2.1 Birth and childhood

Muhammad was born in the “Year of the Elephant”, when the Ethiopian governor of Yemen used an elephant in an unsuccessful bid to capture Mecca (cf. Q 105). That was around 570, give or take a couple of years. Ibn-Ishâq gives the exact day as the 12th of the month of Rabî I. We cannot be certain, yet it is the day Muslims observe as Mawlid an-Nabî, or birthday of the Prophet. In the lunar year of the Arabs, which advances by 11 days every solar year, this day occurs 3 months after Îd al-adhâ, the pilgrimage-time Feast of Immolation/ Sacrifice.

Some Muslims believe that Muhammad pre-existed in the form of light as the first of God’s creations. The “Muhammadan light” settled in Adam and was passed on through the line of Muhammad’s ancestors until it reached his father `Abdallâh. The biological pre-suppo­sition of the ancient Semitic world was that the father’s seed was the total child; the mother’s womb was simply a host or a field in which the seed grew (Q 2:223). Accordingly, among several legends we have the following:

Abdallâh came into the house of another wife he had besides Âmina bint-Wahb, and he was stained with the clay he had been working in. He asked her to have sex, but she put him off because he was dirty. So he left her and bathed, washing away the clay that was on him. Then he went out intending to go to Âmina. As he passed the other wife she invited him to come to her. He refused, since he wanted Âmina. He went into her, had intercourse, and she conceived Muhammad. When he passed the other wife again he asked if she still wanted him. She said, “No. When you just passed me there was a shining white spot between your eyes and I invited you, but you refused me and went to Âmina instead, and she has taken it away.” (1:157)

Âmina later said:

When I was pregnant with him I saw a light go out of me which shone on the castles of Busrâ in Syria. My pregnancy with him was the easiest I ever had. When he was born he had his hands on the ground and his head lifted up to the sky.” (1:165)

Shortly afterwards Abdallâh ibn-`Abdalmuttalib, the father of the Messenger of God, perished, while the mother was still pregnant. (1:158)

Responsibility for Âmina and her child then fell on Muhammad’s grandfather Abdalmuttalib. According to upper-class custom, Abdalmuttalib then looked for a bedouin woman to nurse the child in the reputedly healthy climate of the desert. The woman, alîma, legend has it, was poor and had a hard time nursing her own baby, but, she said:

When I put him at my bosom, my breasts supplied him with all the milk he wanted to drink. His brother did likewise. Then both of them slept, whereas before he could not sleep with us... In the morning my husband said, “Do you know, Halîma, you have taken a blessed creature?” I said, “I hope so.” (1:163)

After two years Muhammad was returned to his Mother, and not long afterwards another legendary incident occurred, as Muhammad is reported to have narrated:

While I was with my brother behind our tents shepherding our lambs, two men came to us dressed in white with a basin filled with snow. They took hold of me, opened my chest, took out my heart and opened it up. They took out of it a black drop and threw it away. Then they washed my heart and chest with the snow until they were entirely clean. Then one of them said to the other, “Weigh him against 10 of his peo­ple.” He did so and I out­weighed them. Then he said, “Weigh him against 1,000 of his people.” He did so and I outweighed them. So he said, “That is enough. By God if you weighed him against his entire people he would outweigh them.”

This incident is an interpretation of Qur’ân 94:1-3: “Did we not open your breast for you, and lift from you the burden which was weighing on your back?”

Muhammad’s mother Âmina died when he was six years old, and two years later his grandfather `Abdal­muttalib. Responsibility for the orphan then passed to his father’s brother Abű-Tâlib.

2.2 A trip to Syria

Muhammad is said to have accompanied his uncle Abű-Tâlib on a trading trip to Syria. There the legendary meeting with the monk Bahira occurred:

The caravan camped in Busrâ in the land of Syria, where there was a monk called Bahîrâ. He lived in a hermitage and had a good knowledge of Christianity. For a long long time there was a monk in that hermitage who studied from a book, so they say, which each old monk passed on to his junior replacement.

Although the caravan had passed Bahîrâ’s hermit­age many times before, he never spoke to them or even came out; yet when they camped near him this year he prepared plenty of food for them. That is because of something he is supposed to have seen from his hermitage; for, so the story goes, he spotted the Messenger of God from his hermitage when the caravan came near, and a cloud was shading him alone. They came up and camped in the shade of a nearby tree, and he saw the cloud overshadowing the tree and the branches of the tree bending down over the Messenger of God to give him shade. When Bahîrâ saw that, he came out of his hermitage and sent a message to them saying, “I have prepared food for you, men of Quraysh, and want all of you to come, young and old, slave and free.”

One of the men answered, “By God, Bahîrâ, you have something in mind. You never did this for us before the many times that we passed you. Why are you inviting us today?” Bahîrâ said, “You are right in what you said, but you are guests and I am happy to honour you and prepare food for you. So all of you come to eat.” So they gathered at his hermitage, but the Messenger of God stayed behind with the caravan under the tree because he was young. When Bahîrâ looked at the men and did not see the mark he knew from his book he said, “Men of Quraysh, let none of you stay away from my food.” They answered, “Bahîrâ no one stayed behind who should come except a boy, the youngest of us. He is staying with the caravan.” Bahîrâ said, “Don’t do that. Call him to come and eat with you.”

Then one of the Quraysh men said, “By al-Lât and al-`Uzzâ, it is a shame for us not to have the son of Abdallâh ibn-`Abdalmuttalib eat with us.” So he went and embraced him and sat him down with the men. When Bahîrâ saw him he began to examine him carefully and notice fea­tures of his body which matched the description of his book. When the men finished eating and left, Bahîrâ came up to him and said, “Boy, I ask you by the truth of al-Lât and al-`Uzzâ to answer my questions.” Bahîrâ used this language only because he heard the men of the caravan swearing by these deities. The Messenger of God supposedly retorted, “Do not ask me by al-Lât and al-`Uzzâ, for they are most detestable to me.” So Bahîrâ said, “Then by God answer my ques­tions.” He was told, “Ask me anything you like.” So Bahîrâ began asking him about his condition in sleep, his outward appearance and his affairs, and the Messenger of God told him everything. That matched the description that Bahîrâ had of him; so he then looked at his back and saw the seal of prophecy between his shoulders just where his book said it would be.

When he finished Bahîrâ went to Muhammad’s uncle Abű-Tâlib and said, “Who is this boy to you?” He answered, “He is my son.” Bahîrâ said, “He is not your son. His father cannot be living.” He said, “He is the son of my brother.” Bahîrâ said, “What did his father do?” He answered, “He died after his wife had conceived the child.” Bahîrâ said, “That is right. Go back with your nephew to your country and guard him against the Jews, for, by God, if they see him and know what I know about him they will try to harm him, for he has a great destiny. So hurry with him to your country.” So Abű-Tâlib brought him back quickly to Mecca as soon as they had finished their trading in Syria. (180-3)

The preceding story may not be factual in its details, but it does show that Muhammad was exposed to such religious ideas as were circulating in Arabia and in traders’ camps in Syria.

2.3 Adolescence

Another legend of an incident of divine interven­tion in Muhammad’s youth illustrates Muslim disapproval of nakedness, as he himself is reported to have related:

I was with some Quraysh boys carrying stones that we used in our games, and each of us was naked. We each had put our wrappers around our neck and carried the stones on top of that. I was going back and forth with them when suddenly someone invisible struck me with a painful blow and said, “Tie your wrapper around you.” I did so, myself alone wearing a wrapper around my waist and stones on my shoulder. (1:183)

Still another legend shows how God protected Muhammad from sinful action, as he himself tells:

I never gave a thought to what the people of the pagan era used to do but twice, because God prevented me from following my desires. After­wards I never thought of evil when God honoured me with apostleship. Once I said to a young Quraysh boy who was shepherding with me on the hills of Mecca, “Please look after my animals for me while I go and spend the night in Mecca as young men do.” He agreed and I went off with that intention, and when I came to the first house in Mecca I heard the sound of tambourines and flutes and asked what this was. I was told that a marriage had just taken place. I sat down to look at them when God struck my ear and I fell asleep until I was woken up by the sun. I came to my friend who asked me what I did. I said “Nothing” and told him the story. I asked him another night to watch my animals and exactly the same thing oc­curred. Afterwards I never thought of evil until God honoured me with his apostleship. ( 2:279)

This woman-chasing or some other such incident may be the basis for the Qur’ânic passage addressed to Muhammad, “Ask for forgiveness for your sin, and for the believers, men and women” (47:19; cf. 40:55). Later Islamic teaching holds that Muhammad was impeccable, that is, he could not sin, at least after being called as a prophet. So some commentators, such as the Jalâlayn, interpret these verses as a command to Muhammad to give his people an example of asking for forgiveness. Muhammad’s youth can be summed up in the following Qur’ânic passage:

Did he not find you an orphan and shelter you?
Did he not find you going astray and guide you?
Did he not find you needy and enrich you? (Q 93:6-8)

2.4 A young trader

As a young man, Muhammad had the good fortune to be hired as a trading agent of Khadîja, a wealthy Meccan woman who was twice a widow. In this job he traveled at least one more time to Syria. There, legend has it, again he met a Christian monk who acclaimed him as a prophet. The factual basis of this story is that Muhammad probably came across Christian hermits in the desert as well as clergy in the cities of Syria. The city clergy are probably those referred to in Qur’ân 9:34:

You who believe, many of the bishops (rabbis?) and monks consume the property of the people for no good, and divert them from the way of God. To those who treasure up gold and silver and do not expend it in the way of God tell them they will face a painful punishment.

A more favourable reference to monks is found in Qur’ân 57:27:

We gave Jesus the Gospel and put into the hearts of those that followed him compassion and mercy. As for monastic life, they invented it — We did not prescribe it for them — simply out of a desire to please God. Yet they did not manage it rightly.

Also referring to monks is Qur’ân 27:36-7, which mentions:

buildings which God allowed to be erected for the commemoration of his name, where he is glorified morning and evening by men whom trading and selling does not distract from commemorating God or from doing salât and giving zakât.

Later in Muhammad’s life of preaching some monks were sympathetic, and Qur’ân 5:82-3 equivalently concludes that they accepted Islam:

And you will find the people most friendly to the believers are those who say, “We are Christians”. This is because among them are clergy and monks who are not proud. When they hear what was sent down to the Apostle you see their eyes overflow with tears because of the truth they recognize in his message.

We may conclude that Muhammad was strongly impressed by the life of Christian monks and clergy, but the information he absorbed about Christian teach­ing and the New Testament was very meager, if we judge from what appears in the Qur’ân. Most of the Christians he met, including the monks, were probably not well educated. Besides, Muhammad was likely not interested in studying Christianity as such, since that would make him appear as a client of the Byzantines. He wanted only those ideas that might prove relevant and helpful for his own life and for remedying the defects of the traditional religion of Mecca.

2.5 Marriage to Khadîja

Muhammad’s travels broadened his experience and no doubt set him thinking about many things, but his own personal future was also a concern. When Khadîja made a proposal of marriage to him two problems were solved: He would have a family, and with the help of her money he would have a business. At this time Muhammad was 25, and Khadîja at least 10 years older. (She is said to have been 40, but that is unlikely if she bore Muhammad six children.) She was attracted to Muhammad because he served her as an honest and successful agent. “When he returned to Mecca and brought Khadîja her property she sold it for about double her investment.” (1:188) She must also have been impressed by his spiritual qualities, as a legend has her listening to the report of Muhammad’s traveling companion Maysara: “At noon while he was riding in the intense heat I saw two angels shading the Apostle from the sun’s rays.” (1:188)

As the husband of Khadîja, Muhammad had a secure economic future and an honourable position in Meccan society, although he was excluded from the inner circle of high financiers who controlled the political life of Mecca. The couple had, it seems, two sons: al-Qâsim and `Abdallâh (also known as at-Tâhir and at-Tayyib — although some would make these distinct persons) and four daughters: Zaynab, Ruqayya, Umm-Kulthűm and Fâtima. The sons died young, while the daughters lived to maturity. Yet of these only Fâtima gave Muhammad grandchildren and a lasting line of descendants.

The only other event reported in this period is Muhammad’s participation, at the age of 35, in the rebuilding of the Ka`ba. Legendary detail tells how Muhammad settled the rivalry of the various tribes for the honour of replacing the Black Stone. He had it put on a cloth, and a representative of each tribe held one edge of the cloth and together they lifted the stone into position.

As for the rest of Muhammad’s life before the age of 40, there are many legendary stories about Jews and Arabs who predicted the coming of a prophet or were searching for the true religion. Even the Bible (John 15:26) is quoted as predicting the coming of Muhammad, who is asserted to be the Paraclete.[1]

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Early Islam

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[1]See J. Kenny & S.B. Mala, “Muslim use of Christian Scriptures”, West African Religions, vols. 2-3, pp. 31-41.