The Role of Muhammad (s)

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(Excerpted from the book "Islam" – An academic analysis of the life of the Prophet of Islam by Caesar E. Farah. Prof. Farah teaches History at the University of Minnesota and earned his Ph.D from Princeton in 1956.)

HISTORY RELATES OF MEN who distinguished themselves by deeds and left permanent imprints on their societies; of prophets who delivered the message of the true God to their peoples; of statesmen who distinguished themselves in the service of their nations; of authors who left monumental additions to the literary wealth of mankind; of conquerors who led their followers to victories, wealth, and renown; and of those who by force of personality or unusual calling succeeded in transforming values or completely revamping the societies into which they were born.

Muhammad , the prophet of Arabia, has fulfilled for his people a role that combines the functions – of a distinguished prophet, statesman, author, and reformer. He has earned for himself as a consequence the respect and reverence of countless people, Muslim and non-Muslim everywhere.

By vocation Muhammad was a prophet in the true Biblical sense with a message for his people, a message anchored in religious belief but aiming at the realization of fundamental social, economic, and political reform. The religion he founded was hampered by no wrangling creed or barrier to man’s relations with God or to his fellow man. He succeeded, both as prophet and as reformer. The fact that Muhammad’s mission was accomplished in his lifetime is a living testimony “to his distinctive superiority over the prophets, sages, and philosophers of other times and countries.” 1

While our knowledge of men who filled similar roles from Moses to Zoroaster to Jesus is shrouded with legend, often incomplete and frequently colored, and while the accounts of Muhammad’s life and deeds contain their share of incompleteness and coloring, the fact remains that he was the first to live and preach in the full light of history. We have more information relating to his career than we have of his predecessors. His life by and large is not wrapped in mystery, and few tales have been woven around his personality.2

For the biography of Muhammad we are dependent on the work of ibn-Ishaq (d. 767) as preserved in the recension of ibn-Hisham (d. 834). Ibn-Sa’d, a historian of the ninth century, compiled an encyclopedic work on the Prophet and his followers which contains valuable information on the life and preachings of Muhammad . But no source or work can yield more dependable information on the genius of Muhammad or provide a greater insight into his personality and accomplishments than the Qur’an, the sacred book of Islam.

While the Qur’an in Islamic theology – conveys strictly the word of God, it remains in respect to the message contained therein a true mirror of Muhammad’s character and his accomplishments. Complementary information is obtainable also in the sayings and deeds of the Prophet that have been amassed in voluminous quantities but carefully scrutinized by scholars of the early Islamic centuries. These non-canonical texts, which contain eye-witness accounts of Muhammad , fall under the category of hadith (utterances) and sunnah (observed conduct).

The life and preachings of Muhammad are in marked contrast with what Arabian society had ordained for his fellow Meccans. The established facts of his life have been subjected to much less variance of interpretation than those of preceding prophets. This is due to the circumspection of available sources.

He was born about 571 A.D., the posthumous son of ‘Abdullah and Aminah. On his father’s side he descended from the impoverished house of Hashim, adjudged by the Quraysh the noblest of the dominant aristocracy; on his mother’s, from the Najjar branch of Khazraj, a major tribe of Yathrib, his adoptive city. His grandfather, ‘Abd-al-Muttalib, formerly the custodian of the Kacbah and one time the virtual head of the Meccan commonwealth, took charge of his upbringing upon the death of his mother when Muhammad was only six years old. When the grandfather died, the care of the child was entrusted to his paternal uncle Abu-Talib.

Most of his youth was evidently uneventful as the lack of biographical information on Muhammad’s early life suggests. The most important landmark in his youth prior to the prophetic call is his marriage to Khadijah, a wealthy Qurayshite widow who was impressed by Muhammad’s personality and virtues when he served as a factor in her caravan trade with Syria. He was twenty-five at the time and she fifteen years his senior. The marriage lasted over fifteen years. During this period Muhammad would have no additional woman for a wife, an unusual disposition for the times when polygamy was widely practiced by his fellow Arabs. Yet these were the years that afforded him the happiness which escaped him, as an orphaned youth.

Khadijah bore him two sons, who died in infancy, and four daughters. Two of the daughters married the future third and fourth caliphs of Islam. His daughter Fatimah married his first cousin ‘Ali, the son of Abu-Talib, whom he had taken under his wing and raised as an act of gratitude when Abu-Talib, Muhammad’s uncle, died.

The mission of Muhammad began after a careful period of soul-searching and spiritual reassessment lasting over fifteen years. When the call to prophecy came at last, there was no turning back. He hesitated but he did not fail to respond.

Muhammad was a mature man of forty when he received the first revelation. It came to him as he was contemplating in a cave on Mt. Hira’, above Mecca, to which he habitually withdrew. The injustices permeating all levels of Meccan society in his days undoubtedly weighed heavily on his mind and caused him much anguish. The wealthy lorded it over the poor; the helpless were at the mercy of the strong; greed and selfishness ruled the day; infanticide was widely practiced by Bedouins who lacked adequate means of sustenance, and there were numerous other evils prevailing on all levels of Arabian society that had the effect of widening the gulf between the privileged aristocracy and the deprived multitudes of Mecca. With such considerations preying on his mind, Muhammad found himself confronted by a twofold crisis: spiritual and social.

In his early life he had understood only too well what poverty accompanied by orphanage meant. Now he had time to do something about both. It is important to note here that Muhammad’s preaching of monotheism and of social reform went hand in hand. Indeed, no other message is so thoroughly underscored in the revelations received from Allah with so much stress on equal treatment and social justice. To Muhammad these constituted a vital concomitant of worship. The revelations of the one and only God enjoin consistently the exercise of mercy and benevolence as the necessary adjuncts of belief in Him.

This dual role of Muhammad as preacher and reformer is largely evident in his life and career. What he sought was the cohesion of Arabian society through uniform beliefs and a unified faith. He knew this could be accomplished only through the worship of the one God alone and through laws authorized by the sanctity of divine command. With such laws Muhammad would bind the hitherto scattered ends of Arabia.

He preached belief in the one God, God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and the brotherhood of all Arabs in Islam, or “submission” to God.

To preach such a radical message in Arabia at this time was to be truly daring and, judging by the standards of the day, it was an undertaking fraught with risks and formidable obstacles. Muhammad himself was overwhelmed when he awakened to the awesome realities of the task he was being charged with. “No incipient prophet,” said Edward Gibbon, “ever passed through so severe an ordeal as Muhammad." Indeed, as the commandments of Allah became increasingly manifest in the revelations that were descending upon him, Muhammad undertook to show that the whole organization and institutional beliefs of pagan Arabia were not in conformity with the divine will. The voice of Muhammad amidst the strong chorus of opposition was indeed a lone voice. Yet he persistently challenged the moral and social norms governing Arabia, and particularly the values and institutional practices of Mecca, the hub of Arabia, under the powerful leadership of the Qurayshite oligarchy.


1. Frants Buhl, op. cit.

2. For a detailed account based on original sources of the known facts of his life consult Sir Wm. Muir, The Life of Mohammad ( Edinburgh: John Grant, 1923), pp. 13 seq.