World History 1 171 - 11.1.3 The Islamic Prophet Muhammad

Muslim tradition tells us that Muhammad was a merchant from a prominent Arab tribe called Quraysh in the Hijaz region. Born in the city of Mecca, he spent his early life engaged in the trade that passed along the north–south trade routes through his city, a hub that had become a waystation and a good place to conduct business (Figure 11.11). The tribe of Quraysh dominated leadership and trade in the region in large part because its members were the protectors of the sacred Kaaba, which in this period, we are told, had become a house of idol worship, a center of polytheism among the Arabs. Long-distance trade of luxury goods could be risky because of raiding that occurred along trade routes, and the Kaaba had become a sanctuary where fighting was illicit, making it a safe place to conduct business. The Quraysh were enriched as the stewards of this important sanctuary and had a keen interest in protecting its role in society.

A map of southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia is shown. The Adriatic Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf), the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea are labeled. An oval area stretching from Nishapur in northern Persia south to Siraf on the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) and west to just past Mosul and almost Palmyra is highlighted orange indicating “Sasanian Empire.” A thin area along the northern coast of Africa is highlighted green indicating “Byzantine Empire.” Other areas highlighted green include: southern Italy, all of Greece and Turkey and the land along the coast between Turkey and Egypt. Purple dashed arrows are drawn on the map indicating “Sea trade route.” Purple dashed arrows begin in Constantinople in the north and head south through the Aegean Sea splitting into three – one heading west into the Mediterranean Sea, one heading east to Aleppo and the other heading south to Alexandria. South of Alexandria the dashed purple arrow picks up and heads south through the Red Sea to Aden in Arabia and then splits – one way heading south and the other heading to the Arabian Sea where it meets up with an arrow coming south through the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) and the Gulf of Oman from an area south of Ctesiphon in Persia. Dotted red lines are shown throughout the map indicating ”Land trade route.” One red dotted line begins in Constantinople in the north and heads in a zig-zag down toward Aleppo. From Aleppo one red dotted line heads south through Jerusalem then up to Alexandria and then south to an area along the coast across the Red Sea from Mecca. From Aleppo another red dotted line heads east to Mosul in Persia and then to Ctesiphon and then on to Nishapur. From Nishapur it splits into three red dotted arrows and heads off into Asia. Before Nishapur it also splits off south to Siraf along the Persian Gulf. From Aleppo a red dotted line also heads south to Damascus then the line forms many grids all over Arabia connecting and intersecting all of these cities: Petra, Medina, Mecca, Aden, Muscat, and Ctesiphon.
Figure 11.11 Muslim sources tell us that Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh, made the city of Mecca an important waystation for those trading luxury goods by land and sea. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

According to Muslim belief, in the year 610 the middle-aged Muhammad, who had traveled to a cave just outside Mecca for contemplation, received contact from God through the intermediary of the angel Gabriel (Jabrīl in Arabic). Muhammad was told to recite the first revelations of a scripture that became the Muslim holy book, the Quran. He returned home amazed and surprised by what he had experienced. As a well-traveled and successful trader in the region, he had much to lose from undertaking a religious mission with a novel message. For one thing, a new religion would threaten the balance of power within his Arab tribe by plainly rejecting the polytheism that many in the community practiced and the financial benefits that came with the Kaaba. However, Muhammad essentially abandoned a financially stable and comfortable life as a merchant to embrace what he believed was required by God: becoming a preacher and working to save the souls of his family and kin from a coming day of judgment.

There has been much disagreement throughout history over who was the first man to convert to Islam after hearing Muhammad’s message, but there is no debate among Muslim sources about who was the first person to do so: his first wife Khadija. As a successful merchant in her own right—who had lifted Muhammad’s standing in their community by marrying him and bringing him into her caravan business—Khadija too would have had much to lose in supporting the new religion. The earliest biographer of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq, described the critical support she provided Muhammad by saying, “Khadija believed in him and accepted as true what he brought from God, helping him in his work . . . through her, God lightened the burden of his prophet.”

While many of Muhammad’s confidants and family members embraced Islam shortly after the revelations began and continued, his career as a prophet, especially the first twelve years, was fraught with challenge. His preaching of monotheism upset the political status quo and was often resisted. The support of his family, especially his wives, was critical to his success as a preacher, and the guidance of Khadija was especially significant. Tradition suggests that when Muhammad thought he might be mad as the revelations first came to him, it was she who convinced him to trust and embrace his new calling.

In 622, Muhammad’s twelfth year of prophecy, his community fled persecution and increasing aggression by the polytheist Meccans. They were invited to join another community of Arabs in a city called Yathrib, later known as Medina, “the city” or more specifically “the prophet’s city.” There they were welcomed among other Arab tribes, including some practicing Judaism. This hijra, meaning “emigration,” was a watershed moment for Muhammad’s early community. At a low ebb and without any certainty of survival, Islam now changed from a small religion mostly confined to Mecca to a larger community united by Muhammad that solidified its place in world history. The hijra holds such importance in the history of Islam that the Islamic lunar calendar counts 622 CE as its first year. (Dates in the Muslim calendar, used by many around the world today, are often labeled in English with AH, for “After the Hijra.”)

Link to Learning

Many Muslims throughout history have avoided depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in human form in their art, with some feeling that portraying the Prophet could be misconstrued as idolatrous, or revering something (or someone) besides God. But Muslim artists have also depicted their founder Muhammad in words and calligraphic art for centuries, as a sign of respect and as part of their recounting of the important narrative of his life.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax