Muhammad ﷺ lived in Arabia about 1,400 years ago and was the last prophet of God. He proclaimed the oneness of God, associating none with Him, and submitting to His will. The message he received from God, preserved in the form of the Qur’an (Koran), was a continuation of the divine guidance revealed to the earlier prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, amongst many others. While Muhammad ﷺ is considered the founder of the religion of Islam, the Qur’an states that Islam is no different than what was taught by Abraham and all other prophets.
The message of Muhammad ﷺ was adopted by many people over the centuries. Today, Islam is the second most widely followed religion in the world, with close to two billion adherents, and around 50 Muslim-majority countries spanning three continents. Muhammad ﷺ has been ranked as the most influential person of all time by Michael H. Hart in his famous book, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History.
This article summarizes the life of Muhammad ﷺ and provides a brief overview of some of his most important teachings.
His Life Story
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 then. Most of the Arabs, and virtually 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. 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 honesty throughout the city, and people would sometimes address him as The Truthful (Al-Saadiq) or The Trustworthy (Al-Ameen). 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 worshipping 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, reminding him of the generosity of the one true God, before disappearing. As Muhammad ﷺ exited the cave, he saw the angel in his true form, covering the horizon, and nearly fainted. He came 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.
As time passed, revelations came 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 honesty; they had never known him to speak a lie. After about a couple of years, 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. The weaker followers were cruelly punished, and some of them 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 [submitters to God]. The revelations from God, which were preserved in the form of the Quran, talked about being good to others, standing up for justice, helping the poor, pondering over this life. 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 the tribe) of Muhammad ﷺ had a socio-economic boycott issued against it for protecting Muhammad ﷺ by other tribal chiefs, 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.
As the message of monotheism gained acceptance in Medina, its residents invited Muhammad ﷺ and his followers there. They secretly began migrating northward, and last of all, Muhammad ﷺ, having narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, entered Medina to a rousing welcome from the 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”. In the next few years, two major battles were fought between Mecca and Medina with alternate victories. Soon after, an attempt by the Meccans to ransack Medina with the support of an allied Arab army failed. All the while, 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 many 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 soon ended the war with Mecca by signing the Treaty of Hudaybiya whose terms were tilted in favour of Mecca despite the Muslims’ growing influence. While some of his supporters protested the terms, Muhammad ﷺ stood firmly for peace and harmony. 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 the deaths of some allies of the Muslims, Muhammad ﷺ marched towards Mecca with a huge army to which the city offered little resistance. The city was thus conquered peacefully, but its residents feared what was to come, having persecuted and killed the Muslims before forcing them out of the city. However, to great their relief and astonishment, 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 three fundamental beliefs propagated by Muhammad ﷺ are as follows.
Tauhid (Oneness): There is none worthy of worship except God (known in Arabic as Allah) who created all that exists. He has no offspring or associate, and there is none comparable to Him. This message of pure monotheism is what God had bestowed upon every nation, but it became distorted with the passage of time, and others, including humans, were falsely attributed a share of God’s divinity.
Risalah (Prophethood): God chose some individuals as prophets (messengers or apostles) to whom He communicated His messages, usually through an angel, to convey to other people. These prophets were sincere and upright men who often had to endure violence and enmity from their people for seeking reform. Adam, the first human being, was also the first prophet, while Muhammad was the last.
Akhirah (Hereafter): At a time known to God alone, with world shall come to an end. Then all who lived on earth shall be resurrected by God, and they shall be accountable for their deeds on the “Day of Judgement” – whose duration shall be thousands of years. Justice shall prevail, and people shall live in comfort in the gardens of Paradise or endure the fire of Hell, or end up somewhere between them.
Some other teachings of Muhammad ﷺ include the following.
- Speaking the truth and abiding by one’s word.
- Adopting humility and moderation in all affairs.
- Pondering over the signs of God and expressing gratitude to Him.
- Obeying one’s parents and upholding ties of kinship.
- Helping orphans, widows, and those in need.
- Standing up for justice and giving the right testimony.
- Repelling evil with good, and forgiving others.
- Remaining firm and resolute in the face of hardships.
- Establishing peaceful and secure communities.
- Having a special regard for hygiene and purity.
- Abstaining from intoxicants and gambling.
- Abstaining from usury and exploitation of others.
- Avoiding defaming or backbiting anyone.
- Controlling oneself when angry
- Cooperating in noble aims and encouraging others to do good.