I was trying to decide how to approach the story of Muhammad, obviously the single most important episode in the development of Islam and Islamic civilization. I could start with the traditional narrative of Muhammad’s life, but that risks people reading the narrative and treating it as though it were settled fact. On the other hand, I could start with a discussion of the lack of reliable sources and the revisionist critiques of the traditional narrative, but that could be incredibly confusing for people who don’t know the narrative to begin with. So we’re starting with the traditional narrative with the understanding that we’ll come back and pick holes in it (or talk about the holes other people have picked in it) after we’re done. In this entry we’ll look at Muhammad’s early life, the beginnings of his ministry, and his flight from a hostile Mecca to the more welcoming oasis city of Yathrib, known as the Hijrah, the event so seminal to the origins of Islam that it marks Year One in the Islamic (Hijri) calendar.
I want to start off by saying that, in relating the narrative, I am making no truth claims about Islam or any other religion, one way or the other. Historians who study things like Islamic origins or “the historical Jesus” have to walk an incredibly fine line to try to stick to what can be factually known and analyzed without making it seem like they are discounting the supernatural aspects of the faith, but they can’t really accept those aspects as fact either. A former professor of mine used to say that historians have to assume that the way the world works today is the way it always has worked; if, for example, grass used to be orange, or blue, instead of green, that probably means that the past was so unlike the present that we can’t ever really know anything about it. That doesn’t mean you discount the possibility that the grass used to be orange, or that someone once received revelation from God in a cave in western Arabia, but simply that you can’t study that claim from the perspective of a historian. For the specialist in Muhammad or Islamic origins, this is a particularly difficult line to tread. Was Muhammad really a prophet? The most we can probably say with any certainty is that he must have believed himself to be, since (if the histories are accurate) his adherence to these new beliefs could easily have cost him his life, but he never recanted them. Luckily, for the generalist, which is what we are in this series, whether Muhammad actually received authentic revelation is less important than the fact that billions of people since his time have believed that he did. The traditional narrative has profound historical importance even if we may not know whether that narrative reflects reality, so we get to cheat a little and gloss over the question of whether any of it really happened the way the historical accounts say it did.
Muhammad was born in Mecca, to the Hashimite clan of the Quraysh tribe, sometime around 570 CE, give or take a year or two either way. He’s legendarily thought to have been born during the “Year of the Elephant,” which was marked by an attempt on the part of Abraha, the Christian ruler of the Yemen, to invade and capture Mecca. His lead war elephant, hence the name of the year, was said to have stopped charging at the boundaries of the Meccan haram (holy site) and refused to go any further, and so the attack was stymied. Scholarly consensus is that this event probably took place around a decade before Muhammad was born, because by 570 the Christian kingdom in the Yemen was so weakened that it was toppled by a Sasanian invasion. Muhammad was orphaned at a young age, his father dying before he was born and his mother dying when he was around six. He was taken in by his grandfather Abd al-Muttalab, then when he died, by the leader of the Hashimite clan, his uncle Abu Talib. Traditionally he’s thought to have lived a fairly impoverished existence; his caretakers did what they could for him, but overall the Hashimite clan was not among Mecca’s wealthy elite and so there simply wasn’t much to go around.
As he grew older, Muhammad supported himself as a trader, a common thing in merchant-oriented Mecca especially for an orphan like Muhammad. What, exactly, he traded is unknown, but as we discussed in the previous entry the kind of trade that flowed through Mecca probably involved regional products like cloth, leather, metals, and livestock, which would be taken by caravan to Syria and Iraq and sold/bartered for items like weapons, agricultural products, and wine, which were then brought back to Mecca. Muhammad seems to have accompanied Abu Talib on caravan expeditions to Syria as a teenager. Traditional sources suggest that he was involved in the trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, but as it’s highly questionable whether any Indian Ocean trade flowed through Mecca at all, this has to be taken with a huge grain of salt (more so because he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly wealthy merchant, as heavy involvement in the Indian Ocean trade would imply). Again, this is all incredibly murky.
Muhammad seems to have earned for himself a reputation for fairness and honesty in his business dealings, and this led to his being offered work, sometime in the 590s, managing the business interests of a wealthy widow named Khadijah. Though she was about 15 years older than Muhammad, by 595 the two had gone from employer-employee to lovers, and they were married. Interestingly, though Muhammad took many wives later in life, Khadijah remained his only wife until her death.
About five years after Muhammad and Khadijah were married, in 600 CE, it’s said that Muhammad began making weeks-long retreats out into the mountains of western Arabia, around Mecca, to meditate and pray. One of Muhammad’s early biographers, Ibn Ishaq (pronounced “Is-haq,” d. 761 or 767), relates that Muhammad, in 605, was chosen at random (“we’ll pick the next guy who walks through the door” is how they chose him) by Meccan elders to re-insert the sacred Black Stone at the base of the Kaaba, legendarily placed there as its cornerstone by Ismaʿil (Ishmael), Abraham’s son by Hagar, but removed in order to make renovations on the Kaaba. This is of questionable veracity but hints at what is to come. Around 610, Muhammad is said to have come back from one of his retreats and told his wife that he had received a revelation from God via the angel Jibraʿil (Gabriel); this first revelation comprises the first five verses (ayat) of chapter (surah) 96 (called “Al-Alaq”) of the Qur’an (translation modified from here):
- Read! [alternatively: Recite!] In the Name of your Lord, Who has created [everything],
- Has created man from a clot [al-alaq, the name of the surah].
- Read! [Recite!] And your Lord is the Most Generous,
- Who has taught [writing] by the pen,
- Has taught man that which he knew not.
According to Sunni sources (Shiʿa tradition disputes this), Muhammad was incredibly disturbed by this experience. Fearing that he had gone mad, or that he would be seen to have gone mad by the rest of Meccan society, he may even have considered committing suicide. It was Khadijah, and her Christian cousin, who convinced him that he had not gone mad, and that he should welcome the revelations rather than fear them. Khadijah is venerated for having been the first believer in Muhammad’s message; the identity of his first male follower is disputed, and may have been his young cousin Ali (son of his caretaker uncle, Abu Talib), his best friend Abu Bakr (who at any rate seems to have been the first adult male believer), or his manumitted slave/adopted son, Zayd ibn Harithah. Zayd was a respected Companion of Muhammad, but the other two men were far more significant in Islamic history and we’ll talk about them in more detail moving forward. However, it seems that for some period of time, perhaps three years, the revelations stopped coming. When they returned, in around 613, Muhammad began his public preaching, and his personal integrity and charisma must have been powerful enough to attract a significant number of followers. He was beset with problems almost from the start.
One of the Qurʾan’s most defining features, arguably its single most defining feature, is its emphasis on monotheism (the one possible exception being the so-called “Satanic Verses,” which Islamic tradition claims were briefly part of the revelation and which claim that three Meccan goddesses have the power to intercede with God on the believer’s behalf). Needless to say, when Muhammad began reciting his revelations to the Meccan community, which was not only largely pagan but which depended on paganism for its livelihood (the Kaaba was the pagan temple in western Arabia, and the pilgrims it drew from the region around Mecca contributed mightily to Mecca’s regional merchant business), his message was seen as a dangerous challenge to the social order that had been very good to (some parts of) the Quraysh. The Qurʾan is also strongly egalitarian (no believer is considered any better or more worthy than any other), and Muhammad’s earliest followers came from the ranks of the dispossessed and those at the fringes of society: younger brothers of wealthy merchants who had inherited little, members of clans that hadn’t achieved the success of the more powerful clans, those who had lost rank or favor within their clans, foreigners who were outside the tribal structure altogether, and slaves. As his following grew, city leaders tried offering him high rank within Meccan society if he would stop preaching, but he refused. There followed reprisals, initially slaves being killed by their masters for refusing to repudiate their belief in Muhammad’s message, but then threats of violence against all his followers and commercial boycotts against the Hashimites. In 615, Muhammad dispatched several of his followers to the Christian Axumite kingdom in Ethiopia for their safety; the Axumites offered them refuge and allowed them to establish their own colony there.
In 619 (known as “The Year of Sorrow” for Muslims), two deaths shook Muhammad’s budding movement: Khadijah, whose wealth and support had been a great source of strength for Muhammad, and Abu Talib, who had kept Muhammad under his protection despite the aforementioned commercial boycotts against his clan. The new leader of the Hashimites, Abu Lahab, was not inclined to support Muhammad and declared that he was no longer under the Hashimite clan’s protection. This was an enormous blow, because in a tribal Arabian society like Mecca’s, the protection of a tribe or clan unit, and the threat of reprisal by the tribe or clan, was essentially the only formal (formal-ish, maybe) mechanism for preventing crime, from theft, to kidnapping, to rape, to murder. Without the protection of the Hashimites, and the understanding that they would retaliate against any clan that did him harm, Muhammad was in grave danger. Mecca had no prince or king who could toss troublemakers like Muhammad in a hole on a whim, but what it did have was the assurance that, if you were placed outside the protection of your tribe, you were absolutely and utterly vulnerable to your enemies.
The following year, 620 in our calendar, it is said that Muhammad experienced his mystical night journey, via a winged horse or mule named Buraq, from Mecca to “the farthest mosque” (traditional Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) and from there into Heaven, known as al-Israʾ wa al-Miʿraj. He spoke to past religious figures like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and led them in prayer in Jerusalem before touring the seven heavens and being taken to speak directly with God. There’s a funny story in the Hadith (I’ll explain what this is later, but essentially it’s the collected sayings of Muhammad apart from his recitation of the Qurʾan) about how Muslims came to pray five times a day: Muhammad was told by God that the community should pray 50 times a day, and he left God’s presence and told Moses of this. Moses tells him that 50 prayers a day is ridiculous and that he needs to go back to God and demand a lower number, so he does and gets it down to 40. Moses is still not satisfied so he sends Muhammad back in there and gets the number down to 30, 20, 10, and finally 5 before Muhammad refuses to continue bargaining with God. Muhammad later “proves” to his followers that he’s been on this journey by accurately describing Jerusalem (despite having never been there in any non-miraculous way) to Abu Bakr (who presumably had been there on caravan, as he was a successful merchant). Anyway, we don’t need to believe this actually happened, but it’s important to know that most practicing Muslims do believe it actually happened, and this is one of the reasons why Jerusalem is considered so important in Islam.
Back in the real world, things were increasingly bleak for Muhammad and his followers as threats from other Meccan clans multiplied. Muhammad began to look for places he could take his movement; a first expedition to the nearby city of Taʾif almost got Muhammad and Zayd stoned to death, but a solution soon emerged during one of the Meccan pilgrimage periods. The oasis town of Yathrib, located some distance to the north of Mecca, seems to have been tearing itself apart due to inter-tribal struggles. Pilgrims from Yathrib heard Muhammad’s preaching and appreciated it; the presence of Jewish tribes in that community seems to have made them receptive both to monotheism and to the idea that a new prophet had arisen. There may have also been some element of inter-city rivalry, with Yathrib hoping to increase its power at Mecca’s expense by bringing Muhammad and his followers there. The representatives from Yathrib approached Muhammad and began preliminary discussions about bringing Muhammad to that city to serve as either the leader of the community (the traditional Islamic view) or a neutral arbiter between the feuding tribes (what I suspect the representatives from Yathrib initially intended); either way they offered Muhammad and his followers the tribal protection that they had lost in Mecca. Plans for a relocation were finalized at a subsequent pilgrimage, when considerably more members of the Yathrib community met with Muhammad outside Mecca.
Sometime during the summer of 622, Muhammad seems to have gotten wind of a Meccan plot to assassinate him, either by divine means or otherwise, and his flight to Yathrib was set in motion. Small groups of followers, ideally too small to arouse suspicion and ultimately around 70 in total, were sent to Yathrib for their protection. The night before he was to be assassinated Muhammad put young Ali in his bed in order to fool the would-be assassins, and he and Abu Bakr fled the city under cover of darkness, staying in a cave just outside town for three days before they felt it was safe to continue. Pursued by bounty hunters after a reward was placed on Muhammad’s head by the Quraysh, they amazingly reached Yathrib after 8 days, establishing a mosque just outside the city and lingering there another two weeks before entering the city proper.
Next time: Muhammad at Medina, Mecca defeated, and Muhammad’s death.
This is not an easy list to put together, because there’s a lot of pure crap out there masquerading as the “real” story about the life of Muhammad. Islamophobe Robert Spencer is responsible for a good chunk of that, and there’s no mystery what story he’s pushing, but there are also the works that want to put Muhammad in the best light possible, and they’re also not especially helpful for us. Most people who have read anything about Muhammad probably read something by Karen Armstrong, either Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, or Islam: A Short History, or both. I won’t tell you not to read her stuff; she tries to stick to what we know and to keep things in context, but she’s also not particularly interested in digging beyond the surface of the traditional narrative.
Martin Lings wrote a book in 1983 called Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, that I have not read so I can’t recommend it one way or the other. What I will say is that I believe Lings relies on the pious biographies of the Prophet, called sirat Rasul Allah, that seem to have cropped up in around the early-middle 8th century, though the earliest works only survive insofar as they were cited/copied/edited into later (9th century) works. These are the places where you’ll find the traditional narrative of Muhammad’s life, but they’re also incredibly problematic as sources, which I’ll talk about more in a couple of entries from now.
Martin Cook wrote a very short (< 100 pages) book called Muhammad in the 1980s that is an OK short stab at this topic, though obviously you won’t get a lot of depth from it. Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century is quite good but, as the title suggests, Muhammad is only a part of the story he’s telling.
I would recommend Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam for its take on Muhammad’s life as well as the period following his death. It’s slightly revisionist, suggesting that “Islam” didn’t emerge as its own religious identity until at least a century after Muhammad’s death, and that what Muhammad initially led was a “Believer’s movement” that combined pious Abrahamic monotheists of all faiths (Christian, Jewish, and the believers in the emerging Qurʾanic faith that would become Islam). Your mileage may vary, but I think he makes a pretty compelling argument, and there’s a strong element of common sense in that it’s hard to believe that Islam emerged fully formed from Muhammad on, and that there was no “feeling out” developmental period in terms of figuring out where this new movement belonged in the Abrahamic community. Anyway, he does a very nice job of telling the history of this period in a way that will appeal to the non-academic and does not stray too far into either credulous belief in the traditional sources or total revisionism.
The last thing I wanted to mention was a few general histories of Islam, apart from Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam, which I mentioned last time but which is very densely written and which doesn’t cover the modern period very well (Hodgson having died in 1968 without completing the third volume of the work). Vernon Eggar’s History of the Muslim World (2 parts) is pretty good for the introductory student. Ira Lapidus’ A History of Islamic Societies is decent as a one-volume work, but massive at around 1000 pages (also the most recent edition only runs through 2001). The New Cambridge History of Islam looks promising but only if you want to seriously study this stuff; the previous Cambridge History of Islam was/is also very useful, but dated if your interest is the modern period (and the newer version does a better job of talking about cultural trends, economics, etc., as opposed to “kings and battles” history). Both of them are way too dense for the casual reader, not to mention way too expensive.
That’s all for now; I don’t want to go too far with this because I’ve got a whole entry coming up about the sources on Muhammad’s life and the scholarship about the sources.
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