Mohammed the Prophet

Mohammed (peace be upon him) lived from A.D. 570 – 632 (out of respect, whenever Muslims speak of any of the prophets, including Jesus or any of the Old Testament prophets, they always add “peace be upon him”).  His father died before Mohammed was born, and his mother died when he was at the age of five, leaving him as an orphan.  His grandfather looked after him until he was eight, after which he died also.  The rest of his childhood was spent as an adopted son of his uncle, Abu Talib, who loved him as a son.  He had a very close relationship with his cousin, Ali.

Mohammed’s family was part of the Quraysh tribe, the most powerful tribe in all of Arabia.  The Quraysh tribe administered the three month-long religious festival and trade fair in Mecca, climaxed by the masses circum-ambulating the Kaaba (the large black cube often seen in pictures at the heart of the pilgrimage to Mecca).

In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaaba was filled with somewhere around 300 idols, covering all of the various gods worshiped during that time.  Muslims call this, “the time of ignorance”.  Mohammed’s (peace be upon him) uncle was a merchant, and Mohammed accompanied his uncle and learned the business.  He stood out in the often crooked mercantile business as an honest man, eventually being dubbed al-Amin, or “trustworthy one”.

Mohammed (peace be upon him) eventually landed a position as a caravan leader for an enigmatic 40-year-old widow named Khadija, when he was 25.  Although an aging widow in a man’s world, her business skills and intriguing personality allowed her a place among the elite merchants of Mecca.  Upon Mohammed’s return from a caravan trip with double the expected profits, Khadija rewarded him with a proposal for marriage, which Mohammed accepted.  She was the first, but not the last spirited woman Mohammed would be married to.

Mohammed (peace be upon him) was a spiritual seeker and often retreated to mountain caves for long periods of solitude.  On one such occasion he received his prophetic calling, reputedly from the angel Gabriel.  But Mohammed was an introvert, and it would be another three years before he spoke openly.  For the time being he discussed his revolutionary thinking only with those closest to him – his wife, his cousin, Ali, and a few trusted friends.

His thoughts were revolutionary in two realms, which to Mohammed (peace be upon him) were not two but one.  In the spiritual realm, in the midst of a polytheistic culture, he taught that there is no god but God, known as Allah in Arabic.  In the realm of humanity, he taught of social justice – that all should set aside from their personal finances to look after those who are less fortunate, the widows, the orphans, the poor and needy.  He saw no distinction between the realm of the unseen and the seen – God is all-powerful, God is compassionate and gracious, and thus we should honor him with gratitude and worship, by living a life of integrity, and by helping those in need.

Exile to Medina

When he began to declare this openly, he was utterly rejected by the prominent leaders of the Quraysh tribe, who saw his teaching that God is one as a threat to their financial superiority derived from attracting multitudes of polytheists to Mecca every year.  Ultimately Mohammed (peace be upon him) and his followers fled to Mecca, starting over in an agricultural oasis today known as Medina.

It was in Medina that the Muslim community (known as the Ummah) was created.

There exists an enduring mythology about Mohammed’s time in the city that came to bear his name, a mythology that has defined the religion and politics of Islam for 1400 years.  It is in Medina that the Muslim community was born, and where Mohammed’s Arab social reform movement transformed into a universal religious ideology.

“Mohammed in Medina” became the paradigm for the Arab empire expanded throughout the Middle East after the Prophet’s death, and the standard that every Islamic kingdom and Sultanate struggled to meet during the Middle Ages.  The Medina ideal inspired the various Islamic revivalist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, all of which strove to return to the original values of Mohammed unadulterated community as a means to wrest control of Muslim lands from colonial rule (though they had radically different ideas about how to define these original values).  And with the demise of colonialism in the 20th century, it was the memory of Medina that launched the notion of the “Islamic state.”

Simply put, Medina is what Islam was meant to be. (Excerpted from No god but God, by Reza Aslan)

Medina is the kernel of the expression of Sharia law.  As we have seen, Mohammed’s movement was about sweeping social reform.  It focused primarily on ensuring that the poor and weak did not become the prey of the rich, but also on integrity in business dealings.  These matters were seen as the expected expression of true worshipers of the one true God.

The community grew to number in the thousands.  On two occasions, the Quraysh sent armies to Medina in hopes of wiping out the Muslim community, the first time nearly succeeding.  It was in this context that Mohammed’s (peace be upon him) teaching on jihad emerged.  It was all in the context of defensive struggle.  Aggression was forbidden, but battle for survival in self-defense was promoted and applauded.

The community survived the onslaughts of the Quraysh.  They eventually grew to number in the tens of thousands, such that they were able to march back to Mecca, and take the city from the Quraysh without any bloodshed.  While tribal custom would have allowed Mohammed to enslave the Quraysh, Mohammed granted a general amnesty.  He returned to Medina, where he would pass on at the age of 60 within two years.  May he rest in peace.


back to workshops