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date: 26 June 2019

Muhammad the Prophet

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Konstantin KleinKonstantin Klein

Muhammad the Prophet (Muhammad b. ‘Abdallah) (c.570–632) Political and religious leader 

from the Arabian Peninsula and, according to Muslim belief, the last prophet sent by God who revealed the Qur’ān to him.

While the Muslim biographical tradition (biographies and collected sayings of Muhammad (hadith)) describes at length the events that happened during Muhammad’s life and extensively comments on his charismatic personality, his habits, and character traits, the vast majority of this source material post-dates the Prophet’s lifetime. The first biography (sira) was compiled by Ibn Ishaq in the mid-8th century. This text is lost and survives only in subsequent quotations and in an abridged 9th-century recension by Ibn Hisham (d. 833). Muslim documentary sources mention Muhammad from the end of the 7th century onwards, and can be linked with the generally not very detailed non-Muslim sources that refer to his prophethood soon after the time of his death. Biographical references from within the Qur’ān are not easily interpreted. While Muslims regard Muhammad as the ‘seal of the prophets’, affirm his prophetic role in the creed (shahada), and consider him an intercessor on the day of the Last Judgement, his person is deemed to be completely human and not divine.

According to the traditional Islamic account, Muhammad was born in Mecca into the Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe. His father had died before the birth of his son, who also lost his mother soon after and was brought up first in the household of his paternal grandfather, ‘Abd al-Muttalib (d. c.578), and then by his uncle, Abu Talib. The latter succeeded his father as leader of the Hashim. Muhammad earned his living mainly as a trader travelling the Arabian Peninsula. It is, however, unlikely that he reached faraway destinations, as suggested by the Muslim sources, which recount a meeting with a Christian monk in Bosra. Muhammad entered the service of a rich widow, Khadija, whom he married in 595. At the age of 40 (c.610), Muhammad, who used to withdraw several weeks each year in a mountain cave near Mecca, informed his wife that he had received revelations by God through the Angel Gabriel (Jibril/Jibra’il) who commanded him to recite verses, which would eventually form the Qur’ān. Muhammad kept his revelations secret, only telling Khadija, who was the first to accept the prophecy, and a circle of close friends, among them ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, his cousin, and Abu Bakr. About three years after the first revelation, Muhammad started preaching his religion in Mecca; his message predominantly consisted of warnings of the Last Judgement, appeals for charity, and the call for a strict monotheism. While Islam was most likely perceived as a new religion by both Arabs and later non-Muslim observers, it is important to note that Muhammad himself did not regard himself as founder of a religion, but rather as restorer of a monotheistic faith that had already existed in Mecca since the days of Abraham (Ibrahim). After Muhammad had gained a significant number of followers, who came from all strata of society, his sermons attacked polytheism, which was prevalent in Mecca as well as in all of Central Arabia. Muhammad thus soon met with opposition by members of his own tribe, the Quraysh, who had previously only mocked his prophetic claims. The following years witnessed an increasing hostility, culminating in a three-year boycott against the Hashim. In 619, the so-called ‘Year of Sorrow’, two of Muhammad’s strongest supporters, Khadija and Abu Talib, died. The new clan leader, Abu Lahab, withdrew the Hashim’s protection, so far guaranteed more because of kinship ties than beliefs, making it increasingly difficult for Muhammad to preach.

After some Muslims had left Mecca for Ethiopia already in 615, Muhammad, lacking his clan’s support, unsuccessfully attempted to establish alliances with tribal leaders from the city of Ta’if. Eventually, he found new supporters in a group from Yathrib (Medina) who promised him their protection at the ‘pledges of ‘Aqaba’. Muhammad left Mecca with his followers in 622 (the hijra) and acted as an arbitrator between rivalling tribes in Medina, creating an alliance between the city’s eight tribes and the new immigrants against outside enemies. The document of alliance is preserved in later tradition and is often known as the ‘Constitution of Medina’. In Medina, Islam attracted an increasing number of converts, initially from the less powerful tribes, but it soon encompassed the majority of Medina’s population. Muhammad’s private house functioned as the first gathering place for communal prayer and would become the model for all early Islamic mosques. Medina’s considerable Jewish community proved difficult to win over, and after an initial phase of integrating Jewish rituals into Islam, these practices were abolished. While two Jewish tribes were expelled from the city, a third one was almost completely annihilated after it had sided with the Meccans. While Muslim property left in Mecca had been seized by the Quraysh in the wake of the hijra, the Muslims started raiding Meccan caravans soon after, with Qur’ānic revelations justifying these actions that were followed by several armed clashes: while the Battle of Badr (624) ended with a surprising victory for the Muslims, the defeat at Uhud (625) was a significant setback. Following an unsuccessful Meccan siege of Medina (627), both parties were exhausted and eventually reached a truce that allowed Muslims to enter Mecca on pilgrimage (628; Treaty of Hudaybiyya). Peace with Mecca gave Muhammad time to conquer the Jewish oasis of Khaybar, where the Muslims accepted a tribute (jizya) from the defeated, which would become a model for all subsequent treatments of monotheists under Muslim authority. The treaty with Mecca, however, was dissolved only one year later, and Muhammad launched a large-scale attack against his hometown which culminated in the relatively peaceful conquest of 630, followed by the removal of pagan idols from the Ka‘ba and by the majority of the population converting to Islam. Immediately after, the Muslim armies secured a victory against neighbouring tribes from the area of Ta’if in the Battle of Hunayn. In the following year many other tribes accepted Islam following a call for submission. In 632 Muhammad visited the Ka’ba for the last time and regulated the rituals of pilgrimage. He died in Medina on 8 June in the house of his favourite of thirteen wives and concubines, ‘A’isha, the daughter of Abu Bakr. While his three sons and three of his daughters had died before him, he was outlived by one remaining daughter, Fatima (d. 633), the wife of ‘Ali. After his death disagreement over the right of succession arose, until the conflict was eventually won by Abu Bakr who, according to the later Sunni tradition, became the first of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs.

Konstantin Klein


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