Muhammad (c. 570–632 CE) was an Arab camel driver and merchant who became the founder and chief prophet of Islam. Muslims believe he is the Messenger of God, whose revelations were recorded in the Qur'an.

Names of Muhammad

Muhammad's name in Arabic is مُحَمَّد, which means "praiseworthy" or "highly praised." It has been variously transliterated in Latin script as Mohamet, Mohammed, Mahamad, Muhamad, and Mohamed.

When speaking or writing the name of Muhammad, Muslims follow it with an honorific phrase, which in Arabic is صلى الله عليه وسلم, romanized as sallallahu alayhe wasallam. In English this translates to "peace be upon him," which is often abbreviated PBUH. The abbreviation SAW may also be used, to represent the Arabic phrase.

Muslims also refer to Muhammad by a wide variety of titles, the most common of which are:

  • The Prophet, (أَلْنَّبِيّ, an-Nabī)
  • Seal of the Prophets (خاتم النبيين, Khātam al-Nabiyyīn)
  • Messenger of God (رسول الله, Rasūl’Allāh)

Biographical Sources

The primary sources for information on Muhammad's life are Islamic traditions compiled in the 8th and 9th centuries. The most important of these are the Kitāb al-maghāzī (Book of Military Expeditions) by Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq’ (d. 767/68), which is lost but was incorporated into Sīrat Muḥammad rasūl Allāh (Life of Muhammad, the Messenger of God) by ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Hishām (d. 833/34).

There are a few non-Islamic sources that provide more contemporary evidence for an Arab prophet named Muhammad: a Syriac chronicle (c. 640 CE) mentions a battle between the Romans and "the Arabs of Muhammad;" and an Armenian history (c. 660 CE) describes Muhammad as a merchant who preached to the Arabs and triggered the Islamic conquests.

The following biography follows the traditional Islamic narratives.

Early Life of Muhammad

Muhammad was born around 570 CE in Mecca on the Arabian peninsula. He was a member of the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hāshim.

At the time, Mecca was home to an ancient shrine and place of pilgrimage called the Kaʿbah. It was founded by the prophet Abraham, but had descended into polytheism and idolatry.

Muhammad's father, ʿAbd Allāh, died shortly before his birth and he lost his mother Āminah at the age of six. Muhammad was cared for by his paternal grandfather, ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib, until his death when Muhammad was eight.

For the remainder of his childhood, Muhammad was raised primarily by his uncle Abū Ṭālib, who recently became leader of the clan of Hāshim. As a young man, Muhammad worked with his uncle as a camel driver between Syria and Arabia. Soon he established a career managing caravans on behalf of merchants.

Throughout his travels, Muhammad came into contact with people of many nationalities and faiths, including Jews, Christians and pagans. During one journey to Syria with his uncle, Muhammad is recognized as a future prophet by a Christian monk.

When he was 25, Muhammad was hired by Khadījah, a wealthy Meccan widow 15 years his senior, to oversee trading of her merchandise to Syria.

The two were soon married and by all accounts had a loving and happy marriage. Early records state that "[Allah] comforted him through her, for she made his burden light." Although polygamy was common practice at the time, Muhammad took no other wife until Khadījah's death 24 years later.

Divine Revelation

In his late 30's, Muhammad took to regularly visiting a cave in Mount Hira, on the outskirts of Mecca, to seek solitude and contemplation. In 610, at the age of 40, Muhammad returned from one such visit telling his wife he had either gone mad or become a prophet, for he had been visited by an angel. The initially startled Khadija became his first convert.

Muhammad reported that while in a trance-like state, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said "Proclaim!" But like Moses, Muhammad was a reluctant prophet. He replied, "I am not a proclaimer." The angel persisted, and the Prophet repeatedly resisted, until the angel finally overwhelmed Muhammad and commanded him:

Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created! Created man from a clot of blood. Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous, Who teaches by the pen; Teaches man what he knew not. (Qur'an 96:1-3)

After receiving Khadija's support, and additional angelic visits, Muhammad became confident he had indeed been chosen as the messenger of Allah and began to proclaim as he had been commanded.

Muhammad's message to his countrymen was to convert from pagan polytheism, immorality and materialism, repent from evil and worship Allah, the only true God. He was always careful to clarify his role in God's work - he was only a prophet. He was not an angel, he did not know the mind of God, he did not work miracles. He simply preached what he had received.

In the first three years of his ministry, Muhammad gained only 40 followers. And as his teachings threatened the Meccan way of life, both moral and economic, he and his followers experienced heavy persecution. It first took the form of mockery, but soon turned into open violence. Members of the small movement were stoned, covered in dirt as they prayed, beat with sticks, thrown into prison and refused service by merchants.


Persecution continued to increase until Muhammad received some welcome news: he had gained followers in the city of Yathrib, 280 miles north of Mecca. The city was in need of a strong leader, and a delegation from Yathrib proposed that Muhammad take the job. In return, they pledged to worship Allah only, obey Muhammad and defend him and his followers to the death. Allah revealed to Muhammad his approval of this arrangement, and Muhammad made plans to escape to Yathrib. (See Mecca)

The leaders in Mecca heard of the planned escape, and attempted to prevent it. But Muhammad and his close friend Abu Bakr managed to make a narrow escape north out of the city, evading a Meccan search party and arriving safely in Yathrib. This event is celebrated by Muslims as the Hijira. The year in which it occurred, 622, is the date at which the Muslim calendar begins. Yathrib was renamed Medinat al-Nabi, "the City of the Prophet," and is now known simply as Medina, "the City." (See Medina)

In Medina, Muhammad proved himself an able politician and statesman as well as a prophet.

Exercising superb statecraft, he welded the five heterogenous and conflicting tribes of the city, three of which were Jewish, into an orderly confederation.... His reputation spread and people began to flock from every part of Arabia to see the man who had wrought this 'miracle.' (Smith, 230).

Battle for Mecca

After establishing himself in Medina and accomplishing the job he had been invited to do, the people of Medina began several years of battle with Muhammad's former home city. In 624, the Muslims won their first battle against the Meccans. As the latter had a much larger army, the former took the victory as a sign that God was on their side. However, a subsequent battle was not victorious, and Muhammad himself was wounded. But in 627, the Meccans attacked Medina, and Medina came out on top. The prophet was not to lose again.

In 630, Muhammad and his forces marched to Mecca and defeated it. The prophet rededicated the Ka'ba temple to Allah, witnessed the conversion to Islam of nearly the entire Meccan population, then returned to Medina. Muhammad died in 632, having conquered nearly all of Arabia for Islam.

Spread of Islam

By 634, Islam had taken over the entire Arabian peninsula. Within 100 years of Muhammad's death, it had reached the Atlantic in one direction and borders of China in the other. This success was due in large part to the military and political abilities of Muhammad's successors, the caliphs.


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  • Huston Smith, The World's Religions.