Part 6:
The Middle Ages














26  Submission



The Abrahamic religions also had an incarnation in the Arabic world in the form of Islam. The prophet Muhammad claimed to be the final prophet of God. Believing that the words of previous prophets had been corrupted over time, he set out to reveal God’s message in its true form once and for all.

Like the prophets before him, Muhammad fought for social justice by helping the poor, orphans, and widows. He also made important steps in expanding female rights. His toughest challenge, however, was to break the unending cycle of blood feuds that plagued sixth-century Arabia.

At the same time, Muhammad was also a successful warlord who singlehandedly united the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula through both military and diplomatic means.

We will start this chapter by giving an overview of Islamic thought, followed by a description of the most important events in the life of the prophet.


The People of the Book

Muslims consider themselves part of the Abrahamic tradition and even acknowledge the main Jewish prophets, including Nuh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Ishaq (Isaac), Musa (Moses), Sulayman (Solomon), and even Isa (Jesus). According to Islam, Muhammad (570–632) was yet another prophet in this tradition. Because of these similarities, Muhammad called Jews and Christians, whom he called the “People of the Book,” an “upright people” who ought to be treated with respect. According to Muhammad, it wasn’t even necessary for Jews and Christians to convert to Islam, as despite small theological differences, they venerated the same God:

Those who follow the Jewish faith […] and the Christians—all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds—no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. [1]

In particular, Musa (Moses) plays an important role in Islam. In the holy book of Islam, called the Quran, he is the most-mentioned character, especially in his role as lawgiver and leader of his people. Ibrahim (Abraham) is also of great importance. Through his willingness to sacrifice his own son, he exemplified perfect obedience to Allah (God), which made him an example for Muslims to follow. The importance of obedience to God is reflected in the meaning of the word “Islam,” which means “submission,” and the word “Muslim,” which means “one who submits.” By submitting to God, Muslims strive to be guided by the will of God.

According to Muhammad, all the prophets of the past had delivered one consistent message. We read:

There is no distinction among the prophets.

Yet God had to keep sending new prophets, as the people kept distorting his message by corrupting scripture. Whenever Jewish and Christian teachings deviated from his own, he saw this as evidence of corruption in the Jewish and Christian texts.

One such distortion, according to Islam, was the Christian notion that Jesus was either God or God’s son. In Muhammad’s view, Jesus was just another mortal prophet. The Quran also denies that Jesus died on the cross, although the text mysteriously claims it did “appear” that way. Instead, he was saved by God and ascended to heaven:

They said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”; but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself. [2]

Another distortion in Christianity, according to Muslims, is the idea of the Trinity, according to which God is one but manifests itself as God, Son, and Holy Spirit. We read:

O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah […]. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three;” desist—it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is he above having a son. To him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. [3]

Muslims also believe that the New Testament originally contained a prophecy that predicted the coming of Muhammad. We read:

And when Jesus, the son of Mary, said, “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad [Muhammad].” [3]

To solve the problem of the distortions once and for all, God decided to send his message one last time in the form of the Quran. With this book, Muslims claim to have the final uncorrupted word of God. As a result, God had no need for further prophets, making Muhammad the last prophet, also called the seal of the prophets. It is likely that Muhammad’s insistence on having the final word in all of history is one of the reasons Islam is so difficult to reform.


The Kaaba

Muslims also disagree with Jews and Christians which son Abraham was willing to sacrifice. According to Islam, it was not Ishaq (Isaac), but Ismail (Ishmael). This adaptation of the story cleverly placed the Arabs at the center of the Abrahamic tradition as Ishmael was considered the forefather of the Arabs (who were called Ishmaelites in the Old Testament).

Muhammad taught that the sacrifice of Ismail had taken place in Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace. In Muhammad’s day, Mecca had become a wealthy city. With almost no farmland in the area, they were almost entirely dependent on trade. This became lucrative in the 6th century, when the nomadic Bedouin tribes in the region invented a saddle that allowed camels to carry heavy loads. This allowed trade caravans from surrounding cultures to take the shortcut through the desert. Due to Mecca’s central location, it became an important stop along these new trade routes.

Fig. 1 – A camel rider from The Maqamat (13th century) (BNF, Arabe 3929)

Mecca was also the location of a shrine known as the Kaaba (see Fig. 1), which at the time of Muhammad’s birth was used for pagan worship and attracted an annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. In one of its corners, we find the Black Stone that was believed to have fallen from the sky (it might, in fact, be a meteorite).


Fig. 1 – The Kaaba (Richard Mortel, CC BY 2.0)

To attract business, the Meccans set up 360 statues of the patron gods of the tribes of Arabia around the Kaaba. Members of these tribes regularly visited the city to venerate them. The statue of the god Hubal was even placed inside the structure. We also read of three goddesses, known as Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat, who were often called the “daughters of Allah.” Allah himself was generally recognized as the creator of the universe, but he was seen as a more remote figure and had no statue.

Not everyone was happy with these statues. The so-called Hanifs sought to return to the “pure religion” (“hanifiyyah”) of Abraham, who, according to tradition, had forbidden the use of pagan idols. Some Hanifs believed that a new Arabic prophet would come to restore his message, while others converted to Judaism or Christianity. One of the Hanifs, Zayd ibn Amr (d. 605), was even driven out of the city for rejecting the Meccan gods. Although the Hanifs had little power, it is essential that Muhammad had contact with three of its leading figures.

Muhammad eventually appropriated the Kaaba and made it the most sacred site of Islam. He claimed the shrine had first been built by Adam after he had been expelled from Paradise. Noah later rebuilt the shrine after the Flood and Abraham rebuilt it once more when he visited Ishmael and his mother Hagar in the wilderness.


Allah the Merciful

Muhammad’s main goal was to break the cycle of blood feuds that was common among the Arabian tribes of his day. Anyone without formal protection by a tribal chief ran the risk of being assassinated or robbed without repercussions. In case injustice was done against a protected member of a tribe, its tribesmen would retaliate, sometimes hurting members that had nothing to do with the original crime. On top of this, powerful Meccans were often arrogant and hoarded money while forgetting the poor and denying orphans and widows their inheritance. Muhammad summed up these vices with the word jahiliyyah (meaning “ignorance”), a term also used to refer to the “barbaric” ways of pre-Islamic Arabia. Muhammad went to great lengths to instead promote hilm (meaning “gentleness” or “moderation”), which was characterized by patience, mercy, and forgiveness. It was also associated with good acts such as looking after the weak and liberating slaves. We read:

For true servants of the Most Gracious are they who walk gently on the earth, and who, whenever the jahilun [the ignorant] address them, reply “Peace [Salam]!” [1]

In line with this, the Quran often calls Allah “The Merciful” (al-rahman) and all but one of the chapters (suras) of the Quran start with:

In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate.

According to Muhammad, men of jahiliyyah act as though they are superior to others, while in reality they too are wholly reliant on Allah. They are ungrateful for what they have and refuse to share some of their wealth with the poor. The word “kafir,” which is often translated as “unbeliever,” also had this connotation of ingratitude. Islam, meaning “surrender,” offered just the opposite. It is about acknowledging our humble nature. This is also why the prayer position in Islam is a deep prostration before God. Unlike the arrogant Meccans, Muslims bowed before God like a slave, touching their head to the earth. On the Day of Reckoning, however, justice will prevail when God passes judgment over the dead and everyone will have to pay for his deeds.  

In line with hilm, the Quran also calls for the better treatment of the poor and the needy. We read:

True piety is this: to believe in God and the Last Day, the angels, the book and the prophets, to give of one’s substance, however cherished, to relatives and orphans, the needy, the traveler, beggars, and to ransom the slave, to perform the prayer, to pay alms. And they who fulfill their promises and endure with fortitude misfortune, hardship, and peril, these are the ones who are true in their faith. These are the truly God-fearing. [4]

The Quran also states that orphans should not be stripped of their wealth by their adoptive parents:

Render unto the orphans their possessions […] and do not consume their possessions together with your own; this, verily, is a great crime. [1]

Muhammad also preached that performing any of the Islamic rituals was meaningless without also helping the poor and the needy. Those who pray but then “mistreat orphans and scarcely work towards feeding the poor” make a mockery of faith. The rituals were also deemed inferior to doing justice, but were just a useful tool to keep people focused on God’s will. We read:

Their flesh does not reach God nor their blood, but your righteousness reaches God. [5]

Islam also advanced women’s rights. For instance, Muhammad allowed women to retain control over their property in marriage. Women were also entitled to the wages they earned and were entitled to an inheritance from their parents. The Quran also forbids female infanticide, which was very common at the time. Perhaps surprising to the modern reader, it would take centuries for the West to catch up with Islam in terms of women’s rights. Of course, not every verse from the Quran meets the modern standard of gender equality. For instance, we read a husband is allowed to strike his wife (although not severely). Muhammad himself, however, never hit any of his wives. According to the historian al-Tabari (839–923):

The prophet never raised his hand against one of his wives, or against a slave, nor against any person at all. [1]

Overall, it is fair to say that if Muhammad had not closed off all possibility for his followers to move beyond seventh-century morality, he would probably still be hailed as one of the great feminists. Interestingly, his biographers tell us that his leniency towards women was even used by his enemies to discredit him and was regularly unpopular among Muslim men.

Just like Judaism and Christianity, Islam did not ban slavery and men were also allowed to have sex with their female slaves. However, Muhammad did teach that freeing slaves was a moral choice and presented it as a way to atone for past sins. He himself freed a number of his own slaves during his lifetime.


The five pillars of Islam

The basic practices of Islam are referred to as the five pillars of Islam. The first pillar is called shahadah, which is a creed declaring belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet. It reads:

I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His messenger.

The second pillar is called salat, or prayer. A Muslim is required to pray five times a day in devout prostration, while reciting Quranic verses. This keeps Muslims focused on the will of God throughout their day. The third pillar is called zakat, or charity. Annually, Muslims are required to share a part of their wealth to support the poor and further the cause of Islam. The fourth pillar is called sawm, or fasting. All healthy Muslims must fast from sunrise to sunset during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, called Ramadan. The fifth pillar is called Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must undertake at least once in his life if health and finances permit it. During the Hajj, Muslims are required to wear simple clothing and remove all indicators of social rank.



One of the most crucial aspects of Islam is that it presents itself as a complete blueprint for how both an ideal Muslim and an ideal society should function. It attempts to encompass all aspects of life, including moral behavior, politics, law, trade, diet, dress codes, and so on. Over the centuries, these rules for society were combined into what is known as sharia law. Some of these laws were taken directly from the Quran, while others were deduced from decisions made by Muhammad during his life.

Nowadays, some laws from the sharia are viewed as problematic, such as cutting off hands for theft, stoning for adultery, and flagellation for drinking. Sharia law also does not recognize lawyers or appeals. Most controversially, sharia imposes the death penalty for leaving Islam. Of this list, however, the Quran itself only mentions the cutting off of hands for stealing.



Another important concept in Islam is jihad. In its benign interpretation, jihad means “struggle,” which refers to the struggle human beings experience to stay on the path of God and to live a good life based on their religious beliefs. There is, however, also a less benign meaning, namely, the “war against disbelief and the disbelievers.” The first generations of Muslims already used (or misused) this concept as a license to conquer their neighbors.

As we will see throughout this chapter, the Quran does not shy away from violence but generally condones it only as retaliation and only in proportion to the offense committed and Muslims must lay down their arms the moment the enemy asks for peace. For instance, when the Muslims were actively persecuted in Mecca, Muhammad told his followers:

And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight you, but do not be aggressors. Indeed, Allah does not like aggressors. And kill them wherever you find them, and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution is more grievous than killing. And do not fight them at the sacred mosque until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbeliever. And if they cease, then indeed, God is all-forgiving and merciful. Fight them until there is no persecution and until worship is for Allah [or, in a more benign translation: until your devotion will be to Allah alone]. And if they cease, there shall be no hatred except for evildoers. [3]

He also added that retaliation should only be against the individuals who transgressed and not against their tribe as a whole.

That said, Muhammad believed that forgiveness was better than retaliation, which Muhammad often practiced throughout his life:

Whoever pardons [his foe] and makes peace, his reward rests with God. [1]


He who shall forgo [retaliation] out of charity will atone better for some of his past sins. [1]

It is also explicitly forbidden to kill women, children, monks, and rabbis unless they take part in the fighting. The Quran also strongly prohibits the use of violence to convert people to Islam. We read:

There shall be no compulsion in religion. [3]


Heaven and hell

The Quran is also unusually explicit in its description of both the riches of heaven (Jannah) and the scourges of hell (Jahannam). In its description of hell, the Quran describes flames that crackle and roar, scorching wind, and black smoke. Its inhabitants are chained together while they are eternally tortured. We read that they are burned and have boiling water poured over their heads while they plead in vain for forgiveness. In contrast, heaven is described as a beautiful garden with beautiful maidens, precious stones, delicious foods, and flowing water. There are also rivers of milk, honey, and wine. Its inhabitants are happy and without hurt or sorrow. They are served exquisite banquets as they recline on precious couches in the company of their friends and family. Their greatest joy, however, is derived from being in the presence of God, who is seated on a throne.

Heaven is also inhabited by immortal female virgins, called Houri. According to Muslims, the martyrs of Islam will receive seventy-two of these beings when they arrive in paradise.


The life of Muhammad

According to Islam, Muhammad led an exemplary life, which Muslims are encouraged to imitate. To understand Islam, it is, therefore, important to study the biography of the prophet. The Quran is not very helpful here as it tells us little about his personal life. To counter this problem, various Islamic scholars, starting in the eighth century, began to collect sayings by the prophet and descriptions of his life that were in circulation. To judge their authenticity, they did their best to reconstruct how the information was transmitted over time. Together these stories form the hadith.

The first biography of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq (c. 704–765). In this source, we read that Muhammad was born in 570 in the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. His father died shortly before Muhammad was born and his mother died five years later. It was perhaps for this reason that Muhammad would later concern himself for the plight of orphans. Muhammad was adopted and raised by his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib (c.497–578). When he passed away three years later, the inheritance went to more eminent family members and Muhammad received nothing. He was then taken into the home of his uncle Abu Talib (c. 535–619), a well-respected leader of the Banu Hashim clan. In his teens, Muhammad accompanied his uncle Abu Talib on trading journeys to gain experience as a merchant. During these trips, he also came into contact with Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. His uncle Hamza (c. 570–625) taught him archery and sword fighting and his Uncle Abbas gave him a job managing caravans. As Muhammad grew up, he became a handsome man, with thick and curly hair, a full beard, and a smile of enormous charm. Initially, however, he had no luck with the ladies. When he asked Abu Talib for the hand of his daughter, he refused, since as an orphan he could not support her financially.

Muhammad eventually became a successful merchant. Due to his upright character, he acquired the nicknames al-Amin (“The Trustworthy One”) and al-Sadiq (“The Truthful One”) and was sought out as an impartial arbitrator to settle disputes. In 595, at the age of 25, his good reputation reached Khadijah (555–619), a 40-year-old widow whom Ibn Ishaq described as “determined, noble, and intelligent.” [1] Khadijah was known for her generosity to the poor and was a successful merchant herself. She had hired Muhammad to run one of her caravans. When a servant told her about the honorable way he conducted business, she sent someone over to ask for his hand in marriage. According to Ibn Ishaq, she explained:

I like you because of your relationship and your high reputation among your people, your trustworthiness, good character, and truthfulness. [1]

Muhammad hesitated because he had no money to support her, but the servant told him she had the means to provide for herself. The traditional sources describe their marriage as happy and supportive. They loved each other dearly and Muhammad relied on her for advice and emotional support.

Although polygamy was the norm in Arabia at the time, Muhammad stayed monogamous with Khadijah until her death 25 years later. Together, they had at least six children. His two sons with her died in infancy and of his daughters only Fatimah outlived him, and only by a few months. On their wedding day, Khadija gave Muhammad a slave named Zayd (c. 581–629). When his family came to ransom him, Zayd instead decided to stay with his new family. Muhammad then freed him and adopted him as a son. When Abu Talib got in financial trouble, Muhammad also adopted his son Ali (601–661).


The Night of Destiny

Some years after he married Khadijah, Muhammad began to take several weeks off every year to pray alone in a cave on Mount Hira near Mecca during the month of Ramadan. In the year 610, when Muhammad was almost 40 years old, the angel Jibril (Gabriel) appeared to him in his cave and commanded him to recite verses, which were messages from Allah. The first word the angel spoke was “recite,” after which Muhammad replied, “I am unable to read.” Then the angel caught hold of him and embraced him heavily, squeezing the breath from his body. This happened two more times, after which the angel commanded Muhammad to recite the following:

Recite in the name of your Lord who created. Created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most generous, who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not. No! [but] indeed, man transgresses once they think they are self-sufficient, but surely to your Lord is the return of all. [3]

This revelation deeply distressed Muhammad, thinking he had been attacked by a djinn (anglicized as “genie”), a member of a species of invisible creatures believed to roam the Arabian desert. In Muhammad’s days, some poets claimed their poetic verses came to them when they were possessed by these djinns. Shocked by this, Muhammad lost the will to live. He climbed the summit of the mountain in an attempt to fling himself to his death, but just before doing so, he had another vision. He saw a mighty being that filled the horizon and “gazed at him, moving neither forward nor backward.” He tried to turn away, but “toward whatever region of the sky I looked, I saw him as before.” [1] Afterward, he returned to Khadija crawling on his hands and knees. He was shaking, flung himself into her lap, and asked her to cover him with a cloak. Khadija insisted that the spirit he had encountered was not a djinn, as Muhammad had always been a good man. They then went to Khadijah’s cousin Waraqah (d. 610), a Hanif who had studied Jewish and Christian scripture. Excited about what he heard, he told the couple that Muhammad might be a new Abrahamic prophet: “Holy Holy. If you have spoken truth to me, O Khadija, there has come to him the great divinity who came to Moses aforetime, and lo, he is the prophet of his people.” [1] Afterward, Muhammad experienced a few more visions, but then the voice went silent. During this time, he felt depressed, yearning for a return of his divine guidance. He further devoted himself to prayer, but became convinced that God had abandoned him. After a few years had passed, however, the revelations resumed. The voice said:

By the morning sunlight, and the night when it falls still! Your Lord, O Prophet, has not abandoned you, nor has He become hateful of you. And the next life is certainly far better for you than this one. And surely your Lord will give so much to you that you will be pleased. Did He not find you as an orphan then sheltered you? Did He not find you unguided then guided you? And did He not find you needy then satisfied your needs? So do not oppress the orphan, nor repulse the beggar. And proclaim the blessings of your Lord. [6]

These revelations became the different chapters, or surahs, of the Quran (meaning “recitation”). Some of these sermons were written down by his listeners, while others were memorized. They were finally compiled in an official book about 20 years after Muhammad’s death. The purpose of the Quran was to serve as a “guidance for humanity.” Muslims generally believe the book contains the literal word of God, and therefore, a copy of the book in its original Arabic is treated with the utmost respect. It is even believed that the Quran is eternal and that it existed before creation.

After receiving a few more revelations, the voice said to him:

O you, enveloped in your cloak, rise and warn.

The time had come for him to preach God’s message to the public and find converts. This worried Muhammad, fearing others would dismiss his message, claiming he was either possessed or simply made everything up. At first, he shared his revelations with friends and family. Khadija, his children, and his friend Abu Bakr (c. 573–634) were quick to accept his message. Just like with early Christianity, a significant number of early followers were women and slaves. Among them was Bilal (c.580–640), an Ethiopian slave with an incredibly loud voice, whom Muhammad bought and freed after his conversion to Islam. Others, including Abu Talib, Abbas and Hamza were not happy with what they heard, fearing his message would divide their clan. Mecca, with no farmland, depended entirely on trade. If they would no longer embrace the gods of their neighboring tribes, they might lose their position as an important hub for commerce.

Others openly mocked Muhammad or asked him to confirm his message by performing miracles as Moses and Jesus had done. He admitted he was just a mortal like everyone else and could not do so. The only thing he could refer to was the Quran itself. This text, he claimed, was itself a miracle. The beauty of its language and the wisdom of its message could not possibly have been made up by a human being.

In 615, Muhammad was called by Allah to address the elders of the Hashim clan. Fearing rejection, he believed “the task was beyond [his] strength,” but he persisted anyway. During the meeting, he was quickly interrupted by Abu Lahab (c.549–624), who claimed someone had put a spell on Muhammad, after which the meeting broke up in disorder. The day after, Muhammad tried again, but again without success.

According to some early biographers—although this is not generally accepted—Muhammad so eagerly wanted to be accepted by the elders of Mecca that he began to chant verses in favor of the daughters of Allah. His biographer al-Tabari claimed these words were put on his lips by an evil djinn named shaytan (meaning “tempter”). Happy with what they heard, the elders of the Quraysh suddenly joined him in prayer. But at night, the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad and told him to retract his message, which he did. He proclaimed there were no gods besides Allah, again angering the elders of Mecca.

Soon after, the Quraysh tribe asked Abu Talib to disown Muhammad, which would leave him without a protector. Abu Talib asked him to stop preaching, but the prophet claimed he’d rather die and left the room weeping. Abu Talib then called him back and promised to never give up on him. To get Muhammad to refrain from preaching, the Quraysh also tried to bribe him by offering him admission to the inner circle of merchants, as well as an advantageous marriage, but Muhammad refused both offers.

Muhammad became so obsessed with convincing the elites, that when a blind man approached him with a question he impatiently “frowned and turned away.” Realizing what he had done, he vowed to focus his attention equally on the poor and the rich. The Quran, he claimed, was for everyone.

As time went by, Muhammad and his followers became actively persecuted. The master mind behind this was the obnoxious Amr ibn Hisham (c.570–624), whom the Muslims called Abu Jahl (“Father of Ignorance”). Especially Muslims without tribal protection were shouted at, were beaten, became the subject of malicious rumors, and their businesses were destroyed. Muhammad, despite his protection, was also insulted and pushed around by an angry mob. Umar ibn al-Khattab (c.582–644) even attempted to kill him. He walked with his sword drawn but was stopped by another Muslim, who distracted him by telling him his sister had converted to Islam. Umar found his sister secretly listening to a reciter of the Quran. In anger, he threw his sister to the floor after which he felt ashamed and started to read the Quran. Impressed, he converted to Islam. Or in another version of the story, Umar converted after secretly listening in on Muhammad reciting the Quran near the Kaaba. He claimed: “When I heard the Quran, my heart was softened and I wept, and Islam entered into me.” [1]

Some early Muslims suffered an even worse fate. Bilal was forced to burn in the sun with a huge boulder on his chest in an attempt to get him to denounce Islam. To put a stop to this, Abu Bakr bought him and set him free. A female slave named Sumayyah (c. 550–615) was killed by her master when she refused to give up her faith, making her the first martyr of Islam.

Abu Jahl also imposed a boycott on the Hashim clan which persisted for three years. Other tribes weren’t even allowed to trade food with them. Abu Bakr and Umar, who belonged to different tribes, managed to help them out. Despite all this, however, the Muslims persevered in their faith. God instructed Muhammad to be patient:

Be patient, [O Muhammad], and your patience is not but through Allah. And do not grieve over them and do not be in distress over what they conspire. Indeed, Allah is with those who fear Him and those who are doers of good. [3]

In 619, the “Year of Sorrow,” Muhammad faced even more setbacks when both his uncle Abu Talib and Khadija died. With the death of Abu Talib, the leadership of the Banu Hashim clan passed to one of Muhammad’s enemies, Abu Lahab. Without protection from Abu Talib, the situation became measurably worse for Muhammad. People threw filth at him and he was hit with a sheep’s uterus during prayer. To find himself a new protector, he traveled to a neighboring city called Taif, but they chased him through the streets as he had rejected their patron goddess al-Lat, one of the supposed daughters of Allah. Back in Mecca, however, he finally found a powerful man willing to protect him.

Around this time, Muhammad also married Aisha (c. 613–679), the daughter of his close friend Abu Bakr, who desired a strong family connection to the Prophet. Traditional sources describe Aisha as an intelligent woman with a sharp tongue who was by no means shy or submissive. For instance, when Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd divorced his wife Zaynab (c.590–641), Muhammad took her as another wife. Since it wasn’t clear whether this was allowed or not, Muhammad received a reassuring revelation in which Allah claimed that it was not sinful to marry the spouse of an adopted child. Aisha responded sarcastically: “Truly thy lord makes haste to do thy bidding!”

After Muhammad’s death, Aisha also contributed to the spread of Islam and dictated over two thousand hadiths. She even participated in a civil war over the succession of the caliphate known as the Battle of the Camel, giving speeches and leading troops on the back of her camel.

Over time, Muhammad would marry a total of 12 wives, which was done mainly to help out widows of his companions, to create family bonds with them, and to unite various clans.


The Night Journey

In 620, after seven years of preaching, Muhammad underwent the greatest mystical experience of his life, a miraculous Night Journey called the Isra, with the angel Gabriel. He had spent the night praying near the Kaaba, fell asleep, and then was awakened by Gabriel who transported him through the sky on a winged horse named Buraq (in art, this creature is often depicted with a human face, but the hadith makes no mention of this). The horse brought him to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the site where the Jewish Temple stood before its destruction in 70 AD. The al-Aqsa Mosque currently located at the site was built about 70 years after Muhammad’s death (see Fig. 2). Not much is written in the Quran about Muhammad’s magical journey, except for the following verse:

Limitless in His glory is He who transported His servant by night from the Inviolable House of Worship (referring to the Kaaba) to the Remote House of Worship (referring to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). [1]

Fig. 2 – The Temple Mount including the al-Aqsa Mosque (Andrew Shiva, CC BY-SA 4.0)

During the second part of the journey, called the Mi’raj, Muhammad ascended to heaven on a ladder. In the first heaven he met Adam and was shown a vision of hell. Climbing further, he met Jesus and John, then Joseph, then Enoch, Moses, Aaron, and finally Abraham in the seventh heaven. At the edge of the seventh heaven, he found a lote tree, beyond which even Gabriel could not follow him. Beyond the tree, he met God. The Quran writes about this:

At the Lote Tree of the most extreme limit in the seventh heaven […] he certainly saw some of his Lords greatest signs. [6]

God gave Muhammad instructions on how to perform the Islamic prayer. God first asked for fifty prayers a day, but Moses kept sending Muhammad back to God until it was lowered to five. His first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, presents the event as a spiritual experience, yet other writers believed it to be a physical journey.


The Hejira

In 620, Muhammad met pilgrims from Yathrib, a city which Muhammad later renamed Madinat al-Nabi (“City of the Prophet”), or Medina for short. The city was located in one of the rare oases of the Arabian Peninsula, which allowed for agriculture. Originally, it had been a Jewish town, but two Arab tribes, called the Aws and Khazraj, had moved in. The pilgrims had already heard of Muhammad’s reputation as a trustworthy merchant. They now also learned of the Quran and became convinced that he might be the prophet expected by various Jews and Hanifi in their city. As their city was plagued by tribal conflicts, they hoped Muhammad might be just the right person to help them out as an arbitrator (hakam). In 622, the city was willing to give Muhammad a chance. About 70 Muslims made the migration to Medina, known as the Hejira, which became the starting point of the Islamic calendar.

Just before Muhammad left, his new protector died. Immediately Abu Jahl convened the assembly of the Quraysh and convinced them that one member of each tribe should join in the assassination of Muhammad. In this way, he reasoned, there would be no vendetta, as the Hashim clan couldn’t possibly take on the entire city. They approached what seemed to be Muhammad sleeping under his cloak, but then discovered Ali was sleeping under his father’s coat, while the Prophet had already escaped through the back window.

On their way to Medina, Muhammad received a camel named Qaswa from Abu Bakr, who would remain his favorite animal companion throughout his life. Once in Medina, he waited for Qaswa to drop to her knees. On that location, he built the first mosque, which was a modest building where Muslims came together for prayer. The Prophet’s wives lived in simple huts next to the square in front of the mosque. Muhammad did not have a hut of his own but spent the night with each of his wives in turn. Bilal, because of his loud voice, was asked to announce the beginning of prayer from atop a nearby building. At first, the Muslims prayed in the direction (qibla) of Jerusalem, but this changed in 624 when the qibla changed to Mecca.

In an attempt to bring peace to the tribes of Medina, Muhammad dictated a document known as the Constitution of Medina. It stated that all inhabitants of the city were required to defend it against attack. It also listed rules about murder, blood money, ransoming of captives, war expenditure, and also promised equality and religious freedom to the twenty Jewish tribes of the city. We read:

To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided. [7]


The Jews of […] are one community with the believersthe Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs.

The new rules seemed to work at first, but when pagan Arabs saw Aws and Khazraj Muslims conversing peacefully, they recited poems to remind them of their former hatred for each other. When the two tribes began to fight, Muhammad intervened and stated:

Are you still tempted by the call of jahiliyyah [ignorance] when I am here among you? When God has guided you, […] honored you, and cut off thereby the bond of jahiliyyah from you, delivered you from a state of defiant ingratitude (kufr), and made you friends of each other. [1]

Ashamed of what they had done, they wept and embraced one another.

A greater problem were the so-called Hypocrites, who had on the surface embraced Islam, but did so purely because it was politically expedient. Their leader was Ibn Ubayy (d. 631), who remained critical of Islam despite his conversion. Some of the Jewish tribes, who feared the Arabs would soon overpower them, also sided with Ibn Ubayy, as did the pagan Arabs. At one moment, when Ibn Ubayy stoked up violence between Muslims, Muhammad was asked to execute him, but he refrained from doing so in line with his principles.


The Battle of Badr

Since the Meccan Muslims in Medina had no idea how to farm, they instead resorted to caravan raids (ghazu) to make a living, which was a common strategy among the nomadic Bedouin tribes of Arabia. During those raids, they hoped to steal camels and merchandise and capture prisoners for ransom. These raids seem at odds with the teachings of the Quran discussed thus far, but after being expelled from Mekka, Muhammad had received the following revelation:

Permission to fight back is hereby granted to those being fought, for they have been wronged. And Allah is truly Most Capable of helping them prevail. They are those who have been expelled from their homes for no reason other than proclaiming: “Our Lord is Allah.” Had Allah not repelled the aggression of some people by means of others, destruction would have surely claimed monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s Name is often mentioned. Allah will certainly help those who stand up for Him. Allah is truly All-Powerful, Almighty. [6]

After each of nine expeditions—the last one led by Muhammad himself—the Muslims came back empty handed. In 624, however, Muhammad sent another raiding party, this time during a sacred month when fighting was forbidden. His men shot an arrow, which killed one of the merchants of the Meccan caravan. While part of the merchants managed to flee, they did manage to capture some prisoners and some merchandise. Their next attack was against an important caravan led by Abu Sufyan (c.567653). Muhammad approached them with an army of 300 Muslims near the well of Badr. Aware of the plan, a Meccan force of a thousand men led by Abu Jahl came out in their defense. The confrontation became known as the Battle of Badr. Although Muhammad was outnumbered more than three to one, the battle resulted in a decisive victory for the Muslims, who killed at least forty-five Meccans (among them Abu Jahl himself), while only losing fourteen men. Muhammad interpreted this victory as the will of God and a confirmation of his religion.

On his way back to Medina, Muhammad realized that the biggest battle had yet to be waged—he still had a long way to go to successfully reform Medina by changing the hearts of its people. He spoke:

We are returning from the Lesser Jihad and going to the Greater Jihad. [1]

Fig. 2 – Angels sent by God to assist the Muslims in the Battle of Badr, from the Tarikhnama by Balami (14th century) (Smithsonian Institution, United States)

When a Jew of the Banu Qaynuqa tribe insulted a Muslim woman, Muhammad was called to arbitrate. When the chiefs of the Qaynuqa refused to accept his judgment, Muhammad laid siege to their fortress until they surrendered. Instead of killing the men and selling their women and children, as was custom, Muhammad spared them as long as they left Medina.

In 625, after Muslims captured another Meccan caravan, Abu Sufyan sent an army of 3000 men to Mount Uhud, where they clashed with Muhammad in what came to be known as the Battle of Uhud. Muhammad was again outnumbered three to one. When Muhammad was hit by a stone, injuring his face, word spread that he had been killed. As this was Abu Sufyan’s main objective, he retreated his army, while he could likely have wiped out Muhammad’s entire army. At that point, 65 Muslims had died, among them Muhammad’s uncle Hamza, who became one of the most important martyrs of Islam. The Meccans mutilated their corpses. It was said that Hind (584–634), the wife of Abu Sufyan, ate Hamza’s liver to avenge the death of her brother at the Battle of Badr. She also cut off Hamza’s nose, ears and genitals and hung them around her neck. To explain his loss, Muhammad conveniently received a message from God claiming their loss was a punishment for their disobedience and a test from God.

Around this time, another Jewish tribe known as the Banu Nadir was also looking for trouble. A chieftain from the Jewish tribe traveled to Mecca and wrote poetry that elicited feelings of revenge for the Battle of Badr among the Meccan listeners. When the chieftain returned to Medina, Muhammad had him assassinated. Muhammad also escaped an assassination attempt by a member of the Banu Nadir who almost dropped a boulder on him from a rooftop. As a result, he also expelled the Banu Nadir from Medina, who settled in the nearby Jewish settlement Khaybar.

Two years later, with the help of the exiled Banu Nadir, the Meccans attacked Medina once more in what is known as the Battle of the Trench. The Meccans had a force of 10,000 men, whereas Muhammad had only prepared a force of about 3,000 men. Medina was relatively easy to defend, as it was surrounded by cliffs and plains of volcanic rock on three sides. On the remaining side, the Muslims dug a huge trench and with the dug-up soil they built a high rampart. After a siege of two months, a rain storm devastated the Meccan camp and Abu Sufyan decided to retreat.

During the Battle of the Trench, the exiled Nadir Jews from Khaybar had supported the Meccan army. Within Medina, the Jewish tribe Banu Qurayza (not to be confused with the Meccan tribe Quraysh) had also helped out the enemy. Muhammad accused them of treason and defeated them in battle. The tribe hoped they too would be exiled, but as this hadn’t worked for the Banu Nadir, he instead decided to behead the 700 males of the tribe and sold their wives and children as slaves. Even the Banu Qurayzah, we are told, were not completely surprised by the decision.

Since the Banu Qaynuqa, Banu Nadir, and Banu Qurayza tribes were all Jewish, Muhammad is regularly accused of anti-Semitism, while in reality, he was only opposed to these tribes because they had committed treason. The other 17 Jewish tribes of Medina continued to live in the city in peace and remained free to practice their religion.


The wives of the Prophet

Muhammad had an interesting relationship with his wives. Unheard of at the time, he helped his wives with household chores. For instance, he mended his own clothes and tended his own goats. To the consternation of many Muslim males, he even allowed his wives to answer back to him. This frustrated some of his male followers. For instance, when Umar’s wife talked back to him and was asked to stop, she responded that the Prophet also allowed it.

After the Battle of Uhud, Muhammad married an aristocratic and distinguished woman named Umm Salamah, the widow of a cousin who had died in battle. Aisha, now fourteen years old, who came from plebeian origins, became extremely jealous and managed to divide Muhammad’s wives into two rival factions.

Umm Salamah helped Muhammad develop his stance on women. A group of women had asked her why females were so rarely mentioned in the Quran. Umm Salamah brought the question to the Prophet, who took some time to reflect on the matter. Three days later, he recited a verse in which he highlighted that men and women both have the same responsibilities and will be rewarded equally for good deeds by Allah:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so—for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. [3]

Shortly thereafter, an entire surah was dedicated to women. Here, we read that women can inherit, that an orphan girl cannot marry against her will, and that the dowry became the property of the woman who received it and could not be returned after divorce, providing women with economic security. Many of the Muslim males were not happy with these rules, but Muhammad insisted that these were the wishes of Allah.

Muslim women also complained that their husbands hit them, while the Quran forbade violence. As mentioned before, Muhammad was “always against the beating of women,” but he also had to retain the loyalty of his men while under attack from many sides. As a compromise, he received verses giving Muslims permission to hit their wives, though not severely.

Unfortunately, Muhammad was eventually forced to limit some of the freedom he had given his wives due to concerns for their safety. At the time, Muhammad’s enemies in Medina began to spread malicious rumors to discredit him. It was said Muhammad could no longer satisfy his wives and there was gossip that Aisha had been seeing a younger man. When Aisha and the man were eventually found together, even Muhammad started to doubt her, but she faced him calmly and convinced him that she was innocent. Muhammad then heard God confirm her innocence. In time, the attacks intensified. Some of his enemies said they wanted to marry Muhammad’s wives after his death, indirectly hinting at his assassination. Others insulted his wives to their faces and followed them in the dark while yelling obscenities. To protect his wives, Muhammad was commanded by God to put up a screen between his wives and visitors and also forbade them to remarry after his death. He also ordered them to wear a jilbab to avoid harassment. It is not clear what type of clothing this was, but many Muslims today identify it with the hijab. These rules only applied to Muhammad’s own wives. Another somewhat unclear verse in the Quran asks all women to dress modestly but only explicitly states that women should cover their chests in public. Yet within a few generations, the hijab became common for all women.


The Hajj

In 628, Muhammad made an extraordinary move. Inspired by a dream in which he saw himself in a pilgrim’s robe and with a shaven head, holding the key to the Kaaba, he decided to make the Hajj to Mecca. He told his men he would go to Mecca unarmed with whomever wanted to join him, claiming God had promised them a safe return. Umar objected, believing the Meccans would simply slaughter them, yet about 1,400 Muslims decided to take the chance.  When the Muslims were well on their way, the Meccans, under the leadership of Khalid ibn al-Walid (c. 592–642), sent 200 horsemen to stop them, but Muhammad evaded them by taking a more difficult route until they came into the sacred zone just outside Mecca where violence was forbidden. There he had his camels kick up sand to give away his location. Suhayl ibn Amr (c. 556-639) came over to negotiate. Muhammad finally agreed to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. According to the treaty, Muslims were allowed to enter Mecca for the Hajj during the next year as long as the Muslims ended their raids for a period of ten years (taking away the income of the caravan raids). Muhammad also promised to return Muslims who escaped Mecca without consent from their guardians, while the Meccans did not have to do the same in return. Many Muslims considered it a bad deal. Umar even admitted that if he had a hundred companions he would have defected. Things became even worse when the actual wording of the treaty was determined. Muhammad had dictated these words to Ali. He started with “In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful,” but Suhayl immediately protested, preferring the more neutral “In thy name, O Allah.” To the shock of many Muslims, Muhammad agreed without objection. He then continued: This is the treaty that Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, has agreed with Suhayl ibn Amr.” [1] This time, Suhayl interrupted because he did not believe that Muhammad was Allah’s messenger. Without complaints, Muhammad took the pen from Ali’s hand and crossed these words out himself. Many Muslims were outraged, but Muhammad was aiming for a higher goal they could not yet perceive. While the Quraysh of Mecca had been more than willing to kill unarmed pilgrims, which would have been the ultimate act of jahiliyyah, Muhammad had chosen peace:

When in the hearts of those who persist in unbelief arose the characteristic arrogance, the arrogance of jahiliyyah, then God sent down his peace of soul (sakinah) upon His Messenger and upon the believers, and imposed upon them the formula of self-restraint (hilm), for that was most befitting to them and they were most suited for that. [1]

The year after, in 629, Muhammad made the Hajj with 2,600 pilgrims. As agreed, the Quraysh evacuated the city and watched from a nearby mountain while the Muslim pilgrims entered the city. To not upset the Meccans, Muhammad had instructed his people not to celebrate their return and not to jeer at the Quraysh. When reaching the Kaaba, Muhammad kissed the Black Stone and made the traditional circumambulations around the shrine. Bilal then summoned the Muslims to prayer. The event was an immense triumph for Islam.

After the Hajj, Muhammad’s old enemy Khalid converted to Islam and came to Medina. He feared Muhammad would punish him, as he had killed many Muslims, but Muhammad forgave him, stating that “Islam wipes out old debts.”

Around this time, Muhammad received a Christian slave girl named Mariyya (d. 639) from the governor of Alexandria. She had no wish to convert, but Muhammad still grew fond of her and she even gave him a son called Ibrahim. It is said he lovingly carried his son through Medina, showing him off to the citizens and telling them how much he looked like himself. Unfortunately, this son died three years later, just before Muhammad’s own death.

Fig. 3 – Group of pilgrims on a hajj, from the Maqamat by Al-Hariri by al-Wasiti (13th century) (Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

In 630, the Meccans violated the treaty by supporting a night raid against one of Muhammad’s allies. In response, Muhammad sent a message to Mecca, demanding them to choose between paying blood money to his allies, disavowing themselves from their ally, or ending the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The Meccans picked the last option but soon realized their mistake, for Muhammad had grown too strong. The Meccans tried to renew the treaty, but Muhammad denied the request. He then marched on Mecca with 10,000 Muslims. Muhammad stated beforehand that anyone willing to surrender was immediately placed under his protection. Before the fight, Suhayl already knew the Meccans had lost. As a result, he converted to Islam and tried to convince the Meccans to surrender. With only a small group willing to fight, he seized control of the city with minimal casualties.

Once inside the city, Muhammad, riding on Qaswa, rode around the Kaaba shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” The shout was taken up by the troops and was soon heard throughout the entire city. Muhammad then destroyed all the statues of pagan gods in and around the Kaaba and urged the Quraysh to lay aside jahiliyyah. Many Meccans converted to Islam, although no one was forced to. Having no desire for blood reprisals, Muhammad spared almost everyone. Even Hind was granted forgiveness by Muhammad when she asked for it. She then converted to Islam. Muhammad decided not to rule Mecca and instead kept most Quraysh officials in place. Even his most hated enemies were reinstated, and sometimes even promoted. Suhayl converted to Islam after Muhammad captured the city of Taif and decided to share the booty with him.

The Muslims of Medina were afraid Muhammad would forget them now he was back in his home town, but as a token of gratitude, he decided to make Medina his home for the rest of his life.

There was one problem left, however. Ibn Ubayy was still alive and concocted a plot to kill Muhammad. When the plan leaked, most of his associates apologized and were pardoned, while three were shunned from the community for just two months. Not long after, Ibn Ubayy died. Muhammad stood beside his grave as a mark of respect.


The Farewell Sermon

In 632, during his last Hajj, Muhammad delivered his Farewell Sermon on Mount Arafat. [1] During his speech, he implored his followers to uphold his teachings after his death so that the Arab world would not sink back into anarchy. According to Ibn Ishaq, he began his sermon with:

O people, listen to my words. I do not know whether I shall ever meet you again in this place after this year. [8]

He reminded his people that he had abolished high interest on loans, ended revenge killings, and that each person’s life and possessions were sacrosanct. He then spoke about the duties both men and women have toward one another. He asked men to treat women kindly (albeit according to the standards of the time):

Now then, O people, you have a right over your wives and they have a right over you. You have [the right] that they should not cause anyone of whom you dislike to tread on your beds; and that they should not commit any open indecency. If they do, then God permits you to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely. If they abstain from [evil], they have the right to their food and clothing in accordance with custom. Treat women well, for they are [dependent] on you and [often] do not possess anything for themselves. [8]

He then went on to ask his followers not to steal from other Muslims:

Know for certain that every Muslim is a brother of another Muslim, and that all Muslims are brethren. It is not lawful for a person [to take] from his brother except that which he has given him willingly, so do not wrong yourselves.

In another hadith, documented by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855 AD), we also find the remarkable statement that both Arab and non-Arabs are in principle equal and differ only by their devotion to God:

O people! Your Lord is one, and your father [Adam] is one. No Arab is superior to a non-Arab, nor is any non-Arab superior to any Arab. No white [actually: red] is superior to any black, nor is any black superior to any white except on account of their piety [taqwa]. [9]

Muhammad concluded his sermon with: “O people, have I faithfully delivered my message to you?” “O God yes!” they replied. He repeated the same question a couple of times until the response rumbled like thunder through the valley. Muhammad then raised his forefinger to the heavens and said: “O Allah, bear witness.”

A few months later, Muhammad fell ill. Not long after, with his head resting on Aisha’s lap, he spoke his final words:

Most Exalted Companion in Paradise.

Aisha began to beat her breast, slap her face, and cry aloud—the traditional Arabic way of mourning. Some found it hard to believe, but the Prophet had died.