Muhammad, the son of an illustrious Arab family known for its religious accomplishments and political activities, was born in Mecca on Monday, the ninth of the month Rabi Awwal (April 20, A.D. 571), in the fifty-third year before the beginning of the Muslim Era. His father died before the child was born. When Muhammad lost his mother in his sixth year he was taken into the house of his grandfathers who foresaw for him a splendid future. The grandfather died two years later, leaving him to be cared for and educated by his uncle Abu Talib who had always shown a fatherly interest in him.The affectionate bond between the young lad and his uncle was so strong that he often traveled with him on caravan journeys. Tradition says that when he was twelve he accompanied his uncle on a commercial journey to Syria, where they met a Syrian monk called Bahira who recognized in the young man the characteristics of a prophet. He advised the uncle to take good care of Muhammad always, and to mistrust especially the Jews who might wish him ill if ever they learned of the prophetic mission he would be called to fulfill.
Muhammad spent his youth in humble circumstances, much of the time working as a shepherd. As he later pointed out, herding sheep was also the occupation of many other prophets, Moses and David in particular.
As a young man he distinguished himself by his refined manners, his extreme shyness, his absolute chastity, and his avoidance of the easy pleasures pursued by other young men of his community. All those who knew him showed complete confidence in him for he fully deserved the name by which he was called, al-Amin, which means the true and reliable one. When he was only twenty years old he was called to sit with the most venerable shaikhs of the Fudul league, an association which cared for the weak and helpless and sought to assure peace between the tribes.
At the age of twenty-five he married the rich and virtuous Khadijah, and in his married life he revealed to his family and the community his excellent human qualities. The trade which he carried on with his wife’s funds kept them in comfortable circumstances, but he used his resources only as a means of spreading happiness. For instance, in order to repay his uncle for having taken care of him in his youth, he took responsibility for the education of Abu Talib’s son, Ali.
Muhammad remained a faithful, loving husband during the quarter-century of his marriage to Khadijah, and after her death he was so fond of recalling the sweet memories of their married life that he caused not a little naive jealousy in his second marriage. He was an excellent father and grandfather, showing an ideal tenderness toward his children and grandchildren. He allowed them to hang on his neck or to mount on his back, even while he was praying; he interrupted his speeches in order to greet them and made them sit with him on his chair. Some Bedouins, seeing him kiss one of his grandchildren, said, “You kiss the children? We never do that.” To which the Prophet replied, “What can I do if God has deprived your hearts of all human feeling? God does not grant His mercy to those who are not merciful.” (al-Bukhari, Al Adab, Chapter 18).
His most famous action between the time of his marriage and his prophetic calling came when he was thirty-five years old. The sacred shrine in Mecca , the Kaba, was being rebuilt, and when the time came to place the Black Stone (the revered angular stone of the traditional monument), there was a furious competition among the Arab tribes for the honor of lifting it into position. The controversy was about to break out into a fight, with swords drawn, when Muhammad was seen to enter. The crowd started shouting, “al-Amin, al-Amin!” and all submitted to the arbitration of the true and reliable one. With his remarkable presence of mind and the impartiality which he always showed, Muhammad spread his coat on the ground, put the Black Stone on it, and asked the chiefs of the principal tribes to grasp the edges of the coat and together lift the stone to the required height. Then he took the stone and placed it with his own hands, thus resolving the dispute and restoring harmony among the tribes.
By this time Muhammad was physically, intellectually, and morally a mature person, endowed with those characteristics which made him a leader throughout the rest of his life. His figure was taller than average, solidly built, with a large chest and shoulders. He had a noble and always serene countenance, a large mouth with white, slightly separated teeth, black eyes set in a somewhat bloodshot background, a white, rosy skin, and black, wavy hair falling just below his ears. His walk was lively yet dignified. He wore simple clothes which were always clean and well-groomed.
He was very sober and normally restrained; he talked little, but always agreeably and with good humor. His sweet temperament and extreme delicacy would never allow him to force the pace of a conversation with anyone, nor would he ever show a desire to finish a discussion. He never withdrew his hand first from a handshake. While he was inflexible and impartial in applying justice to others, he was indulgent and yielding when his personal rights were involved.
When he later became sole master of the state he was not tempted by earthly wealth but remained as simple and frugal as he had always been, deliberately avoiding all luxury and pomp for his family as well as for himself. After his death his few possessions were not inherited by his relatives but were distributed among the poor.
In his fortieth year he approached the decisive event which wrought a complete change in his life and in the history of mankind.
The first sign of his prophetic vocation, according to his own words, was the discovery that everything which he dreamed happened in his waking hours precisely as he had foreseen it. After a time he felt a strong inclination to seek solitude and withdrew to Mount Hira , or the Mount of Light, north of Mecca . This was a spiritual withdrawal, broken only occasionally by visits to the town for food.
Muhammad received his first revelation on the seventeenth day of Ramadan (February, A.D. 610) in the thirteenth year before the beginning of the Muslim Era. This revelation took the form of a discussion between teacher and pupil, between the Archangel Gabriel and Muhammad.
“Read!” commanded Gabriel. “I am not of those who know how to read,” replied Muhammad. “Read!” Gabriel repeated. “What shall I read?” asked the astonished pupil. “Read!” insisted Gabriel. “But how shall I read?” asked the solitary hermit. The Archangel then recited the first five verses of Surah XCVI:
Read: In the name of thy Lord who createth,
Createth man from a clot.
Read: And thy Lord is the most Bounteous,
Who teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.
This is the first fragment of the Qur’an. The Angel then disappeared and Muhammad, completely overcome, was starting to leave the grotto when he heard a voice calling to him. He lifted up his head and saw the Angel filling all the horizon in its immensity, and heard the Angel tell him, “O Muhammad: Really, you are the messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.” After that, Muhammad saw nothing else.
When he reached home he told Khadijah of these happenings and expressed his fears. His devoted wife reassured him with wise and consoling words, “No,” she said, “do not worry. God would surely not do you any harm, nor heap shame upon you, for you have never done harm. You always speak the truth, you help the feeble, you always assist those who suffer for a just cause.” To comfort him further she accompanied him on a visit to her cousin, Waraqa Ibn Nawfal, who said to him, “This is good news which should fill you with rejoicing. I declare that you are the prophet announced by Jesus. Oh, that I could live until your countrymen will chase you, Muhammad, from your country.” “How is it,” cried Muhammad, “that they will chase me from here?” “Of course,” replied Waraqa, “never has a man brought his fellow-men what you brought with you without becoming the object of persecution and hostility.”
Muhammad often returned to the grotto where he had received his first message to seek another revelation. He placed himself in the same condition, he walked the mountains, he turned his eyes in all directions. Days passed, weeks went by, month followed month, one year was gone, another began, and according to the account of al-Cha’bi even a third year came without another revelation. His only comfort was that each time when he felt himself on the brink of despair he heard, “O Muhammad, you are the messenger of God, and I am Gabriel,” but without hearing the message he so ardently expected.
By this time Muhammad was forty-three years old. He continued to wake up almost every night in the hope of hearing this “heavy and grave” promised word. Each year he withdrew to Mount Hira in the month of Ramadan. Finally one day, when he had finished his retreat and was descending to the town, he heard someone calling him. He looked around, to the right, to the left, and behind him, but saw no one. Then he lifted his eyes toward heaven and recognized the Angel whom he had seen at Mount Hira. The suddenness of the apparition, the majestic immensity of the heavenly being, struck him so strongly that he could not remain standing. The sublime visitor then gave him the decree which invested him with his second responsibility: “Oh you, who cover yourself carefully, get up, and spread your announcement” (Surah LXXIV, 1-2).
Thus Muhammad must not only receive his divine knowledge, he must also transmit it to the people. To his role of Prophet was added that of Apostle.
After this second message, the revelations succeeded each other without the long interruption which came between the first and second.
Muhammad’s career as the Messenger of Islam lasted for twenty years, with ten years in Mecca before the Hijrah (the move from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622, which is the starting date for the Muslim Era) and ten years at Medina before his death.
He began his preaching in Mecca by discreetly speaking only in his most intimate circles. Abu Bakr was the first man to be converted to Islam and Khadijah the first woman; All was the first young man. The first foreigners were Zaid Ibn Haritha, the Yemenite; Bilal Ibn Rabah, the Abyssinian; and Sohaib Ibn Sinan, the Roman. Islam spread slowly in Mecca, privately at first, and then, in the tenth year before the Hijrah the calling to Islam became public. At first it was kind and courteous and evoked no animosity among the unbelieving. But when the message became reproachful of paganism the Arabs rose in opposition and showed their hatred.
The opposition of the Arabs was at first directed mainly toward the Prophet. It was relatively mild toward those of his believers who had a distinguished family or tribal position, but tended to be cruel toward the humble and the powerless. Therefore, in the middle of the ninth year before the Hijrah the Prophet allowed eleven men and four women to seek refuge with the King of Abyssinia, who received them well and was himself converted to Islam. By the beginning of the eighth year before the Hijrah there were scarcely forty men and about ten women who were Muslims in Mecca, and they met in secret. The conversion of such important people as Hamzah and Umar in this year gave such strong support and encouragement to the followers that they were able to say their prayers openly near the Kaba, and the new religion began to spread more rapidly.
This new growth of Islam aroused the unbelieving to redouble their violence and persecutions and in the seventh year before the Hijrah a second contingent of refugees, eighty-three men and eighteen women, emigrated to Abyssinia. The Prophet himself became the target of a conspiracy but was protected by the two family branches most closely related to him, the Bani Hashim and the Bani al-Muttalib, who rallied around him in the Hashimid quarter. The other branches and tribes thereupon banded together in opposition and took a written oath to boycott the protecting quarters until Muhammad was handed over to them. They maintained their severe boycott for three years, abandoning it in the fourth year before the Hijrah.
The ending of the boycott would have been a great relief to the Prophet if it had not been that just at this time he suffered two cruel losses: the death of his uncle Abu Talib and shortly afterward the death of his wife Khadijah. The Prophet calls this year “the year of suffering.” Having become a widower without the consoling intimacy of a wife, he married Sawdah, a courageous believer whose suffering during the persecution and emigration had just been crowned by the loss of her husband after their return from Abyssinia. Accordingly, this marriage must be considered more a compensation for her than for him.
When Muhammad lost the support which his uncle afforded him in Mecca, he left the town to look elsewhere for allies and adherents. He spent ten unsuccessful days with the tribe of Thaqif, at at-Ta’if, but he was received badly and returned disappointed to Mecca to devote his proselytizing efforts to the pilgrims’ encampment at the Kaba. Toward the end of the third year before the Hijrah he saw a faint hope in six men from Medina. These good men, who had heard the message of the Prophet during a brief encounter at Mina, responded enthusiastically to his appeal and carried the holy message to Medina where they made many converts.
Toward the end of the following year, the second before the Hijrah, five of those men from Medina with seven new converts visited the Prophet and took an oath to abstain from any polytheistic cult, from all vices, and to observe strict discipline. A year later, seventy-five men from Medina came to swear allegiance, confess their faith, and declare their submission. They also promised to defend the Prophet and their Muslim brothers if they should choose Medina as their refuge. This represents the first defense treaty in Islamic history.
Immediately after receiving this promise from the men of Medina the Prophet authorized and even obliged those men among his followers who had sufficient means to settle in Medina with their new brothers. Those who insisted upon remaining in Mecca without valid reason were to be regarded as hypocrites. But the Prophet himself did not hasten to leave his post and join the community of his faithful followers. He awaited an express authorization by revelation, an authorization which came after three months, on the day before the unfaithful had planned to carry out a plot against him.
Before the Hijrah, when Muhammad joined his followers in Medina, the Muslims did not form a nation or even a community; they did not even have a majority in Mecca. In Mecca they occupied no post of authority. They could not make a solemn call to prayer or come together for a public gathering. In Medina, however, Muslims could settle openly and Islam could develop. Communal prayer was observed solemnly even before the arrival of the Prophet. The day after his arrival in Medina the Prophet assumed full authority, started forming the state, and began the building of the great mosque.
Muhammad’s authority in Medina was of an entirely new and original kind: it was at the same time absolute and consultative, theocratic and socialist. It was religious and absolute in its framework, based on revealed commandments and general rules, but socialistic and consultative in the details and the application of the rules.
The Muslim state which the Prophet created in Medina remains the model of every Muslim state worthy of the name. It is unique in human history, for although this Muslim state was fundamentally religious, it established two principles which are not found elsewhere except in a nonreligious state or in a religion which has no state government associated with it. The first is the principle of freedom of religion, a freedom which the Muslim state not only admits and authorizes but must even defend and guarantee. The second is the principle which defines the idea of fatherland or nation in the most tolerant and human sense, a principle which guarantees equality of rights and national duties for those of all races, colors, languages, and ideologies existing in the country.
The first year and a half after the Hijrah were entirely devoted to purely pacific and constructive activities, to the development of religious and social institutions such as fasting, almsgiving, fraternization of the immigrants with the original inhabitants, agreements between tribes, and the like. Thus far nothing suggested the use of force. It was only because they wanted to be indemnified for the loss of their houses and worldly goods, which had been left behind in the hands of their enemies in Mecca, and because they wanted to put an end to the persecution and violence which the enemies were inflicting upon their brethren in Mecca that the Muslims tried several times, unsuccessfully, to intercept enemy caravans passing near Medina.
In Ramadan of the second year after the Hijrah the pagans reacted to these fruitless attempts to intercept the caravans by declaring an offensive against Medina. The Muslims thereupon sought to defend themselves, in a rather improvised manner, and although inferior in numbers and weapons they obtained a decisive victory. In the month of Shawwal in the third year the Meccans took their revenge, and for the next few years actions and counteractions followed until in the sixth year a ten-year truce was concluded. This truce was very favorable for the growth of Islam. Not only did it spread among the Arabs of the Hijaz , the western side of the Arabian peninsula , who were in frequent contact with the Muslims, but during this time the Prophet sent his messages and messengers to the Roman Emperor Heraclios, and to the kings and princes in Persia , Egypt , Bahrein, and Yemen .
In the year A.H. 8 the Meccans broke the truce, and this time the Prophet marched victoriously into the capital. The indulgent and merciful character of the Prophet, which he had always shown, was clear to all the people of Mecca after this conquest when, without repressive action or loss of life, he generously pardoned all his former persecutors. The conversion and submission of the whole Arab peninsula came soon after the conquest of Mecca, but in the northern part of the peninsula the Romans (Byzantines) prepared themselves for a strong attack against the young religion. In A.H. 9 the Prophet himself led an expedition as far as Tabouk (halfway between Medina and Damascus) which made the Romans renounce their enterprise. When the Prophet returned to Medina he had concluded non-aggression treaties with the neighboring countries to the north.
It was also in the ninth year of the Hijrah that the Prophet ordered Abu Bakr, his closest disciple, to lead the pilgrims to Mecca and to proclaim that the approach to the Kaba from that time onward was to be forbidden to all pagans and polytheists.
In the tenth year after the Hijrah the pilgrimage to Mecca was led by the Prophet himself. This is known as the “farewell pilgrimage,” during which the Prophet received the divine message that his mission was fulfilled and foresaw that the end of his life was near. “This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favor unto you, and have approved for you as religion AL-ISLAM” (Surah V, 3).
Those who heard his sermon on Arafa day in the tenth year recognized that they were hearing his last will and testament. With great emphasis he reminded all human beings of their brotherly love, their common origin, their equality without distinction except by means of virtue. With clear authority he commanded respect for the person, the family, and for property. With kindly compassion he recommended gentleness toward women. With great vision he enjoined his listeners to retain and transmit his message to all those who have not heard it, for, he said, “Who knows? Maybe I shall not see you again after this year.” Finally, addressing himself to the pilgrims who had come from all the surroundings countries in such numbers that they reached the horizon and spread over all the desert, he said, “God will ask you about me: did I transmit to you His message?” “Yes! Yes!” Thereupon, looking toward heaven and pointing his fingers, Muhammad prayed in a loud voice, “My God, be witness.”
Less than three months after this sermon, on the twelfth day of Rabi Awwal, A.H. 11 (June 7, A.D. 632), Muhammad’s soul returned to his eternal resting place.
The question of miracles in relation to Muhammad has often been debated. Did he perform miracles other than the Qur’an?
The Qur’an, revealed to the world by the voice of Muhammad, is a miracle , yes, rather THE Miracle. Everything proves it: its style, its contents, the extraordinary events by which it was revealed, taught, and written down; its constant conformity with past, present, and future truth; its transcendent character which never shows a trace of a particular man, of any one society or epoch of history or specific region of the globe. The Qur’an is not a passing event in history which appears one day and disappears the next, to be known only by more or less correct hearsay reports. No, it is a fact, stable and durable, which remains unchanged and eternally present for the admiring contemplation of all men.
The Qur’an is not a temporary wonder which deceives the mind and is alien to the new knowledge which it has come to influence. It is the truth, the truth which proves itself, and while it appeals to reason it transcends reason and thus shows its divine origin.
The recognition of the Qur’an as THE Miracle does not diminish the value of other material and tangible miracles, known through our senses. These miracles, too, can very well bring us conviction; they are often the best means to reinforce our faith. That is why our earlier prophets have performed miracles.
Was it the same with the Prophet of Islam? Has he performed miracles other than the transmission of the Qur’an?
There are current tendencies toward answering in the negative, pretending to find proof in the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an, it is said, tells us that the Prophet Muhammad systematically refused to satisfy those who asked him to produce miracles.
And they say: We will not put faith in thee till thou
cause a spring to gush forth from the earth for us;
Or thou have a garden of date-palms and grapes, and
cause flyers to gush forth therein abundantly …
Or thou have a house of gold; or thou ascend up into
heaven, and even then we will put no faith in thine
ascension till thou bring down for us
a book that we can read. (Surah XVII, 90-93)
And they say: Why are not signs sent down upon him
from his Lord? Say: Signs are with Allah only,
and I am but a plain warner.
Is it not enough for them that We have sent down unto
thee the Scripture which is read unto them?
Lo! herein verily is mercy, and a reminder for
folk who believe. (Surah XXIX, 50-51)
At the basis of the theory that the Prophet refused to perform miracles we find a grave misinterpretation, not only of the meaning of these quotations, but more so of the Islamic conception of the author of miracles in general. In those quotations the possibility of a miracle is not denied. Rather, they point out that miracles come from the supreme authority which alone is capable of any form of creation, and above all of creating supernatural things. It is a matter of demarking the frontier which separates human and divine power. The man is not yet possessed of the true Islamic faith who confounds those two powers, believing that the prophets themselves created their miracles. For the prophets are only human; they cannot overcome physical laws nor can they overcome the laws of the mind. God alone does so, if and when He wants to, in order to prove the divine origins of the message which the prophets transmit.
Therefore, it was not Moses who transformed the stick into a living snake, for this transmutation took place to his great surprise. It was not Jesus, either, who by his own power revived the dead; he did it only by the authority of the Lord. And when he refused the demands of those who once asked him to produce a sign from heaven, does this mean that he no longer performed miracles? Evidently not!
It is the same with Muhammad in his refusal to comply with certain pagan requests. The answer with which he avowed his own incapability to perform miracles is the same which he gave concerning the Qur’an. It is not Muhammad who is the author of the Qur’an, but it is “the faithful spirit”; it is the Archangel Gabriel who, on God’s command, brought the Qur’an down from heaven and deposited it in Muhammad’s heart so that it may guide and rejoice those who believe in it. Not only could Muhammad not modify an iota of it, he did not even expect to be its bearer and was not sure that he would continue to receive it.
Thus no miracles, material or spiritual, are of human origin, for all are exclusively within God’s domain and competence. All prophets have avowed that they are subject to the same limitations. Neither they nor the people to whom they were sent could demand a certain miracle or substitute one miracle for another according to their preferences. God gives His mandate to whomsoever He wills, in the form which He deems proper to persuade any epoch of history or any age of humanity. To each epoch its book. To each people, its guide.
And verily We sent messengers (to mankind) before thee,
and We appointed for them wives and offspring,
and it was not (given) to any messenger that he should
bring a sign save by Allah’s leave.
To each epoch, its book.
(Surah XIII, 38)
In Islamic terminology a miracle is most often defined as a fact contrary to general rules, opposed to the normal course of events, with a cause which escapes human comprehension; and this fact is also a challenge to anyone who doubts it. Now the only fact which most obviously fulfills all these conditions is, of course, the Qur’an, which repeatedly and in many ways cries out its challenge to all beings visible and invisible and predicts their impotence to prove that it is not the miraculous message of God. It invites them first to imitate its text in its entirety, then to create ten Surahs similar to those in the Qur’an or to create but a single similar Surah, and finally asks but for a Surah only slightly resembling one in the Qur’an.
The question as to whether or not the Prophet performed any miracle other than the revelation of the Qur’an thus depends on the definition of a miracle. If it is required that such a challenge must have been explicitly expressed, then it must be said that in Islam there has been no miracle other than the Qur’an. But once we eliminate the arbitrary stipulation that the challenge must have been expressed, we find an uncountable number of miracles performed by the Prophet.
Some of those miracles are mentioned in the Qur’an itself:
The Prophet’s journey made by supernatural means from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single moment of the night; a journey during which he saw many divine signs, and distinguished clearly all topographical details of the place, details which he later described, to the surprise of all (Surah XVII, 1).
The prediction of a cleavage on the surface of the moon, a celestial phenomenon which indeed took place immediately in the presence of the crowd of people he was addressing and which was observed and confirmed by travelers (Surah LIV, z). The miraculous victory over the army of his enemies which was accomplished by a small number of faithful, poorly armed followers, but men who were assisted by divine power (Surah VIII, 17).
The fact that the society in Medina, which had been divided and eaten by hatred and civil war for dozens of years, became overnight a united group of intimate friends , a sudden change of mind which could not have been accomplished by earthly forces (Surah III, 103; VIII, 63).
The revelation by the Prophet of secret facts which had been carefully hidden from his knowledge (Surah IV, 113; LXVI, 3). Innumerable predictions fulfilled, such as the announcement of the precise date of a coming victory of the Romans over the Persians (Surah XXX, 2-6).
Also innumerable truthful reports of historic facts which were unknown to him and his people (Surah XI, 49; XII, 102; XXVIII, 44-46).
Among other miracles not mentioned in the Qur’an only a few can be cited here. The knowledge of these miracles, performed publicly by the Prophet, has been transmitted from generation to generation by reporters who have been identified and are known to be trustworthy historians. These examples are taken from the first chapter of al-Bukhari’s Alamate El Noboua:
The prediction that the Roman and Persian empires would cease to exist immediately after the death of their emperors who were contemporaries of the Prophet.
The announcement of the death of the King of Abyssinia on the date of his death.
The assurance he gave that, after the battle against the pagans of Mecca in the fifth year of the Hijrah, the Meccans would never again march against Medina and that Mecca would be conquered by the Muslims.
The prediction that his grandson al-Hasan would re-establish unity and end the conflict between two great parties of Islam, a prediction which was fulfilled in the days of Muawiya, the fifth Caliph.
A miracle which was often repeated during times of drought and general thirst in the army was the production of an abundant yield of water from a little vessel which the Prophet blessed by putting his fingers in it. Fifteen hundred soldiers were able to quench their thirst, perform their ablutions, and water their animals with the water from that little vessel.
During a Friday sermon, when a Bedouin complained about the continuing dry weather and the famine which would ensue, the Prophet prayed for rain, and storm-clouds gathered from all directions, bringing rain which continued until the following Friday.
The next Friday the same Bedouin complained of the destruction being caused by the rain, and after the Prophet prayed the sky above Medina cleared immediately.
Once when the Prophet had been sitting on a tree stump and then abandoned it for a higher seat in order that the increased number of listeners might hear him better, all the audience heard the wailing complaint of the stump, a wailing which continued until the Prophet took the stump in his arms and consoled it as one would console a baby.
These are only a few of the many authenticated examples of miracles, other than the great miracle of receiving the revelation of the Qur’an, which were performed by the Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of God.
Mohammad Abd Allah Draz, in K.W. Morgan, ed.,
Islam: the Straight Path,
New York, Ronald Press, 1958