The course of Muhammad's life was a dramatic one. He was born into a powerful Arab clan in Mecca around 570 A.D., when that city was becoming an important center of international trade. He himself was experienced in business, and visited Syria in his youth as a trader. His honesty so impressed the widow Khadijah, his employer, that she married him when he was twenty-five and she forty. It was when Muhammad reached the traditional prophetic age of forty that he began to retire to a cave on Mount Hira outside of Mecca, where a series of extraordinary experiences befell him.
Of the lifting of the veil that concealed his spiritual nature we can only get a glimpse from a few early passages of the Qur'an. Consider the opening lines of Surah 53:
By the star, when it sets! Your companion does not err, nor is he deceived, nor does he speak from his own desire. This is nothing but inspired revelation, which One mighty in power taught him, One vigorous — and He grew clear to view when He was on the highest horizon, then drew near and came down, till he was two bows' lengths away, or nearer. Then He revealed to his slave that which He revealed. The heart did not lie about what it saw, so will you then dispute with him about what he saw? And he did see Him another time, near the Lotus Tree of the Farthest Boundary, near which is the Garden of the Abode . . . His vision did not shrink nor was it overbold. Truly he saw the greatest of the signs of his Lord."
The interpretation of this passage is difficult. Traditional Muslim scholars have explained Muhammad's revelation as a message conveyed by God through the angel Gabriel, but the figure who appears on the horizon is described by terms ("His slave”) used only to refer to God. The Qur'an has several hints of this type, but the bulk of it is concerned with stories of previous prophets and the regulation of the religious life of the community.
After experiencing the fullness of the divine nature, Muhammad turned to a prophetic task: he denounced the superstitious idolatry of his people and called them to the worship of the one true God. When he started praying in the ancient cube shaped Meccan temple, the Ka'bah, and called for the destruction of its 360 idols, Meccan society became alarmed. The pagan cult of the Ka'bah was the center of highly profitable annual trade-fair and pilgrimage which was the principal source of the community's income. When Muhammad refused to drop his preaching, he and his followers became objects of a persecution of a particularly nasty type, and his life would have been in danger but for the protection of a powerful uncle. After some very difficult years in Mecca, with only a few followers, Muhammad finally left in 622 in the famous hijrah (or "emigration'') to Medina, where he had been invited to become the leader and arbitrator of that city. Eventually, after a period of raids and battles against the Meccans, Muhammad's forces grew to an overwhelming superiority, and he triumphantly entered Mecca without a fight in 630, immediately forgiving all his opponents. Two years later, Muhammad died peacefully.
There are several aspects of the life of Muhammad that are difficult for modern Westerners to understand. One is the atmosphere of battles and violence, which some cannot reconcile with their notion of spirituality. Yet it was Jesus who said "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." Likewise Krishna's disciple, Arjuna, wished to avoid shedding the blood of friends and relations, but Krishna ordered him fulfill his duty as warrior, and kill with detachment. One particular action which has bothered moderns was the killing of the men of the Jewish Banu Quraydah tribe, who fought Muhammad in Medina and were captured; Muhammad let one of his companions decide their fate, and the latter had them put to death. Those who would judge this as a crime should recall the story of Moses and the deathless prophet Khidr*, from Surah 17 of the Qur’an. Moses objected to Khidr’s apparently violent and senseless actions, not knowing there was a divine purpose behind them that he could not fathom. The same is true of the actions of the perfect one; ordinary Gods of discipline do not bind one who has attained the goal. The other subject that is a stumbling-block for some is the question of Muhammad’s marriages; he was formally married to 19 women, and consummated 11
*some times spelled Khizr - webmaster