Muhammad Abdalla Abdul-Mutalib was born inMeccain 570 AD. His father died before his birth and when he was six his mother died in his presence after a brief illness. His grandfather took him in, but also died two years later, after which a poor uncle with several other children took over his care. Soon Muhammad would take work as a shepherd, spending days on end in the desert. He once said, “God sent no prophet who was not a shepherd.” He had no formal education and was illiterate. However, he often sat with the elders of Mecca and when there were public disputes he was a fine arbitrator whose opinion was heeded.
His society was a wealthy trading center and touristic destination. However, drunkenness, gambling and promiscuity were rampant. Women were degraded and exploited sexually, being regarded as property. Slavery was practiced, and the poor and helpless were denied basic rights. Gang warfare was widespread, with rivals fighting for booty, revenge and sport. Idol worship was common, and the religious customs and rituals had no basis in scripture. However, Muhammad was a firm believer in God and despised the idol worship, lawlessness and decadence of his community. Instead of spending his time partying, fighting and gambling like his peers, he tended to the needs of the sick, poor and helpless in his community. At the age of 15, he participated in an alliance among Meccan tribes to maintain peace in the city, suppress violence and injustice, and protect and care for the weak and destitute.
His first profession was as a businessman. At the age of 12 he accompanied his uncle on a caravan trip toSyria. At 24, he made his second trip toSyriaas an agent. Soon he had a reputation as conscientious and intelligent trader and was nicknamed “al-Sadiq” (the truthful one) and “al-Ameen” (the trustworthy one) due to his honesty and integrity. He was hired by a wealthy widow and mother of three to handle her business. Impressed by his ability, ethics and morals, she soon proposed marriage, and he accepted. In their 25 years of marriage, they had six children, two of whom died in infancy. Muhammad spent much of his earnings caring for the needy in the community. When asked what actions are most excellent, he replied, “To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the sufferings of the injured.”
As he approached 40, he spent more and more time in seclusion, praying and pondering on how to reform the corruption, misery and evil of his time. His prophethood began during a retreat in a cave in Hira Mountain two miles outside ofMecca, when he was visited by the archangel Gabriel and received the first revelation. Shaken and afraid, he rushed home and related his extraordinary experience to his wife, who said, “God will never disgrace you! You keep family ties, you help the weak, you serve the guest, you support the destitute and you help those in trouble.” She was the first to believe in his mission and message.
There were three distinct phases of his prophethood: during the first three years he preached discreetly to trusted friends and relatives; in the following ten years he preached publicly in Mecca in the face of ridicule, persecution, assault, boycotts and assassination attempts; during the last ten years he settled in Medina where he established a community that lived according to the Quran, defended itself, made treaties with neighboring tribes, attracted delegations from throughout the region, and peacefully united the peninsula.
Muhammad had a very simple lifestyle, caring little for worldly comforts. He rarely ate alone, and shared what little he had with others. He was generous and never turned down anyone’s request for help or material things. If asked for any of his possessions, he gave it. If he had nothing to give, he allowed the petitioner to take a loan in his name. If he was needy, he was offered loans, as his reputation for repaying them was flawless. He was mild mannered, never raising his voice or hand in anger or taking revenge for personal grievances. He prayed for those who persecuted him and his fellow Muslims.
He had several major roles in the community. As a prophet, he served as a conduit of divine revelation and ensured its correct transcription. He restored the pure monotheistic faith of Abraham, explained God’s commandments and demonstrated their practical application in personal and communal life. As an educator, he taught people on variety of subjects such as law, hygiene, family life and social relations. He encouraged literacy and arranged for education in his community. When asked, “Who are the learned?” he replied, “Those who practice what they know.”
As a social activist, he fed the hungry and encouraged others to do so. He carried the loads of the weak and gave loans to the needy. He promoted cooperation and goodwill in the community, saying, “Do you know what is better than charity, fasting and prayer? Keeping peace and good relations between people…” He cared for many widows and orphans, and supported women’s rights, especially financial independence, choice and dignity. He was an abolitionist who bought many slaves in order to set them free, and encouraged others to do so. He supported laborers and counseled people to “pay the worker his wage before his sweat dries.” He said, “The best among people are those who benefit mankind” and “One who meets with others and shares their burdens is better than one who lives a life of seclusion and contemplation.”
As a leader, he diplomatically mended relations with warring tribes and unified the Arabian Peninsula. He was a commander in chief who defended Medina from several attacks despite great odds. As a head of state, he dictated the Medina constitution, one of the earliest constitutions ever written. He was so renowned for his justice that even Jews brought their suits to him to judge in accordance to their law.
His greatest achievements are that he related the Quran and ensured its correct transcription as it was revealed to him. He established a community that lived by the Quran and inspired generations of Muslims with his teachings and exemplary behavior. He is quoted in thousands of prophetic traditions that are second in authority only to the Quran. He is mentioned four times in the Quran by name: “Muhammad is the messenger of God…” (48:29) “Muhammad is only a messenger. Other messengers have passed on before him…” (3:144) “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the messenger of God and the last of the prophets…” (33:40) “As for those who believe, do righteous deeds and believe in what has been sent down upon Muhammad – and it is the truth from their Lord – He will remove from them their misdeeds and amend their condition.” (47:2) Muhammad is addressed in the Quran with: “And We sent you as a messenger to [instruct] mankind.” (4:79) “And truly you (stand) on an exalted standard of character. (68:4) Finally, many verses start with “say” as instructions to him on how to address the people. For example, chapter 112, which Muhammad said is worth one-third of the Quran, commands:
Say (O Muhammad): ‘He is God [Who is] One, God, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is born, nor is there anything comparable to Him.’ (112:1-4)