The Life & Significance of Muhammad

Peace, one and all…

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim wa al-salatu wa al-salamu `ala rasul Allah

In this lecture we will look closely at the life, role and significance of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. As we shall see, the figure of Muhammad looms large within the Islamic tradition. Indeed, in an important sense, it is difficult to overestimate his importance within Islam; the ethical outlooks, customs and practices of Muhammad inform virtually every aspect of Muslim life and thought.But what is this significance based upon? In other words, why is Muhammad seen as so central to the Islamic worldview? To answer this question properly, we need to understand Muhammad’s life and it impact on his contemporaries. Or, to put it another way, we need to make a biographical journey through his life and the meanings this life has held and continues to hold for Muslims.

Offering an informed, considered account of Muhammad has significance beyond strictly academic circles. As I am sure you are all well aware, within recent months the figure of Muhammad and its importance for Muslims has repeatedly been in the news. Understanding his life and its wider meaning is thus of some consequence.

Aims & Objectives
The purpose of this lecture is to explore the life and importance of Muhammad. In order to do this properly, we need to look at three key areas, which I intend to explore today:

  • The sources for the life of Muhammad
  • The key events in Muhammad’s life
  • Muhammad’s wider significance within the Islamic tradition

In previous lectures we touched on the key themes of this module, namely authority, law and identity. In today’s lecture we will again refer to them, in the following contexts:

  • Authority: that is, we will look at Muhammad’s authority within the early Muslim community, as well as in the Islamic tradition more generally.
  • Law: as the final Prophet, Muhammad is an essential authority within Islamic Law (the Shariah). Although the foundations of Islamic law will be the subject of Lecture Seven, we will look closely at the theological roots of this authority today.
  • Identity: following Muhammad’s example (the Sunnah) is an integral part of Muslim identity. This lecture will explore the background to this idea in some detail.

Once again, although this is a useful ‘peg’ on which to hang our thinking, it is worth emphasising that there are other ways of discussing these issues.

The Sources of the Life of Muhammad
In Lecture Two, we looked closely at the development of the Arabic/Islamic historical tradition. The purpose of this overview was to acquaint us with some of that tradition’s key features, as well as some of its main strengths and weaknesses. A further aim was to provide the necessary background for our discussion of Muhammad’s life. As historians of religion, we are particularly concerned to explore and discuss our source material and its implications for further study. Although I do not intend to offer a detailed examination of the topic today, you will no doubt be pleased to hear, we do need to recap slightly on what we covered previously. Thus, in this section I will offer an overview of the key sources for the life of Muhammad.

As we saw last week, there are a range of sources available to us for the study of early Islam. These can be grouped into four main categories:

  • Archaeological Evidence
  • Inscriptions & Numismatic Evidence
  • 7th Century CE Non-Muslim Literary Evidence
  • Literary Evidence from within the Islamic tradition

Let’s look briefly at each category in turn.

Archaeological Evidence
Although the surviving archaeological evidence is important, it is probably fair to say that is only partially understood. Moreover, the fact that archaeological surveys of Mecca and Medina are prohibited limits their usefulness for understanding Muhammad’s life.

Inscriptions & Numismatic Evidence
We looked very briefly at inscriptions and ancient coins during last week’s seminar. As with archaeology, such sources provide us with important information. However, inscriptions and coins are limited by their very natures.

7th Century CE Non-Muslim Literary Evidence
As we saw in last week’s seminar, a fair amount of 7th century text survives, almost all of which was written by Christians living in Syria, Iraq and the wider Byzantine world. These sources have the advantage of being broadly contemporary with Muhammad and the rise of Islam. However, as we saw, their very context (as attempts to understand and explain the religious implications of Islam from a Christian perspective) means their usefulness is limited to some degree. That is, the distance of these sources from the events they are describing (in terms of geography, social setting and religious affiliation) impacts on what they can tell us regarding Muhammad’s life. They are often either unaware of or unconcerned with crucial internal developments, as well as being concerned to ‘interpret’ the information they pass on in Christian terms.

Literary Evidence from within the Islamic tradition
Texts, narratives and literary material from within the Islamic tradition itself form by far our largest body of evidence. As such, we will look briefly at these in a moment. However, before we do, it is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of this material. Its strengths are many: such texts emerge from within Islam itself and thus have detailed insights into various aspects of Muhammad’s life; in total, they offer a connected and more or less coherent biographical account; furthermore, although there are problems associated with oral history, a wide range of accurate information does seem to have survived. There are also some key weaknesses: the majority of the complete texts we possess date to approximately a century and a half or more from the time of Muhammad; anachronism and misunderstanding are thus present. These texts also have particular agendas to pursue and theological axes to grind.

Having outlined our four main categories, let’s look more closely at the Muslim sources themselves. I do not propose to do anything more than briefly refer to each source. Those of you who are keen to find out more should consult the bibliography given in the Module Handbook.

The main Muslim sources for Muhammad’s life are as follows:

  • The Quran
  • The Prophetic Traditions
  • Biographical & Historical Accounts
  • Other ‘Literature’

The Quran as a Source for Muhammad’s Life
Although the Quran, as we saw last week, is not a work of history as such, it does include information on the life of Muhammad. Thus, in the 93rd Surah (or ‘chapter’) of the Quran we find the following statement:

‘Did He [God] not find you [Muhammad] an orphan, and then gave you refuge? And find you in error, and then guided you? And find you in need, and then enriched you?’[1]

Muhammad, so this passage informs us, was thus an orphan during his childhood and a poor one at that. However, the difficulty with this passage, from our point of view, is its relative lack of historical context. That is, this passage is addressed to Muhammad and hence details, such as his parents’ names or the exact nature of ‘error’, are left unclear; after all, Muhammad was obviously familiar with such information himself.Other apparently ‘biographical’ information in the Quran is of a similar nature. Thus, for our purposes here, although it is an absolutely essential source, it is not always easy to understand its implications.

The Quran is also a contemporary source. That is, Muslim tradition holds that the Quran was collected into its present form some 20 years after Muhammad’s death. Although there have been challenges to this view, and we shall look at them again next week, most scholars (from outside the Islamic tradition) believe the Quran to be a very early document.

The Prophetic Traditions
By contrast, there is no such agreement regarding the Prophetic Traditions (or Hadith). As the historical development of Hadith is a complex topic, which we will look at in some detail next week, we will not discuss this subject today. However, as a biographical source, they are as tantalising as the Quran. There is a wide range of material available, some of it without clear surrounding contexts and some of it of dubious authenticity. There is also a large body of material which does seem both early and genuine.

Biographical & Historical Accounts
As we saw last week, the earliest complete biography of Muhammad to survive into modern times is that of Ibn Ishaq (d. 767CE). This survives in the recension of his pupil and associate Ibn Hisham. This means that there is a gap of over a century between Ibn Ishaq and Muhammad, which has implications (although it certainly does not mean that the work is unimportant). Ibn Ishaq’s Sira (or biography) was important within the Islamic tradition itself and most subsequent works are in some way based upon it. This literature offers us coherent narrative accounts, which are generally plausible reconstructions of ‘what actually happened’ and are thus indispensable.

Other ‘Literature’
This last category includes a very wide range of material. During the last lecture, we touched briefly on genealogy, which has some useful, complementary information (but which should not be used in isolation). We also looked at Israiliyyat material, or legendary narratives drawn from the broader Judaeo-Christian heritage of the Middle East. ‘Tales’ are also another important source. These ‘tales’ (or Qisas) were popularised by travelling storytellers (the Qussas) and were a major source of irritation to Hadith scholars. As you might expect, such ‘literature’ includes a lot of legendary and otherwise fantastic material and we need not delay ourselves further in discussing it here.

The Life of Muhammad: an Overview
It is important to note that our overview will not attempt to explore every aspect of Muhammad’s life. We will limit ourselves to discussing three key periods, which are as follows:

  • The early Meccan period
  • The Emigration to Medina
  • After the Conquest of Mecca: Later Years

M. Lings’ book, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, gives a really useful account of Muhammad’s life from a Muslim perspective. Those interested in furthering their understanding of Muhammad’s biography should start there.

Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca, most probably in the year 570CE. He was born into the Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe (the dominant tribe in the city for some 200 years). As we saw earlier, he was an orphaned; indeed, Muslim tradition holds that his father, Abdullah, died before he was born. He was raised firstly by his grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib (a senior member of Quraysh), and then, after his death, by his uncle Abu Talib (later the father of Ali). He seems to have worked as a shepherd and merchant in his youth and his honesty earned him the nickname of al-Amin (‘the Trustworthy’). His integrity brought him to the attention of the wealthy Khadijah, who proposed marriage. Muhammad is traditionally said to have about 25 at this time, whilst Khadijah was somewhat older (probably in her mid-thirties). Although we do not have time today to look at Khadijah more closely, she is an immensely important figure within the Islamic tradition.

Muhammad seems to have been a deeply perceptive and intuitive person, deeply aware of the social problems of contemporary Meccan society and during his late thirties, he is said to have begun a series of ‘retreats’. Taking a little food and water, he is said to have meditated in the small Cave of Hira, in a mountain overlooking Mecca. During Ramadan 610CE, his meditations were said to have been interrupted by an overwhelming presence, which ordered him to read! This presence was identified with the Archangel Gabriel and the words which Muhammad was ordered to read were the following verses from what became the Quran:

‘Read in the name of your Lord, Who created: He created man from a clot. Read, by your Most Generous Lord, Who taught by the Pen. He taught man what he did not know’[2].

Muhammad’s terror at this overwhelming experience was eased by his wife and her relative, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, who (as a Christian) was able to provide an intelligible context. That is, Waraqah is said to have told Muhammad that he was a Prophet.The early revelations of the Quran refer to a number of different themes, including:

  • The Oneness of God
  • The imminence of the Day of Judgement
  • The urgent need for moral and social reform

Muhammad’s preaching met, as you might expect, with opposition from his tribe and he was accused of practising sorcery. As Muhammad attracted converts, this hostility developed into open persecution, with the weaker Muslims falling victim to torture and oppression. During this period, Muhammad had another crucial experience of the Divine. He is said to have been taken by Gabriel to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Masjid al-Aqsa, or the ‘Furthest Mosque’), where he the met the former prophets, before being taken into the highest heaven for direct communion with God Himself. This event (known as isra wa’l mir’aj) also marked the open obligation of five daily prayers.

The Meccan persecution was eased when a delegation from the city of Yathrib invited Muhammad to lead them and heal their fractious in-fighting. Thus in 622CE (approximately), Muhammad and the Muslims left Mecca and emigrated to Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medinat al-Nabi, ‘the City of the Prophet’ (shortened to Medina). This event is of crucial significance and marks a turning point in Muhammad’s life. Indeed, the Muslim calendar dates from this event. Arriving at Medina, Muhammad drew up a treaty between the new Muslim arrivals, their Medinan converts and the other tribes of the city. We looked at this document (the ‘Constitution of Medina’) in last week’s seminars. The key point to remember here is that this marked the formation of the Muslim community as a kind of super-tribe; that is, the Muslim community now became a tribe of its own, in which ties of belief were held superior to ties of blood. This notion (expressed by the term Ummah) is another key Islamic concept. Quranic passages dating to this time also illustrate this idea; Medinan portions of the Quran generally refer to matters of social organisation, social conduct and ‘law’.

The Meccan aristocracy was, however, keen to continue its persecution and attacked Medina repeatedly. This is the context for the emergence of jihad (in the sense of armed struggle). Three key battles characterise these conflicts. At Badr, 300 or so Muslims defeated a 1,000 strong Meccan force. This victory, which was seen as miraculous, is an important episode and those who took part acquired a distinct level of prestige. At Uhud in the following year, the outcome was far less decisive and was, at best, a stalemate. The Quran interprets this battle as a failure to remain united. At the Battle of Khandaq (the ‘Trench’), Medina was besieged by a coalition of Arab tribes, approximately 10,000 strong. The threat was eventually removed through diplomacy. And, at Hudaybiyya, an armistice with Mecca was agreed, which lasted some two years before a final attempt at warfare by Mecca. This led to the Conquest of Mecca by Muhammad and the eventual destruction of its pagan shrines.

Muhammad’s Significance in Islamic Thought
Welcome back! So far during the course of this lecture we have looked at two of our three topics. That is, we have explored the historical sources for the life of Muhammad and their strengths and weaknesses, with a particular focus on the Islamic tradition itself. We have then utilised that tradition in an overview of Muhammad’s life and its key episodes. Such an account is necessarily concise and it is worth emphasising again that those who are particularly interested in pursuing this question should consult the bibliography given in the Module Handbook.

In this last part of the lecture, I want to explore why the figure of Muhammad is so significant within Islam; I then would like to examine some of the ways in which that significance manifests itself.

Muhammad the Final Prophet
In Surah 33, the Quran makes the following statement:

‘Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but is the Messenger of God and the seal of the Prophets (Khatam al-Nabiyyin)’[3]

Within both the Sunni and Shia traditions, this verse has been understood to mean that Muhammad is the Final Prophet. This understanding has meant that Muhammad’s words and deeds take on a particular importance. As there will be no new prophets, so there will be no new scripture. Muhammad thus acquires great eschatological significance. Indeed, the Islamic tradition generally regards Muhammad’s very appearance as the first major sign of the End of Time (known as ‘the Hour’ or al-Sa’a in Arabic).

The Bearer of the Quran
As the recipient of the last Divine Book, Muhammad is thus its chief interpreter (exegete). His recorded statements regarding particular Quranic passages (and entire chapters) are, if held to be authentic, given primary importance. That is, theologically speaking, if a report of Muhammad’s Quranic exegesis is believed to be authentic (or sahih in Arabic) then no other interpretative statement has higher theoretical value or importance (although the question of interpretation still remains and is an area of wide debate). This is founded upon a number of Quranic passages, such as the following:

‘Your Companion [Muhammad] is neither astray nor being misled, Nor does he speak from (his own) desire. It is no less than Inspiration sent down to him’[4]

A number of Hadith reports also lie behind this idea. The following report is seen as particularly important. Thus Muhammad is said to declared:

‘Indeed, I have been given the Book and something similar to it…’[5]

The ‘Book’ here refers to the Quran, whilst ‘something similar’ is believed to refer to the totality of Hadith (in other words, Muhammad’s practice, or Sunnah). This concept is one of the primary foundations for understanding the role and significance of Muhammad in Islamic Law (the Shariah); indeed, it is seen by Muslim scholars as the logical foundation of this authority.

Muhammad the Lawgiver
Muhammad’s legal rulings are thus considered to be binding on the Muslim community. His recorded decisions on matters of personal conduct, business and law in its broadest sense are given an authority second only to that of the Quran. This concept is a derivative of his exegetical role. As a Prophet, one of Muhammad’s most important functions is educative; his role is to explain and give practical application to the broad principles of the Quran. Injunctions regarding the five daily prayers are a good example of this idea.

In Surah al-Baqara (the second and longest Chapter of the Quran), the following command is given to the Muslim community:

‘And establish prayer and give charity [literally zakat] and bow with those who bow’[6].

Commands to ‘establish prayer’ are a common theme in the Quran and such passages are found throughout the text. However, apart from these general principles, the Quran does not clarify what exactly it means by ‘prayer’. Moreover, apart from broad hints, the times for prayer (though obligatory) are not clearly enumerated:

‘…And exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and its setting; and during periods of the night [exalt Him] and at the ends of the day, that you may be satisfied’[7]

It is only in the Prophetic Traditions (Hadith) that detailed expositions of this ritual act are found. These details are based upon a tradition in which Muhammad is reported to have said: ‘Pray as you have seen me praying’[8]. In other words, the Quran provides Muslims with broad principles and the Tradition literature with details on its practical application.The need to put Muhammad’s teachings into practice lies behind the development of the different schools of Islamic Law (al-Shariah). In Lecture Seven, we will look more closely at this development and what it means, but for now it is worth noting that (within the Sunni tradition at least) these schools differ in the interpretation of evidence (and their methodological approaches to it) and not to the authority of these sources. That is, these Schools of Law all accept the primacy of Muhammad and his authenticated example.

Muhammad as the Best of God’s Creatures
Muhammad’s authority and significance are not limited to Quranic interpretation and legal injunctions; indeed, they extend far beyond these areas. That is, Muhammad is seen as a role model in a much broader sense. Thus Muslims generally try to emulate Muhammad’s personal conduct in almost every sense. A good means of illustrating this point clearly can be found by looking through the contents page of any standard collection of Prophetic Traditions (Hadith). It is therefore worth quoting a few random examples now briefly.The standard abridged version of the most important Hadith collection (known as Sahih al-Bukhari) thus opens, as you might expect, with a chapter on Revelation, before moving to look at faith and religious knowledge. Again, as you might expect, prayer is another important component. Less obvious, perhaps, are chapters referring to ‘Cultivation & Agriculture’ and ‘Loans, Freezing of Property & Bankruptcy’, as well as individual reports on proper bathroom conduct[9].

The concept lying behind such traditions is that Muhammad, as the final, chosen Prophet of God, is believed to be the ‘Best of God’s Creatures’ (khayr khalq illah). As such, Muhammad’s conduct is held to be divinely guided and inspired. A very famous tradition, attributed to his wife Aisha, states that: ‘His conduct was the Quran’.

Muhammad: the Beloved of God
This sense of Muhammad’s nature also lies behind the Muslim community’s regard for him. Muslims experience Muhammad not only as a religious teacher and prophet, but also as a close friend or relative. He is described in the Quran as ‘a mercy for all of the worlds’ (rahmatan lil `alameen) and thus the Muslim experience of Muhammad is also marked by deep and warm human emotion. In later Muslim piety and mysticism, this idea is particularly pronounced. Imam al-Busiri, an Egyptian theologian and mystic of the 13th century, wrote a qasida (or traditional poem) in praise of the Prophet, which is still recited today. Play them a short passage from Qasida al-Burda. Although the poem is very long, its central refrain goes thus:

‘O God! Bless and grant eternal peace without end to your Beloved and the Best of all Your creatures’

Muhammad Iqbal, the Indian philosopher and poet of the late 19th and early 20th century, encapsulates this feeling in the following poem: ‘Love of the Prophet which runs like blood in the veins of this community’[10]. Qadi Iyad, a 12th century Moroccan author of the Maliki School of Islamic Law, thus argues that love for the Prophet entails following his example:

‘Know that someone who loves a person prefers them and prefers what they like. Otherwise, he is a pretender, insincere in his love’[11].

As we have seen in recent months, the awe in which Muslims generally hold Muhammad can have serious implications. The recent cartoon depictions of Muhammad have thus offended a deeply held belief and it is in this light that the uproar should be understood. Although written many years ago, Jeffrey refers to an incident which illustrates this idea clearly:

‘…many years ago…the late Shaykh Mustafa al-Maraghi remarked on a visit to his friend the Anglican Bishop in Egypt, that the commonest cause of offence, generally unwitting offence, given by Christians to Muslims, arose from their complete failure to understand the very high regard all Muslims have for the person of their Prophet’[12].

Muhammad the Intercessor
In verse 255 of the second Surah (Surah al-Baqara), the Quran makes the following statement:

‘His [God’s] is what is in the heavens and on the earth. Who shall intercede with Him except by His leave?’[13]

Although, as we shall see next week, a developed belief in a human intercessor with God is largely absent from the Quran, this passage forms the basis of the idea that Muhammad has some form of intercessory role. In classical Sunni Islam, it was believed that Muhammad will be able to intercede with God on behalf of the Muslim community on the Day of Judgement. In another poem, Muhammad Iqbal gives expression to this belief: ‘In him is our trust on the Day of Judgment, and in this world too he is our protector’[14].

The Tradition literature includes a number of reports on this topic, which all aim to emphasise Muhammad’s eschatological importance. Anne Marie Schimmel’s excellent book (entitled ‘And Muhammad is His Messenger’) provides a detailed and interesting account of the development of this idea and I direct those interested in this question there.

Political Orientations
As we have seen, Muhammad’s example runs throughout the Islamic tradition. His ideas regarding political authority and political involvement are thus also deeply influential. Before we proceed, it is worth noting that Islamic political thought is a complex topic (which we certainly do not have the time to explore here). It is, though, safe to say that all of the political systems used in the Muslim world orient themselves to Islam and Muhammad’s example in one way or another.

To explore this subject, it is worth looking briefly at one key document, the so-called Constitution of Medina, as it highlights some of the most important elements of Muhammad’s thought. I use the term ‘Muhammad’s thought’ regardless of the source critical issues we looked at in last week’s seminars; I merely intend to highlight those areas which the Islamic tradition believes represents Muhammad’s ideas.

Political Sovereignty belongs to God Alone
The text begins with the Name of God and refers throughout to God. However, towards the end of the document, this issue is explicitly dealt with:

‘Whenever a dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble arises among the people of this document it shall be referred to God and to Muhammad, the Apostle of God’[15]

In other words, the focus of political authority is firmly on God and His appointed representative, Muhammad.

Mutual Aid between Muslims
An early passage states that: ‘Believers shall not leave anyone destitute amongst them without paying their redemption money or blood-money as is customary’[16]. Moreover, throughout the document, the believers (Muslims) are portrayed as a ‘tribe’ in their own right, distinct from other tribes who are connected by blood. In other words, the Muslim community (or Ummah) exists above and beyond genetic and national considerations. This is a fundamental concept and ultimately, lies behind the Muslim world’s deep inter-connections.

Treaty Relationships
This document shows the fledgling Muslim community entering into detailed treaty relationships with the tribes of Yathrib (Medina). Each separate clan and tribe, and their specific ties to the Muslim ummah are referred to and enumerated. This echoes a number of important Quranic passages, which also refer to such relationships. Surah al-Tawba (or the ‘Chapter of Repentance’), the ninth Surah of the Quran, is a particularly good example. The rights and responsibilities of each party are also clearly expressed.

Defensive Responsibilities
The Constitution also makes repeated reference to fighting and associated regulations. In other words, the community’s defensive responsibilities (in the absence of anything remotely resembling a standing army) are given central importance. Although to our modern eyes, these passages read somewhat strangely, understanding the historical context behind them is important. It has to be remembered that pre-Islamic Arabia had no state authority to arbitrate quarrels and guarantee personal security. Tribal strength was the only effective means of guaranteeing personal safety. The Constitution’s references to fighting, how it should be organised, who should do it and how the responsibilities of each party to the treaty should be worked out are thus intelligible.

Concluding Remarks
In this lecture, we have thus looked at the life and significance of Muhammad. We have explored the range of sources available to us for the study of his life, with particular focus on strengths and weaknesses. We then undertook a brief tour of the main events of Muhammad’s life and attempted to draw out some of its meaning for the Muslim community. In the final part of the lecture we examined the bases for Muhammad’s centrality and some of its manifestations, before concluding with a brief analysis of the Constitution of Medina.

[1] 93:6-8
[2] 96:1-5
[3] 33:40
[4] 53:3
[5] Related by Abu Dawud
[6] 2:43
[7] 20:130
[8] Related by al-Bukhari, quoted in al-Albaani, 1993, 1
[9] Sahih al-Bukhari (trans. M. M. Khan), 24-41
[10] Rumuz: 190
[11] Qadi Iyad, 2000, 319
[12] Jeffrey, 1959, 44
[13] 2:255
[14] Asrar line 383
[15] Guillaume, A. (trans.), quoted in Rippin & Knappert, 1986, 81
[16] Guillaume, A. (trans.), quoted in Rippin & Knappert, 1986, 80

4 thoughts on “The Life & Significance of Muhammad

  1. Hi Kiko,

    Well, according to most Muslim historical sources, Muhammad was born that year. Also, according the Muslim tradition, 570CE was also the year in which Mecca was attacked by an Ethiopian army under the command of Abraha (this is known as the year of the elephant).

    Abdur Rahman

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