Muhammad ibn Abdallah

Prophet and founder of Islam. Born c. 570 in Mekkah (Mecca), died 632.

Very little is known of Muhammad's life prior to the time when he began to receive what he interpreted as divine revelations from the one true God, revelations which came through the medium of the Archangel Gabriel. A few scattered remarks near the end of the Quran allow us to infer that his parents died while Muhammad was still in his childhood, and that he was raised by relatives - among them, his uncle Abu Talib. Likewise, the Quran implies that the Prophet's family was not of high social status in Mekkah. Finally, we may also infer that Muhammad, prior to receiving his calling, was a devotee of the polytheistic religion practiced in the region.

Around 610, Muhammad had a personal experience, which he (with the support of his wife Khadija) interpreted as a sign that he had been specially chosen by God as his prophet. According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad (prior to his revelation) several times withdrew from his life as a trader, meditating in the mountains around Mekkah. The Quran gives no information on the experience which finally convinced Muhammad of his selection as prophet.

When Muhammad began reporting his revelations (from c. 613), he was roundly criticised by the citizens of Mekkah. He continued to preach the word of his God, however, and gained some converts. Nevertheless, Islam did not gain wide acceptance in Mekkah.

With support from his family, however, Muhammad was able to continue his mission. An economic boycott by the leading families of Mekkah against Muhammad's family was likewise ineffective. It was only with the death of Abu Talib (c. 619) and the transfer of familial leadership to Abu Jahl (who was himself strongly critical of Muhammad's teachings) that this situation changed.

Fearing that Muhammad's new religion might damage the status of Mekkah as a place of pilgrimage for the tribes of the region, leading groups in Mekkah forced Muhammad and his followers to remove to Madinah (Medina), during the summer of 622. With this expulsion, Muhammad's position changed. Though there was little change in the revelations he received at Madinah from those he received while at Mekkah, Muhammad had now become formally the leader of the proto-Muslim community at Madinah. It was there that many basic principles of Islam were finally formulated.

From Madinah, Muhammad led the showdown with Mekkah for religious supremacy in the region. In 624, at Badr, a small group of Muslims under Muhammad's command inflicted a grave defeat on Mekkah. The following year, at Uhud, another battle took place, and in 627 the leading families of Mekkah mobilised all their forces and their allies to strike a definitive blow against Muhammad and Madinah - an ultimately unsuccessful project. With this defeat, and with the expansion of Islam, Muhammad was able (in 630) to capture Mekkah. The following year, even more tribes converted.

After a brief illness, Muhammad died in the summer of 632.

As the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad holds a central position in world history. As a man who, throughout a long and arduous life, faithfully promoted the monotheistic faith that had been revealed to him; and as a political agitator of consummate skill, he must be respected.

In the Islamic culture, which does not sanctify mortals, he is regarded with great veneration. In Jewish and Christian tradition, unsurprisingly, he is regarded as a false prophet. Modern historical and Orientalist writers have tried to add nuance between these two extremes.