Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Muhammad is known as rasul Allah, or God's Messenger to the Arabs, and to all of humanity. He was born in Mecca ca. 570 C.E., and died in Medina in 632. Most of what we know about Muhammad comes from the Quran, but we also have biographies written in the century after his death (called the sirah) and the hadith. Some general histories contemporary with the sirah are also useful sources of information about Muhammad's life.
Muhammad's father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was six years old, leaving him an orphan. He went to live with his paternal grandfather, who sent him to live with a nomadic tribe. This was customary at the time for boys born in the towns of the Arabian peninsula. Later, Muhammad began accompanying his uncle, Abu Talib, on trading expeditions to Syria. On one of these trips, Muhammad met a wealthy widow named Khadija. Khadija was impressed by his honesty, and hired him to manage her caravan business. Eventually she proposed marriage. The couple was married for twenty-four years and had at least seven children together, four daughters who survived to adulthood, and at least three sons who died in infancy. The marriage was monogamous, and by all accounts was very happy.
The night Muhammad was called to become a prophet of Allah, known as the Night of Power, took place when Muhammad was around forty years old. The strange and terrifying vision shook Muhammad deeply, but Khadija advised him to be steady and trust the vision. Muhammad began preaching to the people of Mecca in 613. His earliest messages focused on the oneness (tawhid) of Allah, the punishments that await the greedy and the proud on Judgment Day, and on exhorting people to show goodwill toward one another. He put special emphasis on the care of the poor, especially orphans and widows.
Muhammad gathered followers from a variety of segments of Meccan society, from both poor and weak clans, and wealthy ones. All seemed to be seeking something more fulfilling than the materialism offered by Meccan society. Muhammad and his followers critiqued the culture of competition and the high value placed on money and material goods, calling for submission to the will of the one true God. Mecca, however, was a center for trade and the most important destination in the peninsula for the annual pilgrimage that celebrated the pantheon of gods, a festival that netted for the Meccans their annual gross income. Therefore logically the merchant society of Mecca was not particularly receptive to Muhammad's critique of materialism and his calls for social reform and monotheism. The Meccans wanted Muhammad to stop preaching about monotheism and social justice. The most powerful tribal leaders in Mecca attempted to bribe him into silence by offering to share the wealth of the annual pilgrimage with him and even allowed for the God that Muhammad believed in to be deemed the most powerful of all the gods in Mecca. Muhammad did not cooperate with the Meccans' attempts at negotiations, and the Meccans began persecuting him and his followers.