima loved her foster-child, and was not unwillingly persuaded to take him once more to her home. There she kept him for about a year longer, and watched him so closely that she would not let him be moved out of her sight. But uneasiness returned again with fresh symptoms of a suspicious nature; and she set out finally to restore the boy to his mother, when he was about five years of age. As she reached the outskirts of Mecca, the child strayed and she could not find him. In her perplexity she went to Abd al Muttalib, and he sent one of his sons to help her in the search; the little boy was discovered wandering in Upper Mecca, and was restored to his mother.

If we are right in regarding the attacks which alarmed Halima as fits of a nervous or epileptic nature, they exhibit in the constitution of Muhammad the normal marks of those excited states and ecstatic swoons which perhaps suggested to his own mind the idea of inspiration.

It is probable that in other respects the constitution of Muhammad became robust and his character free and independent, by his five years stay among the Bani Sa’d. At any rate his speech was formed upon one of the purest models of Arabic and it was his pride in later days to say: ‘ Verily, I am the most perfect Arab among you; my descent is from the Qurraish, and my tongue is the tongue of the Bani Sa’d. When eloquence began to form an important element towards his success, a pure language and standard dialect, were essential advantages.

Muhammad ever retained a grateful impression of the kindness he had experienced as a child among the Bani Sa’d. Halima visited him at Mecca after his marriage with Khadijah. ‘‘It was (the tradition runs) ‘a year of drought, in which much cattle perished; and Muhammad spoke to Khadijah and she gave to Halima a camel used to carry a litter, and forty sheep; so she returned to her people,’ Upon another occasion he spread out his mantle for her to sit upon, a token of special respect,and placed his hand upon her bosom in a familiar and affectionate manner. Many years after when, on the expedition against Taif, he attacked the Bani Hawazin and took a multitude of them captive, they found ready access to his heart by reminding him of the days when he was nursed among them.

Amina takes Muhammad to Medina – A.D. 575-6

Muhammad spent the sixth year of his life at Mecca under the care of his mother. She then planned a visit to Medina, where she longed to show her boy to the maternal relatives of his father. She left with her slave-girl Omm Ayman who cared for the child; and they rode on two camels. When they arrived in Medina, she went to the house where her husband had died and was buried. The visit was of sufficient duration to imprint the scene and the society, notwithstanding his tender age, upon the memory of Muhammad. He used in later days to call to recollection things that happened on this occasion. Forty seven years later, when he entered Medina as a refugee, he recognised the place, and said: ‘In this house I sported with Aynasa, a little girl of Medina; and with my cousins, I used to put to flight the birds that alighted upon the roof.’ As he gazed upon the house, he added: ‘Here it was my mother lodged with me; in this place is the tomb of my father; and it was there, in that very well (or pond), that I learnt to swim.’

Amina’s Death

After staying at Medina for about a month, Amina set out to return home. When she had reached about the half way at a place called Abwa, she fell sick and died and she was buried there. The little orphan was carried back to Mecca by Omm Ayman, who continued to be his constant faithful nurse and attendant.

The early loss of his mother no doubt imparted to the youthful Muhammad something of that pensive and meditative character by which he was afterwards distinguished. In his seventh year he could appreciate the bereavement and feel the desolation of his orphan state. In the Qur’an there is an allusion to the subject. While reassuring himself of the divine favour, he recounts the mercies of the Almighty; and amongst them the first is this: ‘ Did he not find thee an orphan, and furnished thee with a refuge?’ On his pilgrimage from Medina to Hodeibia he visited his mother’s tomb, and he lifted up his voice and wept, and his followers likewise wept around him. And they asked him concerning it, and he said: ‘ This is the grave of my mother: the Lord hath permitted me to visit it. And I sought leave to pray for her salvation, but it was not granted. So I called my mother to remembrance, and the tender memory of her overcame me, and I wept.’

Abd al Muttalib takes responsibility of the orphan (AD 576-AD 578)

The charge of the orphan was now undertaken by his grandfather Abd al Muttalib, who had by this time reached 80 years. The child was treated fondly. A rug used to be spread under the Ka’aba, and on it the aged chief rested in shelter from the heat of the sun, around the carpet, but at a respectful distance sat his sons. The little Muhammad often used to run up close to the old man and unceremoniously take possession of his rug; his sons would seek to drive him away. Abd al Muttalib would say ‘ Let my little son alone,’ stroke him on the back, and delight to listen to his childish prattle. The boy was still under the care of his nurse; but he would often run into the apartment of his grandfather.

The guardianship of Abd al Muttalib lasted for two years for he died eight years after the attack of Abraha. The orphan child felt bitterly the loss of his indulgent grandfather as he followed the bier he was seen to weep, and when he grew up, he retained a distinct remembrance of his death. The heart of Muhammad in his tender years was again wounded, and the fresh bereavement became more poignant by the dependent position in which it left him. The nobility of his grandfather’s descent and the deference paid to him throughout the valley of Mecca, and his splendid liberality in providing the pilgrims with food and drink were witnessed with satisfaction by the thoughtful child.

The death of Abd al Muttalib left the children of Hashim without any powerful head; while it enabled the other branch, descended from Umayya, to gain ascendancy. Of the latter family the chief at this time was Harb, who held the leadership in war, and was followed by a numerous and powerful body of relations. Abu Talib possessed many noble qualities, and won great respect; but probably due to poverty, he remained in the back-ground and the prestige of the house of Hashim had begun to wane, and nearly disappear.  This phase of the political state of Mecca began with the death of Abd al Muttalib, and continued until the conquest of the city by Muhammad himself.

Abu Talib becomes guardian of his orphan nephew

To Abu Talib, the dying Abd al Muttalib consigned the guardianship of his orphan grandchild; and faithfully and kindly did Abu Talib discharge the trust through the remainder of Muhammad‘s childhood. His fondness for the lad equalled that of Abd al Muttalib. He made him sleep by his bed, eat by his side, and go with him whenever he walked outside.

The mercantile trip to Syria 582 A.D.

It was during this period that Abu Talib, accompanied by the twelve year old Muhammad, undertook a mercantile journey to Syria. The expedition extended out to Bostra, perhaps farther. It lasted for several months, and afforded to the youthful Muhammad opportunities of observation, which were not lost upon him, He passed near to Petra, Jerash, Ammon, and other remains of former mercantile grandeur.

On this journey too, he passed through several Jewish settlements, and came in contact with the national profession of Christianity in Syria. Previously he had witnessed only the occasional and isolated exhibition of the faith but now he saw its rites in full and regular performance by a whole community. The national and social customs founded upon Christianity; the churches with their crosses, images, or pictures, and other symbols of the faith; the ringing of bells; the frequent assemblies for worship, were all forced on his attention. This impression would be rendered more practical and lasting by the sight of whole tribes of Arabs like himself, converted to the same faith and practising the same observances. However fallen and materialised the Christianity of that day in Syria, it must have struck the thoughtful observer how great a contrast it was with the gross idolatry of Mecca.

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