Dr. Susmit Kumar

Muhammad’s life can be divided into three parts. In Mecca, he attacked polytheism and preached monotheism. But when he felt threatened, he went to Medina. In Medina he fought against the enemies of Islam and delineated Islamic principles for dealing with military conflict and other religions. Finally, after victory over the Meccans, he became head of state and formed the nucleus of the Islamic Empire.

Muhammad in Mecca

Muhammad was born in Mecca around A.D. 570 to a poor family of the Banu Hashim clan, one of the branches of the Quraysh tribe. His father died before Muhammad was born and his mother died when he was six years old. When Muhammad was about 25, he married a wealthy, 40-year-old Qurayshite widow for whom he was working. It is said that while meditating in a cave in 610, he received his first divine revelation, when he was 40.

For three years after the first revelations, Muhammad initially confined them to his friends and family members only. He preached the unity of God. His wife, Khadija, was the first to accept Islam, followed by Ali (Muhammad's cousin and future son-in-law), his slave Zayd, and his close friend Abu Bakr. Later on Ali and Abu Bakr became caliphs, the Prophet’s successors as leaders of the Muslims. Ali would eventually marry Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, and had two sons, Hasan and Husayn; he also founded the Shiite sect of Islam.

Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s first phase of revelation is worth quoting:

“He [the Angel Gabriel] came to me,” said the apostle of God, “while I was asleep, with a coverlet of brocade whereon was some writing and said ‘Read’ three times, so I read it and he departed from me.  And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart.”[1]

After three years of rather quiet and earnest preaching in Mecca, Muhammad succeeded in converting 30 individuals, most of them from the deprived classes.[2]

During this private period, he wrote verses that were short and simple, in marked contrast to later stages of his life when the verses and suras [series] became longer and more complex.  During the first stage of revelation, 22 suras containing 344 verses were compiled, none of which contain any language indicating he was a rasul (messenger) or nabi (messenger), and no indication that the birth of a new religion was imminent.  In the second stage, there were 26 suras with 849 verses; these, for the first time, vaguely mentioned the prophecy. Thus Muhammad shyly pronounced his mission without giving it precise form.  In the third stage he referred the disbelievers to the Final Judgement.[3] His revelations offered no major religious innovations, no revolutionary ideas, and in general nothing shocking. Consequently, there can be little doubt that “Muhammad never thought he had brought anything fundamentally new; he merely brought something new to his people.”[4]

After three years of revelations, Muhammad started spreading his monotheism publicly. This hurt the Qurayshites financially, however, because their economy was based on pilgrimage to Ka’ba by other tribes to worship their pagan gods. Because his clan was protecting him, he avoided possible retaliation, but one of his nine uncles, Abu Lahab, and his wife, Umm Jamil, mocked and harassed him constantly. Muhammad revealed this sura about his fate: “The power of Abu Lahab will perish and he will perish. His wealth and gains will not exempt him. He will be plunged into flaming fire, and his wife, the wood carrier, will have upon her neck a halter of palm fiber.” (Sura 111)[5]

Muhammad later sent some of his followers, who generally did not have any protection in Mecca, to Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), which was ruled by a Christian king, the Negus. Muhammad’s daughter Ruqayyah and her husband, Uthman ibn Affan, were in the group of Muslims who went on this mission.

Muhammad even went knocking from door to door or following people to preach his message,[6] but his words had no effect. Then, in order to please the Quraysh, he praised their three female idols—al-Uzza, al-Manat, and al-Lat (Quran 53:19-20)—though later on he claimed that these two verses had been inspired by “Satan”. When author Salman Rushdie wrote his famous book The Satanic Verses on this incident, the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in 1989, condemning him to death.

After the death of Abu Talib, the shaykh and Muhammad’s uncle, Muhammad’s situation became desperate. Although Abu Talib had followed polytheism, he had always protected his nephew. After his death, his brother, Abu Lahab, became the shaykh, and withdrew his protection after he asked Muhammad whether his grandfather, a non-Muslim from before the Prophet’s time, was in hell, and Muhammad had said that he was.[7] The Qurayshites subsequently felt free to harass Muhammad. Once a person even threw a sheep’s uterus at him. It proved impossible for him and his few converts to defend themselves.

He then tried to move to Taif, about 60 miles east of Mecca. He went there alone, but was rejected, hooted at, and, soon after arrival, expelled from the town, lucky to escape alive.[8]

Shortly afterwards, his wife, Khadija, died. Muhammad then took another wife by the name of Sauda. At the same time, he showed affection for A’isha, who was six or nine years old, and was the young daughter of Abu Bakr.[9] He married her about three years later.

In the meantime, he met up with people from Yathrib (later called Madinat an-Nabi, the city of the Prophet, or simply Medina) who had come to Mecca on the annual pilgrimage. In Yathrib, the two largest tribes, the Banu Aws and the Banu Khazraj, had been fighting each other for a long time. They invited him there thinking that he would bring peace. In about 13 years in Mecca, he delivered 92 short suras.

Muhammad in Medina

Muhammad arrived in Medina on September 24, 622. This year became the first year of the Muslim calendar, A.H. 1 (After Hijra – Hijrah is an Arabic word means migration). The 150 Meccan converts who accompanied him were called the “companions”, “emigrants” or muhajirun (“those who have made the Hijra”), and the Yathrib converts were called ansar, or “helpers.”

In order to earn their livelihood, the companions started raiding Meccan caravans.  Muhammad subsequently issued Quran verse 8:41, which required that khums (an Islamic tax of one-fifth of the value of certain items a person acquires like spoils of war or profit) be given him for Allah. He prepared a document, the Constitution of Medina, which committed Jewish and Muslim tribes to mutual cooperation. Based on this apparent friendship, Muslims adopted several Jewish practices—fasting on the 10th day of the first month (the Day of Atonement), facing Jerusalem in worship, and using the trumpet to call people to prayer.

At first the apostle thought of using a trumpet like that of the Jews, who use it to summon to prayer. Afterwards, he disliked the idea and ordered a clapper to be made, so it was duly fashioned to be beaten when the Muslims should pray.[10]

The first mosque in Medina was constructed in 623 with brick, and in the northern wall facing Jerusalem it had a niche surrounded by stone marking the qibla, the direction of prayer.[11]

This custom changed when Abdullah b. Zayd suggested that a singing voice would be appropriate, and Muhammad called on Bilal, an African slave turned Muslim, to do this. But Jews continued to criticize Muhammad and his Quranic verses, claiming that these contained errors and false statements, which proved that God had not authored them.[12] In response, Muhammad claimed that Jewish and Christian scriptures contained false statements of their own and that the Quran was accurate. During this period, several Quranic verses (the second sura of the Quran, the sura of the cow) were issued dealing only with Jews and hypocrites.[13] After about 18 months in Medina, Muhammad ordered a change of qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca, toward the Ka’ba. He made this change because of a statement by Jews that, “The apostle and his followers did not know the qibla until we showed them.” Hence God revealed a verse to change the qibla.[14]

In the Battle of Badr against the Qurayshites in March 624, the Muslim army, led by Muhammad, captured 70 Meccans, including Abu Jahl, and 70 Meccans were killed.[15] Some thoughts were given to putting all prisoners to death, although Abu Bakr pressed for mercy. Thence came another message: “Leave to Muhammad the choice of either slaying them or demanding a ransom.” Abu Jahl was beheaded; Muhammad said: “The head of His enemy is better to me than the best camel in all Arabia.” Muhammad took a fifth of the booty as his share.[16]

After the Battle of Badr, Muhammad’s agreement with Jewish tribe of the Banu Qaynuqa broke down over a fight between a Jewish goldsmith and a Muslim that led to revenge killings. He then formulated verses in suras 3 and 5 against them and besieged their tribe for 15 days before they surrendered. Muhammad ordered their executions, but Abdullah ibn Ubayy appealed for mercy. They were subsequently exiled to the north, their removable assets distributed among the Muslim forces, and their land confiscated. Tabari reports that Muhammad’s fierce anger was followed in later years by the order, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.”[17]

A year later, in March 625, 3,000 Meccan men defeated 1,000 Muslims in the Battle of Uhud and killed several Muslims, including Muhammad’s uncle, Hamza. Muhammad suffered broken teeth and a face injury in the battle. When Muhammad saw the mutilated body of Hamza, he said, “If Allah gives me victory over the Qurayshiites at any time, I will mutilate 30 of their men.”[18]

Because of the number of Muslims killed in this battle, Muhammad provided guidance for dealing with the widows and orphans of the slain, the only verse that deals explicitly with polygamy. It states, “And if you fear that you will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) …” (Quran 4:3).

To restore their confidence after the Battle of Uhud, Muhammad promulgated about 60 verses of the sura “Umran”. One went, “Allah ordained this only as a message of good cheer for you, and that thereby your hearts might be at rest. Victory cometh only from Allah, the Mighty, the Wise” (3:126). Other verses blamed some of the fighters who had abandoned their posts in order to collect valuable goods.[19]

A chief of one of Medina’s Jewish Banu Nadir tribes, Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, who was also a poet, had written erotic poetry about Muslim women and poems praising the Quraishites after the battle. Muhammad considered this a violation of the Constitution of Medina and had al-Ashraf killed. The Banu Nadir also challenged Muhammad as leader of Medina. He subsequently besieged their fortress, and after 14 days they were forced to leave the locale. With the expulsion of two Jewish tribes, the Banu Qaynuqa and the Banu Nadir, only one Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, was left in Medina.

Muslims continued to raid tribal caravans after the Battle of Uhud. In order to crush the Muslims, the Meccans forged an alliance with five other tribes and arrived at Medina with 10,000 men to fight the Muslim force of 3,000. On the advice of Salman-al-Farisi, a Persian slave turned Muslim, Muhammad’s followers decided to dig a defensive trench around the city and fill it with water. The Meccans had not seen this type of defensive trench before and withdrew without fighting. This was known as the Battle of the Trench, or Khandak. During the siege, the Meccans had an agreement with the Banu Qurayza to attack the defenders from behind the lines. After the Meccans departed, Muhammad besieged the Banu Qurayza strongholds, and they surrendered after 25 days. On the plea of the Banu Aus, old allies of the Banu Qurayza, Muhammad agreed to appoint of one of Banu Aus’ chiefs, Sa’ad ibn Mua’dh, judge to decide the fate of the Banu Qurayza tribe; he was on the verge of death due to wounds suffered during the siege. Ibn Sa’ad’s verdict was that all male members of the tribe were to be killed and the women and children taken prisoners. That was the end of the Jews in Medina.

Although issued more than a thousand years ago in far more primitive conditions, the Prophet’s penal codes are employed today. Two more stories in this regard might prove instructive. Once a few Muslims just outside Medina absconded with a herd of camels. Muhammad sent horsemen to bring them back. They were sentenced to have both their legs and arms cut off and their eyes put out. After the sentence was carried out, Muhammad felt he had been excessive. He then issued a verse that limited punishment to cutting off the hands.[20] Because of his statement about how to treat a captured enemy, however—his order to cut off the limbs and execute en masse —we are even now in modern times witnessing horrific incidents of soldiers being mutilated and the beheading of non-Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere.

A second story concerns extramarital relations. Once an allegation was made that his wife A’isha might have committed adultery. She was traveling with Muhammad and some of his followers and, according to her, she had left in the morning to find a lost necklace and when she returned, everyone had departed. Several hours later, she arrived with a man named Safwan ibn Al-Muattal to rejoin the caravan. This led to the allegation of adultery, and Ali urged Muhammad to divorce her. In what became part of the Quran, Muhammad then confirmed her innocence and mandated that charges of adultery be supported by four eyewitnesses; that adulterers be stoned to death; and that if four witnesses were not found, the accusers be punished by 40 lashes. Because of the accusation, A’isha came to hold a grudge against Ali. This later created a split in Islam, resulting in the creation of the Shiite sect.

Muhammad took four wives in one single year and 15 in all.[21] According to Yaqubi, an Islamic historian, the prophet took 21 or 23 wives.[22] An important incident regarding Muhammad and marriage occurred when Allah intervened to have him marry a certain woman. Zaynab, the wife of Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd, was 35 years old and very beautiful. Zayd was a Christian slave given to Muhammad by his wife Khadija. When on one occasion Muhammad went to Zayd’s house, he saw Zaynab, who was naked, from behind a thin curtain and was attracted to her. She heard Muhammad murmuring the words “Gracious Allah, good Lord who turns the heart.” Zaynab told the story to her husband. He went to Muhammad and agreed to divorce his wife for him. Muhammad, however, declined. Allah then intervened and Muhammad authored verse 33:37. It is said that when the Quranic verse about Zaynab was revealed, A’isha said to Muhammad, “Truly thy Lord makes haste to do thy pleasure.”[23] Muhammad married Zaynab after Zayd divorced her.

In 628, Muhammad decided to perform a hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, about which he had already spoken in verses 2:196-210. Muslim forces were inadequate to attack the Quraysh, but owing to declining trade the Quraysh also lacked the strength to face them in a battle. Hence, when Muhammad went with about 1,400 Muslims on hajj, the Quraysh sent emissaries to meet them outside Mecca. The result was a treaty, known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, under which they would not perform hajj that year; the two parties and their allies would desist from hostilities against each other; and Muslims were allowed to come the following year on hajj but would stay in Mecca for no more than three days.

In the meantime, Muhammad sent letters to several regional rulers, including Heraclius of the Byzantium, Chosroes of Persia, and the chief of Yemen, asking them to convert to Islam.

Muhammad’s Victory over Mecca and the Establishment of Islam

Two years after the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, the Quraysh attacked a tribe allied with Muslims that opposed the treaty. Hence, in 630, Muhammad decided to claim Mecca and assembled about 10,000 fighters to attack the town. Instead of fighting, however, the Quraysh surrendered and allowed Muhammad to claim Mecca for the Muslims. The Quraysh accepted Islam as their religion en masse, and Muhammad destroyed the idols inside the Ka’ba. Because of their experience, Muhammad appointed several Qurayshites to important positions.

After the fall of Mecca, the Thaqīf tribe of Taif, where Muhammad had been stoned about 10 years prior and barely left alive, came to fight the Muslims at Hunayn. Thereafter Muslims had unsuccessful siege of Taif, but after subsequent negotiations the Thaqīf also converted to Islam en masse. Muhammad then took the war to other neighboring areas. In one of these operations, he led 30,000 men on a one-month journey to Tubuk, a Christian settlement near Syria. As he was preparing for the raid on Tabuk, some of his men refused to join because of the heat and continuous fighting. From this occasion came verse 9:81: For those whose opinion differed from his, God promised punishment.[24]

When Muhammad reached Tabuk, its governor, Yuhana, agreed to a treaty and to paying a non-Muslim tax (jizya). Ejtehadi indicates that Tabuk was the first time the non-Muslim tax had been assigned. He adds that, besides paying the poll tax, non-Muslim subjects had to observe these 12 restrictions: [25]


  1. No malicious talk about the Quran (though the Quran was not yet a compiled book)
  2. No defaming of the Prophet
  3. No seeking after Muslim women
  4. No intentional misleading or taking possessions of Muslims
  5. No slanderous remarks about Islam
  6. No assistance to the enemies of Muslims
  7. The wearing of special clothing different from that of Muslims
  8. No building of houses near a Muslim neighborhood
  9. No sounding of church bells or reading of non-Islamic sacred books loudly in the presence of Muslims
  10. No drinking of wine in public or taking pigs into the market
  11. No praying for the dead, and burial of the dead away from the Muslim cemetery
  12. No riding of horses or carrying of weapons


The conquests of Mecca, Taif, Tabuk, and other important places in Arabia made it clear that Muhammad’s formidable army could conquer any neighbor. By sending him deputations from all directions, neighboring Arabs clearly demonstrated that they were more impressed by and apprehensive of him and his army than of his religion and the prospect of Hell.[26] Ibn Ishaq’s account corroborates this argument as to why the Arabs surrendered:

In deciding their attitude to Islam the Arabs were only waiting to see what happened to this clan of Quraysh and the apostle… and when Mecca was occupied and the Quraysh became subject to him and he subdued it to Islam, and the Arabs knew that they could not fight the apostle or display enmity towards him they entered into God’s religion in batches.[27]

On June 8, 632, Muhammad died in Medina. He had united the entire Arabian peninsula, previously fragmented by the clan system, under one religious umbrella. Within a century, his religion would create empires, spanning Spain to India.

1 Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad, The Life of Muhammad (Sirat al-Nabi), Oxford University Press, Calcutta, 1978, p. 106, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, The Emergence of Islam, Paragon House, New York, 1st Ed., 1992, pp 8-9.
2 Farah, Caesar E., op. cit., p. 41.
3 Caetani, Leone, Annali dell’ Islam, Vol. I, Milan, 1905-1907, pp. 208-210; referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 13.
4 Van Ess, Joseph and Hans, Kung, Christianity and the World Religions, Doubleday, New York, 1986, p. 13, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., pp. 13-14.
5 Vaziri, Mostafa, The Emergence of Islam, Paragon House, New York, 1st Ed., 1992, pp. 16-17.
6 Ja’farian, Rasul, Tarikh Siyasi Islam, Moassesseh Dar Rahe Hagh, Qum, 1987, pp. 37-38, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, ibid., p. 18.
7 Watt, Montgomery, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, Oxford University Press, London, 1964, p. 80, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 23.
8 Ibid., pp. 100-101, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 24.
9 Tabiri, Muhammad b. Jarir, Tarikh, IV, Rushdieh, Tehran, 1983-1985, p. 1291 and Ibn Athir, A. Ali, Al-Kamil, Vol. I, Ilmi Publisher, Tehran, n.d. 1960, p. 124 report that she was six years old; Mostaufi, Hamdollah, Tarikh Guzideh, Amir Kabir, Tehran, 1985, p. 140, says nine years., referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 24.
10 Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad, op. cit., pp. 235-236, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 32.
11 Armstrong, Karen, Muhammad A Biography of the Prophet, Harper San Francisco, New York, 1992, p. 156.
12 Watt, Montgomery, What is Islam?, 2nd ed., Longman, London, 1979, p. 102, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 32.
13 Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad, op. cit., pp. 239, 247, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 33.
14 Tabiri, Muhammad, op. cit., p. 942, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 33.
15 Al-Bukhari, Sahih, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 276,  http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithunnah/bukhari/052.sbt.html#004.052.276
16 Muir, William, The Life of Muhammad from Original Sources, Smith & Co., London, 1894, pp. 98-100, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 34.
17 Tabiri, Muhammad, op. cit., p. 1006, Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad, op. cit., p. 369, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 35.
18 Tabari VII:133/ Ishaq:38.
19 Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 36.
20 Muir, William, The Life of Muhammad from Original Sources, Smith & Co., London, 1894, p. 141, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 37.
21 Le Bon, Gustave, Civilization Islamique (Tamadon, Islam va Arab), Islamieh Books, Tehran, n.d., pp. 122-123, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 38.
22 Ya’qubi, Ahmad b. Ali (Ibn Wa’ez), Tarikh, 5th ed., Vol. I, Entesharat Ilmi va Farhangi, Tehran, 1987, p. 452, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 38.
23 Ibn Hanbal, Ahmad, Musnad, Vol. I, p. 63, quoted by Andrae, Tor, Mohammed: The man and his faith, Harper, New York, 1960, p. 154, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 40. (The Musnad of Ibn Hanbal is probably the first of the six books of hadíth considered authentic by Sunni Muslims)
24 Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad, op. cit., p. 603; Ibn Athir, A. Ali, Al-Kamil, Vol. I, Ilmi Publisher, Tehran, n.d. 1960, p. 337; Waqidi, Muhammad b. Umar, Al Moqazi, III, Center for University Printing, Tehran, 1982-1987, pp. 778-781, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 43.
25 Ejtehadi, Abolghasem, Vaze Mali va Malieh Muslemin, Soroush Publishers, Tehran, 1984, p. 189, referenced in Mostafa Vaziri, op. cit.,  p. 44.
26 Caetani, Leone, Annali dell’ Islam, Vol. II, Milan, 1905-1907, p. 432, referenced in Mostafa Vaziri, op. cit., p. 45.
27 Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad, op. cit., p. 628, Ibn Athir, A. Ali, op. cit., p. 349, referenced in Vaziri, Mostafa, op. cit., p. 45.

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