The Life of Muhammad
Orphaned at 6, Muhammad was saved from a life of slavery by his uncle who gave him a job in his successful caravan business. Married to a successful businesswoman in her own right, Muhammad saw firsthand how the leading families of the Quraysh lived. They were arrogant, reckless, niggardly and egotistical, believed only in riches, and took no responsibility for people outside their immediate, elite circle. Muhammad saw this decline in traditional values as a threat to the very existence of his tribe. He was sure that social reform had to be based on a new spiritual foundation, though before the revelations, he had no idea that his destiny would be to implement these changes.
Less than one hundred years after Muhammad’s death in 632 the first Muslim historians began to write about his life. These were Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767), Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi (d. ca 820); Muhammad ibn Sa’d (d. 845); and Abu Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923). These scholars reconstructed their narrative from oral traditions and early documents, and through their effort we know more about Muhammad than we do of any other Prophet.
Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the stories of Muhammad’s life were written to satisfy contemporary norms and included miraculous and legendary stories that might be misinterpreted today. As we have noted with the stories surrounding the Axial Sages, the Old Testament and the Gospels, such accounts are not to be taken literally. According to Reza Aslan in No god but God, The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam they “function as prophetic topos: a conventional literacy theme that can be found in most mythologies. Like the infancy narratives in the Gospels, these stories are not intended to relate historical events, but to elucidate the mystery of the prophetic experience. They answer the questions: What does it mean to be a prophet? … It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus or David are true. What is important is what these stories say about our prophets, our messiahs, our kings: that theirs is a holy and eternal vocation, established by God from the moment of creation.”
Not much is known about his early childhood, but according to tradition Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570, the year known as the Year of the Elephant, in which Mecca was miraculously saved.
Tradition tells that Abraha, the Abyssinian Christian ruler of Yemen, attacked Mecca with a herd of elephants imported from Africa. Abraha’s goal was to destroy the Ka’ba and make the Christian church at Sana’ the new religious center of the Arab world. The terrified Quraysh had never seen an elephant, much less a whole herd, so they ran to the mountains to escape, leaving the Ka’ba with no defense. But just as it was about to be attacked, the sky went dark as a flock of birds, each carrying a stone in its beak, rained down on the invading army which was forced to retreat.
Muhammad was a Quraysh from the clan of Hashim. Many stories surround his childhood and birth, which was announced in a tale similar to the Christian story of Mary: Muhammad’s mother, a widow named Amina, one day heard a voice say to her: “You carry in your womb the lord of this people, and when he is born, say: ‘I place him beneath the protection of the One, from the evil of every envious person’, then name him Muhammad.”
Muhammad was orphaned at the age of six when his mother died, and went to live with his grandfather Abd-Al-Muttalib, who was in charge of providing the water of the Zam-Zam to pilgrims. But by the time he was eight years old, his grandfather, too, had died and Muhammad was taken in by his Uncle Abu Talib and employed in his successful caravan business, so he was saved from a life of slavery or indebtedness experienced by so many orphans at the time. In a story that resembles that of Samuel in the Old Testament and others of that genre, it was on a trading expedition to Syria, when Muhammad was only nine years old, that a Christian monk named Bahira recognized him as “the Messenger of the Lord of the Worlds.”
At twenty-five, when Muhammad was still unmarried and dependent on his uncle, he met a very distant cousin, Khadija, a beautiful widow, then probably in her late thirties. Khadija was unusual for a woman of her time, she was a respected member of Meccan society and a very successful businesswoman in her own right. In spite of his tenuous social circumstances, according to Ibn Hisham, Muhammad had a reputation for “truthfulness, reliability, and nobility of character,” and Khadija entrusted him to take a caravan of goods to Syria and sell it. When he returned home with more profits than she anticipated, she proposed marriage to him and he accepted, thus acquiring status and entry into Meccan society. Although polygamy was the norm at the time, Muhammad and Khadija were in a monogamous marriage for twenty-five years until her death. They had six children.
As an orphan himself, Muhammad would have been aware of just how easy it was to fall outside Mecca’s religio-economic system. With his marriage and his businesses doing well, he now had access to the prosperous life. He saw firsthand that although the leading families of the Quraysh believed in the one God, this belief was not relevant to their lives; they had forgotten that everything depended upon Him. Now that they were rich, they adhered to the very worst aspects of murawah and had thrown away the best: they were arrogant, reckless, niggardly and egotistical; they had become self-centered, no longer believing in anything but riches and took no responsibility for people outside their immediate, elite circle.
Muhammad saw the decline in traditional values as a threat to the very existence of his tribe. He was sure that social reform had to be based on a new spiritual foundation for it to actually take effect. As a trader, Muhammad came in frequent contact with Jews and Christians. According to the scholar Ikbal Ali Shah, Muhammad made “an exhaustive study of other religions.” He was aware that his own people, although they believed in al-Lah, lacked a sacred book of their own. “The people of the Book” had codified Laws that were both religious and social, governing their behavior from dawn to dusk. His own people had no such thing and because of this their lives were in chaos, many were suffering and destitute, and the whole tribe was in danger of extinction.
Before the revelations, he had no idea that his destiny would be to implement these vital changes. He was from a minor clan, the Hashim, and scholars point out that, in common with other prophets before him, he initially wanted nothing to do with what was happening to him and was extremely upset, so much so that without Khadija’s intervention “Mohammad might have gone through with his plan to end it all, and history would have turned out quite differently,” writes Reza Aslan.