Muhammad ﷺ was born in the Arabian city of Mecca in 571 CE. The society in Arabia was a tribal one, and he was born into the tribe of Quraysh, the proud custodians of the House of God (Kaaba) built by Abraham and Ishmael about 2,500 years earlier. Most of the Arabs, and nearly all Meccans, were polytheists, strictly devoted to idols, while also acknowledging the presence of a God who created the universe.
Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad ﷺ spent some of his childhood years and adolescence in the house of his paternal uncle, Abu Talib. There were no formal schools in Arabia then, and like most people in Mecca, Muhammad ﷺ was not literate. He used to rear the livestock as a source of part-time income, but he later became a trader – a profession common among his tribe members. Not having much wealth of his own, Muhammad ﷺ began making trade journeys on behalf of wealthier individuals for commission.
At the age of twenty-five, Muhammad ﷺ married Khadija, a wealthy trader of Mecca on whose behalf he had journeyed to Syria and who expressed her desire to marry him. She was forty at the time, and the union was a happy one; they soon had children and enjoyed a great relationship. Meanwhile, Muhammad ﷺ had acquired a reputation for great honesty throughout the city, and people would sometimes address him as The Truthful or The Trustworthy. Many would entrust their valuables with him before departing on a journey.
As Muhammad ﷺ approached the age of forty, he became increasingly fond of meditation and solitude. He would spend hours in a cave in one of the mountains of Mecca, pondering over this life and the universe. He was convinced about the falsity of worshiping idols, and wished to be nearer to the beliefs of his ancestor, Abraham, though he did not know much about him.
It was during one of these retreats that an angel suddenly appeared to Muhammad ﷺ in the form of a man, briefly reminding him of the generosity of the one true God. As Muhammad ﷺ exited the cave, he saw the angel in his true form, covering the horizon, and Muhammad ﷺ nearly fainted. He went home, trembling from the experience, and then recounted the whole incident to his wife. Khadija comforted him, and assured that no harm would come to him from God due to his fine qualities. She later took him to an elderly cousin of hers who was a scholar of the Old and New Testaments. Hearing the account, he said the angel had been Gabriel, and Muhammad ﷺ was to become the awaited messenger of God.
Revelations began coming to Muhammad ﷺ with increasing regularity – sometimes through the angel, and sometimes “like the ringing of a bell”. At first, he conveyed the message of God only secretly, and a few dozen people accepted it as the truth due to the soundness of the message and Muhammad’s ﷺ own trustworthiness; they had never known him to speak a lie. Later, God commanded him to convey His message openly, and the response of Mecca was mixed. While he gained some followers, many others were staunchly opposed to the “blasphemy” against their gods, whom he reduced to nothing.
As time passed, more individuals heeded to Muhammad’s ﷺ message, and soon families became divided. The opposition of the leaders of Quraysh then became violent. His weaker followers, especially the slaves, were cruelly punished, and some were even tortured to death. The message continued to attract new followers from diverse backgrounds, but very few of them were influential personalities. The torture was such that some were forced to migrate to Ethiopia as refugees.
The message revealed to Muhammad ﷺ was a continuation of the message of Abraham, and the prophets who came after him, including Moses and Jesus, but for the sake of identification, it was called Islam [submission to God], and its followers, Muslims [those who submit]. The revelations from God, which were preserved in the form of the Quran (Koran), talked about being good to others, avoiding indecencies, helping the poor, pondering over the universe. However, their primary message was serving God alone, and not associating anyone with Him in any respect – something that outraged many people.
A few years later, the clan (a branch of a tribe) of Muhammad ﷺ had a socio-economic boycott issued against it by other tribal chiefs for protecting Muhammad ﷺ, which led to severe hardships for him and many of his followers over the next three years. Muhammad ﷺ was further grieved by the death of his beloved Khadija and that of his close uncle, Abu Talib. He then focused on conveying the message beyond Mecca. He had a disappointing trip to the influential city of Taif but was soon able win followers in the northern oasis of Medina.
Also read: When the Prophet ﷺ Smiled
As the message of monotheism gained acceptance in Medina, its residents invited Muhammad ﷺ and his followers over. They secretly began migrating northward, and last of all, Muhammad ﷺ, having narrowly escaped an attempt on his life, entered Medina to a rousing welcome from its residents. This was thirteen years after the first revelation. While the Meccans had succeeded in holding some Muslims as captives, they were outraged at the escape of Muhammad ﷺ and most of his followers, and sought to attack Medina.
The revelations from God then declared the Muslims to be in a state of war with the Meccans because they had “driven the Muslims from their homes” and “fought them on account of religion”. Over the next few years, two major battles were fought between Mecca and Medina with alternate victories for each side. A further attempt by the Meccans to ransack Medina with the support of an allied Arab army failed. During these years, Islam spread beyond Medina, and Muhammad ﷺ formed treaties and alliances with many tribes to facilitate its peaceful propagation.
In the meantime, Muhammad ﷺ married other women following the death of Khadija as polygamy was a norm in most societies then, including the Arab one. They were housed in simple rooms adjoining the mosque. Both his sons with Khadija had died in infancy while the daughters were now married and enjoyed a close relationship with him.
Muhammad ﷺ then ended the war with Mecca after taking the initiative in signing the Treaty of Hudaybiya whose terms were tilted in favor of Mecca despite the Muslims’ growing influence. While some of his supporters protested the terms, Muhammad ﷺ stood firmly for peace. Islam spread rapidly in the peaceful environment this treaty created, and the number of Muslims was doubled over the next two years.
Following a breach of the treaty by the Meccans which resulted in certain brutal killings, Muhammad ﷺ marched towards Mecca with a huge army to which Mecca offered little resistance. The city was thus conquered peacefully, but its residents feared what was to come, having persecuted and killed Muhammad’s ﷺ followers in the past. However, to great astonishment and relief, Muhammad ﷺ announced a general pardon for the Meccans, likening his act to that of Joseph forgiving his half-brothers. Muhammad ﷺ then cleared the House of God of all idols and images, and advocated it solely for the worship of God – the very purpose for which Abraham and Ishmael had constructed it.
Soon afterwards, Islam spread throughout Arabia, and following the death of Muhammad ﷺ a few years later, far beyond it. Muhammad ﷺ died peacefully in his home after a brief illness, with his head resting on his wife’s lap. He left hardly any property behind, while having successfully conveyed the message of God to the people as directed by Him. He died in 631 CE at the age of 61.
The following are a few quotes about Muhammad ﷺ from those who knew him well.
“I have not seen anyone who smiled more than the Messenger of God ﷺ.” – Abdullah, son of Harith (Reported by Tirmidhi)
“Any of the slaves-girls of Madinah could take hold of the hand of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ and take him wherever she wished.” – Anas, son of Malik (Reported by Bukhari)
“He used to keep himself busy serving his family, and when it was time for prayer, he would leave for it.” – Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr (Reported by Bukhari)
“The Messenger of Allah ﷺ did not strike a servant or a woman, and he never struck anything with his hand.” – Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr (Reported by Muslim)
“The Prophet ﷺ did not refuse to give anything which He had to someone who asked for it.” – Jabir, son of Abdullah (Reported by Bukhari)