“Whoever saw him for the first time was awed by him, and whoever mingled with him and got to know him loved him.” Thus was the Prophet Muhammad described by one of his close companions. Even today, some 1,400 years later, one who comes to know of the Prophet cannot fail to be impressed by this man who, from humble beginnings and in the face of persecution, brought about such a profound change in the world. Today, over a billion people, spanning scores of nationalities, colors and languages, consider themselves followers of his religion, and uphold the system of spiritual devotion and morals taught by him. All this is the fruit of the simple message that was the core of his preaching, “There is no god but God.” Surely, everyone ought to be acquainted with his life and teachings.
Birth and Early Youth
Allah’s final prophet and messenger, Muhammad, was born in the sixth century after Christ (ca. 570 C.E.) in the Arabian city of Makkah, among the Arab tribe of Quraysh. The Arabs as a whole trace their bloodline to Abraham’s son Ishmael. Quraysh was an especially prestigious tribe, for they were in charge of the holy sanctuary of the Ka`bah, which had been built by Abraham and Ishmael. However, the pure monotheism of Abraham had by now degenerated into idolatry. People from all over Arabia would still make pilgrimage to the Ka`bah, but for idolatrous worship.
Muhammad’s father, `Abdullah, had died before he was born, and his mother, Aaminah, died when he was just six years old. His grandfather, `Abdul-Muttalib took care of him for the next two years. When `Abdul-Muttalib, too, died, the eight-year old Muhammad passed into the custody of his paternal uncle, Abu Talib. He thus grew up as an orphan. The Makkan society was not particularly literate, and he did not receive an education. In his early youth, he worked as a shepherd, and later became an employee of a prosperous trader-woman named Khadijah. The young Muhammad came to earn a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, and was nicknamed Al-Amin (The Trustworthy) by his people. The wealthy Khadijah was so impressed by him that she asked to marry him. He accepted, although she was 40 years old and so 15 years his senior. The marriage lasted twenty-five years, until Khadijah’s death, and he did not marry any other women during this time.
Muhammad shunned his people’s idolatry, and eventually started taking solitary spiritual retreats in the mountains around Makkah. It was during one such retreat, at the age of 40, that the Angel Gabriel came to him with the first revelation from God,
“Recite in the name of your Lord who created. Created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous. Who taught by the pen. Taught man that which he knew not.” [Qur’an, 96:1-5]
His mission was to teach pure monotheism: the worship of God alone, which had been the faith of all prophets. For thirteen years, he exhorted his people to submit to their Creator and shun false worship, to be morally upright and to realize that human beings face an existence after death and will there be judged by God for their earthly lives. This simple message met stiff and even harsh resistance from many in Quraysh, as people’s stubbornness, vested interests and smugness prevented them from responding thoughtfully. The Prophet’s character and truthfulness and character were not doubted, even by his fiercest opponents. [See: Qur’an, 6:33] At the height of the persecution, the people of Makkah would still leave valuable items with him for safekeeping.
Refuge in Madinah
Eventually, he along with those who had believed in him, were driven out of Makkah, and took refuge in the city of Madinah some 300 miles north. The people of Madinah were both more hospitable and more responsive, and ten years later, the religion had gained a sizeable following there. Islam established itself as a social polity, despite continued military activity against it by the idolators of Quraysh. It was also during this stage that most of the religious regulations (such as fasting, charity and family law) were revealed. Islam became so firmly established that the Prophet Muhammad was eventually able to return triumphantly to Makkah without having to fight. His former persecutors were at his mercy, and retribution could easily have been inflicted on them for the past. The Prophet Muhammad, however, declared a general amnesty, in emulation of Prophet Joseph [Qur’an, 12:92]. Only a few criminals were excluded, and even most of these were later forgiven.
The Call Spreads
Within a few years, all of Arabia became Muslim, with people entering the religion in droves. [Qur’an, 110:2] The Prophet, however, had been sent as a mercy to all of humankind [Qur’an, 21:107], not only for his people the Arabs. He now began sending letters to rulers and emperors of other lands, including those of Rome, Persia and Abyssinia. Shortly before his death, and in a culmination of his mission, he performed the pilgrimage rites, during which he addressed the gathering of over 100,000 pilgrims, reminding them of the basic Islamic teachings, and of each individual’s accountability before God.
The Man and His Character
Prophet Muhammad was a humble man who strictly prohibited his followers from bowing to him, worshipping him or otherwise exaggerating his status to anything more than a human messenger of God. [Bukhari, Muslim] His dwellings, food and bedding were of the simplest sort. [Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi] He would repair his own clothes, milk his sheep, and serve his family. [Tirmidhi, Mishkat] He epitomized mercy, in his concern for both his followers and his opponents, and on several occasions even forgave people who had tried to kill him. [Bukhari, Muslim] He was generous, fasted often, and would regularly stand in prayer for long hours at night, to the extent that his feet would become swollen. [Bukhari, Muslim] Even at the peak of his success, he continued to live a simple and pious life. When he died, some of his property was being held by a Jew as collateral for a loan the Prophet had taken from him. [Bukhari]
Finality of Prophethood
It is clear from the Qur’an that Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. He is described as
“the Seal of the Prophets,” [Qur’an, 33:40] and as having been sent to all people [Qur’an, 6:19, 25:1, 21:157, 61:9]. The religion is described as having been perfected and completed [Qur’an, 5:3], and as meant to become preponderate over all other religions. [Qur’an, 9:33, 3:85]. The scripture’s preservation has been promised by God [Qur’an, 15:9, 41:42]. There is no place or function for a new prophet.
Turning to the hadith, the concept of finality of prophethood becomes still clearer. The hadiths on this topic are so numerous and conclusive that anyone denying them falls outside the pale of Islam. Among these hadiths are the following:
“My likeness, with regard to the prophets, is that of a man who built a house, and then perfected it and beautified it, except for the place of a brick, so that whoever used to enter [the house] and look at it said, ‘How fine it is, except the position of this brick!’ So, I am the position of the brick; the prophets – blessings and peace be upon them – were brought to an end by me.” [Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim]
When the Prophet was departing on the military expedition of Tabuk, he appointed `Ali to stay behind to oversee Madinah. When `Ali expressed his disappointment as staying back with the weak and handicapped, the Prophet told him,
“Are you not satisfied that you are to me as Aaron was to Moses, except that there is no prophethood after me?” [Narrated by Bukhari and others. This hadith itself has been narrated through more than twenty chains of transmission.]
“The Children of Israel were ruled by prophets. Whenever a prophet died, another prophet took his place. There is no prophet after me, but there will be Caliphs….” [Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim]
In addition, we note that the Companions were in agreement that Musaylimah, Sajah and other claimants to prophethood that emerged in that period were to be treated as non-Muslims.
From a rational perspective, it is also conceivable that the finality of prophethood reflects a higher stage in the progressive intellectual development of the human race. A young boy might be given a book by his teacher, only to lose it or tear it up before long, because he does not know any better. Once he has matured sufficiently, however, he will realize the value of the book, and will take care of it, so that he will not need to be given another.
The earlier prophetic messages were typically sent to a single people, whereas the final message is universal, for all peoples up to the Day of Judgment.
“Say, ‘O mankind! I am the messenger of Allah to you all.” [Qur’an, 7:158]
The advances in global communications can help us understand the need for a universal prophet, and his being the last necessarily implies that Allah guarantees preservation of the final scripture. It is not acceptable to reject the Qur’an on the claim of sticking to the book/law of a previous prophet. Allah took a covenant from every prophet such that if he were to encounter Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), he would believe in him and follow him. [Qur’an, 3:81] The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “There is no Jew, nor any Christian, who hears about me, and then does not believe in me and that which I have brought, except that Allah must enter him into the Fire.” [Narrated by Muslim] He is also reported to have said, “If Moses were to descend, and you were to follow him and leave me, you would surely have strayed from the proper path” [Narrated by Ahmad and others] The other prophets were all stars of divine guidance, and their books were sent by God for this purpose, but proving the accurate preservation of their original teachings is difficult today. Furthermore, it is not permissible to neglect the final star that has risen on the horizon. True faith requires accepting and believing in the entire constellation of prophets, according the appropriate place to each.