Muhammad, (peace be upon him) was born around 570 CE in Mecca in Saudi Arabia at a time when the Jewish and Christian religions were well established. Muhammad’s father died before he was born, and he was orphaned at the age of 6. He was raised by his grandfather and then his uncle.
The town of Mecca was an important trading and religious centre, its most famous site being the Kaaba (meaning cube in Arabic). It is believed to have been built by Abraham (Ibrahim to Muslims) and his son Ismail, but gradually the people of Mecca were turning to polytheism and idolatry and using the Kaaba to sell idols.
Muhammad spent his early life as a merchant, travelling on regular camel caravan routes around the Mediterranean. Eventually at 25 he married his boss, Khadijah, when she was 40. In 610, he was meditating in the cave Hira just outside Mecca when he was visited by the Angel Gabriel who told him to write, but as he could not, Gabriel revealed the words of the Quran for him to recite.
Muslims believe that Islam is a faith that has always existed and that it was gradually revealed to humanity by a number of prophets, but the final and complete revelation of the faith was made through the Prophet Muhammad. When Muhammad began to share this revelation with others, he attracted followers but also met hostility, since his teaching that Allah is the one true God and that life should be lived in complete submission to the will of Allah, threatened the local economy based on profits from selling idols.
Islamic tradition states that in 620 Muhammad experienced a miraculous night-long journey when he was taken by Gabriel to heaven to meet earlier prophets in the Jewish and Christian sacred books, and then on to Jerusalem, the site now commemorated by the Al-Aqsa mosque. This event was the origin of Muslims praying five times a day, turned towards towards Mecca.
In 622 Muhammad and his followers were still facing opposition and decided to set up home in Medina, and the 500 km journey there, the Hijrah (migration), marks the start of the Muslim Calendar. In Medina he built his first mosque. Battles continued to be waged, but by 630 Muhammad’s army had captured Mecca and destroyed the idols of the Kaaba, and the population converted to Islam.
Muhammad went on his last pilgrimage to Mecca in 632, and delivered his last sermon on Mount Arafat, and then returned to Medina where he died that year. This pilgrimage set the precedent for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca which all Muslims must undertake at least once in their lifetime. Besides the Quran, Muslims also study the Hadith which contains accounts of the teachings and traditions of Muhammad compiled after his death.
Today there are two main groups of Muslims among their worldwide communities, Shia and Sunni, based on a difference of view over who should be Muhammad’s successor. Shia Muslims trace the succession of their leader back through his bloodline to Muhammad. Sunni Muslims are the majority group of Muslims whose choice of successor reflects a recognition of their leadership qualities.
The world’s Muslims are united in their belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad and are bound together by such religious practices as fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and almsgiving to assist people in need. But they have widely differing views about other aspects of their faith, including how important religion is to their lives, who counts as a Muslim and what practices are acceptable in Islam. These may reflect national or regional identities, including differences in how male and female Muslims practise their faith or attitudes to emerging ethical and social changes in society. Mosques and their communities in the UK may provide examples of such diversity.
(David Griffith August 2020)