It was in Mecca that a relatively obscure, forty-year old citizen named Muhammad from a lower clan began to preach a new religion. In 610 AD, Muhammad revealed to his closest relatives that he had been asked by the voice of God to recite a new message to the world. He initially kept this message private among his closest relatives; three years later, however, they would persuade him to carry his recitation to a wider audience. These recitations, which Muhammad would later come to consider to be the voice of an intermediary of God, would form the heart and soul of Islam: the Qur'an, or "Recitation."
Muhammad considered himself a "Messenger of God," or rasul Allah—a messenger of God in Islam does more than just carry a message to God's people, a messenger carries an entirely new and revivifying message to humanity. It was as a rasul Allah that the life of Muhammad would come down to us. Of his forty years of life before the Recitation, the only sources we have are oral traditions that construct that early life in the context of his great calling.
We do know that he came from a relatively poor clan, the Hashim, that was, in fact, the clan that headed the opposition to the wealthy merchant clans. He was born after the death of his father—this meant that he could inherit none of his father's property so he grew up in poverty. He became the servant and at the age of twenty-five married a wealthy widow, Khadija.
Muhammad's poverty in his youth and the social tensions in Mecca with bitter divisions resulting from the unequal distribution of wealth among the clans became significant aspects of the message of Islam. While the message of the Qur'an is universal, it is also very historically specific in its content and the traditions surrounding its content. The message that Muhammad delivered was meant for very specific circumstances and many of the revelations would address specific concerns addressed to Muhammad. As far as the division of wealth and Muhammad's poverty, one of the fundamental messages of the Qur'an is the emphasis on material welfare and the entire community's responsibility for the material welfare of all its members.
While Muhammad gained several followers in Mecca, the wealthiest and most powerful clans bitterly opposed the new religion. The revelations recited by Muhammad were often specifically directed against the most powerful clans, particularly in the direct commands to redistribute wealth. Because of this opposition to the wealthy clans, Muhammad's new religion largely appealed to the unfortunate of Mecca: foreigners who were not protected by any clan, members of poor clans, and the children of the wealthiest clans who had fallen out of favor or somehow lost their inheritance.
At first, though opposed to the religion, the wealthiest clans took a wait-and-see attitude. As the religion gained followers, the wealthiest clans tried to appropriate Muhammad for themselves, offering him a wealthy marriage and entrance into the most powerful merchant clans if he would stop preaching his new religion. When that didn't work, the wealthy clans brought pressure on Muhammad's clan, the Hashim, to force him to stop his recitations. But the Hashim were led by Muhammad's uncle, Abu Talib, who sided with Muhammad. The wealthy clans then boycotted the Hashim and tried to force them economically to give over this new religion.
Although he was supported by his clan and although his message was fundamentally opposed to the attitude and practices of the wealthy clans, Muhammad seems to have tried to make some peace with these clans in the first decade. It was this attempt to make peace that the incident of the Satanic verses took place. Seeking some accomodation, Muhammad seems to have sought to reconcile his new religion with the traditional religion of Mecca by incorporating other gods—the three gods of Meccan relgion: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. It would later be revealed to Muhammad that these Quranic verses had been sent to him by Satan and were thus deceptions. When Muhammad recanted these verses as Satanic, the wealthiest clans turned against him bitterly and would attempt no more reconciliation.
The opening came with the death of Abu Talib in 619; the Hashimite clan fell under the leadership of Abu Lahab who dismissed Muhammad from the protection of the clan. What this meant was that anyone could do anything to Muhammad and the clan would not seek revenge—for all effects and purposes, Muhammad had fallen outside the protection of any law
Muhammad desperately sought for protection under other clans, but they all refused.
Then one day in 620, Muhammad met with six men from Yathrib. These men were so impressed that they would later lead a larger delegation to meet with Muhammad and discuss both his revelations and the possibility of his moving to Yathrib
Yathrib at the time was torn apart by clan violence. The city consisted of a majority of Arabic clans and a minority of Jewish clans—although the two groups had separate religions, they were little different culturally or ethnically. It was largely through blood-feuds that the violence in Yathrib slowly spread—by 618, these blood-feuds erupted into all-out war involving almost every clan.
These circumstances in part explain the readiness of the inhabitants of Yathrib to accept a new religion. But the overwhelming selling point was Muhammad himself and the message he spoke. In 621, five of the original six returned again to Mecca and brought along seven more men. Again, they were so impressed that they swore to follow this new religion. These twelve then persuaded over seventy-five fellow citizens to meet Muhammad again in 622—these seventy-five swore to both follow the new religion and fight for Muhammad.
Muhammad now had the protection he so desparately needed for his followers and he put into motion the emigration of his followers from Mecca to Yathrib, which he renamed Medina. However, he had to be cautious—if the wealthy clans got wind of his plans, they would interpret it as a threat and would use any means to stop it. So Muhammad had his followers gradually leave the city while he remained behind with his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, and his son-in-law, Ali. The ruse worked—while his followers left the city, the powerful clans suspected nothing.
Leaving the city would be more difficult. Once he left the city, Muhammad knew that the Meccans would track him down quickly. Under cover of night he left the city for some caves above the city. Here he hid out until the Meccans stopped searching the roadways for him—after three days he set out to Medina along the least-travelled roads. This journey to Medina was the Hijra and it is from this year that the Muslim calendar begins. While normally translated "pilgrimage," Hijra means something like "severing relational ties" (the closest English equivalent I can think of is, "running away from home" or "divorcing your relatives"). Hijra means emigration, referring to Muhammad's emigration from Mecca to Al-Madina Al Munawarra. (the enlightened city)
In Medina, he was greeeted with enthusiasm. Here Muhammad was in part called on to mediate disputes between rival clans. And it was here that the Recitation profoundly changed character. While the Meccan revelations concerned themselves with general ethics and spiritual matters, the Medinan verses are more concerned with ethical and political questions. While the Meccan verses address the question of how to make one's life right with God, the Medinan revelations address the question of building and maintaining a community with a common religious tie.
It was also in the Medinan years that Muhammad turned his religion away from Judaism and the Jews. In Mecca and in the early years in Medina, Muhammad tried to incorporate Jews into both the recitations and the community of Islam. The tensions in Medina, however, translated into a series of rejections of Judaism and Jews. The final blow came when Muhammad, at prayer, suddenly had a verse revealed to him that believers should not pray to Jerusalem but to Mecca. He then ordered his congregation to turn completely around (Mecca is 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Jerusalem when you're in Medina); symbolically, the gesture signified that Islam had broken completely from Judaism.
In both the Islamic and the Western world, there is a great deal of controversy regarding Muhammad's attitude towards Mecca. Whether or not he planned to go to war with Mecca, he soon became engaged in activities that would guarantee a war between Medina and Mecca.
He began with raids on Meccan trading caravans. At first these raids, or razzia, were only carried out by the Meccan emigrants. As they began to rack up a few successes, they were soon joined by Medinans, who were called Ansar, or "Helpers."
Battle with the Meccans was inevitable, and in 624 (year 2 in the Muslim calendar), Muhammad, with only 300 men, defeated a Meccan force of over 900 men at Badr, the single most significant battle in Islamic history. A series of battles followed until the Meccans laid siege to Medina in 627. Arabs, however, prosecuted warfare through the use of raids—unused to laying siege, the Meccans gave it over in a little over a day.
The failure of the Medinan siege left the Meccans with no prestige left, particularly among those, such as the Persians and the southern Arabians, who would be inspired to fight for them. Muhammad re-entered Mecca as a pilgrim in 628; in 630 (year 8 on the Muslim calendar), Muhammad re-entered Mecca as its conqueror.
He was a disenfranchised son of a poor clan. He had received messages from God and established a new religion. Cast out from his clan's protection, he fled to Medina where his religion grew quickly. And now he had returned to Mecca as the head of a growing political unit, in fact, a germinating empire. He turned his attention to dealing with other Arabian tribes. His goal was in part to protect his community and in part an effort to unify the Arabian tribes. When he beat a group of tribes, the Hawazin, he became the most powerful military presence in Arabia.
As Muhammad brought various tribes and cities into alliance, at first he demanded that the people acknowledge Islam and his role as the messenger of God. These were not normal political alliances, but tribal alliances. As Islam expanded, this tribal character would not admit non-Arabs into the same structure—non-Arabs allied themselves to Islam by being a mawali, or "client' of a tribe.
But the Islamic peace in Arabia was only a peace at the surface. There was still much opposition among the tribes; along the Persian Gulf, for instance, most of the tribes and clans were non-Islamic and towards Syria the tribes allied themselves with the Byzantine empire. The last two years of Muhammad's life were largely spent dealing with these internal threats to the Islamic peace.
In his last year of life, Muhammad led a great pilgrimage or Hajj to the Ka'aba in Mecca. This final gesture gave to Islam the last of its fundamental obligations. Three months later he died.
Although he had bequeathed a religion on his people and had brilliantly conquered and ruled over an Arabian unity founded in the city of Mecca, he left no political mechanism in place for either political or religious succession. Who would rule in his place? Who could keep the alliances together? Most importantly, what would happen to the religion he founded? Since Muhammad was a source of constant revelation, what would happen to the Islamic world when cast adrift from the source of their religious ideas and revelation?
This would occupy the Islamic mind for the first decades after Muhammad's death. Two things result from this: an Islamic empire stretching across Africa to Europe itself and, the greatest of all Islamic achievements, the Qur'an.