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The founder of Islam was born
into a family of comfortable means in Mecca in the year 570 and was raised
by his relatives following his mother's untimely death. He was not the oldest
son, and so inherited nothing from his father. He married a wealthy merchant
woman named Khadijah, however, and soon increased the couple's fortune. She
bore him two sons, both of whom died young, and four daughters, the most famous
being Fatimah. Mohammed's marriage to Khadijah signaled a turning point in
his life, and he married no other until after her death. As the years passed,
he became more contemplative and concerned about the affairs of the Arab peoples
in general, lamenting their divisiveness and petty wars. He admired for a time
the solidarity of the Jews and came to a deep appreciation of the role of faith
in their community.
In 610, as the economic good fortune Mecca enjoyed because of its dominance
of Eastern trade was threatened by growing tribal violence, Mohammed had a
divinely inspired vision. According to the Koran, the angel Gabriel informed
Mohammed at this time that he was the messenger of God. More revelations followed.
These were written down by Mohammed's followers and became the basis for the
Koran. Mohammed preached against the quarrels between the wealthy families
of Mecca and ordered them to take greater responsibility in the care of the
poor. He also instructed them to put away their idols and the worship of other
deities and recognize Allah as the one true God rather than just the leader
of the traditional Arab pantheon.
Mohammed's message was not well received by those in power, who saw him as
a threat to their authority. When his wife died in 619, the wealth of her clan
came under the control of the eldest male, who was closer to the merchant families
than to Mohammed and who withdrew the clan's protection from the Prophet, as
his followers called Mohammed. In 622, Mohammed fled to Medina and established
a new religious center. While gathering the faithful around him, Mohammed came
increasingly to desire the unification of the Arabs. He personally led raids
on Meccan caravans during pagan holy days to underscore his opposition to their
idolatry. He also changed his attitude toward the Jews, especially the members
of a wealthy Jewish clan in Medina, some of whom had been sympathetic to his
religious views and had shared his company. Initially he tried to make concessions
to the Jews so they would recognize him as a prophet, but he quickly decided
that the cause of Arab unity was more important. While previously the Muslims
had faced Jerusalem in prayer, a new revelation now commanded the Prophet and
his followers to face Mecca.
After defeating a large force of his Meccan rivals, Mohammed won over the
loyalty of the people of the now holy city. He initiated a vigorous policy
of forming alliances between the various tribes, and by 630 was the most powerful
man in Arabia. That year he raised a force of thirty thousand men and forced
the Syrians into an alliance. He was aided in these efforts by the recent defeat
of the Persians by the Byzantine (eastern Roman) Empire in 628. Those tribes
who had initially looked to the Persians for protection now looked to Mohammed.
By 632, the Prophet's health was broken. He died that year in Medina without
making any provision for the succession.
Although Mohammed did not live to see a united Arab empire (indeed, the Muslim
world would always be deeply divided), within two centuries Muslim armies had
conquered North Africa and Spain and would continue to threaten various parts
of Europe until roughly the sixteenth century. From the seventh century on,
the Islamic world had a powerful influence on European politics and intellectual
life. Much of our knowledge of the ancient classics, for example, comes from
the Islamic world, where Greek philosophy continued to be studied long after
it was forgotten in the West. Many manuscripts lost in their original Greek
or Latin versions were preserved in Arabic.
Today, Islam extends well beyond the Middle East. It is one of the three major
religions and continues to be an important force in the world.
Works by the Author
Mohammed. The Koran. Translated by E.H. Palmer. Oxford: Oxford University
Mohammed. The Koran. Translated by Edward W. Lane. Mt. Vernon: Peter
Pauper Press, 1940.
Mohammed. The Holy Qur-an. 3d ed. Translated by Maulvi Muhammad Ali.
Punjab: Ahmadiyya Anjuman-I-Ishaat-I-Islam-Lahore, 1935.
Mohammed. The Holy Qur-an. 4th ed. Translated by Maulvi Muhammad
Ali. Lahore: 1951.
Mohammed. A Book of Quranic Laws. Translated by Mohammed Valibhai
Merchant. Lahore: Muhammad Ashrof Kashmiri Bazar, 1970.
Mohammed. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. Translated by Marmaduke
Pickthall. New York: A Mentor Book, 1954.
Mohammed. The Holy Qur-an. 2 vols. Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
Cambridge: Murray Publishing Company for Hafner Publishing Company of New York,
Mohammed. The Koran. Translated by J. M. Rodwell. New York: E.P.
Dutton & Company, 1915.
Mohammed. The Koran. Translated by Henry Mercier and Lucien Tremlett
(trans. from French). London: Luzae & Co. LTD., 1956.
Works about the Author
Jeffery, Arthur, ed. Islam. New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1958.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
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