Early Western Civilization

The Return to Mecca, Muhammad and the Beginnings of Islam

Muhammad, whose full name was Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn \'Abd Allah ibn

\'Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, was born in Mecca around 570 AD after the
death of his father, \'Abd Allah. Muhammad was at first under the care
of his paternal grandfather, \'Abd al-Muttalib. Because the climate of

Mecca was considered to be unhealthful, he was given as an infant to a
wet nurse from a nomadic tribe and spent some time in the desert. At
six, he lost his mother, Aminah of the clan of Zuhra, and at eight his
grandfather. Though his grandfather had been head of the prestigious

Hashem clan and was prominent in Mecca politics, he was probably not the
leading man in Mecca as some sources suggest. Muhammad came under the
care of the new head of the clan, his uncle Abu Talib, and is reputed to
have accompanied him on trading journeys to Syria. About 595, on such a
journey, he was in charge of the merchandise of a rich woman, Khadijah
of the clan of Asad, and so impressed her that she offered marriage.

She is said to have been about 40, but she bore Muhammad at least two
sons, who died young, and four daughters. The best known daughter was

Fatimah, the wife of Muhammad\'s cousin \'Ali who is regarded as

Muhammad\'s divinely ordained successor by the Shi\'ah branch of Islam.

Until Khadijah\'s death in 619, Muhammad took no other wife. The
marriage was a turning point in Muhammad\'s life. By Arab custom, minors
did not inherit, and therefore Muhammad had no share in the property of
his father or grandfather. However, by his marriage he obtained
sufficient capital to engage in mercantile activity on a scale
commensurate with his abilities.

Muhammad appears to have been of a reflective turn of mind and is said
to have adopted the habit of occasionally spending nights in a hill cave
near Mecca. The poverty and misfortunes of his early life doubtless
made him aware of tensions in Meccan society. Mecca, inhabited by the
tribe of Quraysh to which the Hashim clan belonged, was a mercantile
center formed around a sanctuary, the Ka’bah, which assured the safety
of those who came to trade at the fairs. In the later 6th century there
was extensive trade by camel caravan between the Yemen and the

Mediterranean region (Gaza and Damascus), bringing goods from India and

Ethiopia to the Mediterranean. The great merchants of Mecca had
obtained monopoly control of this trade. Mecca was thus prosperous, but
most of the wealth was in a few hands. Tribal solidarity was breaking
up and merchants pursued individual interests and disregarded their
traditional duties to the unfortunate. About 610, as he reflected on
such matters, Muhammad had a vision of a majestic being (later
identified with the angel Gabriel) and heard a voice saying to him, "You
are the Messenger of God. " This marked the beginning of his career as
messenger of Allah, or Prophet. From this time, at frequent intervals
until his death, he received "revelations"; that is, verbal messages
that he believed came directly from God. Sometimes these were kept in
memory by Muhammad and his followers, and sometimes they were written
down. About 650 they were collected and written in the Qur\'an (or

Koran, the sacred scriptures of Islam), in the form that has endured.

Muslims believe the Qur\'an is divine revelation, written in the words of

God himself.

Muhammad is said to have been perturbed after the vision and first
revelation but was reassured by his wife, Khadijah. In his later
experiences of receiving messages, there was normally no vision.

Occasionally, there were physical concomitants, such as perspiring on a
cold day, giving rise to the suggestion, now agreed to be unwarranted,
that he was an epileptic. Sometimes he heard a noise like a bell but
apparently never a voice. The essence of such an experience was that he
found a verbal message in his heart; that is, in his conscious mind.

With the help of Khadijah’s Christian cousin Waraqah, he came to
interpret these messages as identical with those sent by God through
other prophets to Jews, Christians, and others. He also came to believe
that by the first great vision, and by the receipt of the messages, he
was commissioned to communicate them to his fellow citizens and other

Arabs. Along with proclaiming the messages he received, Muhammad must
have offered explanations and expositions of them in his own words, as
is evident in the large body of prophetic traditions that the community
has preserved.

Soon he gathered some sympathetic friends who