Muhammad was born in the year 570 in the town of Mecca, a mountain town in the high desert plateau of western Arabia. His name derives from the Arabic verb hamada, meaning "to praise, to glorify." He was the first and only son of Abd Allah bin Al-Muttalib and Amina bint Wahb. Abd Allah died before Muhammad’s birth and Muhammad was raised by his mother Amina, who in keeping Meccan tradition entrusted her son at an early age to a wet nurse named Halima from the nomadic tribe of the Banu Saad. He grew up in the hill country of the Banu Saad people, learning their pure Arabic.
When Muhammad was five or six his mother took him to Yathrib, an oasis town a few hundred miles north of Mecca, to stay with relatives and visit his father’s grave there. On the return journey, Amina fell ill and died. She was buried in the village of Abwa on the Mecca-Medina Road. Halima returned to Mecca with the orphaned boy and placed him under the protection of his paternal grandfather, Abd Al-Muttalib, who was head of Muhammad’s clan at the time. In the old man’s care, Muhammad learned the rudiments of statecraft, for Mecca was Arabia’s most important pilgrimage center and Abd Al-Muttalib controlled important pilgrimage concessions and frequently presided over Mecca’s Council of Elders. Upon Abd Al-Muttalib’s death in 578, Muhammad, then aged about eight, passed into the care of a paternal uncle, Abu Talib. He grew up in the older man’s home, and having no parents (in a tribal culture where family meant everything), he remained under Abu Talib’s protection for many years. Chroniclers have underscored Muhammad’s disrupted childhood, but the Qur’an emphasizes the aspect of grace that it expresses: "Did God not find you an orphan and give you shelter and care? And He found you wandering, and gave you guidance. And he found you in need, and made you independent" (XCIII, 6-8).
As Muhammad grew up, the Meccans recognized his righteous nature and unerring honesty, and they nicknamed him El-Amin, the homest one, the one you may trust. When a boy he worked as a shepherd to help pay his keep, for his uncle was of modest means. In his teens he sometimes traveled with Abu Talib, who was a merchant, accompanying caravans to trade centers. On at least one occasion, he is said to have traveled as far north as Syria.
In his early twenties, Muhammad entered the service of a wealthy Meccan merchant, a widow named Khadija bint Khawalayd. The two were distant cousins. Muhammad carried her goods to the north and returned with a handsome profit. Impressed by his honesty and character, Khadija eventually proposed marriage. When they were wed, in about 595, he was twenty-five and she was nearing forty. Muhammad continued to manage Khadija’s business affairs, and their next years were pleasant and prosperous. Six children were born to them, two sons who both died in infancy, and four daughters. Mecca prospered too. It was becoming a well off trading center and its inhabitants, the tribe of Qureish, developed an elite group of clan leaders who were mostly successful traders. The new materialism, and the underclass of disenfranchised people it was creating, troubled Muhammad. The ancestral religion, a polytheistic mix of animism and local gods distantly associated with the old Greco-Roman pantheon, troubled him too.
Muhammad developed the habit of making long retreats during which he withdrew to the mountains outside town to eat sparely and meditate. On one such occasion, in the year 610, after a number of indistinct visionary experiences, Muhammad was resting in a cave on top of Mount Hira, when he was visited by an overpowering presence and instructed to recite words of such beauty and force that he later became convinced they come from God. The presence he came to identify as the Angel Gabriel. This experience shook Muhammad to the core, and it was several years before he dared to speak about it outside his immediate family. Gradually more such encounters occurred. Finally he was commanded to preach the messages he was receiving, in public to his tribe.
Vocation As a Prophet
And so began the early period of his vocation as a prophet. Throughout this time, Muhammad and a small group of followers were first belittled, then ridiculed, then persecuted and finally physically attacked for departing from the ways of the prosperous Meccans. Muhammad’s message was monotheistic; theirs was polytheistic. His emphasis was on prayer and charity; theirs was on ancestor worship and profit. His concern was for the poor and the weak; theirs was for the prosperity of a Meccan elite. In 622, Muhammad and his few hundred followers left Mecca and traveled to Yathrib, the oasis town where his father was buried. The leaders there were suffering through a vicious civil war, and they invited this man known for his wisdom to act as their mediator. Yathrib soon became known as Medina, the City of the Prophet. Muhammad remained there for the next six years, building the first Muslim community and gradually gathering more and more people to his side. Here he built the first mosque and here he continued to receive further revelations, as he had on Mt. Hira. These were memorized and written down by scribes and later would be codified as the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred book.
The Meccans did not take Muhammad’s new success lightly. Battles and skirmishes ensued between the two towns, of which the Muslims won the first (the Battle of Badr, March, 624), lost the second (the Battle of Uhud, March, 625), and outlasted the third, (the Battle of the Trench and the Siege of Medina, April, 627). In March, 628, a treaty was signed between them, which Meccan allies breached a year later. By now, the balance of power had shifted radically away from once-powerful Mecca, toward Muhammad and the people of Islam. In January, 630, he marched on Mecca and was joined by tribe after tribe along the way. He and his army entered Mecca without bloodshed and the Meccans, seeing the tide had turned, joined them.
In the next three years, Muhammad, who remained in Medina, consolidated most of the Arabian Peninsula under Islam. In March, 632, he returned to Mecca one last time to perform a pilgrimage, and tens of thousands of Muslims joined him. He returned to Medina and three months, later on June 8, 632 he died there, after an illness of three days. He is buried in the mosque in Medina.
Within a hundred years Muhammad’s teaching and way of life had spread from the remote corners of Arabia as far east as Indo-China and as far west as European Spain.