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In the Islamic tradition, Muhammad is a messenger of God and the “seal of the prophets.” Muslims consider the prophethood of Muhammad as the final act of a monotheistic God’s revelations to humanity, which had earlier been transmitted through the biblical prophets, including Jesus and Moses.
According to classical Islamic sources, Muhammad was born in Mecca around 569. His family belonged to the Hashemite branch of Quraysh, the dominant tribe in Mecca, then a major site of pagan pilgrimage in Arabia as well as a major center of caravan routes. The city’s dominant religion was Arab paganism, although some monotheists influenced by Abrahamic traditions also resided there. His father, #Abdullah, died before Muhammad was born, so the infant was placed primarily in the care of a foster mother in addition to his grandfather and his mother, Amina, both of whom died within his eighth year, leaving the care of the orphan to his uncle.
Muhammad’s first forty years of life were relatively undistinguished. He reportedly made a living as a merchant and participant in Mecca’s long-distance caravans, and his most profitable missions were carried out on behalf of an older female employer, Khadija, whom he eventually married. While before the revelations he was never recognized as anything but an ordinary member of the community, as a merchant he developed a reputation for honesty and integrity. At age forty, following years of periodic seclusion and meditation, Muhammad received his first revelations from God through the archangel Gabriel, the medium through which, according to Muslim tradition, the entire Qur$an was revealed to Muhammad.
Several years of proselytizing in Mecca generated a small number of recruits to the new faith, but Muhammad’s claim to being a messenger of God was rejected by the city’s larger pagan community. Muhammad’s teachings had a clear affinity to Jewish and Christian ideas permeating Arabia at that time, his main nemesis being the dominant pagan religion. Around 622
Muhammad and his band of followers, seeing no more prospects in Mecca and being subject to increasing harassment, migrated to Medina (then Yathrib), where they established the first self-governing Muslim community. That community consisted at first of two distinct groups: the Meccan Muslims who came with Muhammad, or almuhajirun (the emigrants); and a larger group of local Medinian faithful who had been Islamized before Muhammad’s migration to the city, known as al-ansar (the backers). Medina became Muhammad’s headquarters until his death. The mosque of Medina, built around his tomb, is the second-holiest shrine for Muslims worldwide.
Muhammad’s migration (Hijra) to Medina allowed him not only to establish an independent Muslim community but also to elaborate further features of such a community. In Medina it became increasingly evident that Islam was becoming a trans-tribal religion, and Muhammad frequently found himself acting as a transtribal statesman and arbitrator as well as prophet. Hostility to Mecca is evident in that part of his biography, since his home city had, according to the Qur$an, rejected a faith that was intended to safeguard it from danger in the world. Many skirmishes and battles are recorded throughout that period between the Muslims of Medina and the pagans of Mecca. Under Muhammad, the Muslims, especially al-muhajirun, sought to undermine Mecca’s trade routes and also gain access to Mecca’s haram (sanctuary), which was holy to all pagan Arabs but also to Muslims, who traced its construction to Abraham and saw it as integral to the history of monotheism.
During the Medinian part of Muhammad’s life Islam was spreading in Arabia, but Muhammad remained focused on Mecca until he conquered the city in 630 in a bloodless campaign. He confirmed the holy status of the now-Islamized city. The originally pagan haram of Mecca was sanctified as a Muslim sanctuary and a Muslim pilgrimage site, and the pagan objects of worship within it were destroyed.
Muhammad died in Medina in 632, shortly after performing his last pilgrimage to Mecca, and at a time when Muslim communities had sprung up throughout Arabia. He left no instructions as to how the community should be ruled after him, leaving the task to the elders of the community. After deliberations they chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s close companion and one of the earliest believers, as the first caliph in Islam.
Muhammad counts as one of the most influential men in history. In the Qur$an he is presented as a mere human person with no divine qualities and no supernatural powers, and he is not credited with miracles. His role is presented as one of bearing witness to his people and as a conveyor of God’s final and true revelation; with the teachings of Muhammad, God acquires a highly abstract character. The tradition further highlights Muhammad’s illiteracy, which in the context of the highly refined, poetic language of the Qur$an establishes all the more the book’s divine origin.
Muhammad combined in his career several roles— prophet, statesman, warrior, legislator—and through that combination managed to establish an enduring transtribal community in Arabia that, after his death, became the model for a universal Muslim community. The corpus of sayings attributed to him, or hadith, along with the traditions around his life, constitute the sunnah, which is generally considered second to the Qur$an as source of Muslim tradition and also provides Muslims with an exemplary model of proper Muslim life and composure.
The basic teachings of Muhammad emphasized Islam as a trans-tribal fellowship, a harmonious community whose inner peace was safeguarded through regulated legal relations that closely mirrored the contractual outlook of the merchant class. Muhammad also mandated and expanded earlier techniques of wealth redistribution through elevating almsgiving to a religious duty. While presenting Islam as the last chapter in the history of monotheism, Muhammad also operated in a territory that was far removed from imperial or great power centers. Central western Arabia in Muhammad’s time was becoming increasingly connected to world trade routes, but being situated deep in the desert, remained independent of the great powers of the time. The context in which Muhammad operated, therefore, provided for the emergence of a new type of political community, one that was not based on imperial politics but rather on overcoming and reworking Arab tribal traditions and integrating various classes and social groups under the banner of a new religion that gave them a sense of common and universal identity, binding contractual relations, and solidaristic practices and attitudes.
- Bamyeh, Mohammed 1999. The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Rodinson, M 1980. Muhammad. Trans. Anne Carter. New York: Pantheon.
- Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman. London and New York: Oxford University Press.
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