Key Figures in Muhammadís Life

Overview: This lesson introduces students to key figures in the life of Muhammad and describes their contributions to the formation of the early Muslim community. This activity and the informational handouts fill the gap left by nearly all traditional textbook materials and most introductions to Islam, which focus exclusively on Muhammad as an explanation for the rise of Islam. To the contrary, Muslim society developed in response to the problems, needs, strengths and weaknesses of the people living in the society of his day. Muhammad lived with these people, responded to their questions and shaped their collective actions, setting a model of consultation. Reading the short biographical sketches helps to fill in the picture of a multi-dimensional society. In addition, Muslims today refer to these "founding fathers and mothers" of Islam as role models and people who set important precedents.


Students will be able to:

    • explain the relationship between key historical figures and Muhammad, and describe the social dimension of the Muslim community development.
    • describe the personalities of those followers who carried Islam forward after Muhammadís death.
    • analyze the significance of each historical figure for the development of the early Muslim community.


    1. In groups, have students read the biographical sketches of key historical figures in Muhammadís life (Handout 2:2a).
    2. Each group will develop a cluster diagram similar to Handout 2:2b. The teacher can photocopy the diagram, blocking out the names, which students can supply from the reading. Identify which historical figures are early companions, later companions, close family, or key opponents, and show the later connections and roles of these persons, such as marriage, leadership of the Muslim state, etc.
    3. Each group will analyze the significance of at least one historical figure by answering the following questions:
      • How was the historical figure important to the events in the narrative of Muhammadís life?
      • How did he or she contribute to or oppose the early Muslim community during Muhammadís life?
      • After having read all of the biographical sketches, select one figure and describe one unique characteristic of that person.
      • What role did the person play after the death of Muhammad, and how did their experience prepare them for their later contributions and actions?


A. Abu Bakr was the first person to accept Islam outside of Muhammadís immediate family. He was a close friend who was near in age to Muhammad. He was a wealthy Makkan merchant who lost almost all his wealth during the ban on trade with the Muslims of Makkah. At the time of the Hijrah, or migration to Madinah, Abu Bakr asked Muhammad if he could leave Makkah with those going to Madinah. Muhammad told him to wait, hinting that he may have the opportunity travel with Muhammad himself. They both made a dramatic escape from Makkah after escaping a murder plot to kill Muhammad by leading Makkan families. They stayed in a cave for several days south of the city while the Makkans searched for them. Eventually they made their way to Madinah. This journey was a major turning point for the Muslim community and gave Abu Bakr special status as Muhammadís companion on the Hijrah.

When Muhammad fell ill, Abu Bakr was the only companion of Muhammad to lead the communal prayer in his place. This was one of the reasons some say Abu Bakr was chosen as the first Caliph, or successor, to Muhammad after his death. Upon taking office Abu Bakr asked the Muslims for obedience only if he kept to Muhammadís example, asking for assistance in this. In Muslim history, this was a memorable statement about the importance of limited government. When Muhammad died, the Muslim community was in a state of disbelief and confusion. Abu Bakr addressed the Muslims, saying, "O people, whoever among you worships Muhammad, Muhammad has died. But whoever among you worships God, indeed God is the Living and does not die." Then he quoted a verse from the Qurían: "Muhammad is but a messenger; and messengers have passed away before him. Will you, when he dies or is slain, turn back on your heels (back to your old religion)? He who turns back does not hurt Allah. And Allah will reward the thankful." (Qurían, 3:144)

B. ĎAmr (Abu Jahl) was one of the strongest opponents of Muhammad in Makkah. Abu Jahl was about to become an important man in Makkah when Muhammad began calling the Quraysh to Islam. Not only did Abu Jahl reject Islam, he also persecuted and tortured to death some early Muslims who were enslaved. Abu Jahl had been called Abul Hakam, "the Father of Wisdom," but the Muslims of Makkah called him Abu Jahl meaning, "the Father of Ignorance" because of his violent opposition to Muhammad. Abu Jahl often took every opportunity to insult and humiliate Muhammad. After one such incident, Muhammadís uncle Hamzah, who was not yet a Muslim, was returning from hunting when a woman told him what Abu Jahl had done to his nephew. Furious, he went straight to Abu Jahl and struck him with his bow saying, "Will you insult him, now that I am of his religion, and now that I stand for what he stands for?" The incident was curious because Hamza--a renowned warrior--actually did accept Islam after realizing what he had said, and also because it could have set off a clan war in Makkah, had Abu Jahlís friends defended him. Abu Jahl was killed at the battle of Badr.

C. Abu Sufyan, a rich merchant who sent caravans to Syria, was an important leader of the Quraysh when Muhammad began to preach. Abu Sufyan opposed Muhammad in Makkah but did not abuse him in the same way that Abu Jahl did. He participated in all three major battles against the Muslims. The first battle at Badr began when the Makkans tried to protect Abu Sufyanís caravan. However, when it became clear that the Muslims were going to capture Makkah itself, Abu Sufyan decided to become a Muslim. Muhammad made his house a place of asylum, or safety, for the people of Makkah.

D. Abu Talib, Muhammadís uncle, was a poor but influential elder from the important clan of Bani Hashim. He took care of Muhammad as an orphaned child, and when Muhammad married, he returned the favor by taking Abu Talibís son Ali into his household. Abu Talib gave tribal protection of his clan to Muhammad, a tradition that kept the Makkans from harming him while Abu Talib lived. Although Abu Talib never accepted Islam, he was loyal to his nephew to the end. When Abu Talib was dying, leaders of the Quraysh visited him hoping he would broker an agreement with Muhammad. Abu Talib sent for his nephew and said, "Son of my brother, these notables of your people have gathered here for your sake for give and take." The Makkan clans did not try to carry out the murder plot until Abu Talib had died.

E. ĎAisha bint Abu Bakr was the daughter of Abu Bakr. She was the first wife Muhammad married after the death of his first wife Khadijah when Aisha was still quite young. ĎAisha was known for both her intelligence and quick temper. Nothing made her more jealous than when Muhammad would speak about Khadijah. ĎAisha said to him, "It is as if there had never been any other woman in the world except Khadijah." Muhammad praised her, saying, "She was the wife who believed in me while others rejected me. When people called me a liar, she affirmed my truthfulness. When I stood forsaken, she spent her wealth to lighten the burden of my sorrow." ĎAishaís closeness to Muhammad gave her insights and knowledge about Muhammad and his teachings that made her one of the major scholars of hadith after the death of the Prophet. She was also a source of knowledge for Muslims who wanted to model their lives after the life of Muhammad.

F. Ali ibn Abi Talib was the son of Muhammadís uncle, Abu Talib, who grew up in Muhammadís household. Ali was the second person to become a Muslim, when he was only ten years old. After Muhammad was told to spread the message of Islam to his family, Muhammad invited the men from the clan of Hashim to a meal. He asked them who would help to spread Godís message. No one offered assistance but Ali, who stood courageously among the clansmen. Many of them were amused that Muhammadís only aid was from a thirteen-year-old boy. In the years that followed, however, Ali played a vital role in the Muslim community. He was counted among the closest companions, a valiant warrior, and a wise and brave leader. In the murder plot, young clansmen intended to strike while Muhammad slept. When they learned of the plot, Muhammad escaped to Madinah while Ali slept in his empty bed. Seeing they were foiled, the clansmen left. They did not dare to kill the son of Abu Talib. Ali remained in Makkah for a few days to settle some of Muhammadís financial transactions before he left for Madinah. Ali married Fatima, Muhammadís youngest daughter, and they had three children, Hasan, Hussain and Zaynab. Ali served as Muhammadís scribe, writing the treaty of Hudaybiyyah. After Muhammadís death, Ali became one of the major scholars of Islamic law, and became the fourth "rightly-guided" Caliph after the death of Uthman. According to the Shiíi branch of Muslims, Ali ibn Abi Talib was the rightful heir to Muhammadís leadership of the Muslim community, although Ali did not press that claim over Abu Bakr. Ali was later killed in the course of a conflict over the succession that led to the founding of the Umayyad dynasty by Muawiyyah, son of Abu Sufyan.

G. Bilal ibn Rabah was a slave of Ethiopian descent who lived in Makkah early in Muhammadís prophethood, and who accepted Islam while still a slave. His master was a wealthy merchant opposed to Muhammadís teachings. He tortured Bilal by placing large stones on his chest under the noonday heat. Abu Bakr bought Bilal and set him free. Bilal migrated to Madinah, and was chosen to make the first call to prayer, or adhan, in Islam, and that unique call can be heard wherever Muslims are found. During the pilgrimage, Muhammad asked Bilal to climb to the roof of the Kaíbah to call the adhan. His voice echoed throughout the valley. Bilal served as Muhammadís treasurer in Madinah, taking care of the wealth gained in battles and raids and distributing it to the needs of the community. Bilal was buried in Damascus, Syria where traveled to after Muhammadís death.

H. Fatimah bint Muhammad was the fourth daughter of Muhammad and Khadijah. She was five years old when Muhammad received the first revelations of the Qurían. She sometimes accompanied her father when he prayed at the Kaíbah. One day some of the leaders of Quraysh poured something filthy on Muhammad as prayed, and Fatimah wept for her father as she wiped off the mess. She migrated with the Muslims to Madinah. There she helped take care of the poor people who came to study and live at the masjid. Fatimah married Ali when she was twenty years old. Ali and Fatimah had three children, Hassan, Hussain, and Zaynab. Muslims known as Sharif, or descendants of Muhammad, trace their ancestry through Hassan and Hussain, Fatimahís sons. Fatimah died six months after her fatherís death.

I. Khadijah was a wealthy widow in the caravan trade in Makkah. She had hired Muhammad to buy and sell her goods in Syria. Impressed by Muhammadís honesty, skill and good character, she asked him to marry her. According to Muslim sources, she is said to have told Muhammad, "I love you for your kinship with me, and your honor amongst your people. I love you for your trustworthiness and for the beauty of your character and the truthfulness of your speech."

Khadijah was forty years old when she married Muhammad who was then only twenty-five years old. For the next fifteen years, Muhammad and Khadijah were happily married, and she was his only wife. They had four daughters and two sons, who died in infancy. Khadijah comforted and reassured Muhammad after his experience in the cave at the beginning of his prophethood, and she took him to her cousin Waraqah, a Christian hermit for advice. Khadijah became the first Muslim woman, and endured persecution by the Makkans, which probably resulted in her death at 65 years of age. Her death was a great blow to Muhammad, who relied upon her encouragement and friendship. He remained loyal to her memory throughout his life.

J. ĎUmar ibn al-Khattab lived in Makkah with Muhammad during the earliest days of Islam. ĎUmar was known for his uncontrollable temper, skill as a warrior, and imposing personality. ĎUmar was a strong believer in the idols that the Makkans worshipped, and actually decided to kill Muhammad to end the division in the Makkan community over Islam. On his way to do the deed, he met a man from his own clan who was secretly a Muslim. The man told him to first go to his own sister and her husband who had become Muslims. ĎUmar rushed to his sisterís house and confronted her striking his sister. His action startled himself and made him feel bad. According to tradition, he then asked to see the Qurían, and was overcome by the beauty of its language and message. He then asked to go to Muhammad to declare Islam instead of killing him. ĎUmar went straight to the Kaíbah in the middle of Makkah and publicly proclaimed that he was Muslim. He then began to pray and dared anyone from Quraysh to stop him. Of course, no one did. ĎUmarís acceptance of Islam helped the Muslims at Makkah practice their faith more openly, because he was a strong defender. ĎUmar became one of Muhammadís close companions and was one of the migrants to Madinah . Muhammad married ĎUmarís daughter Hafsa.

After Muhammadís death, ĎUmar became the second khalifah, or successor to Muhammad, who governed for fourteen years, the longest of the four "Rightly Guided Caliphs". Known for justice and equity, he made important rulings that showed how Islamic law could be applied to new situations that arose after Muhammadís death. His rulings were important to the development of Islamic law, the Shariíah.

K. Salman al-Farisi was a Persian slave born in Isfahan, in present-day Iran, and who worked in the date orchards of Madinah. He became a Muslim after Muhammad immigrated to Madinah, and Muhammad bought him his freedom. Salman is best known for his role in the Battle of the Trench, when the Makkan army besieged Madinah. Salman suggested a strategy that was common in Persia, but had not been used in Arabia before. Using his advice, the Muslims dug a trench around Madinah, which was deep and wide enough to prevent the Makkansí horses from crossing it. The Muslims kept the Quraysh out of Madinah until they and their allies grew tired and hungry. When the weather turned bad and their allies deserted, the Quraysh ended the siege. With Quraysh humiliated in front of their allies, the Battle of the Trench gave the Muslims a major victory, which led to the peace treaty at Hudaybiyyah.