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Muhammad’sﷺ Life Before His First Revelation: Part One

Muhammad’sﷺ Life Before His First Revelation: Part One

Even in the midst of hostility and misinformation circulated about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the West, for decades, our Prophet has been at the top of the list, if not the forerunner, of the top most influential people in human history. It should come as no surprise that Prophet Muhammad is thought of so highly by historians and theologians alike. After all, he is the founder of Islam, a religion which today boasts almost 2 billion adherents worldwide and the fastest growing religion in the world. Early believers in the teachings of the Prophet made some of the most important contributions to our society, leading the fields of literature, architecture, mathematics, and more, thus furthering his influence across the globe. Unsurprisingly, most of what we know about the Prophet Muhammadcomes from those who knew him during his prophethood. Prior to his first revelation in 610, he was living a relatively normal life, one which few people saw any need to document. But what exactly did this relatively normal life look like? We’re going to be answering that question in this article and other subsequent articles. This is the first installment in a series dedicated to examining the life of the Prophet Muhammad before he was chosen as the final and greatest messenger of Allah. 

 

Prophet Muhammad’s Ancestry

In order to fully understand the direction Muhammad’s life took, it is important to examine his ancestry. This is because he lived in a context where lineage and tribal affiliation was foremost the marker of your place in society. The Prophet was born into the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe. The tribe took its name from Hashim ibn Abd Manaf, the great-grandfather of the Prophet. In theory, being so closely related to arguably the most powerful figure in the history of the Banu Hashim should have given Prophet Muhammad a great deal of influence over the clan. However, the circumstances which befell him in his early years seem to have prevented him claiming any sort of control (more on that later). The Prophet’s grandfather, Abdul-Muttalib ibn Hashim, was the custodian of the Ka’bah, which was the center of Meccan life at the time. It distinguished and honored the clan of Hashim to have the trust of it. This contributed to the power of the Banu Hashim clan. With his wife, Fatimah bint Amr, Abdul-Muttalib fathered a child, whom he named Abdullah, meaning “Servant of God.” Abdullah went on to marry Aminah bint Wahb. Together, they conceived Abdullah’s only son. That son was, of course, the Prophet Muhammad. Tragically, while Aminah was pregnant with the Prophet , Abdullah, a caravan trader by profession, embarked on what was to become his final trading trip. Upon the completion of his business, Abdullah was preparing to return to Mecca when he fell ill. He set up camp in Medina to recuperate while the rest of the trading caravan began their homeward journey. It was there that he died and was buried at just 25 years of age, leaving behind him the leadership of the Banu Hashim clan, a pregnant wife, and a child who was to attain an unprecedented degree of glory. 

Prophet Muhammad’s Foster Family 

There is no concrete date set for the Prophet Muhammad’s birth. However, Islamic tradition places the Prophet’s arrival into this world around the year 570. This is known as “the Year of the Elephant” in Muslim history. Prophet Muhammad’s birth occurred about six months after the death of his father. This meant his mother, Aminah, had a number of months to adjust to life as a single mother and put plans in place for the arrival of her son. These plans included handing over her newborn son to a wetnurse by the name of Halimah al-Sa’diyah.

Halimah cared for Prophet Muhammadfor the first two years of his life, raising him alongside her biological children, Abdullah, Unaysa, and Hudhafa. It is around this time that a strange and mysterious event is said to have taken place. According to Halimah, she was spending time with her husband, al-Harith bin Abdul Uzza, when Abdullah suddenly appeared before them. Abdullah had been playing with the young child, Muhammad, out of sight of his parents, but returned frightened and out of breath. What was more concerning still was that he returned without his foster brother. When Halimah inquired as to the whereabouts of Prophet Muhammad, Abdullah told her, “Two men dressed in white grabbed my brother and cut his chest.” Halimah and al-Harith were, of course, horrified by such a story and immediately set off into the desert to find Muhammad. When they eventually tracked him down, his face was pale and his heart was racing. He told his foster parents much the same story as Abdullah had, although he was able to provide a few additional details, saying, “Two men came and opened my chest and took a portion of it.”

One can only imagine how disturbing this event must have been for everybody involved. But although it certainly would have had sinister connotations in the days before the Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, we Muslims learned from hadith that the “two men dressed in white” were angels sent by Allah. We know the color white is associated with the divinely-sent messengers, but hadith point to a second story about Prophet Muhammad’s chest being cut open, this time during his prophethood. According to the Prophethimself, in preparation for the miraculous Night Journey, the angel Gabriel opened the Prophet’s chest, removed his heart, and washed it by hand. Once Prophet Muhammad’s heart was suitably pure for a meeting with the Creator, Gabriel returned it to his chest and stitched up the wound.

Prophet Muhammad’s Returns To His Mother

As the Prophet Muhammad grew from an infant into a toddler, Halimah began to consider returning him to his mother. After all, he was no longer breastfeeding, making her services as a wetnurse obsolete. It was the disturbing event discussed above which finally convinced her to end her guardianship of the young Prophet Muhammad. At the age of two, he was returned to his biological mother, Aminah. Together, mother and son attempted to start a life in Mecca. Much to their dismay, they found that the fortunes of the Banu Hashim clan were diminishing rapidly, which meant there were few resources for the widow and her young child to rely on.

When the Prophet was five or six years old, Aminah took him to Yathrib, where she had relatives outside of the Banu Hashim clan. Islamic history buffs will recognize Yathrib as the land which later became Medina. By all accounts, the Prophet Muhammad’s first trip to Yathrib was pleasant, with Aminah seeming in good spirits throughout their stay. Despite her apparent health, however, she fell ill and died shortly after returning to Mecca. This left the Prophet Muhammad completely an orphan at just six years old. Too old to be returned to his wetnurse but too young to fend for himself, it seemed as though the child, not even ten years old yet, was destined for an untimely transfer of guardianship. However, in perhaps the earliest display of the self-discipline and dedication to Allah for which he would become famous, the young Prophet Muhammad persevered.

Prophet Muhammad As An Orphan

When Aminah was expecting the Prophet, she turned to the Banu Hashim clan and sought help from multiple members. However, all declined to look after her future son, with most fearing they would not receive payment for their time due to the death of Aminah’s husband. This situation presented itself once again following the death of Aminah herself. Now that both of Muhammad’s parents had passed away, there was no possibility of receiving compensation for caring for him. To make matters worse, the finances of the Banu Hashim had fallen into disarray, leaving the clan with little means of supporting the orphaned young boy. It was the Prophet’s grandfather, Abd al-Mutallib, who came forward to care for the future Prophet.

Abd al-Mutallib was known as an upright man and a dedicated believer in a single God. In fact, he is recognized by the hadith as having received ilhaam (tacit revelation) from Allah in which he was commanded to dig at a slaughter site not far from the Ka’bah. He dug for three days at the site, eventually discovering the Well of Zamzam. He would go on to provide water from the well to pilgrims visiting the Ka’bah, earning a modest income for the Banu Hashim clan. It seems that the Prophet’s relationship with his grandfather was a positive one. It is likely that Abd al-Mutallib, through his own relationship with Allah, made an impression on the Prophet’s interest in theological matters. It can also be safely assumed that he strengthened his own innate monotheism through his strict belief in a single God. Unfortunately, the Prophet was thrown into mourning again at just eight years old when his grandfather passed away.

Upon the passing of Abd al-Mutallib, debate began anew as to who was going to look after the young orphan. The care of Prophet Muhammad fell upon his uncle, Abu Talib, who had also taken control of the Banu Hashim clan following Abd al-Mutallib’s death. Under Abu Talib’s leadership, the fortunes of the Banu Hashim clan continued to decline. Therefore, he was unable to fully care for his nephew despite his newfound power. Consequently, Prophet Muhammad was provided with little more than the food he needed to survive. Conditions would not improve for the future Prophet until he became old enough to accompany his uncle on his caravan trading expeditions.