Mohammed (ca. 570-632) was the founder of the religion of Islam and of a political unit at Medina that later developed into the Arab Empire, or Caliphate, and a multitude of successor states.
Arabia lay on the periphery of the two empires, the Byzantine and the Persian (Sassanian), which in the early 7th century controlled most of the region from the eastern Mediterranean to India. During the 6th century each made many efforts to gain advantages in Arabia at the expense of the other. From 572 until 628 there was almost constant war between the two, and this left the Byzantine Empire exhausted and the Persian on the point of collapse. This factor contributed largely to the rapidity of the Arab military advance into Persia, Iraq, Syria, and North Africa between 634 and 650.
The town of Mecca, where Mohammed was born about 570, was a commercial center which by 600 had gained monopolistic control of the caravan trade passing up and down the west coast of Arabia, conveying luxury goods from India and East Africa to Syria. In their own business interests the merchants of Mecca had remained neutral toward the two empires. Growing prosperity had led to a malaise among the inhabitants of Mecca, accompanied by religious questioning. Mohammed's clan of Hashim, like most of the Meccan clans, gained a livelihood by commerce, but some of the other clans had been more successful and were now wealthier.
Mohammed's personal situation made him keenly aware of the tensions in Mecca. He was born posthumously, and his grandfather, Abdu-l-Muttalib, and his mother both died when he was a child. As a minor, he was unable by Arab custom to inherit anything. He was thus relatively poor until about 595, when a wealthy woman, Khadija, asked him to go to Syria as steward of her merchandise and, on the successful accomplishment of the mission, offered marriage. From this time onward Mohammed was comfortably off, but he began to spend time in solitary reflection on the problems of Mecca.
During a period of solitude about 610 Mohammed had two visions in which he beheld a supernatural being who said to him, "You are the Messenger of God" (this being the title more frequently given to him by Moslems than that of prophet). He also found certain words "in his heart" (that is, his mind). Friends helped to convince him that he was called to convey messages from God to the Arabs as Moses and Jesus had done to the Jews and Christians. He continued to receive such messages from time to time until his death. They were collected into chapters, or suras, partly during Mohammed's lifetime and definitively about 650, and constitute the Koran (Qur'ān). The Koran, though mediated by Mohammed's consciousness, is held by Moslems to come from God and should not be referred to as being of Mohammed's composition.
At first Mohammed communicated these messages only to sympathetic friends, but from 612 or 613 he proclaimed them publicly. Many people in Mecca, especially among the younger men, became followers of Mohammed and Moslems, or adherents of his religion of Islam (submission, namely to God). In the course of time, however, opposition to Mohammed appeared among the leading merchants of Mecca, and he and his followers were subjected to various petty forms of persecution. Apparently to escape from such persecution some 80 of his followers emigrated for a time to Ethiopia. About 616, pressure in the form of a boycott was placed on the clan of Hashim to make it cease protecting Mohammed, but until after the death of the head of the clan, Mohammed's uncle Abu-Talib, about 619, it was felt that to abandon him would be dishonorable.
The new head, Abu-Lahab, however, found a way of justifying abandonment, and it became virtually impossible for Mohammed to continue preaching in Mecca. An attempt to move to the neighboring town of Taif proved abortive; but in September 622, after secret negotiations over the previous 2 years, he settled in the oasis of Medina, 200 miles to the north, where 70 of his followers had already gone. This "emigration" (rather than "flight") is the Hijra (Latin, hegira), on which the Islamic era is based.
The Arab clans of Medina mostly acknowledged Mohammed's prophethood and entered into alliance with him and the emigrants from Mecca. At first the emigrants depended on Medinese hospitality, but soon small groups of them began to attempt raids on Meccan caravans. Later the Moslems of Medina also joined in. This was a variant of the common Arab practice of the razzia. At first the raids had little success, but in March 624 a larger band of just over 300, led by Mohammed himself, after failing to intercept a caravan, decisively defeated a supporting force of perhaps 800 Meccans with heavy losses. This was a serious blow to Meccan prestige, and the Moslems felt that God was vindicating Mohammed.
To teach Mohammed a lesson, the Meccans in March 625 invaded the Medinese oasis with about 3,000 men. Mohammed, obliged to fight by some supporters, stationed his force of 1,000 on the lower slopes of Uhud, a hill in the north of the oasis, where they were safe from the Meccan cavalry. An attack of the Meccan infantry was repulsed by the Moslems, but as they pursued the fugitives, the cavalry managed to attack them on the flank. Many were killed before they could regain the safety of the hill. Militarily this was not a serious reverse for Mohammed, since the Meccans had also suffered casualties and retreated immediately without following up their advantage; but the reverse shook the belief that God was vindicating him, and confidence was only gradually restored.
Though the Moslems were now making several smaller razzias each year with a measure of success, the next major event was the siege of Medina by 10,000 Meccans and allies in April 627. Mohammed protected the central part of the oasis by a trench which foiled the cavalry, and after a fortnight the alliance broke up and the siege was raised. The Meccans had now shot their bolt and failed to dislodge Mohammed. When he went to Mecca in March 628 with 1,600 men, ostensibly to perform traditional pilgrimage rites, the Meccans turned him back but concluded the Treaty of al-Hudaybiya with him.
Though the terms of the treaty slightly favored the Meccans, the signing of it was a triumph for Mohammed. In the following months many nomadic tribesmen and a few leading Meccans went to Medina to join Mohammed and become Moslems. When the treaty was denounced in January 630 after an incident involving allies of each side, Mohammed was able to march on Mecca with 10,000 men. There was virtually no resistance, and Mohammed entered Mecca in triumph. A few persons guilty of hostile or objectionable acts were proscribed, but the Meccans in general were leniently treated. A fort-night later 2,000 joined Mohammed's army in opposing a concentration of tribesmen east of Mecca and shared in the victory of Hunayn.
By 630 the religion of Islam had attained a definite form. In the earliest parts the Koran had emphasized God's goodness and power and had called on men to acknowledge this in worship. It had also asserted the reality of the Day of Judgment, when men would be assigned to paradise or hell in accordance with their attitude to God's revelation, their generosity with their wealth, and similar points. These matters were relevant to the tensions of Mecca, which were seen as arising from the merchants' overconfidence in their wealth and power. After the appearance of opposition to Mohammed, the Koran contained attacks on idols and an insistence that "there is no deity but God."
The religious practices of the Moslems included communal worship or prayers several times a day, in which the climax was prostration, the touching of the ground with the forehead in acknowledgement of God's majesty. They also gave alms in the form of a kind of tithe. At Medina the fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan was introduced; and when circumstances made it possible, some of the ceremonies of the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca became a duty for Moslems.
In 622 Mohammed, though recognized as prophet in Medina, had been only one clan chief among nine. His power and authority grew, however, with the success of the razzias and other expeditions undertaken by the Moslems, especially those against the Meccans. There were Jewish clans in Medina, wealthy but now politically subordinate to the Arab clans, and these made damaging criticisms of Mohammed's religious teaching and sometimes intrigued with his enemies. On suitable occasions in 622, 624, and 625 he attacked the three main clans and expelled them. In the last case all the men were put to death.
Beyond Medina a system of alliances was gradually built up with the nomadic Arab tribes. As Mohammed grew stronger, he came to insist that those wanting an alliance should become Moslems. After the conquest of Mecca and the victory at Hunayn in January 630, he was the strongest man in Arabia, and deputations came from tribes or parts of tribes in eastern, central, and southern Arabia, seeking alliance with him. When he died on June 8, 632, he was in effective control of a large part of Arabia, but it is impossible to define exactly the area he ruled, since we do not know how important in the tribe or local community was the group allied to Mohammed.
Mohammed is said to have been a fast walker, of sturdy build, with a prominent forehead, a hooked nose, large brownish-black eyes, and a pleasant smile. He showed great tact in his dealings with people and, when appropriate, gentleness and even tenderness. Medieval Europe, however, on the defensive against Arab armies and Islamic culture, came to look on him as a monster or demon. Even scholars depicted him as treacherous and lecherous and an impostor. The last he certainly was not, for as Thomas Carlyle pointed out in 1840, a great religion cannot be founded on imposture.
At time Mohammed was indeed harsh to those in his power, but this was not out of keeping with the age. His marital relations—at his death he had nine wives and one concubine—must also be judged in the context of the age. A political purpose can be traced in all his marriages, and he was also creating a new family structure to replace older matrilineal family structures associated with undesirable polyandric practices. For his time he was a social reformer.
Politically his great achievement was to create the framework which made possible the uniting of the Arab tribes and was capable of being developed to include an empire. Mohammed was aware at least by 627 that it would be necessary to expand beyond Arabia, since tribes allied to him could not raid other allies and must direct their energies further afield. He thus devoted special attention to the tribes on the route to Syria and to a lesser extent on the route to Iraq. He was also to win over to his cause his chief Meccan opponents, and their administrative skills were later invaluable in conquering and ruling numerous provinces. The growth of the Arab Empire, and with it of the religion of Islam, was made possible by favorable circumstances; but the opportunity would not have been grasped but for Mohammed's gifts as visionary, statesman, and administrator.
The most recent full account of Mohammed is contained in the two works by W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and Muhammad at Medina (1956). These volumes are briefly summarized in Watt's Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (1961). Tor Andrae, Mohammed: The Man and His Faith (trans. 1936), is chiefly concerned with the religious aspect. Rather slighter is the section on Mohammed in Francesco Gabrieli, Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam (1967; trans. 1968). The primary Arabic biography is translated by Alfred Guillaume as The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah (1955).
Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (1960), discusses the medieval distortions. The best of the numerous translations of the Koran are those by George Sale, Selections from the Kur-an (1734; 5th ed. 1855), and Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (1955). Richard Bell, Introduction to the Qur'an (1953; rev. ed. 1958), is also recommended. For general background see G. E. von Grunebaum, Classical Islam: A History, 600 A.D.-1258 A.D. (1971), and P.M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, eds., The Cambridge History of Islam (2 vols., 1971).