It was in Mecca, the centre of so many interests in Arabia that Muhammad was born, probably in the year A.D. 570. The main sources of our information are the Qur’an and the Traditions. But we need to be cautious in the use we make of the latter material since it is generally recognised that a great mass of it is spurious. This is particularly true of the Traditions of Muhammad’s early years.
Muhammad’s Early Years and Youth
His parents though poor belonged to the Hashemite clan of the influential tribe of the Qurraish, the hereditary guardians of the Ka’ba, and this meant much to Muhammad. The child stood in need of staunch friends, for his father, ’Abdullah, had died before he was born and he lost his mother Amina, when he was about six years old. He was adopted by his paternal grandfather, ’Abdul-Muttalib, a kind man of eighty, who was held in high esteem as the head of the clan. Two years later he also died, having appointed his son Abu Talib (father of the famous ’Ali) as the boy’s guardian. It is said that Abu Talib loved the lad so much that he would scarcely let him go out of his sight.
It is generally held that Muhammad was unable to read or write, although these arts were known in Arabia in those days. Perhaps the fact that he was left an orphan early led to the neglect of his elementary education.
All authorities are agreed that Muhammad grew up to young manhood esteemed by his fellow-citizens. He won from them the name of Al-Amin, the Trusty, and became a prominent member of the guild in Mecca. An incident in those early days reveals in him a certain shrewdness of character. The walls of the Ka’ba were being repaired after damage by flood, when a dispute arose as to who should handle and replace the Black Stone.
Each clan was claiming the right to do so when Muhammad unexpectedly entered the sacred enclosure. Being asked to decide the matter he spread his shawl on the ground and, having placed the sacred stone upon it, he called on four men, one form each of the contending clans, to lift it up and put it in its place.
Since his uncle was poor it became necessary for Muhammad to earn his livelihood, and so he joined himself to trading caravans. In this way he travelled a good deal, especially, into Syria, and met with different classes of people – Jews, Christians, and others. Apparently he received kindness at the hands of Christian monks in Syria, for we read in the Qur’an, “Thou shalt certainly find those to be nearest in affection to them (i.e. to Muslims) who say ‘We are Christians.’ This, because some of them are priests and monks, and because they are free from pride,” Surah 5:85.
Muhammad’s marriage to Khadijah
Khadijah, a wealthy Meccan lady who herself undertook commercial transactions; hearing of Muhammad’s excellent qualities engaged him to take charge of one of her caravans of merchandise. He managed her business so satisfactorily and she was so attracted to him that she fell in love with him, and later married him.
The alliance was a happy one, notwithstanding the fact that Khadijah was forty years of age and Muhammad only twenty-five. Seven children were born to them, three sons (all of whom died in infancy) and four daughters. One of the latter, Fatima survived Muhammad and became the wife of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, the fourth Khalifa.
Traditions and Commentators View of Muhammad’s personal qualities
Concerning Muhammad’s personal qualities we gather he was, as a rule, reserved in manner though he relaxed in the presence of friends. He was simple in his habits and in the matter of dress and food. It is said that he was fond of children. He was a man of high resolve and very strong will, as his opponents soon came to realise.
Al Ghazali, in a well-known passage thus extols Muhammad as a model of humility:
“Oh my son, eat unto God and drink unto God and dress unto God. But whatsoever thou doest of all these and there enters into them pride or hypocrisy, it is disobedience. Whatever you do in your house do it yourself as did the Apostle of God, for he used to milk the goats and patch his sandals and sew his cloak and eat with the servants and buy in the market-place, nor did his pride forbid him from carrying his own packages home; and he was friendly to the rich and to the poor, and he gave greetings himself first to everyone whom he met.”
Assumption of the Prophetic Office
Muhammad owed much to his marriage with Khadijah. She was a woman of noble character and her wise counsel and loyal support was an invaluable asset. Her wealth, too, set him free from anxieties that go with poverty and afforded him leisure for reflection. In her house he met the hanifs, and among them Waraqa, her cousin. Their views, opposed to idolatry, considerably influenced Muhammad. This term hanif which Rodwell translates “sound in the faith”, became the keynote of his early preaching. He even went so far as to claim that he had been sent to preach the religion of “Abraham the hanif,” Surah 6:162.
In order to meditate undisturbed Muhammad would retire to a cave in Mount Hira, three miles beyond the city. Others of the hanifs joined him there. At such times he used to reflect on the ignorance, depravity, dissension and lawlessness of his people and would dream of better times and of reforms in which he himself would have a share.
It was in this place, at the age of forty that he passed through an experience which meant for him a definite break with the idolatrous practices of his townsfolk. He heard the voice of one saying “Recite thou, in the name of thy Lord who created -created man from clots of blood-recite thou!” These words form the opening portion of the earliest Surah viz., 96:1-3. He thus described his experience to others: “As I walked I heard a voice from heaven and raised my eyes and behold! An angel came to me seated upon a throne between heaven and earth. At this I feared greatly and fell upon my knees upon the ground.”
At home, in great perturbation he said to Khadijah, “I have either become a kahin or I am mad!” She replied “You are truthful and good.” When she referred the matter to Waraqa he is reported to have declared that this was the namus (message) which had come to Moses and Jesus, and added: “He will be the prophet of his people. Bid him be brave of heart.”
This and subsequent similar experiences were proof to his adherents of his superior power of perception, and became for him, when his early fears had subsided, the ground of his unshaken confidence that he was the recipient of divine revelation, and in fact a prophet.
From now onwards, with one important break, Muhammad continued to recite, for some twenty-three years, communications on matters religious, social and political, which he said, came to him from God through the archangel Gabriel.
That confession of Muhammad to Khadijah that he feared that he had become a soothsayer is interesting in view of the fact that his early utterances were in the style and spirit characteristic of the soothsayers of Arabia – a kind of rhymed prose pronounced when in an ecstatic condition. His opponents, indeed taunted him with this:” You are a kahin,” they said; cp. 81:24; 37:35.
He himself fell a victim to grave doubts, more especially because, for a considerable period, no revelations came to him. Muslim writers call that period the fatra and some say it lasted three years. Muhammad was at times so depressed that he even contemplated suicide.
It was his loyal wife, Khadijah, who roused him again and again to his task, and she gave practical proof of her faith in him by becoming his first convert, Thus encouraged he acted upon the command to recite, and began to proclaim, though secretly, the one clear message of the unity of God. Others of his immediate circle followed Khadijah’s example. The earliest and most notable of his converts were ‘Ali, son of his uncle Abu Talib, a youth who became greatly attached to Muhammad: Zaid; son of Haritha, a slave given to Muhammad by Khadijah and since set free; and Abu Bakr, a leading member of the Qurraish clan. Muhammad gained immensely by his last accession, for Abu Bakr was intelligent, prosperous and influential. He won and retained to the end Muhammad’s confidence, and eventually succeeded him as the first Khalifa.
Muhammad’s teaching continued to bear fruit, and before three years were past about fifty Meccans, male and female, including ‘Uthman, who became the third Khalifa, embraced the new faith. So far Muhammad had worked in secret, but encouraged by these accessions, and notwithstanding the hostility of the influential Qurraish, he now began to preach publicly. Believing that he had been told to “arise and warn,” he appealed to them to abandon their idolatry, and warned them of the fate of peoples who refused to listen to the earlier prophets. But the Meccans only mocked him.
The Hostility of the Qurraish
Muhammad then took a new line. He threatened them with hell fire and poured scorn and abuse on their gods. This infuriated them, the more so because they recognised in this new sect an enemy not only to their ancient superstitions, but to their vested interests also. Consequently they organized themselves to oppose him and began to persecute his followers,
The wife of Abu Lahab, an unfriendly uncle of Muhammad, treated the Muslims outrageously and drew down upon herself the hot wrath of Muhammad, for it is said that she scattered thorns over the place were Muslims went for their prayers. She and her husband are accursed for ever in Surah 111.
Amid such persecutions, insults and outrage, Muhammad maintained his way and was not a little comforted by the unfailing support of his uncle, Abu Talib, who though not a Muslim, shielded Muhammad from his foes. An increasing number of Meccans now threw in their lot with the Muslims, so that the Qurraish became thoroughly alarmed. They awoke to the fact that this movement, unless checked, would develop into a serious revolution. The prestige of the guild was at stake.
The power of that guild is well illustrated by the tactics which the Qurraish now adopted. They joined forces in a systematic persecution of the followers of Muhammad. He and his immediate friends were safe, but on the rest the Meccans poured out their fury. Each household persecuted those of its members, clients, or slaves who were suspected of being Muslims. These were thrown into prison, starved and beaten with sticks. Some recanted, others feigned apostasy to escape torture; these Muhammad excused (cp Surah 16:108), but the majority stood firm. Prominent Meccans tried to seduce Muhammad with promises of position and wealth. It is thought that his dignified reply to such overtures is preserved in Surah 41.
Moved by the sufferings of the faithful and being quite unable to protect them, Muhammad permitted those who wished to migrate to Abyssinia, where they enjoyed the kindly protection of the Christian king. Fifteen went at first but others joined them after, so that in all, about eighty men and twenty women were living in exile.
It is apparent from a study of the early chapters of the Qur’an that under the stress of such circumstances Muhammad’s tone changed. He had become embittered at the evil treatment meted out to his followers, and now enlarged on the future punishment of the idolatrous Meccans. He cites certain of these by name, e.g., Abu Lahab. With the doctrine of the Unity of God he now joins the demand that he himself should be recognised as God’s Apostle, c. p. 72:24.
But when he reproduced stories from Jewish and Christian sources the Meccans said, “Surely a certain person teaches him,” Surah 16:105; cp. 35:6.
The courage, patience and tenacity of purpose exhibited by Muhammad at this time, in the face of continued persecution, afford striking proof of his own faith in his call and in the righteousness of his cause.
The Qurraish next approached Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, first appealing to him to prohibit his nephew from reviling their gods and then threatening that they would do away with Muhammad. In a memorable interview, moved by the resolute bearing and tears of Muhammad, Abu Talib emphatically declared, “Speak what thou wilt, for by the Lord I will not in anywise give thee up.”
It was about this time, when the struggle seemed unending and the issue hopeless, that Muhammad was involved in a position which has embarrassed many a thoughtful Muslim. He appears to have stooped to compromise (but only for a brief while) with the idolaters, whom he had hitherto ceaselessly denounced.
Muhammad was reciting in the Ka’ba a passage that forms part of Surah 53. When he came to the words, “Do you see Al Lat and Al ‘Uzza and Manat the third idol besides”? (vv.19, 20), it is said that someone added audibly, “They are exalted damsels, and their intercession with God may be hoped for. “ The Qurraish were both astonished and delighted, and when the words, “Prostrate yourself then to God” (v 62) were uttered they readily complied. But who had spoken those arresting words?
The late Sayyid Amir ‘Ali, following certain early writers, says it was an idolater who was present at the time and whom tradition has turned into the devil. There are other writers who deny that the incident ever occurred, but Amir ‘Ali seems to think that under the prolonged strain Muhammad did on this occasion compromise, though he stresses the fact that it only happened once and that the lapse was more than compensated for by “his magnificent recantation.” The words, “God shall bring to nought that which Satan hath suggested,” Surah 22:51, are considered by some to be a later echo of this incident, pronouncing exoneration.
Conversion of Umar
It was now the sixth year of Muhammad’s mission, a year made notable for two remarkable accessions to the ranks of his followers. One was the fiery warrior, Hamza, who smote the hostile Abu Jahl a blow for abusing the prophet, and in the excitement of the moment declared, “I follow his religion.” Later came ’Umar bin’ul-Khattab, destined to be the second Khalifah. Himself a bitter opponent of the new sect, he became incensed at his sister embracing Islam. One day he surprised her and her husband while they were reading verses of the Qur’an, and in wrath he wounded her in the face. Regretting his cruelty, he asked to be allowed to see what she was reading, but she calmly answered, “Let none touch it but the purified.“. Complying with the conditions, he read, was charmed, and became a convert. Muhammad and his friends were thrilled, for the event very considerably altered the outlook for the Muslims. They went in a body to the Ka’ba, ‘Ali leading the way with a drawn sword. The Meccans were aghast and exclaimed, “We sent ‘Umar to kill Muhammad, and lo, now he follows him!”
But they met Muhammad’s increasing boldness with a change of tactics. They resolved to boycott the Muslims so as to compel them to leave the place. Up till now practically all the Qurraish who had sided with Muhammad belonged to his own, the Hashemite clan. It was a struggle, therefore, between the rest of the Qurraish and the Hashemites. A solemn league and covenant was drawn up whereby the larger body promised to have no dealings whatsoever with the Hashemites. The latter were thus compelled to retire to a confined quarter in Mecca, where they existed in great distress for two or three years until the ban was lifted.
Death of Khadijah and additional marriages
This was at last removed by the intervention of some of the Qurraish, and a period of liberty followed. Muhammad was now fifty-one and had entered upon the tenth year of his mission. Before its close he suffered heavy bereavement through the death of Khadijah. As has been said, he owed much to her and his loss was correspondingly great.
He was persuaded to marry again, and shortly afterwards took to himself two wives. One was ‘Aisha, the daughter of his great friend, Abu Bakr, then but a young Muslim girl; the other was Sauda, the widow of a Muslim who had died in Abyssinia. In course of time he added to their number, until he had at one time as many as nine, besides concubines. A large part of Surah 33 is devoted to his domestic affairs.
Muhammad’s Mission to Taif
In the same year his influential uncle, Abu Talib, also died, and in consequence Muhammad’s position in Mecca became precarious. He resolved to move to Ta’if; seventy miles east of the city, but the idolatrous residents would not suffer either his presence or his preaching and drove him away, stoning him. He therefore returned to Mecca, after extracting a promise of protection from a leading citizen.
Muhammad’s Influence in Medina Begins
Though Muhammad had failed at Mecca he did not lose faith in his mission. As a mater of fact at this juncture a new prospect of success began to open up before him.
Amongst those who came to the annual pilgrimage were men of the Khazraj tribe in Yathrib. These listened to Muhammad’s message with keen interest. In their own city there was constant strife between Jews and Arabs, and the idea now occurred to them that Muhammad might prove a strong deliverer. It was not until the following year, however, that they committed themselves to his cause by taking secretly, an oath of obedience. Muhammad sent them back with Mus’ab, an earnest disciple who was to be their teacher. A year later, such had been Mus’ab’s success in the interval, seventy-five persons, two of them women, secretly allied themselves to Muhammad. They pledged their very lives in his cause.
The Hijra – The Migration to Medina
But a Meccan spy soon spread the news of this confederacy and Muhammad’s life was no longer safe. The Qurraish plotted against him; his bitter foe, Abu Jahl, proposed that, in order to avoid a vendetta, various leaders should stab him simultaneously. Muhammad and Abu Bakr hid in a cave while the Meccans scoured the country for them. It is said that once, when the pursuers were close at hand, Abu Bakr exclaimed in alarm, “We are but two”; whereat Muhammad rejoined, “Nay, we are three, for God is with us.” After further adventure they at length reached Yathrib in safety.
The selection of the site for the first masjid, or mosque, in Yathrib was made in a dramatic manner at the time of their arrival. Receiving many invitations to alight and accept hospitality, Muhammad discreetly replied, “The decision rests with the camel, make way for her.” On the spot on which she sat down a mosque was afterwards erected. ‘Ali was not so fortunate. At the suggestion of Muhammad he had, on the first night of the flight, wrapped himself in Muhammad’s well-known green mantle and lain in Muhammad’s bed. It was a most courageous thing to do. When discovered he managed to escape through the window, and, though roughly handled on the way, he rejoined the others, having taken care to travel only by night.