World Faiths & Religions

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Muhammad and what does he mean to Muslims?

Muhammad was born in around 570 CE in the city of Mecca in western Arabia. An orphan, he became a caravan merchant and, at the age of 25, married a wealthy widow fifteen years his senior. Muhammad was a very pensive man who rejected the polytheistic idolatry of his Arabian kinsmen and rejected some of their more barbaric social customs, such as burying unwanted infant girls or the cruel treatment of slaves. He would retire to a cave in the mountains outside of Mecca to meditate, and it was there in 610 CE that the angel Gabriel appeared to him with the first revelation of the Quran. Muhammad began preaching the religion revealed to him to his family and friends in Mecca until his message of monotheism began to threaten the established powers in Mecca. Eventually he and his followers fled to the city of Medina in 622, where Muhammad became the leader of an independent Muslim community. To his followers, Muhammad was the mouthpiece of God and the ultimate authority in religious and legal matters. Although he consulted his senior followers on political decisions, his word on these questions was final as well. As the Muslims fought in open war against the Meccans to win eventually the right to return to the city, Muhammad participated in battles and was wounded. In order to cement alliances with his close companions and other tribes, he married a total of eleven women after his first wife died. After his death in 632, Muslims looked to the legacy and teachings of Muhammad as a major source for understanding Islam. His teachings, communicated in the form of sayings called Hadith, provide the bulk of Islamic dogma, practice and law. His persona, memory, and detailed imitations of his lifestyle serve as central pillars of Muslim identity. Loving and respecting Muhammad as the best and most pious human is a definitive feature of Muslim life. In many Muslim popular religious practices, stories and also in Sufi (Islamic mystical) groups, Muhammad's life and persona serve as the main objects of meditation and imitation. In both Shiism and Sunnism, being descended from Muhammad (through his daughter Fatima - he had no sons who survived infancy) is a mark of honor and can be used to claim political legitimacy as well. In Shiism, the family of Muhammad is seen as the sole holders of religious authority. Although Muslims attach tremendous importance to the life and legacy of Muhammad as both a source of law and a bridge the between the temporal and divine, he is also seen as a mortal man whose status stemmed from his high standing in the eyes of God.