The Life of the Prophet Muhammad: Spreading Islam from Mecca to Medina
The Prophet Muhammad is often called the founder of Islam, but he is also something of a mystery because there is little concrete biographical information about his life in the Qu’ran. To learn more about him, you have to look to sira (Arabic for biography) literature. However, many of these works are dated to the 8th or 9th centuries, i.e. about a century or two after his death, so there are still some details missing.
Arguably the most important of the sira works discussing the Prophet is the one written by Muhammad ibn Ishaq, which only survives as later re-workings and abridgements. It is ibn Ishaq who provides the traditional version of Muhammad’s life.
The Seal of the Prophets
Although the Prophet Muhammad is considered to be the founder of Islam, Muslims believe that their religion has existed since the beginning of time, and that it was gradually revealed to mankind through a series of prophets. Therefore, Muslims believe that Muhammad is the ‘Seal of the prophets’ or the last of the prophets, and through him, the final and complete revelation of the Islamic faith was made. Muhammad’s call to prophethood, however, occurred later on in his life, in 610, when he was 40 years old.
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Muhammad’s Early Life
Prior to becoming a prophet, Muhammad may have led a rather ordinary life. According to tradition, he was born in 570 AD in the city of Mecca, in the Arabian Peninsula. His father was a merchant by the name of Abdullah and his mother was Aminah. Muhammad belonged to the clan of Hashim, which in turn was part of the Quraysh, the most powerful tribe in Mecca.
Engraving of Mecca, circa 1778. (Public Domain)
As Muhammad’s father died before he was born, the future prophet’s paternal grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, assumed responsibility for raising the child. Muhammad’s mother died when he was merely six years old, and two years later, Abd al-Muttalib died as well. Thereafter, care of the future prophet fell on the shoulders of his uncle, Abu Talib.
At the age of 25, Muhammad was employed by a wealthy merchant by the name of Khadijah, who was 15 years older than him. Impressed by Muhammad, Khadijah offered her hand in marriage, which the future prophet accepted.
Khadijah bint Khuwaylid was the first wife of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. (Public Domain)
Muhammad would often retreat to the hills surrounding Mecca in order to contemplate life. It was in 610, during one of these retreats, that Muhammad is said to have received his first divine revelation. The angel Jibril (Arabic for Gabriel) appeared before Muhammad and said “Read! In the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is Most Bountiful. He, Who taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not.” These words became the opening verses of the Qu’ran’s Surah 96.
The Islamic prophet Muhammad (figure without face) on Mount Hira. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi, kept at the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Hazine 1222, folio 158b). (Public Domain)
Muhammad was initially perturbed by these revelations but found support in his wife. In the three subsequent years, Muhammad received more revelations, but he kept them to himself and only preached in private. Eventually, Muhammad was told to preach publicly, and he did so faithfully. Soon, however, Muhammad and his followers encountered opposition from the Quraysh, as the Prophet’s message attacked their religious beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, they were unable to do much against Muhammad, as he was supported by his wife and his uncle, both of whom were prominent figures in Mecca.
Muhammad and Abu Bakr flee Mecca, as depicted in ‘The Outline of History’. (Internet Archive Book Images)
Muhammad Goes to Medina
After the deaths of Khadijah and Abu Talib in about 619, Muhammad’s position changed. The new leader of the Hashim clan was another of Muhammad’s uncles, Abu Lahab. Unlike Abu Talib, Abu Lahab did not support Muhammad and withdrew the clan’s protection for the Prophet. This meant that Muhammad could now be attacked without retribution and he was no longer safe in Mecca. Therefore, in 622, Muhammad and his followers embarked on the hijrah (journey) from Mecca to Medina, after the Prophet secured a pledge of protection from the representatives of the town’s inhabitants.
The angel Jibrîl delivers a message from God to Muhammad, ordering him to leave Mecca and go to Medina. (Public Domain)
In Medina, Muhammad continued to serve as a prophet, though his role now included political and social leadership as well. In the meantime, the Meccans were not content to leave the Muslims in peace and were bent on destroying Muhammad and his followers. Therefore, between 624 and 628, a number of battles were fought between the two sides.
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Muslim Conquering of Mecca
The Meccans, however, were unsuccessful in their attempt to destroy the Muslims, and in 628 Muhammad was confident enough to attempt a pilgrimage to Mecca. The result of this journey was the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah, which not only allowed Muhammad and his followers to make a pilgrimage to the city in the following year, but also affirm a 10-year peace. The Meccans, however, broke the treaty, and in 630, Muhammad marched an army against the city. Mecca was conquered by the Muslims.
Muhammad's entry into Mecca and the destruction of idols. Muhammad is shown as a flame in this manuscript. Found in Bazil's Hamla-i Haydari, Kashmir, 1808. (Public Domain)
Muhammad lived for another two years, during which Islam was spread to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. He died in June 632 in Medina and is buried in the city. Muhammad’s immediate successors, the Rashidun Caliphate, would continue the Prophet’s mission to spread Islam throughout the world.
Top image: Muhammad and Abu Bakr flee Mecca, as depicted in ‘The Outline of History’. Source: Internet Archive Book Images
By Wu Mingren
Updated on January 22, 2021.
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Huda, 2017. Biography of the Prophet Muhammad's Later Life. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-the-prophet-muhammads-later-life-2004472
Sinai, N. & Watt, W. M., 2019. Muhammad. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Muhammad
The BBC, 2011. Prophet Muhammad (570-632). Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/muhammad_1.shtml
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019. The Prophet Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world/unit-one/the-prophet-muhammad-and-the-origins-of-islam
www.whyislam.org, 2018. Ten Things You Should Know About the Prophet Muhammad. Available at: https://www.whyislam.org/prophet-muhammad/tenthings/