Muslims revere Abraham as the father of the Arab people through Ishmael, the son born to him by his wife Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. According to the Hebrew Bible, Hagar and Ishmael were forced to leave Abraham after Sarah finally bore him a son of her own, although the Lord did promise Hagar that her son, too, would be the father of a great people. They settled in the Becca Valley, along the “incense road” near Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia, but Ishmael later returned to the land of Canaan to help Isaac bury their father at Hebron. Local tradition in Muhammad’s time and place held that Abraham had accompanied Ishmael to Mecca and that together they rebuilt the Kaaba, the black, cube-shaped monument that was a center of worship long before Muhammad was born. (Today the Kaaba is the focus of the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, in which millions of Muslims participate from all over the world.)
At the time of Muhammad’s birth, the area around Mecca was occupied by the Quraysh, a powerful tribe of Arab clans descended from Ishmael. Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad’s grandfather, had rediscovered the ancient well of Zamzam, from which Hagar and Ishmael were believed to have drawn water, earning for his family the lucrative honor of distributing its sacred water. The Kabah itself was a popular pilgrimage site, a source of both great prestige and considerable commerce from the large numbers of pilgrims who came each year.
Like many of the details of Muhammad’s early life, the exact date of his birth is not known for certain, but he is believed to have been born around the year 571. His father, Abdallah, died before Muhammad was born, and his mother, Amina, died when he was only six. The boy was taken into the family of his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib and wife Fatima, and when when he, too, died Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib became his guardian.
Muhammad spent much of his youth working the caravans as far north as Syria, talking along the way with the hermits, Christian monks, and gnostic Jewish practitioners who lived in desert caves and remote communities. Although Muhammad disapproved in principle of monastic asceticism and celibacy, he admired the humility of the monks and anchorites he met in the desert. Unlettered but gifted with a retentive memory, he absorbed vast chunks of Jewish and Christian scripture and lore.
At age 25, Muhammad married a wealthy merchant named Khadija, who was 15 years his senior, and they produced four daughters and two sons, both of whom died in infancy. By all accounts, Muhammad was an upright and moral person in the eyes of his countrymen before he began his mission to the world. Because of his integrity, he was entrusted with storing the possessions of other Meccans, earning him the nickname of al-Amin (“the Trustworthy”). For the next 15 years, he managed Khadija’s estate and lived a prosperous Arab life, surrounded by family and friends.
In Muhammad’s day, desert-dwelling contemplatives, or hanifs, already worshiped the One Creator God exclusively, his name Allah meaning in Arabic “the God.” Although neither Christians nor Jews, they were monotheists profoundly influenced by Judaism and Christianity, and in his early days Muhammad could be considered a hanif. But then he began to have visions in his sleep, “like the breaking of the light of dawn.” As a result, he sought solitude in a cave in Mount Hira. He was about 40 when, in the Arabic month of Ramadan, an angel appeared to him in human form in the cave and commanded, “Recite!” Muhammad replied, “I am not a reciter,” perhaps meaning that he could not read, but the angel embraced him and repeated the command three times until he recited as told. As he fled the cave in awe, Muhammad heard a voice telling him, “You are the Messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.”
The revelations continued, sometimes in the form of the reverberations of a bell, sometimes as a man speaking to him. Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic) showed Muhammad the ritual ablution with water before worship and the prayer postures which are now part of Muslim practice: standing, inclining, prostrating, sitting. Ramadan was already the traditional Arabic month of retreat, but with divine guidance Muhammad instituted the practice of fasting from before sunrise to sunset. Two major Divine Names were revealed early on: ar-Rahman (“Infinitely Good”) and ar-Rahim (“All-Merciful”). Arqam the Makhzumite, one of the earliest converts to Islam, first pronounced the two testifications that are now the core of Islamic truth: la ilaha illallah (“There is no god but God”) and Muhammadun rasulullah (“Muhammad is the Messenger of God”).
Muhammad began by teaching his wife and family the revelations he was receiving from Allah. But his contemporaries and fellow Quraysh opposed his new teaching, fearing it would discourage other Arabs from visiting the Kaaba and might reduce their wealth. Some Meccans came secretly to Islam, not wanting to arouse the anger of parents or clan members, as socially unprotected followers were often ridiculed, threatened, and tortured by politically powerful antagonists. Finally the enraged Quraysh forced Muhammad to seek refuge in the mountain fortress of his uncle and protector, Abu Talib, where he became a virtual prisoner because of threats against his life. While he was sequestered there, he suffered the deaths, only a few days apart, of Abu Talib and Khadija.
Then aged 50, Muhammad married again, this time exercising the Arab option of taking several wives, which he had not done while married to Khadija. While still in Mecca he wed the widow Sawdah and was engaged to Aishah, the six-year-old daughter of Abu Bakr. He later married her in Medina at age nine, although the marriage was not consummated until she reached the age of womanhood in Arabic culture. He took 12 wives in all, although the precise number is sometimes disputed.