An Outline of the Life of Muhammad


1. The Muslim Community at Medina.

Muhammad and the early Muslims soon settled in Medina though some of the Meccan emigrants suffered fevers from the change of climate. (Mecca is a hot, dry city whereas Medina is set in a fertile valley with a more humid climate). He often praised the virtues of the city that had accepted him as its leader. He stated that Allah would punish those who harmed its inhabitants, that it has its own way of driving out evil people, and that Dajjal (the Islamic equivalent of the Antichrist) would not be able to enter it. An indication of the depth of Muhammad's love for the city come out clearly in other proclamations he made about it, such as this one:

At the beginning of their stay in Medina, however, the early Muslims endured extreme poverty. Muhammad himself soon grew accustomed to the paucity of provisions and possessions and throughout his ten years as ruler of the city (and, in later years, of much of Arabia itself), he allowed himself on y the bare necessities of life. At Mecca he had married his second wife Sauda, shortly after Khadija's death and now in Medina, took Ayishah, daughter of Abu Bakr, as wife. Of all his wives, Ayishah was the only one who had never been married before. Muhammad was, in fact, betrothed to her when she was only twelve years of age. He had no apartment of his own but took turns in dwelling in the simple apartments he a built for his wives.

His followers also adapted to the new environment and a spirit of brotherhood soon developed between the Ansar and the Muhajirun. Up to fifty of the emigrants were taken individually as brothers by the citizens of Medina and were entitled to inherit from them.

Not all the citizens of Medina welcomed Muhammad. There were three Jewish tribes who caused him much trouble in and around the city, of whose fates more will be said later. Some of the Arabs also were unwilling to acknowledge his leadership but, as the city as a whole had taken him as leader, the disaffected parties generally gave a token outward acknowledgment of his leadership and acceptance of his religion and its practices. Behind the scenes, however, discontent was rarely quiet and Muhammad was constantly aware of the rumblings going on around him.

The leader of this group was one Abdullah ibn Ubayy. He had known nothing of the pledges of Aqabah and at the time had sought to placate the Meccans who were suspicious of the developing kinship between Muhammad and the citizens of Medina who had come to the fairs. Ibn Ubayy had in fact become one of the foremost men in the city and, were it not for the arrival of the Meccan fugitive, he might well have assumed the leadership of its inhabitants instead.

On more than one occasion in later years his followers plotted to replace Muhammad with their leader. At the Battle of Uhud to follow, Ibn Ubayy withdrew from the pending clash with his followers and, although he made an outward profession of Islam, Muhammad's companions constantly sought his demise. Muhammad himself forbade it, however, and at his rival's death even ventured to pray over his grave.

Nonetheless Muhammad was quite apprehensive about this potentially dangerous group and, in the Qur'an, these professors of Islam who gave it no more than lip-service are denounced as munafiqun, "hypocrites", and are regarded as the worst of unbelievers. A Surah of the Qur'an, appropriately entitled Suratul-Munafiqun, devotes its first eight verses to a particularly vehement condemnation of these pseudo-Muslims. A few of these verses speak for themselves:

Muhammad built his first mosque at Quba just south of Medina but his own mosque, the masjidun-nabi (the prophet's mosque), soon became the dominant place of worship in the city. It survives to this day, but has been greatly enlarged many times and today also encloses Muhammad's tomb.

When the Muslims first came to Medina they faced Jerusalem when praying. Not long afterwards, however, Muhammad changed this direction of prayer, the qiblah, to the Ka'aba in Mecca even though it was still an idolatrous temple. The rejection of his claim to prophethood by the Jews appears to have made him decide that Islam should be an exclusive faith separate from Judaism, and one with an Arab foundation. He had already identified himself as a prophet in the Bibilcal line, however, and to justify the change of direction from the bartul-muqaddas (the Holy House) in Jerusalem to the masjidul-haram (the Sacred Mosque) in Mecca, the Qur'an boldly declares that Abraham first built the Ka'aba with his son Ishmael as a house of worship dedicated to Allah alone!

A little further on in the same Surah comes the justification of the about-face in respect of the qiblah as well.

Islam was taking root as an exclusively new faith. The time had come for a more forceful spread of its dominion and influence and a ready-made opportunity lay close at hand in the form of Meccan caravan traffic to and from Syria.

2. Raids on Caravans and the Battle of Badr.

Medina lay right across the path of this caravan traffic and within a year of the hijrah, Muhammad sent out a number of raiding parties to intercept Meccan caravans but none of these was effective. The first raid to succeed took place in inopportune circumstances. During the second year of his rule in Medina Muhammad sent out Abdullah ibn Jahsh with seven others to Nakhlah, a site on the south Arabian trade route between Mecca and at-Ta'if. Two of the party turned back but the remaining six attacked a small Meccan caravan and killed one of its company, took two others prisoner, while the last man returned safely to the city.

There was nothing unusual about a raid of this nature. The nomadic Arabs have been caravan-raiders for centuries and inter-tribal raiding was a fairly common practice. This raid, however, was pursued in one of the four holy months (Rajab in this case) when the caravan crews were unarmed and fighting was prohibited throughout the peninsula. Worse still, the Muslim band had posed as pilgrims by shaving their heads an fell on an unsuspecting Meccan company completely deceive by their appearance.

On their return to Medina the whole city was shocked and dismayed at this flagrant breach of Arab custom. Muhammad himself refused to accept the booty at first but then, very conveniently, a "revelation" justifying the raid came from above, one which is now part of the Qur'an:

Because the Meccans had not accepted Muhammad's message and prevented the Muslims from obtaining easy access to the Ka'aba, the Qur'an states that, whereas fighting in a sacred month is indeed wrong, it is justified in the circumstances. Muhammad took one-fifth of the booty for investment in t e treasury and distribution to the needy, awarded the residue to the raiding band, and ransomed the two prisoners.

From this moment the impressive image of a tolerant prophet patiently withstanding oppression degenerates into the censurable image of a ruler sanctioning robbery, murder and the like by his companions a against all opponents of Islam. In the past biographers of his life were accustomed to draw a clear distinction between the prophet of Mecca and ruler of Medina but a closer examination of the new trend shows that is was purely a logical development of Muhammad's purpose establish Islam in the traditional way.

An analysis of the very next verse after the justification of the Nakhlah raid shows how consistent the outbreak of fighting in Islam was with the whole object of the hijrah:

In the original Arabic the verse up to the words "path of God" reads Innallathiina aa-manuu wallathiina haajaruu wa jaahaduu fii sabiilillah. The link between the word "haajaruu wa jaahaduu" is very significant. From the same root letters come the nouns hijrah (emigration) and jihad (warfare). Those who "suffered exile" (haajaruu) are also those who "fought" (jaahaduu) in the path of God. The hijrah was not just a flight from Mecca. It was a preparation for jihad. It o e the mainspring of the establishment of an ummah (community) that was to spread its influence through warfare. Muhammad's objective was to create a theocratic Muslim state and community by fighting those who stood in its way and who chose to resist it.

Later the same year one of the most important events in the history of Islam occurred. Apart from the smaller caravans a large caravan set out annually from Mecca for Syria. Muhammad knew of its return and prepared to capture it. Its leader Abu Sufyan, the most prominent man in Mecca and a descendant of Umayya, took steps to avoid the impending crisis and hastened home by the Red Sea. He got to Mecca safely but a messenger sent by him to the city saw to it that a large Meccan army of up to a thousand men was sent out to rescue the caravan. (In later years Abu Sufyan's son Mu'awiya took control of the caliphate and began the Umayyad dynasty which lasted nearly a hundred years. It was replaced by the Abbasid dynasty whose caliphs were descendants of Hashim, Umayya's great rival and great-grandfather of Muhammad).

Muhammad's companions heard of the advent of the Meccan army but, encouraged by Muhammad's declaration that Allah had promised him either the caravan or the army, the band of three hundred and fifty men marched on to Badr near the Red Sea where, in a swift engagement, the Muslims succeeded in destroying most of the Meccan leadership including Muhammad's great enemy Abu Jahl. The Meccans fled before the Muslim offensive leaving forty-nine of their number slain on the battlefield. The Muslim losses were only fourteen. Nothing more than a skirmish, surely? Perhaps - but one of the most fateful battles ever fought in history and to this day held in awe by the Muslims as Islam's finest hour on the battlefield.

Certainly the success was a tremendous tonic for the fledgling Muslim community and one which increased Muhammad's esteem in Medina. Islam was now firmly established and was . . . gaining ground.

3. The Battles of Uhud and the Ditch.

The cry for revenge, however, soon rose from the citizens of Mecca and a year later an army three thousand strong under the leadership of Abu Sufyan marched on Medina. At the plain beneath the hill of Uhud to the north of Medina they halted and plundered the fields round about. Muhammad counselled his warriors to remain in the city as it was easier to defend close in than out in the plains where the Muslims would all be exposed to the Meccan army which was vastly superior in numbers. His longstanding opponent Abdullah ibn Ubayy also pleaded with the citizens of Medina to stay behind but many of the more youthful combatants sought to go out and take the fight to the Quraysh and, as the victory of Badr was still fresh in the minds of all, their enthusiasm won the day and a thousand men ventured out to battle. The next morning Ibn Ubayy, displeased at the rejection of his advice, nonetheless treacherously deserted Muhammad with about three hundred men and returned to the city. The odds were four to one against the Muslims.

Superior motivation, however, soon assisted the Muslims to once again seize the initiative and the Quraysh were forced to retreat. But the Muslims pressed their advantage too far. Archers guarding a rear flank broke their ranks against the orders of Muhammad and recklessly joined the fray thus leaving their flank exposed. Meanwhile Khalid ibn Walid a Qurayshite general who later led many successful Muslim conquests, swept his mounted force around one of the hills on the plain and surprised the Muslims from behind. Their discipline gone, they soon fell prey to the Meccan cavalry. The Quraysh wreaked havoc among them. Hamza, the "Lion of God" was slain and his body later mutilated. Even Muhammad was so badly injured that the rumour soon spread that he had been killed. His closest companions, however, shielded him carefully from any further danger.

At the end of the day the Quraysh held sway but, for reasons which must remain a mystery, failed to press their advantage and withdrew from the field. The Muslims lost seventy-four men in the battle and the Quraysh twenty. Although the Muslims had not won the battle, the city of Medina remained unharmed. The outcome had serious implications, however, for Muhammad and his companions.

A revelation soon assisted Muhammad to quiet the misgivings of his companions. The Qur'an blames the warriors for disobeying orders and for seeking to share in the booty and states that God inflicted their reverses to teach them to obey orders and not to seek the rewards of this life.

After the battle Muhammad had a Qurayshite prisoner, Abu Azzah, beheaded for taking up alms on behalf of the Meccans a second time after he had been released at Badr (because he had five daughters to look after) on the condition that he refrained from joining in hostilities again. The prisoner pleaded with Muhammad to pardon him yet again but Muhammad answered him:

The following year the Quraysh returned with ten thousand men to vanquish Muhammad once and for all but he was informed in advance of the pending onslaught and had a trench dug on the northern flank of Medina which was exposed to open attack. The "Battle of the Ditch", as it is known, was no real battle at all. The Quraysh were thoroughly frustrated by the innovation and, despite a few individual contests, were unable to make any impression on the city. After a division between "the Confederates" (the Qurayshite army had many warriors from other tribes around Mecca in their contingent) and a severe storm one evening, they decided to withdraw.

The Meccan cause against Muhammad was now exhausted. Despite their efforts to gather such a large army for a final showdown, Muhammad's growing strength remained unchallenged. The Quraysh, exasperated, gave up their designs on Medina and the initiative lost was soon seized by Muhammad. The tables were about to be turned.

4. Muhammad - the Universal Messenger of Allah.

Let us pause in the narrative to consider the prestige and status of the prophet of the Arabs at this point when he finds himself able at last to take the offensive and begin preparations for a move on Mecca, already declared to be the

From being purely a warner, calling the Quraysh to turn away from idols to the worship of the one true God, the Qur'an now represents Muhammad as the last and greatest of all the prophets. He has become the vicegerent of God on earth and his image develops from that of a purely prophetic character to that of messianic proportions. The Qur'an has a number of supreme accolades for him.

1. He is regarded as a universal messenger sent by God, not just to his own people as all previous prophets had been allegedly sent, but to all mankind:

2. The Qur'an not only commands believers to send blessings upon him but claims that even God and all his angels do so in heaven above:

3. He is given the illustrious title rahmatallil-alamin, a "mercy to the worlds", another indication of the now universal character of his ministry:

4. Another exclusive title he assumes is khataman-nablygin, the seal of the prophets". As the last and greatest of God's prophets, he cannot be superseded by another prophet:

5. Obedience to Muhammad and obedience to God are by this time synonymous. Any disobedience of any command of the prophet of Islam incurs God's wrath and acquiescence in his will incurs God's pleasure:

The foundation was being laid not only for the final conquest of Mecca and Arabia but also for the conquest of the whole world till all be brought into subjection to Allah through obedience to his will as revealed through the prophet of Arabia, his universal and final messenger for all mankind.

Islam was now an autonomous religion, separate from Judaism and Christianity and professedly superior to them. Its prophet had developed from being a lone human voice against Arab paganism into the voice of God calling all men everywhere to his religion, al-Islam. As we shall see in the next chapter, however, the universal nature of Islam was nonetheless simultaneously restricted by the personal failings of its prophet and its claim to supersede all other faiths was compromised by a clear deterioration in the character of its founder during his years of power as leader in Medina.

5. The Treaty of Hudaybiyah.

While gaining ground nearer home by various raids, Muhammad continued to cherish a return to Mecca and the next year led one-and-a-half-thousand pilgrims to the city for the umra, the lesser pilgrimage. He chose one of the holy months in which war was forbidden, donned the white pilgrim garments traditionally worn for the venture, took the required number of camels for sacrifice, and bade his men carry only a small sword at their sides - the usual form of protection for pilgrim travellers. Although the group was fitted out purely for pilgrimage purposes, the Quraysh were soon alarmed and at al-Hudaybiyah, just outside Mecca where the Muslims stopped, the two parties met. A small deputation came out to discover Muhammad's intentions while the rest prepared the defence of the city. One of the leading Muslims who was later to become the third Caliph, Uthman, went back with a deputation into the city and when his return was delayed, the Muslims suspected he had been killed and prepared to defend themselves. Under a tree each one took a pledge to stand by Muhammad and Uthman, a pledge often remembered by Muhammad as one which evidenced the supreme loyalty of his companions. This devotion was not lost on the Meccan deputation who soon ensured that the Quraysh were suitably impressed by it.

Uthman returned safely despite their fears and with him a leading Meccan, Suhail ibn Amr, who was given a mandate to negotiate a ten-year truce with Muhammad and advise him that he could not enter the city that year but could return the following year when the Quraysh would evacuate it for three days to allow Muhammad and his companions to perform the pilgrimage.

Muhammad duly negotiated a treaty with Suhail, one which keenly upset many of his devoted followers. Umar objected to the whole proceedings on the principle that true Muslims had been called upon to fight and resist infidels and not to negotiate with them on equal terms:

Indeed, far from concluding an equitable agreement, Muhammad appeared to have agreed to terms humiliating to the Muslims. It was stipulated that any member of the Quraysh who became a Muslim and sought to go over to the Muslims was to be returned to Mecca. If any of the Muslims wished to return to Mecca of his own accord, however, he was free to do so and was not to be returned by the Quraysh. The reaction of the party to this unfavourable provision is plainly set out in the following hadith:

Muhammad incurred the further wrath of his company when he acquiesced in the demands of Suhail that the treaty should not be headed with the usual Muslim invocation Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim (In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful), but rather in the words chosen by the Quraysh: Bi'ismika Allahumma (In thy Name, O Allah). The offence was compounded when Muhammad even agreed that he should be described simply as Muhammad ibn Abdullah (Muhammad son of Abdullah) and not Muhammadur-Rasulullah (Muhammad the Messenger of Allah). Another hadith tells us the whole story:

Ali's displeasure was soon expressed in the same way that Umar had vented his grievances. Had Muhammad not commanded an unswerving loyalty from his followers, this could have been a moment of crisis for him.

Muhammad then duly struck out the words himself. But, as happened on so many similar occasions when the early Muslims were perplexed about some action or decision of their prophet, a timely revelation in the Qur'an soon settled the issue. The treaty was proclaimed as a victory, notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary.

One of the most prominent Western biographers of Muhammad's life certainly saw it as such and the events which succeeded it do lend much support to this claim.

One of the early successes enjoyed by Muhammad as a result of the treaty was the allegiance of the tribe of Khuza'a. Free to exploit the conclusion of further alliances and concentrate on the elimination of threats from hostile tribes nearer home, he soon set about strengthening his position. The strong Jewish fortress of Khaibar north of Medina was besieged and brought into subjection as well.

A year later a much stronger Muhammad returned to Mecca to duly perform the pilgrimage. The Quraysh left the city unattended for three days as agreed and watched with mixed feelings as Muhammad, clearly enjoying the total devotion of his supporters, honoured the holy places of Mecca and paid his respects to the Ka'aba. Consciously or otherwise, Meccan resistance to Islam was steadily being worn down. The inhabitants of the city, weary of warfare with Muhammad, one of their own kinsmen, now beheld his sustained devotion to their shrine and the city of his birth.

Khalid ibn Walid, the great Meccan general who turned the tide for the Quraysh at Uhud, went over to the Muslim side with a few other leading men of Mecca. The final conquest of Mecca was now becoming a vivid possibility and one enhanced by the probable defection en masse of all of its inhabitants to Islam.

In the meantime Muhammad despatched an army of about three thousand men to Muta, a town on the borders of Syria. Here for the first time the Muslims met the strong Byzantine armies and, after putting up a brave but hopeless fight under Khalid's leadership against a force vastly superior in numbers, the Muslims withdrew. Some important men were lost in the battle, however, including Muhammad's adopted son and early convert Zaid ibn Haritha. The indecisive battle nevertheless prepared the way for the great onslaughts to follow after Muhammad's death under the caliphates of Abu Bakr an Umar respectively.

At home his dominion remained ever on the increase and the major obstacle in his path - Mecca - was ready to be tackled. The final triumph of Islam in Arabia was fast approaching and the rolling tide of success was not to be turned back. Before considering it, however, let us examine a chapter in Muhammad's life at Medina hitherto overlooked - his relationships with the Jewish tribes in and around the city.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents
Answering Islam Home Page