Muhammad, was the final prophet of Islam. Islam is considered by Muslims to be the final step in the revelation of a monotheist religion of which earlier versions were the teachings of Moses, Jesus and the other prophets.
Muhammad is said to have been a merchant who traveled widely. Early Muslim sources report that in 611, at about the age of forty, while meditating in a cave near Mecca, he experienced a vision. Later he described the experience to those close to him as a visit from the Angel Gabriel, who commanded him to memorize and recite the verses later collected as the Qur’an. Gabriel told him that God had chosen him as the last of the prophets to mankind. He eventually expanded his mission as a prophet, publicly preaching a strict monotheism and predicting a Day of Judgement for sinners and idol-worshippers – such as his tribesmen and neighbors in Mecca. He was a successful leader on both religious and political levels. He did not completely reject Judaism and Christianity, two other monotheistic faiths known to the Arabs; he said to have been sent by God in order to complete and perfect their teachings. He soon acquired a following by some and rejection and hatred by others in the region. In 622 he was forced to flee from Mecca and settle in Yathrib with his followers, where he was the leader of the first avowedly Muslim community. War between Mecca and Medina followed, in which Muhammad and his followers were eventually victorious. The military organization honed in this struggle was then set to conquering the other pagan tribes of Arabia. By the time of Muhammad’s death, he had unified Arabia and launched a few expeditions to the north, towards Syria and Palestine.
Under Muhammad’s immediate successors the Islamic empire expanded into Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. Later conquests, commercial contact between Muslims and non-Muslims, and missionary activity spread Islam over much of the globe.
How do we know about Muhammad?
The sources available to us for information about Muhammad are the Qur’an, the sira biographies, and the hadith collections. While the Qur’an is not a biography of Muhammad, it does provide some information about his life. The earliest surviving biographies are the Life of the Apostle of God, by Ibn Ishaq, edited by Ibn Hisham ; and al-Waqidi’s biography of Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq wrote his biography some
120 to 130 years after Muhammad’s death. The third source, the hadith collections, like the Qur’an, are not a biography per se. They are stories of the words and actions of Muhammad and his companions.
Some skeptical scholars have raised doubts about the reliability of these sources, especially the hadith collections. They argue that by the time the oral traditions were being collected, the Muslim community had fractured into rival sects and schools of thought. Each sect and school had its own sometimes conflicting traditions of what Muhammad and his companions had done and said. Traditions multiplied, and Muslim scholars made a strenuous effort to weed out what they felt were spurious stories. Traditionalists rely on their efforts; the skeptics feel that the question must be revisited, using modern methods.
Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike agree that there are many inauthentic traditions concerning the life of Muhammad in the hadith collections. A very small minority called the “Quran Alone Muslims” consider all hadith as unreliable.
However, the historicity of the biographical material about Muhammad presented in the Summary above is not generally contested. Traditionalists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, paint a much more detailed picture of Muhammad’s life, as described below.
Muhammad’s life according to Sira.
According to tradition, Muhammad traced his genealogy back as far as Adnan, whom the northern Arabs believed to be their common ancestor. Adnan in turn is said to be a descendant of Ismaeel, son of Ibrahim though the exact genealogy is disputed. Muhammad’s genealogy up to Adnan is as follows:
Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim ibn Abd Manaf ibn Qusai ibn Kilab ibn Murra ibn Ka`b ibn Lu’ay ibn Ghalib ibn Fahr ibn Malik ibn an-Nadr ibn Kinana ibn Khuzaimah ibn Mudrikah ibn Ilyas ibn Mudar ibn Nizar ibn Ma`ad ibn Adnan. .
His nickname was Abul-Qasim, “father of Qasim”, after his short-lived first son.
Muhammad was born into a well-to-do family settled in the northern Arabian town of Mecca. Some calculate his birthdate as April 20, 570 , and some as 571; tradition places it in the Year of the Elephant. Muhammad’s father, Abdullah, had died before he was born and the young boy was brought up by his paternal grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, of the tribe of Quraysh. Tradition says that as an infant, he was placed with a Bedouin wetnurse, Halima, as desert life was believed to be safer and healthier for children. At the age of six, Muhammad lost his mother Amina, and at the age of eight his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib. Muhammad now came under care of his uncle Abu Talib, the new leader of the Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe, the most powerful in Mecca.
Mecca was a thriving commercial center, due in great part to a stone temple called the Kaaba that housed many different idols. Merchants from different tribes would visit Mecca during the pilgrimage season, when all inter-tribal warfare was forbidden and they could trade in safety.
As a teenager Muhammad began accompanying his uncle on trading journeys to Syria. He thus became well-travelled and knowledgeable as to foreign ways.
One of Muhammad’s employers was Khadijah, a rich widow then forty years old. The young twenty-five-year old Muhammad so impressed Khadijah that she offered him marriage in the year 595. He became a wealthy man by this marriage. By Arab custom minors did not inherit, so Muhammad had received no inheritance from either his father or his grandfather.
Ibn Ishaq records that Khadijah bore Muhammad five children, one son and four daughters. All of Khadija’s children were born before Muhammad started preaching about Islam. His son Qasim died at the age of two. The four daughters are said to be Zainab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum, and Fatimah. The Shi’a say that Muhammad had only the one daughter, Fatima, and that the other daughters were either children of Khadijah by her previous marriage, or children of her sister.
The first revelations.
Muhammad had a reflective turn of mind and routinely spent nights in a cave near Mecca in meditation and thought. Around the year 610, while meditating, Muhammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel and heard a voice saying to him in rough translation “Read in the name of your Lord the Creator. He created man from something which clings. Read and your Lord is the Most Honored. He taught man with the pen; taught him all that he knew not”.
The first vision of Gabriel disturbed Muhammad, but his wife Khadijah reassured him that it was a true vision and became his first follower. She was soon followed by his ten-year-old cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib and Abu Bakr, whom Sunnis assert to have been Muhammad’s closest friend.
Until his death, Muhammad received frequent revelations, although there was a relatively long gap after the first revelation. This silence worried him, until he received surat ad-Dhuha, whose words provided comfort and reassurance.
Around 613, Muhammad began to spread his message amongst the people. Most of those who heard his message ignored it. A few mocked him. Some, however, believed and joined his small group.
As the ranks of Muhammad’s followers swelled, he became a threat to the local tribes and the rulers of the city. Their wealth, after all, rested on the Ka’aba, a sacred house of idols and the focal point of Meccan religious life. If they threw out their idols, as Muhammad preached, there would be no more pilgrims, no more trade, and no more wealth. Mohammed’s denunciation of polytheism was especially offensive to his own tribe, the Quraysh, as they were the guardians of the Ka’aba. Muhammad and his followers were persecuted. Some of them fled to Abyssinia and founded a small colony there.
Several suras and parts of suras are said to date from this time, and reflect its circumstances: see for example al-Masadd, al-Humaza, parts of Maryam and al-Anbiya, al-Kafirun, and Abasa. It was during this period that the episode known as the Satanic Verses may have occurred. It is said that Muhammad was briefly tempted to relax his condemnation of Meccan polytheism and buy peace with his neighbors, but later recanted his words and repented. The incident is reported in only a few sources, and Muslims disagree as to its authenticity.
In 619, both Muhammad’s wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib died; it was known as “the year of mourning”. Muhammad’s own clan withdrew their protection of him. Muslims patiently endured hunger and persecution. It was a bleak time.
About 620, he announced that he had gone on a heavenly journey – the Isra and Miraj – further alienating his enemies.
By 622, life in the small Muslim community of Mecca was becoming not only difficult, but dangerous. Muslim traditions say that there were several attempts to assassinate Muhammad. Muhammad then resolved to emigrate to Medina, then known as Yathrib, a large agricultural oasis where there were a number of Muslim converts. By breaking the link with his own tribe, Muhammad demonstrated that tribal and family loyalties were insignificant compared to the bonds of Islam, a revolutionary idea in the tribal society of Arabia. This Hijra or emigration marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The Muslim calendar counts dates from the Hijra, which is why Muslim dates have the suffix AH.
Muhammad came to Medina as a mediator, invited to resolve the feud between the Arab factions of Aws and Khazraj. He ultimately did so by absorbing both factions into his Muslim community, and forbidding bloodshed among Muslims. However, Medina was also home to a number of Jewish tribes. Muhammad had hoped that they would recognize him as a prophet, but they did not do so. Some academic historians suggest that Muhammad abandoned hope of recruiting Jews as allies or followers at this time, and thus the qibla, the Muslim direction of prayer, was changed from the site of the former Temple in Jerusalem to the Kabaa in Mecca.
Non-Muslim settlements within Muslim territories were taxed rather than expelled. Muhammad drafted a document now known as the Constitution of Medina, which laid out the terms on which the different factions, specifically the Jews, could exist within the new Islamic State. In this system, the Jews and other “Peoples of the Book” were allowed to keep their religions as long as they paid tribute. This system would come to typify Muslim relations with their non-believing subjects and that tradition was one reason for the stability of the later Muslim caliphate or Khilafah. In this, the Islamic empire was more tolerant than the other great powers of the area, the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, which were actively hostile to any religions or sects other than the state-sponsored religions.
Relations between Mecca and Medina rapidly worsened Meccans confiscated all the property that the Muslims had left in Mecca. In Medina, Muhammad signed treaties of alliance and mutual help with neighboring tribes.
Muhammad turned to raiding caravans bound for Mecca. Caravan raiding was an old Arabian tradition; later Muslim apologists justified the raids by the state of war deemed to exist between the Meccans and the Muslims. Secular scholars will add that this was a matter of survival for the Muslims as well. They owned no land in Medina and if they did not raid, they would have to live on charity and whatever wage labor they could find.
In March of 624, Muhammad led some 300 warriors in a raid on a Meccan merchant caravan. The Meccans successfully defended the caravan and then decided to teach the Medinans a lesson. They sent a small army against Medina. On March 15, 624 near a place called Badr, the Meccans and the Muslims clashed. Though outnumbered 800 to 300 in the battle, the Muslims met with success, killing at least forty-five Meccans and taking seventy prisoners for ransom; only fourteen Muslims died. This seminal event, celebrated in the Koran, marked the real beginning of Muslim military achievement and led the nascent Islamic society to associate victory in arms with providential favor.
Muhammad’s rule consolidated.
To the Muslims, the victory in Badr appeared as a divine vindication of Muhammad’s prophethood, and he and all the Muslims rejoiced greatly. Following this victory, after minor skirmishes, and the breaking of a treaty that risked the security of the city state, the victors expelled a local Jewish clan, the Banu Qainuqa. Virtually all the remaining Medinans converted, and Muhammad became de facto ruler of the city.
After Khadija’s death, Muhammad married again, to Aisha daughter of his friend Abu Bakr. In Medina, he married Hafsah, daughter of Umar. These marriages sealed relations between Muhammad and his top-ranking followers.
Muhammad’s daughter Fatima married Ali. According to the Sunni, another daughter, Umm Kulthum, married Uthman. Each of these men, in later years, would emerge as successors to Muhammad and political leaders of the Muslims. Thus all four of the first four caliphs were linked to Muhammad by blood, marriage, or both. Sunni Muslims regard these caliphs as the Rashidun, or Rightly Guided. .
In 625 the Meccan general Abu Sufyan marched on Medina with 3,000 men. The ensuing Battle of Uhud took place on March 23, ending in a stalemate. The Meccans claimed victory, but they had lost too many men to pursue the Muslims into Medina.
In April 627 Abu Sufyan led another strong force against Medina. He was aided by sympathizers among the Medinans, the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza, a tribe that had signed a treaty with Muhammad. But Muhammad had dug a trench around Medina and successfully defended the city in the Battle of the Trench.
After the battle, all the Banu Qurayza adult males, as well as one woman, were beheaded by the order of Saad ibn Muadh, an arbiter chosen by the Banu Qurayza. The remaining women and children were taken as slaves or for ransom. All the property from the tribe was then divided among the Muslims.
Following the Battle of the Trench, the Muslims were able, through conquest and conversion, to extend their rule to many of the neighboring cities and tribes.
The conquest of Mecca.
By 628, the Muslim position was strong enough that Muhammad decided to returned to Mecca, this time as a pilgrim. In March of that year, he set out for Mecca, followed by 1,600 men. After some negotiation, a treaty was signed at the border town of al-Hudaybiyah. While Muhammad would not be allowed to finish his pilgrimage that year, hostilities would cease and the Muslims would have permission to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in the following year.
The agreement lasted only two years, however, as war broke out again in 630. Muhammad marched on Mecca with an enormous force, said to number 10,000 men. Eager to placate the powerful Muslims and anxious to regain their lucrative tribal alliances, the Meccans submitted without a fight. Muhammad in turn promised a general amnesty. Most Meccans converted to Islam and Muhammad destroyed the idols in the Kaaba. Henceforth the pilgrimage would be a Muslim pilgrimage and the shrine a Muslim shrine.
Unification of Arabia.
The capitulation of Mecca and the defeat of an alliance of enemy tribes at Hunayn effectively brought the greater part of the Arabian world under Muhammad’s authority. This authority was not enforced by any formal governments, however, as he chose instead to rule through personal relationships and tribal treaties.
The Muslims were clearly the dominant force in Arabia, and most of the remaining tribes and states hastened to submit to Muhammad.
Muhammad as a warrior.
For most of the sixty-three years of his life, Muhammad was a merchant, then a preacher. He took up the sword late in his life. He was a warrior for only ten years.
Much criticism has been leveled at Muhammad for engaging in caravan raids and wars of conquest. Critics say that his wars went well beyond self-defense. Muslim commentators, however, argue that he fought only to defend his community against the Meccans, and that he insisted on humane rules of warfare.
Muhammad’s family life.
From 595 to 619, Muhammad had only one wife, Khadijah. After her death he married Aisha, then Hafsa. Later he was to marry more wives, for a total of eleven. Some say that he also married his slave girl Maria al-Qibtiyya, but other sources speak to the contrary.
Khadija was Muhammad’s first wife and the mother of the only child to survive him, his daughter Fatima. He married his other wives after the death of Khadija. Some of these women were recent widows of warriors in battle. Others were daughters of his close allies or tribal leaders. One of the later unions resulted in a son, but the child died when he was ten months old.
His marriage to Aisha is often criticized today citing traditional sources that state she was only nine years old when he consummated the marriage. . Critics also question his marriage to his adopted son’s ex-wife, Zaynab bint Jahsh, and his alleged violation of the Qur’anic injunction against marrying more than four wives. For further information on Muhammad’s family life and consideration of these criticisms, see Muhammad’s marriages.
The death of Muhammad.
After a short illness, Muhammad died around noon on Monday 8 June 632, in the city of Medina at the age of sixty-three.
According to Shi’a Islam, Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law Ali as his successor, in a public sermon at Ghadir Khom. But Abu Bakr and Umar intrigued to oust Ali and make Abu Bakr the leader or caliph. The majority Sunni sect dispute this, and say that the leaders of the community conferred and freely chose Abu Bakr, who was pre-eminent among the followers of Muhammad. However it happened, Abu Bakr became the new leader. He spent much of his short reign suppressing rebellious tribes in the Ridda Wars.
With unity restored in Arabia, the Muslims looked outward and commenced the conquests that would eventually unite the Middle East under the caliphs.
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