The man known as Abu al-Qasim Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Abd al-Muttalib Ibn Hashim was born in or about the year 571, into the clan of Quraish, the ruling tribe of Mecca a city in northwestern Arabia. Originally the site of the Ka’bah, a shrine of ancient origins built by the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), Mecca had with the decline of southern Arabia become an important center of sixth-century trade with such powers as the Sassanians, Byzantines, and Ethiopians.
Muhammad’s father died before the boy was born and his mother, Aminah, died when he was six. The orphan was first consigned to the care of his grandfather, Adbul Muttalib, and then his uncle, Abu Talib. As was customary, Muhammad was sent to live for a year or two with a Bedouin family. In addition to enduring the hardships of desert life, he acquired a taste for the rich language so loved by the Arabs, whose speech was their proudest art, and learned the patience and forbearance of the herdsmen, whose life of solitude he first shared and then came to understand and appreciate.
Around the year 546, at the age of 25, Muhammad married a merchant widow named Khadijah (then 45 yrs old) of whom he had been a business partner with for several years. They had had two sons (who did not survive) and four daughters.
For the next 15 or so years, Muhammad traveled widely as a merchant and businessman. Becoming increasingly disenchanted with the polytheistic religion of his people, he began to retire to meditate in a cave on Mount Hira outside of Mecca. One day, as he sat in the cave, he heard the voice of Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) who ordered him to:
Recite, in the name of thy Lord who created man from a clot of blood.
Three times Muhammad pleaded his inability to do so, but each time the command was repeated. Finally, Muhammad recited the words of what are now the first five verses of the 96th surah or chapter of the Qu’ran – words which proclaim God the creator of man and the source of all knowledge.
At first Muhammad divulged his experience only to his wife and a few trusted others. But as more revelations enjoined him to proclaim the oneness of God universally, his following grew at first among the poor and the slaves but later also among the most prominent men of Mecca. These revelations are all incorporated in the Qu’ran, the Scripture of Islam. Muhammad often faced bitter opposition to his new teachings; even in his own clan there were those who rejected his teachings, and many merchants actively opposed the message. Islam was seen as an affront to the old ways of Arabia’s forefathers who had been practicing in this manner from time immemorial.
In the year 622, Muhammad and his followers were forced to emigrate from Mecca to the town of Yathrib, later renamed Medinah (which simply means The City). This event, known as the Hijrah (Flight), marks the start of the Islamic Calendar and the beginning of the Muslim Empire. Medinah became the initial center of the fledgling Muslim community. Positive relationships were also established with rulers in Persia, Egypt and especially the Christian kindgom of Abyssinia (in present-day Ethiopia). In 628, after a series of battles, Muslims were able to negotiate access to the Ka’bah during negotiations with Meccan leaders. A year later in 629, Mecca fell to the Muslims without bloodshed.
Prophet Muhammad did not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor for long though. On June 8, 632, he passed away, succumbing to age and failing health. But think about his accomplishments. In the small span of around 20 years, Prophet Muhammad had founded a new religion based on the Oneness of God, a religion which began to unify the Arab people under one faith and which also sought to bring all people into the fold as one.