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.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 10, 2014