Biographical Sketch of Muhammad’s Life

Overview: The following brief narrative on Muhammad’s life demonstrates the sequence and significance of events in the life of the man who Muslims believe was the last messenger sent by God. Because the film interweaves the narrative of his life with commentary and vignettes on the lives of contemporary Muslims, this brief biographical sketch will provide students with a context for the narrative of Muhammad’s life given in the film.


Students will be able to:

    • list major events in Muhammad’s life in chronological sequence.
    • explain the importance of major events in Muhammad’s life that led to the rise and spread of Islam.


    • Assign the narrative of Muhammad’s life (Handout 1:3a) for students to read. Then ask students, individually or in groups, to answer the comprehension questions, which are linked to both major points made in the film and the concept of prophethood in Islam.

Handout 1:3a MUHAMMAD, THE PROPHET OF ISLAM ca. 570 – 632 C.E.

Muhammad (son of Abdullah) is known as "Prophet Muhammad" among believers in the religion of Islam. According to Islamic teachings, he was the last prophet, or messenger of God, who received revelation. When Muslims mention Muhammad’s name, they ask God to bless him, as they do for other prophets such as Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad was born into the tribe of Quraysh, in the Arabian city of Makkah. Quraysh was the tribe that took care of the sacred Ka’bah, or house of worship, and gave water and food to pilgrims who visited it. Quraysh traced its ancestry to Abraham and his son Ishmael, and believed that the two of them founded Makkah and built the Ka’bah.

Muhammad’s father died before he was born and his mother died when he was a child. Muhammad lived with his grandfather, and later his uncle, Abu Talib. Abu Talib was generous but not wealthy, and taught Muhammad to trade on their caravan journeys to Syria. A wealthy Makkan widow named Khadijah employed Muhammad to sell her goods in Syria. She was so pleased with his work that she asked him to marry her. For twenty-five years, Khadijah and Muhammad were happily married. Their four daughters lived to be adults, but two sons died.

Muhammad did not like the idol-worship of the Makkans or the unjust way the rich treated the poor and even members of their own tribe. He often spent time in thought and prayer in a cave outside Makkah. There on the Mountain of Light (Jabal al-Nur), Muhammad first experienced the call to prophethood. Muhammad described how the Angel Gabriel awoke him and told him to read. Muhammad replied that he could not read. Gabriel then said, "Read (or recite) in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clinging clot." (Qur’an, 95:1-2) These were the first verses of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.

Muhammad was about forty years old then. The experience frightened him and he hurried home, shivering, to his wife, who wrapped him in a blanket. Khadijah reassured him that his search for truth would not lead him astray. Her cousin Waraqah, a man of faith who knew the Christian holy books, reassured them that Muhammad’s call to prophethood was true. He also warned them that his own tribe would reject him as other prophets had been rejected by their people.

After a short time, Muhammad began experiencing more revelations. These new verses told Muhammad to preach to his family. Members of Muhammad’s household and immediate family accepted Islam, including his wife Khadijah, the first Muslim woman. Later, he gathered members of his tribe and warned them to believe in one God and turn away from worshipping idols and behaving unjustly. All of them rejected him except for his young cousin Ali, son of Abu Talib. The earliest Muslims were mostly poor people, slaves and women. Some important Makkans joined him, but the most powerful leaders of the Quraysh continued to reject him. His growing influence among the members of Makkan society threatened their prestige and power. They bribed him with offers of wealth and power, but he refused to give up. Quraysh persecuted the Muslims and finally banished them to a dry valley and forbade anyone from trading with them. Khadijah and Abu Talib both died during the boycott. During this time Muhammad sent a small group of Muslims to Ethiopia to seek asylum, or protection from persecution, which was granted by its Christian king, the Negus. The Quraysh feared that Muhammad’s preaching against the idols would reach their visitors during the pilgrimage, causing people to stop visiting the Ka’bah.

Visitors from Yathrib, a city north of Makkah, did respond to Muhammad’s teaching. Seeing the suffering of the Muslims, they pledged to protect Muhammad and his followers in their town. Gradually, the Muslims left Makkah. When Quraysh plotted to kill Muhammad, he and a close companion, Abu Bakr, secretly left Makkah to join the Muslims in Yathrib. Muhammad’s journey in 622 C.E.--called the Hijrah--marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. Yathrib was renamed Madinat an-Nabi, or "City of the Prophet." The people of Yathrib invited Muhammad to become their leader and arbitrator to solve the tribal warfare that was tearing Yathrib apart. Muhammad drew up an agreement of cooperation among the Muslims and the tribes of the city. To help the refugees from Makkah, who had left all that they owned behind, Muhammad joined each migrant from Makkah (Muhajirun) in brotherhood with a Muslim from Madinah (Ansar). This policy helped the refugees to begin new lives, and helped the new Muslims of Madinah learn Islam from the experienced Muslims from Makkah.

Muhammad’s successful escape from the murder plot enraged the Makkan leaders. They had gained the wealth of the refugees, but they saw a greater danger from the Muslims. Muhammad’s growing influence among the tribes of Arabia might replace Quraysh’s leadership. They tried to weaken or eliminate the Muslims. Throughout his time in Makkah, Muhammad had not fought against Quraysh’s persecution of the Muslims. In Madinah, according to Islamic teachings, a Qur’anic verse now told the Muslims to fight the Makkans. The first battle came at the arrival of a Makkan caravan near the wells of Badr. Although the Muslims were greatly outnumbered, they defeated the Quraysh in the Battle of Badr. The Quraysh sought revenge in a second battle at Uhud, where many Muslims and Quraysh died, but the outcome was a standoff.

Unable to defeat the Muslims as easily as they expected, Quraysh planned to attack Madinah with the help of allied tribes. Instead of going out to meet the attack, the Muslims fortified the city by digging a deep trench around an undefended part of Madinah. The Makkans had never seen such a defense, and were used to quick raids, but not siege warfare. During the Battle of the Trench, Quraysh and their allies camped outside the trench and tried to break through. After many of their allies lost patience and went home, the weather turned bad, and Quraysh broke camp and returned home, humiliated. Their prestige with local tribes was in serious trouble, and their economic power was weakened by the new threat to their caravans.

After the Battle of the Trench, Muhammad decided to make the pilgrimage to Makkah. Although the Quraysh had the ancient duty to honor visiting pilgrims, they stopped the Muslims outside of Makkah at a place called Hudaybiyyah, and denied them the right to visit the Ka’bah. Instead of entering the city, Muhammad succeeded in getting Quraysh to make a peace treaty. The treaty allowed the Muslims to make pilgrimage the next year, and Quraysh agreed to ten years of peace, with other terms that seemed to benefit the Makkans. The treaty was a victory for Muhammad, however, for three reasons: (1) The Quraysh, after trying to exterminate the Muslim community, had been forced to recognize it as a bargaining partner. (2) The Quraysh had failed in its traditional duty by keeping Muhammad away from the Ka’bah, and was already weakened by defeat in battle. (3) The treaty gave both the Quraysh and Muhammad the right to make alliances with other tribes, and allowed Muslim influence to grow unchallenged.

A short time later, the Quraysh broke the treaty. Muhammad marched an army of thousands toward Makkah. Recognizing certain defeat, the Quraysh surrendered the city without a fight. Muhammad granted amnesty, or safety, to any Makkans who stayed in their houses. He removed the idols from the Ka’bah, and the Islamic call to prayer sounded from its roof, as it has every day since. After the conquest of Makkah, many people in Arabia began to accept Islam.

During this time, Muhammad married several women, including ‘Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, and Hafsa, the daughter of ‘Umar, two important companions. Other wives were mainly older widows, or women who helped to cement relations with their tribes. All agreed to the marriages. His wives spoke of him as a fair and affectionate husband, and passed on the record of his words and deeds to later generations.

Revelation of the Qur’an continued for 23 years, until shortly before Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. He recited the final verse during a sermon on his Farewell Pilgrimage. By that time, the Qur’an had already been memorized by many of Muhammad’s followers, recited in his presence, and written down by secretaries such as Zayd ibn Thabit. Many also had memorized or recorded Muhammad’s words and deeds, which became known as the hadith. The pattern of Muhammad’s life came to be called the Sunnah, the second source of Islamic knowledge after the Qur’an. Muhammad was buried in Madinah in the house where he died, which was connected to the main mosque, or masjid, that had been the gathering place in Madinah. Today, the masjid where he lived is known as the Mosque of the Prophet, or Masjid an-Nabawi.

Study & Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the origin of the city of Makkah? How did trade and the pilgrimage make the city important to the Arabs?
  2. Describe Muhammad’s childhood. At what stage of life did the call to prophethood come, according to Islamic teachings?
  3. What response did the Makkans show toward the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad? How did the various Makkan groups express their reactions?
  4. What was the purpose of the Hijrah, and what did it achieve for the Muslims from Makkah and Yathrib?
  5. In your view, what was the most important factor that helped win the victory over Quraysh?