We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Muhammad - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result


ca. 570– 632 Prophet of Islam

Although little is known about Muhammad's early life, his later experiences were carefully documented by contemporaries and by people in the generations immediately after. His actions form the content of the sunnah, an essential source of Islamic law. Reports of Muhammad's character have inspired not only Muslims but also people of all religions. Many authors, from medieval scribes to modern European biographers, have written about the Prophet.

Life of the Prophet

Muhammad gave rise to one of the great world civilizations. His teachings united Arab tribes and eventually spread to every continent. Muslims view the Prophet as rasul Allah (God's Messenger) to Arabs and to all humankind. The Qur'an serves as the main source of information about Muhammad. Other works include the sirah (biographical texts compiled in the century after the Prophet's death), the hadith, and general histories composed around the same time as the sirah.

Childhood and Youth.

Many legends have arisen around Muhammad's childhood. According to the sirah and hadith, Muhammad's mother Aminah emitted a light when she was pregnant, and a glow lit up the city of Busra in Syria when she gave birth. As a boy, Muhammad tended sheep and had protection from the sun by a large cloud that formed over his head. Various spiritual leaders declared that Muhammad would become a prophet. Favorable marks appeared on his back, and he sat under auspicious trees while resting from his work.

Although few details about the Prophet's childhood were recorded, scholars know that Muhammad was born in Mecca. His father died before he was born, and his mother died after he reached the age of six. Muhammad went to live with his paternal grandfather, who put him in the care of a nomadic tribe, as was the custom for young boys at the time. Muhammad was a quiet, reflective youth who occasionally spent nights in meditation in a cave in a hill. He often accompanied his uncle Abu Talib on trading journeys to Syria. On one such expedition, a wealthy widow named Khadija hired him to look after her goods. She was so impressed with the trustworthiness of the young man that she hired him to manage the business she had inherited. Eventually, she proposed marriage. The couple had four daughters who reached adulthood and at least three sons who died in infancy. Until Khadija died about 24 years later, Muhammad took no other wife.

Divine Inspiration.

Muhammad had his first revelation at about the age of 40, receiving a vision that he later identified as the angel Gabriel. The angel asked him to recite, but Muhammad did not understand the significance of the command. Gabriel repeated his request two more times, then declared Muhammad a messenger of God. Muhammad accepted his role and continued to receive revelations and transmit them to his followers until his death.

After Muhammad's appointment as God's messenger, he went on the celebrated Night Journey (isra). According to tradition, the Prophet embarked on a miraculous overnight voyage from the sanctuary near the Kaaba to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where he experienced the Ascension (miraj) to heaven. During this event, Muhammad encountered the Prophets Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, prayed with them, and received instruction on the proper form of prayer. Muslims celebrate this event, which is mentioned in the Qur'an, on the 27th day of the month of Rajab.

Muhammad experienced divine inspiration in many ways. He received no visions after the first one but sometimes perspired on a cold day or heard the sound of a bell. Most often, he felt the presence of a message in his heart. Muhammad's friends and family accepted his new role, and joined him in prayers. In 613 Muhammad began to preach publicly. His early messages focused on the oneness of God, the terrors that await the proud or the greedy on the Day of Judgment, and the idea that people should exercise goodwill toward one another. He placed special emphasis on the practice of caring for the poor, especially orphans and widows.

Muhammad believed that his revelations stemmed from the same divine source as Jewish and Christian doctrine. The Prophet's revelations did not constitute a separate religion but conveyed the same ideas in a form suitable for the Arabs. Many of Muhammad's followers were neither Christian nor Jewish but believed in monotheism. Some were poor members of weak clans, and others belonged to wealthy clans. All were dissatisfied with the materialistic nature of Meccan society. Muhammad and his followers denounced the emphasis on competition and worldly goods in Mecca, which served as a center for trade and the destination of an annual Arab pilgrimage. Merchants tried to quiet the Prophet by offering him a bride from a wealthy family, but he refused.

Polytheistic Arabs mistrusted Muhammad for his assertion of the existence of only one God. Some accused the Prophet of practicing sorcery or being possessed by jinn (spirits). They challenged him to perform miracles and persecuted him and his followers when he refused. Several Qur'anic verses depict God as comforting Muhammad, telling him to have faith. The Meccans taunted Muhammad, boycotting his community and preventing his followers from buying food. Muhammad's clan withdrew its protection from him in 619 , making him even more vulnerable to attack. In 622 Muhammad accepted an invitation from feuding clans in Medina, a city north of Mecca whose citizens had heard of his reputation as a just arbiter. Muhammad and his followers embarked on the Hijrah to Medina.

Journey to Medina and Battles With Unbelievers.

News of the Prophet's journey spread to Medina by way of traders, and when Muhammad arrived, 75 people met him to profess their allegiance. They vowed to defend Muhammad, taking what became known as the pledge of al-Aqaba, which indicated their continuing support for him. The Prophet enjoyed life in the fertile climate of Medina and gained many more followers.

Upon arrival in Medina, Muhammad drafted an agreement with tribal leaders. It guaranteed religious freedom and mutual respect to all and required clans to fight together against enemies. Muhammad suffered a deep disappointment, however, when some of the Jewish tribes refused to accept him as a prophet. After powerful authorities rejected his claims, Muhammad broke away from Jewish and Christian tradition, establishing Islam as a separate religion. He and his followers turned away from Jerusalem when praying, facing Mecca instead. Muhammad exiled two Jewish clans, taking over their businesses and lands. He ordered the killing of the male members of another clan that had joined forces with his Meccan enemies, and forced the women and children into slavery.

The wealthy Quraysh tribe of Mecca continued to harass the Muslims, seizing and selling their property. The Prophet responded, sending out raiding parties to attack their caravans. The Meccans and the Muslims fought a major battle in 624 at Badr, where Muhammad's troops had intercepted a caravan led by the powerful leader Abu Sufyan . The Meccans sent a force three times as large as Muhammad's. Against all expectations, the Prophet's army prevailed, causing many to believe it had been divinely protected. Large numbers of Arabs converted to Islam, and Bedouin tribes began to show greater interest in the religion. Muhammad's troops, however, suffered heavy losses at Abu Sufyan's hands the following year. Despite this setback, the Prophet ultimately gained control over Mecca.

Victory Over Mecca.

In 628 Muhammad was inspired to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Muhammad and his followers traveled almost 300 miles. They camped outside of town, where Meccan leaders rode to greet them. Muhammad and the Meccans agreed to a ten-year truce if he would wait until the following year to enter Mecca. Muhammad traveled back to Medina with his followers.

In the spring, Muhammad again led his followers to Mecca, where they finally completed their pilgrimage. Later that year, however, a Meccan army broke the truce by attacking a group of Muslims. Abu Sufyan and other clan leaders rushed to Medina to persuade Muhammad to refrain from launching an assault on their city. They agreed to peacefully surrender Mecca. In 630 Muhammad and his forces took control of Mecca without a fight. The Prophet quelled uprisings from neighboring clans, destroyed idols in the Kaaba and other shrines, and demanded that rich Meccans grant loans to his poorest followers. Muhammad established himself as ruler of the region and settled in Medina with his wives and children.

The following year, the “Year of Deputations,” many tribes sent messengers to Muhammad's headquarters to pledge their loyalty to him. Meccans also converted to Islam in large numbers. Muhammad had gained control of Arabia, quickly suppressing any opposition. In 632 he embarked on his last pilgrimage to Mecca, called the Farewell Pilgrimage by his followers. On the return trip, he contracted a fatal illness. Knowing that he would not survive, he retired to the apartment of his youngest and favorite wife, A'ishah, who tended him throughout his illness. Muhammad died in June at the age of 60. His followers appointed A'ishah's father, Abu Bakr , as caliph, or “successor” to the Prophet.

Muhammad's Character.

The Prophet conquered a large part of the Arabian Peninsula, organized a community of believers in a major world religion, and set in motion the creation of a vast empire. Muslims consider him the last and the greatest prophet. They acknowledge, however, that he was human and are careful to avoid elevating him to supernatural status, as they believe the Christians did with Jesus. The Qur'an and hadith reveal Muhammad as a mortal with desires and limitations. Even after gaining many converts and defeating the Meccans, the Prophet agonized over the fact that he had not convinced every Arab of the truth of his teachings. In the Qur'an, God offers him words of comfort. God also reminds him that he has sinned, although He does not specify how. He tells the Prophet that he is mortal, and that, like everyone else, he will have to face the angels on the Day of Judgment.

The Qur'an reveals Muhammad to be charming, vigorous, and quick of thought and action, although gentle with children. The Prophet enjoyed the company of women and had at least nine wives. He also liked perfume and good food. His preference for nuts and honey influenced Muslims to use these ingredients for holiday meals and healthy snacks. Muhammad also had a humble and retiring side, as shown in God's instructions: “O believers, do not enter the apartments of the Prophet, unless you are given permission for a meal…. Do not linger for idle talk, for that would be an annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy to ask you [to leave].”

Modern scholars debate aspects of the Prophet's character. Some, for example, criticize him for having so many wives. Others find fault with his apparent eagerness for battle. The Prophet, however, lived in a society in which tribal warfare was commonplace, and where tribes were expected to conduct raids on their aggressors. Most battles fought by Muhammad were initiated by his enemies, and many of his armed expeditions resulted in a show of strength rather than in actual combat. A few scholars condemn the Prophet for his tactics, but most view him as using the methods of the time to found and shape a new community.

Muhammad's Impact on the Arab World

Islam had a huge impact on the Arabian Peninsula. It united warring clans, creating a civilization out of a fragmented society. The Islamic empire spread over the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, attracting many converts. Islamic law led to changes in everyday life. Muhammad promoted the development of inner spirituality. He preached an ethical code that would establish a just and peaceful society on earth and enable believers to gain divine favor on the Day of Judgment.

Influence on Society.

Before Islam, Arabian society consisted of scattered clans and families. Muhammad worked to create the ummah (community of believers) that would transcend tribal loyalties. To accomplish this goal, he established the five Pillars of Islam: shahadah (profession of faith), salat (prayer), zakat (charity), sawm (fasting during the month of Ramadan) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Each pillar serves a certain purpose. Ritual prayer binds Muslims together. Charity promotes a sense of common welfare and responsibility for others. By declaring their belief in Islam and participating in the Ramadan fast, Muslims affirm their loyalty to the group and to Islamic values. The pilgrimage to Mecca—the location of the Kaaba—serves to remind Muslims of the roots of their heritage.

Muhammad also altered Arabian society by preaching the existence of one God. While Christians and Jews believed in monotheism, Arabian tribes placed their faith in many deities. They built shrines to different gods, believing them responsible for such domains as fertility and victory in battle. Muhammad destroyed these temples and idols, cautioning Arabs against creating images of the divine being. Instead of seeking favors from the deities, Muslims prayed to God for spiritual reasons.

In addition, Muhammad introduced a code of ethics to his followers. The Qur'an calls for justice, compassion, and mercy for the poor and vulnerable. It also establishes rules to deal with conflict. Before Islam, clans typically created their own laws, with responsibilities and rights determined by patriarchs. Under Muslim rule, everyone had to follow certain modes of behavior. When settling feuds, for example, Muhammad encouraged members of families not to kill one another but to accept monetary compensation instead. If the family decided that they could only retaliate through bloodshed, the offended family could kill only the wrongdoer, not any other member of the family. This ruling provided a sense of security among families, as they knew that they did not have to fear mass vengeance for the misdeed of one person.

As well as taking steps to regulate criminal law, Muhammad imposed restrictions on financial transactions. The Qur'an prohibits the practice of collecting interest on loans and promotes fairness in business dealings and contractual agreements. Many schools of law emerged from Islamic doctrine, and the justice system of many Muslim countries relies heavily on the Qur'an and hadith.

Influence on the Family.

Muhammad's teaching altered family life as well as Muslim society. Before Islam, families were highly patriarchal. Male heads of families arranged marriages to suit their interests rather than the wishes of the married couple. Women had inferior status and typically could not own property. Family life, however, varied considerably from group to group. In some tribes, women practiced polyandry (the practice of taking more than one husband). In others, men had multiple wives who either lived together or in different tribes, receiving visits from the husband on a rotating basis. These various structures created a fragmented society, which Muhammad tried to unite.

The Qur'an outlaws marriage between close relations and discourages divorce. It views the husband as the head of the household but insists on the dignity and full humanity of women. It limits polygyny to special cases and commands men to treat their wives fairly. It encourages harmonious, respectful relations between husband and wife. The Qur'an also gives women property and inheritance rights and enables them to receive support from their husband for a limited time after a divorce.

Issues for Biographers

Biographies of Muhammad have appeared in all languages, in both poetry and prose. Because of the prohibition against religious idolatry, there are few images of the Prophet. A biographical movie, The Messenger, was released in Lebanon in 1976 and approved by religious authorities. Made without shots of Muhammad or the sound of his voice, the film presents his story through the action and dialogue of his followers.

Most Muslims, however, learn about the Prophet through celebrations, such as Mawlid (Muhammad's birthday), and the commemoration of the Night Journey and the Ascension. On such occasions, Muslims express the virtues of the Prophet through prose, poetry, recitation of the Qur'an, and ritual movement.

Accuracy of Sources.

Scholars writing the life of Muhammad confront a host of difficult issues. They must decide how to portray the Prophet and how to evaluate his actions. They face the task of sifting through a wide selection of materials to find accurate sources. They also have the chore of determining which stories constitute legend and which convey facts.

Many scholars suspect certain hadiths to have developed long after Muhammad's death. In order to promote certain political or religious agendas, some people may have written fictitious accounts of the Prophet. Biographers try to select only those stories that have a solid chain of transmission and that originate from reputable sources. The hadith collector al-Bukhari, for example, chose a mere 7,275 accounts from over 600,000. Muslims group biographies about Muhammad into two types: historical and narrative accounts (sirah), and anecdotal accounts illustrating correct thought or behavior (sunnah). The sirah serve as a major source for modern biographers, and the sunnah developed as the basis for Islamic law.

The Muslim writer Muhammad ibn Ishaq (died 767 ) created a sirah that became a base for all later biographies of the Prophet. It starts with the creation of the world and chronicles its history up to the time of Muhammad, demonstrating how Muhammad's life served as the fulfillment of the divine mission. It compares the Prophet to holy men in Christian and Jewish traditions. A shorter summary of this work, edited by Ibn Hisham (died ca. 827 ), became the standard biography that is widely used in the Islamic world.

Varying Interpretations.

The Prophet represents different things to different people. Some Muslims view him as an arbiter of divine law. Others see him as a mystic, philosopher, conqueror, or ruler. Until recently, Western authors have held critical views of Muhammad.

During the 1800s, a new trend emerged in Islamic scholarship. Certain Muslims, attracted to Western values, wrote biographies depicting Muhammad as embodying the ideals of modern civilization. Muslims view Muhammad as a model of Islamic behavior, showing how life can be lived in accord with God's revelation. See also A'ishah ; Islam: Overview; Judaism and Islam; Khadija ; Qur'an; Women and the Qur'an.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2022. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice