8th June, 632, is considered by many as the date that the Muslim prophet Muhammad died.
Islam has since become the second largest religion in the world. Depicting its history can be a perilous path, with a delicate compromise having to be achieved between being sympathetic to what is recorded in religious sources and what is available from other historical sources, while also detecting ulterior motives and bias which are present in many histories of the religion and its key figures.
For Muslims, Muhammad’s ancestry can be traced directly back to Ishmael and then the prophet Abraham. This is questioned by many modern, western historians who although accepting the meticulous awareness of genealogy by Arab tribes in the Islamic period, are more skeptical of the records from the pre-Islamic world. This highlights the conflicts and disagreements that often arise from histories of ancient religious figures – often deeply contentious, it is close to impossible to find dependable sources which have not been shaped by some external context or agenda.
Muhammad was born to a humble family in Mecca, around 570 CE. His father had died before Muhammad was born, and his mother died when he was just six years old. Following the death of his grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad was raised by his uncle Abu Talib, the leader of the Hashim clan.
He started work as a merchant in Mecca, and at twenty five met his first wife, a wealthy widow fifteen years his senior. At this time Mecca was an important trade centre, whose population was mostly split between two polytheistic cults who believed piety to their gods maintained the lucrative trade in the region.
According to various sources on his life, at age forty Muhammad started hearing voices and seeing visions. Searching for an explanation, he would sometimes meditate at Mount Hira, near Mecca. During one of these meditations, Muhammad claimed to have been spoken to by the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel, a representative of Allah, instructed Muhammad to become an Arab prophet. This was the first of many religious revelations which came to be collected in the Qur’an.*
Believing he had been chosen as God’s messenger, Muhammad embarked on a life of preaching, hoping to convert as many as possible to what he felt Allah had revealed to him. The process was gradual, but by 622 Muhammad had gained a substantial following in Mecca who devoted themselves to the monotheistic religion he represented. In many ways based on Judaeo-Christian principles, but with new doctrines and a stress on devoting oneself to God’s will, Muhammad’s teachings proved attractive to many while also marking him as a threat to the city’s authorities. Aware of plots against his life, Muhammad fled Mecca some two hundred miles north to the city of Medina. Known as the Hijra, the move to Medina is now considered year one on the Islamic calendar.
In Medina, Muhammad founded a theocratic state and oversaw the creation of a powerful empire. Disjointed, polytheistic Arab tribes started to unite under the banner of Islam, and in 629 Muhammad returned to conquer Mecca. By the time of his death, Muhammad was the leader of all Southern Arabia, while Islamic missionaries could be found as far afield as Ethiopia and Persia.
Muhammad’s death saw the start of the split between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims that continues to divide the religion to this today. The Shi’a believed that the prophet’s successor should be his closest living blood relative, while the Sunni believed that the successor should be selected through consensus. A period of conquest also started after Muhammad’s death, with Muslim armies invading North Africa, Asia, and sections of Western Europe – most notably Spain.
* This article was edited on 9th June, 2015. The original wrongly suggested that the Qur’an was a depiction of Muhammad’s life.