According to Muslim tradition, on the 8th of June, 632 CE, following a short illness, the Prophet Muhammad, died in his house in the city of Medina. He is without a doubt, one of history’s most influential (and controversial) individuals to have walked this earth. In short, the beginning of Islam can be traced back to this one man. Through him, Muslims across the world believe, God spoke his last message (or the will of God) to all mankind.
Muhammad was born around 570 CE in the Arabian town of Mecca (what is now in Saudi Arabia). By the age of six, he had lost both his parents and was subsequently brought up by his grandfather first and then his influential uncle, from when he was eight years old. Under his uncle’s guidance, Muhammad worked for a while as a shepherd and then as a merchant in Meccan caravans to Syria.
At the age of about 25, Muhammad was put in charge of a camel caravan set for Damascus. The wealth business owner he would pull the caravan for was his future wife named Khadija. She was so impressed by his skill and trustworthiness that, despite being fifteen years older than Muhammad, she proposed to him and they wed soon after. (Muhammad remained devoted to her until her death in 620 CE. Both Muhammad and Khadija, had two sons, who both died in childhood, and four daughters.)
Devoting his time to his wife’s business affairs was hard work, but work wasn’t the only thing on Muhammad’s mind. A general feeling of unease tugged at him in those years just before the dawn of the new century. It was related to his frequent contacts with other traveling parties and their religious outlook to life. Many of the people he met during his travels were Christians and Jews. Through them, he observed their beliefs. Interestingly, Muhammad came to see the contrasting practices of the two, in particular, their belief in one god (monotheism). Importantly, he also observed that they had a scripture for guidance, something a majority of Arabs did not have. Around the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Mecca, polytheism (worship of many gods) was largely the dominant practice. However, it is not to say that the practice of monotheism was a foreign concept in Arabian communities. Small numbers of new followers attracted by the belief in a single deity was taking shape. Stories of desert holy men – known as hanifs – who repudiated polytheism, were said to be often associated in Muhammad’s presence, as he sought these outsiders to talk to in passing caravans. (It is said that hanifs in some ways helped prepare the way for Islam.)
Jabal al-Nour (Mount Hira) and the cave nestled within is said to be the place where Muhammad spent much of his time meditating.
Hardly a fierce monotheist, Muhammad’s eyes were nonetheless open to the world around him. It is said that with the encouragement of his wife, he rejected much of the Meccan social order. As a result and largely due to his inquiring nature, Muhammad began to spend much of his time meditating and in deep thought, especially in the hillside caves of Mount Hira. For a long time, he apparently contemplated what he saw and “grew to love solitude” where he “engaged in acts of devotion for a number of days before returning to his family.”
Some say it wasn’t a surprise what happened next. Some people also say that Muhammad had been subconsciously preparing for the event that would change his life and all of mankind. In 610 CE, on Mount Hera, Muhammad aged forty now, received his first revelations from God. The event is dramatically described in Sura 96, the oldest of the Qur’ anic suras, in which, Archangel Gabriel came to Muhammad and commanded him to “Recite!” Gabriel further announced to Muhammad that he was the Messenger of God.
Muhammad shaken by the sudden revelation fell to his knees, crawled away and returned home to be consoled by his wife. He explained what had happened and without any doubt Khadija was convinced that God had chosen her husband for great things. Following a short period of inner uncertainty, he accepted his calling from God and the revelations made to him. (More revelations from God would come to Muhammad over a decade or more.)
It was during this period that Muhammad, after accepting that he was God’s last prophet, began preaching about his experience and the revelations handed down to him. These revelations would eventually be memorized by his followers and later written down on leaves, pieces of bones and flat stones. Eventually they would be recorded by Muhammad’s scribe Zayd ibn Thabit and collected together as the Qur’an (Koran), the sacred book of Islam.
Notes and Further Reading:
Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, Harper Collins, 2007.
Mahmoud M. Ayoub, Islam: Faith and History, Oneworld Publications, 2005.
John L. Esposito (Ed), The Oxford History of Islam, Oxford University Press Inc, 2000.
“grew to love solitude” & “engaged in acts of devotion for a number of days before returning to his family”, David Levering Lewis, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, Norton, 2008, p.33.