Bare beginnings

Muhammad is born as a member of the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hāshim. His hometown of Mecca houses an ancient and famous pilgrimage sanctuary, the Kaʿbah. Although founded by Abraham, worship there has over time become dominated by polytheism and idolatry. Muhammad’s conception is preceded by a dramatic crisis: his grandfather ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib narrowly fails to implementa vow to sacrifice his favourite son and Muhammad’s future father, ʿAbd Allāh, an obvious adaptation of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Muhammad himself is born in 570, the same year in which the South Arabian king Abraha attempts to conquer Mecca and is thwarted by a divine intervention later alluded to in sūrah 105 of the Qurʾān. Muhammad’s father passes away before his birth, leaving him in the care of his paternal grandfather, ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib. At the age of six Muhammad also loses his mother Āminah, and at eight he loses his grandfather. Thereupon responsibility for Muhammad is assumed by the new head of the clan of Hāshim, his uncle Abū Ṭālib. While accompanying his uncle on a trading journey to Syria, Muhammad is recognized as a future prophet by a Christian monk.

At the age of 25, Muhammad is employed by a rich woman, Khadījah, to oversee the transportation of her merchandise to Syria. He so impresses her that she offers marriage. Khadījah is said to have been about 40, but she bears Muhammad at least two sons, who die young, and four daughters. The best known of the latter is Fāṭimah, the future wife of Muhammad’s cousin ʿAlī, whom ShīʿiteMuslims regard as Muhammad’s divinely ordained successor. Until Khadījah’s death some three years before Muhammad’s emigration (hijrah) to Medina in 622, Muhammad takes no other wife, even though polygamy is common.

Muhammad’s prophetic initiation occurs at the age of 40. During a period of devotional withdrawal atop one of the mountains in the vicinity of Mecca, the angel Gabriel appears to him in an awe-inspiring encounter and teaches him the opening verses of sūrah 96 of the Qurʾān: “Recite in the name of your Lord who creates, / creates man from a clot! / Recite for your lord is most generous….” Muhammad is greatly perturbed after this first revelation but is reassured by Khadījah and her cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, a learned Christian who confirms Muhammad’s prophetic status. Muhammad continues to receive revelations but for three years limits himself to speaking about them in private. When God finally commands him to take up public preaching, he initially encounters no opposition. However, after the Qurʾānic proclamations begin to deny the existence of gods other than Allāh and thereby to attack the religious beliefs and practices of the Quraysh tribe, tensions arise between Muhammad and his small circle of adherents, on the one hand, and the remaining inhabitants of Mecca, on the other. As a result, some of Muhammad’s followers are forced to seek temporary refuge with the Christian ruler of Ethiopia. For some years, the other chief clans of Mecca even refuse to trade and intermarry with Muhammad’s clan, since the latter continues to offer him protection. Sometime after the end of this boycott, one of the most famous events in the Prophet’s ministry takes place: his so-called Night Journey, during which he is miraculously transported to Jerusalem to pray with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets. From there Muhammad continues to ascend to heaven, where God imposes on him the five daily prayers of Islam.

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